Defining Vision (a book review)

Brinkley, Joel. Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television

(I wrote this 17 Oct 2002).

This book is a political history of HDTV, from 1986 to 1994. The history of HDTV is best thought of as a children's story (though Brinkley doesn't put it quite that way), full of witches and villains and ... less obvious villains. I'm summarizing his book here for you, in part because of all the interesting names that will pop up. Let's begin:

The Short Form:

Broadcasters = BAD
Japanese manufacturers = GOOD
Consumers = SCREWED

A slightly longer form:

Have you ever wondered why you can't just plug your computer monitor into your vcr, or your computer into your tv? (shut up, Amiga users) If not, good, that's probably healthy. If you did wonder but then decided there was a good technical reason, well, did you wonder why the technical reason hadn't been solved? It's because TV broadcasters are big dicks. Manufacturers are dicks too, but because their greed is channeled into a legitimate market space with less bad regulation, it tends to work out in our favor. Sometimes.

The Long Form:

Back in 1986, Motorola and other manufacturers banded together as "Land Mobile" to lobby the FCC to give them a bunch of bandwidth, specifically all the unused VHF and UHF TV channels. The broadcasters freaked, because spectrum was theirs by birth. When pressed to come up with a more specific reason they should continue to control a public resource that they weren't using, John Abel at the National Association of Broadcasters (choose your slogan: "happily consolidating tomorrow's media - today," or "proud murderers of community low-power radio") had a brain flash. "We need those extra channels because, see, there's this thing called high-definition television, and, see, it takes -two- channels 'cause it's so good."

To bolster his case he arranged for NHK, Japan's answer to PBS and the BBC, to demonstrate its production-ready HDTV system, called Muse. They did, it looked good, and Washington's response was overwhelming:

"You mean the Japanese have us beat in television, too? Over mah dead body!"

So the FCC kicked off a special advisory committee, headed by Dick Wiley, to figure out how the US was going to reclaim the lead in HDTV. What they came up with was basically a race. Each entrant would pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in a competition to set the new HDTV standard. Modern televisions, you may recall, use something called NTSC, which specifies what TV signals should look like, electrically speaking. At least in this country. In much of the rest of the world they use PAL, which is basically the same but incompatible, and in France they use SECAM, which I assume sucks because, hey, it's French.

Competitors included: Zenith, the last remaining US TV manufacturer, already building sets in Mexico and losing money on a daily basis; Sarnoff Labs, the research team from RCA that had "productized" television and invented color TV; a professor from MIT; NHK, the Japanese govcorp whose product kicked off the competition, also joined in. And finally, a small company in San Diego, VideoCipher, a division of M/A-Com.

Now it gets complicated. Sarnoff Lab was originally a research arm of RCA. When GE bought RCA, it gave Sarnoff to a research consortium, and Sarnoff later partnered with Philips and Thomson. The MIT team had some connections to the Media Lab, newly formed by visionary Nicholas Negroponte, but when it became clear that they might actually do concrete, real-world work Negroponte made sure to dissociate the Media Lab, which after all is not in the reality business.

And the dark horse, VideoCipher. The consortium that extruded VideoCipher did so from parts of a company it had previously bought called Linkabit. Linkabit was a defense contractor which built satellite links, and regular Slashdot readers may recall someone recently touted as a "Father of the Internet" - sorry, I forgot his name because he seems to be the only person doing the touting - he was a Linkabit founder in the '60s. And VideoCipher, which was the top manufacturer of set-top cable boxes in the 1980s, you know, the kind that pirates sold hacked chips for, was sold in 1986 to General Instrument, which in 1990 acquired a new CEO: Donald Rumsfeld.

Let's talk tech. Sarnoff was pushing ACTV, which was a minor improvement over NTSC. NHK's Muse was pretty nice, over a thousand lines of resolution, but analog. Everybody was working on analog, except the ex-defense contractor in San Diego, where they didn't know that digital was impossible so they built digital. Then everybody had to build digital.

Meanwhile, the NAB had figured out that going to high-definition TV meant every station had to spend a lot of money, and there was no obvious way to make more money out of HDTV than out of ordinary television. So the NAB, which had started the whole thing, started trash-talking HDTV. Then the FCC said, oh, well then you won't need those channels, will you? And the NAB said, wait, hang on, we'll get back to you. So the FCC, brilliant, hard-nosed negotiators that they are, said, "well, we'll lend you all extra channels for the transition. You can all have an extra channel so that you can do both old-style and HDTV at the same time, and then we'll phase out the old TVs over time and then you can give back the extra channels." (This exercise was not just overly generous but inconsistent with the claims that HDTV would itself take up more than one channel.)

Meanwhile, the HDTV competitors kept plugging away, finally bringing their systems in one at a time for independent testing. One team's excuse for a poor performance, "implementation error," became the running joke of the whole thing. NHK's entry, a dumbed down version ("Narrow Muse") of the analog Muse system they had spent $200 million to develop, sucked. Even in Japan, when the real thing (which looked great: 1125 lines) debuted in 1991, manufactures sold only a few thousand $30,000 sets in the first year. VCRs were available for only $115,000. (Yes that's dollars, not yen.) NHK dropped out, though eventually a few hundred thousand sets were sold in Japan.

With digital we get a new wrinkle. Instead of HDTV which takes up two channels, we can use digital TV to pack up to six conventional channels in the spectrum that one NTSC signal takes. Now the NAB party line was: "Yes, we need HDTV, so give us the extra channel, and then we'll just keep it and broadcast twelve low-def digital channels." Notice how they started talking about HDTV and ended talking about digital? Well, the FCC didn't. So the broadcasters are on track to get scads of extra bandwidth for free. (Though some broadcasters complain that they don't want any of this - they know how to make money with the status quo, so why rock the boat at all?)

Now the computer industry gets involved. Ditch interlaced scan, they said. It's just a clumsy hack that was needed for a few years in the fifties and as a result all TVs for fifty years have been crappy. We tried interlaced in the computer world and gave it up, and so should you. Well, it turns out that some people in the TV world still make money from interlacing patents (comb filters, maybe - who the hell knows) so they're not about to walk away from that. Long story short, if you still can't plug your computer into your TV in ten years, blame the TV people 'cause it's all their fault.

Finally, well into the 90s now, the surviving competitors for the HDTV, tired of the bullying of the Advisory Committee, band together to form a standard and split the profits (which is probably what the Advisory Committee wanted anyway). The Grand Alliance, the result of a competition intended to beat out the Japanese and give America an HDTV advantage, comprises Sarnoff (owned by Dutch Philips and French Thomson), GI (still American), an MIT prof, and Zenith, which promptly sells out to Goldstar, a Korean company. Meanwhile, all the sets everybody's been using throughout testing are made by Sony. But we've got an American standard.

So. It's 1997 and we've finally agreed on a standard for HDTV. It's not quite a clean standard, though. Its size, a ratio of 16 units wide to 9 units high, is alleged to be "movie-standard." But movie-standard is "Academy Flat," or 1.85:1. 16:9 equals 1.78:1. Well, I guess things will just have to be "slightly" letterboxed. And don't even mention Cinemascope. It provides for an array of different screen sizes and frame rates, including frame rates of 24 (movies), 30, or 60 frames per second. But the new standard also allows broadcasting at the old TV standard of 59.94 frames per second, or 1000/1001 (don't even ask why), so that should keep TV engineers happy. (That's sarcasm - nobody likes doing fractions.) So our new, international, world-wide standard to last us most of the way to 2100 now supports the "infamous Table 3", with about a billion different combinations of size (480, 720, or 1080 lines), aspect ration (4:3 or 16:9), frame rate (23.976, 24, 29.97, 30, 59.54, and 60 Hz), and scan format (progressive or interlaced). That's one hell of a standard, carefully preserving for future generations the compromises made three generations ago to allow black-and-white sets to receive the new color broadcasts. Just try not to think about it. (Oh, and the movie people are now working at 4000 lines, not 1080.)

So, who's broadcasting HDTV? Nobody. But why should they? A station has to pay millions of dollars for equipment (especially if they're an early adopter) and has barely any competitive advantage over other stations, particularly while nobody has an HDTV set. In economic theory, a few stations with little to lose might make the leap, and if they found some competitive advantage then all the other stations would have to jump to keep up. And the consumer would win. In practice, we have trade associations, whose purpose in life is to make sure that however their members are making money today, they can continue to make money forever without changing.

Okay, well the solution to a chicken-and-egg economics problem is government intervention, right? Bush's FCC guy was strongly pro-HDTV. Clinton's guy, Reed Hundt, seems to have been about half as smart as he thought he was, and just couldn't get a clue to save his life - or an industry. So he blathers on and on and gets excited about the information superhighway and how HDTV (or digital tv - he gets them confused too) will be the way to provide all this. Eventually Congress starts talking about mandating that all televisions built after a certain date have to be HDTV. Then, when the broadcasters switch (which they'll do because why? dunno), the government will subsidize the manufacture of set-top translator boxes so that people who didn't buy the new TVs can still watch the all-digital signals on their old TVs. Yes, that's right, our social contract includes not only elimination of (some) elderly poverty and health care for (some) veterans, but government-subsidized TV for all.

Meanwhile, in reality, the first time I ever watched anything like high-definition television in the privacy of my own home was when I watched a bootleg DVD of Hamlet (the Ethan Hawke one) on my 14" computer monitor in China. It was a little jerky, but the picture quality was fantastic. And that was only 720 lines, the DVD standard, not 1080, the HDTV one. So personally I think HDTV could be a non-trivial improvement that would be worth a few billion dollars (to the extent that anything TV-related could be said to be "worth" anything).

But wait, it gets more complicated. The FCC steps in to break the chicken-and-egg deadlock, and simply requires that all TVs sold in the US after, say, 2006, have to be high-def. This mandate is being driven, in proposed law and in committee tongue-lashings, by Billy Tauzin. Billy Tauzin is the chairman of the U.S. House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection. He's a Congressman from Louisiana. You know, Louisiana, a state noted for its involment with broadcast television. (Oh, and he gets a lot of campaign contributions from industry trade groups. But that only buys access, not votes.)

And let's throw in one last wrinkle. Digital Rights Management. All those new TVs are probably going to have legally required DRM programs that make it both illegal and a pain in the ass to exercise your rights according to the doctrines of First Purchase (i.e., this DVD is mine, I bought it, it's mine, and as long as I don't interfere with the publisher's selling more copies I can do what I damned well please with it) and Fair Use.

Remember, the broadcasters wanted High-Def as a pretense to hang on to extra channels, then came to embrace Digital as a multi-faceted money-making oportunity, and now are working with the content people (Hollywood) to wage war on their own customers by passing laws that dictate how and when people are to watch and listen to things they've paid for.

So now you will never again wonder why it's taken so long to get high-definition television.


I had some other sources, like Birkmaier, Craig. The Future of Digital Television. 1998-2000, but mostly if you want to learn more you should just Google on stuff like Tauzin and high-definition television and digital rights management and Fritz Hollings (D-Disney).