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Why the FCC is about to mess up HDTV

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule



Why the FCC is about to mess up HDTV 


By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

I came across an odd bit of information at one of the annual electronics shows while I was looking at the latest high-definition television designs.

The HDTV sets were wonderful, but it was something out of the past that caught my eye when I looked through a chart of statistics about world television usage. It seems that the only place in the Western world where a lot of people still watch black-and-white TV is right here in the good old U.S.A.

It also seems like an omen for trouble ahead in HDTV land.

It was black-and-white broadcasting, after all, that held back the Federal Communications Commission nearly four decades ago when it was trying to decide on the kind of color TV method it would allow in this country.

It's clear now that the FCC made the worst possible decision. It chose a color system on the basis of compatibility with all the black-and-white sets then in use. In other words, it picked a color TV method that showed good pictures on black-and-white sets.

Unfortunately, the color system the FCC chose did not do as well on color sets. It seems crazy now, in hindsight, especially when we consider what happened in Europe.

The Europeans didn't worry much about what their color pictures looked like on black-and-white sets, and as a result they have an outstanding color broadcasting method.

The American color system goes astray by mixing two parts of the picture into one signal.

The electrical impulses that control the color are combined with the impulses that control the brightness. As you can imagine—and as the FCC realized in the 1950s—the combined color-brightness signal sent out by the TV stations made color pictures quite vivid on a black-and-white set.

American color sets are supposed to do a little magic on this combined signal by turning it into its two parts again. In theory, it can be done. But in actual practice, most color sets shift brightness when the color changes, and, conversely, shift their colors when scenes grow brighter or dimmer.

This fade-in, fade-out color system even has a nickname. Its official name is NTSC, which stands for the National Television Standards Committee, the group that gave the FCC the method for black-and-white compatible color. But critics have always called it Never Twice the Same Color.

What does this have to do with HDTV, the proposed technology that will bring movie-sharp pictures to TV screens in the near future?

As you may already know, high-definition television uses a different technique from our Never-Twice-the-Same-Color method, and so we already know that HDTV pictures will be free from this vice.

But the FCC is at it again. This time, the federal regulators want HDTV pictures to be compatible with NTSC pictures. And, since NTSC pictures are already compatible with old-fashioned black-and-white pictures, we're going to end up with a 1995 technology that will be compromised just for the sake of something that was already out of date in 1955.


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