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Michael Jennings on digital TV

Last Friday evening Aussie blogger based in London Michael Jennings gave a talk at my place, on the subject of digital TV. What is it? Where’s it at? Where’s it going? That kind of thing. He combined knowing a lot about his subject with not talking at too great length to a degree that doesn’t always happen at these things, and I think all those present found it most informative and interesting. I certainly did.

For the benefit of those as ignorant of this subject as I was at 8pm on Friday evening, I summarise as best I can something of what I learned during the next hour and a half.

Around 1980, or so, governments around the world began switching to digital TV. They did this for a variety of reasons, but to a degree rare in such circumstances they all arrived at very similar technological destinations, which resulted in a new global system that involved only trivial incompatibilities. US TV corporations wanted an excuse to cling to their existing wavelengths. The British government was looking to economise on the use of existing bandwidths so that it could auction the vacated electronic real estate. In Japan they wanted to dominate the next generation of TV manufacturing. And so on. In practice it all meant the same thing. Digital TV. Which is where we now are. I now have a little box above my TV which cost £100, which has transformed a TV which emitted five channels in rather poor quality to a TV that emits something more like a dozen channels in better quality, including 24 hour news services from the BBC, from ITV and from Sky, just in time for the war.

How come digital TV means more channels? Compression. Digital data can be compressed. How does that work? Well, instead of transmitting thousands of very big numbers each referring to each bit of the picture being described, you can instead emit a string of numbers many of which take the form of things like “the same as the bit next to it” or “one more than the bit next to it” and this occupies much less space. The more computing power you apply to such processes, the more you can compress, and computing power, as we all know, is leaping ahead year by year. Once all the information arrives in our TV sets we can apply steadily increasing computing power to its storage and viewing and manipulation. TV has now become something that you need to upgrade, because it is going to get better year by year, and keep on getting better.

Threading its way in among this story is the related story of the rise of the DVD, to the point where it is about to dethrone the VHS tape as the standard for hiring movies from the Shop Around the Corner or buying them to have in your home. Apparently DVDs will in due couse jump to being an order of magnitude better, and I’m going to wish I’d not bought so many DVDs in their present primitive state. Oh goodie.

So, an informative evening, and no doubt I’ve missed out lots. As to what all this will mean for our culture, I’ll try to have a go at that in a later posting. Or maybe postings, because it is a complicated story.

Email from Jennings:

“Around 1980, or so, governments around the world began switching to digital TV.”

Thanks for the nice comments. However, “1990” is more accurate. I suppose you could say that some of the HDTV efforts that ultimately led to digital TV started in 1980, but digital was not technically possible until a decade later and in 1980 nobody had any idea that “digital” is where we would end up. The first application that could be described as “digital TV” in any form is the Video CD, for which the technical standard was released in 1987. The first broadcast digital TV system of any form was the American DirecTV satellite system, which commenced broadcasts in 1993.

Yeah, 1990. I meant 1990.

15 comments to Michael Jennings on digital TV

  • Did Mr. Jennings talk about the rather interesting arm-twisting that governments have been applying to their respective television industries to get them to make the switch to digital? Here in the US, it wasn’t just a case of resisting change out of sheer inertia (although there was plenty of that, too). It was a case of neither the consumer marketplace nor the broadcaster marketplace seeing any clear reason to prefer digital TV over what we already have. Even without digital TV, we have cable systems offering “500 channels and nothing on.” We already have “good enough” VHS and a majority of VCRs, television receivers, and camcorders that don’t even begin to live up to the 525-line maximum resoution provided by the existing NTSC standard. In short, there has been neither a demand-side nor supply-side motivation to move to digital TV, although the FCC has been pushing and shoving to make it happen, along with the other national governments. The US FCC asserts the interstate commerce clause of the constitution, and federal supremacy over state and local laws, to permit broadcasters to ignore state and local zoning laws, building permit requirements, etc., which might keep them from making the switch to digital on the government’s timetable. The carrot of juicy channel assignments for early-adopters, and the stick of hefty fines and penalties for the laggards, are all part of the FCC’s bag-o-tricks.

    What’s it about? Money, of course. The industrial interests who promote digital TV want to make a lot of it by dominating a market they made, while the governments want to get a big cut from auctioning spectrum space, including the new DTV channels, as well as space freed-up by the sunsetting of the old channels.

    Nobody really seems to care about what the consumer, taxpayer, or voter wants in all this.

    I think DTV is an amazing technology, and I think it can — should! — stand or fall on its own merits, not because it is pushed or propped-up by government mandate and subsidy. If the market is slow to adopt DTV — and it has been glacially slow in terms of modern commercial expectations, given that the first serious pushes behind DTV and HDTV began in the 1980s — then perhaps we should accept and try to respect the wisdom of the marketplace, instead of bitching about the unwashed idiot masses. If the public isn’t buying what you’re selling, you can either continue to sell the current product the same way, at a loss, because you believe it is the right thing to do; you can adapt your sales methods to get better results; or you can try selling something else (including an improved version of your previous product). You betray free-enterprise and sow the seeds of future disaster, when you enlist the aid of government to force the unwilling to take your product, whether they want it or not.

    Leaving government in charge of the “airwaves” is a very big mistake. If there ever was a need for the government to manage the “scarce resource” of spectrum space, that hasn’t been true for decades. FCC delenda est.

  • That’s a pretty good summary of what I said. The one thing I will take slight issue with is the year “1980”. The first thing that could be described as digital television in any form was the video CD, the standard for which was released in 1987, and the first digital TV broadcasts of any kind were of the American satellite system DirecTV, that began broadcasts in 1993. The first digital terrestrial television broadcasts commenced around 1998.

    My notes for the talk are here. Please note that these are not especially polished and were not originally intended for posting on the web. They are just something I quickly wrote for my own use and to hand out to anyone at the talk who was especially interested.

  • Thanks to Mr. Jennings for the clarification about his presentation: most interesting! As far as the caveat about the timing of events: Yes, I know that DTV didn’t really get going until the 1990s, but I remember fellow engineers at Apple Computer telling me circa 1987 that we ought to be allocating major corporate resources for HDTV, which would “dominate” video entertainment in just a handful of years. And of course, the trade press was full of similar breathy pronouncements at the time. Today, we’re finally seeing a commercially significant penetration of HDTV-oriented products into the consumer space, much less DTV. As far as I am concerned, DTV is, in many ways, simply “HDTV, the Sequel.” The industry will eventually get it all right, or at least right enough for all concerned — consumers, manufacturers, broadcasters — to benefit in the free-market. As I said, I think that DTV is a great technology that will survive and flourish on its own. But trying to “prime the pump with extreme prejudice,” as the FCC has been doing for the past several years, is just flat wrong and can only lead to regrets, I believe. It’s the unintended consequences that always sneak up and bite you when you aren’t looking…

    -James Merritt
    Apple Computer “graduating class” of 1992

  • James,

    (This is a resonse to your first comment. I had a Blue Screen of Death, and although I was able to retrieve my response, it took me a few minutes).

    It’s a shame you weren’t at my talk, as you would have no doubt asked some good questions at the end. I suspect I may well end up giving this same talk to different audiences in the future, but probably still not anywhere near you.

    Firstly, Digital TV is bigger than just “Digital terrestrial”, and digital is much more than just HDTV, although HDTV is one application of it. My talk was about digital TV in this broader sense. In Europe the regulators’ priority with digital was more channels and in the US it was High Definition. In actual fact, both the US and European digital TV standards support HDTV and both support more channels of standard definition. I suspect that in the long run on both continents we will see a mixture of these two things.

    America decided to enforce the use of HDTV at a time when the technology was too expensive for many people to buy it. Europe on the other hand went for what was easily affordable and decided to leave HDTV for later, while at the same time defining a technical standard for it just the same.

    Satellite operators now all use digital, and cable operators are in the process of upgrading. It may be that this, rather than terrestrial broadcasts that drive the takeup of new technology. If so, this is probably good, as what we end up with is much more market driven than what happens via terrestrial broadcasts, where everything is driven by a regulatory environment that is based on the idea that spectrum is scarce and has to be rationed. (In the UK, satellite broadcaster BSkyB spent billions of pounds subsidising its customers upgrades from analogue satellite to digital. In its eyes, the potential commercial advantages of digital were so great that it wanted to manage the transition as fast as possible. In this instance, being market driven caused the transition to go faster rather than slower).

    Secondly, even for digital terrestrial, the example of the UK has shown pretty conclusively that consumer demand is actually pretty strong if you provide a good choice of digital programming, and even more importantly, if you make equipment cheap. Digital is a lot better than analogue. I personally do not think that conventional NTSC and VHS will be considered “good enough” by many people in five years time. (I may be a special case, but it isn’t good enough for me now). My feeling is that digital HDTV will be demand driven once the equipment is cheap enough, and we are slowly getting there.

    As for who is pressuring who to adopt digital in the US, that is a long and complicated story. Originally the FCC initiated the process that led to the ATSC HDTV and digital TV standard because the broadcasters of the NAB asked it to. The reason they asked it to was because the FCC was threatening to auction off for mobile phones spare spectrum in the bands traditionally used for television. They really did not want this, and they managed to convince the FCC that HDTV was imminent. Therefore each TV station would need to be given a second 6MHz spectrum band for the parallel period when both analogue and digital television would be both broadcast, and consequently the FCC wouldn’t have any spare spectrum to auction after all. At the end of that period the TV stations would supposedly shut down their analogue broadcasts, and give one of their two spectrum bands back to the FCC to be auctioned off for other uses. (So called “Land Mobile” in FCC speak). The point of the exercise was to delay the auction of spectrum. The ATSC standard was then developed and its use mandated, and at that point the broadcasters realised that upgrading would cost them a great deal of money, and were reluctant to actually do it. However, the FCC was by this point under pressure from the mobile phone industry to provide it with more spectrum, and hence the pressure on TV stations to move to (digital) HDTV that they had originally asked for. It’s a mess, and the FCC have done a very bad job of regulating spectrum, but I have little sympathy for the broadcasters. It is a mess of their own creation.

    (The story is recounted in excrutiating detail in this book).

  • Malcolm

    Those criticising “government mandating” of Digital TV should realise just how close the push for Digital TV is to a genuinely market pressure. Michael pretty much explained this in the post immediately above mine, but here’s a rephrasing in Libertarian Standard English:

    The guarantee that only your TV station will broadcast on a particular piece of spectrum is a Government Protected Monopoly – which we generally consider a Bad Thing. One of the major pressures, perhaps the overriding pressure, for DTV comes from the government wanting to auction off bits of spectrum in a revenue-maximising fashion. In so doing, the Evil Government is turning a public commons into a private property interest, which we generally consider a Good Thing.

    Governments may have made comparatively minor efforts to (help/pressure/compel) broadcasters to adopt a common DTV encoding protocol so that consumer TV boxes can get all the new channels. That, however, is certainly not the driving force pushing DTV: it’s the threat that sooner or later the existing spectrum monopolies will simply be removed (and sold off to the higher-bidding mobile phone companies).

    A pure libertarian solution to spectrum usage would surely be to parcel up the spectrum, auction it off, and allow the parcels to be traded (which maximises efficiency of usage). Medium term leases, rather than freehold rights, are only slightly less pure – if at all.

    In short, credit where credit is due: governments’ policy on spectrum auctions is both the most conceptually radical privatisation of all time (IMO, a conversion of a genuine Commons into Property beats selling off a State-owned telephone company into a cocked hat) and is also quite likely the most unadulterated implementation of privatisation policy.

  • Michael- Thanks for the additional detail on both the American and European side of things. It is fascinating to see mechanisms and reasoning by which the different paths to DTV were chosen. I was pretty much up-to-date on the American side through the mid-1990s, but never knew much more than the headlines from the European side, so the detail you provide is much appreciated. I will look for your book.

    As far as the quality of digital TV, I’m not sure you could prove it from currently-fielded digital cable and satellite services, at least those available to me. I will again echo the lament of “500 channels and nothing’s on” to address the issue of content quality. Technical quality is, in my opinion, barely better than VHS SLP (lowest-quality) mode: the blocky transitions and digital gradient-banding effects are truly irritating to someone like me who cut his teeth in professional radio and tv broadcasting. Although we were among the early-adopters of Digital cable in our area, my family and I are seriously thinking about falling back to basic (analog) cable; it is much less expensive and we are finding less and less on the premium (and “digitial only”) channels to justify the ongoing extra expense, as opposed to, say, simply renting out the occasional DVD from Blockbuster, NetFlix, or another video outlet.

    Regarding the DTV mess to be of “the broadcasters’ own making,” I think it is important to distinguish between such monopolist influences as the NAB, and the whole of the broadcaster community. The FCC has always managed to find itself in bed with major equipment manufacturers and pressure groups such as NAB. Now that there is a lot of ownership consolidation, the NAB seems to be firmly controlled by a handful of large corporations. So, if the NAB leaned on the FCC to promote DTV, you can bet that the three or four top corporate guns in the membership have found a way to make money hand-over-fist in cooperation with the major equipment manufacturers. It is the mid-size and small-fry operators that remain who are being dragged along and potentially squeezed out by the rich and politically well-connected concerns, not to mention the potential small-time operators who will now be regulated and/or priced out of entry to the market (even as it is becoming possible for extremely small-time operators to put relatively high-quality conventional radio and tv signals on the air at little expense). That’s how it looks from here, anyway. I am especially concerned about the FCC’s arrogation of primacy over state and local authorities, all in the name of getting DTV online by an arbitrary deadline. This is similar to the use of eminent domain in order to clear the way for casinos and shopping malls, but instead of localities leaning on private property owners, it is the federal government leaning on and superseding the authority of localities: A very troubling development, indeed.

  • zack mollusc

    Wow digital really is amazing! It is well worth throwing your old kit away and forking out VISA’s money for the latest 100MHz technology to watch videophone reporting, cctv footage, Steptoe and Son, 100 Great Hughie Green Moments, WW2’s Biggest Explosions and You’ve Been Framed, which is all that seems to arrive on my screen.

  • Michael – do you have a view on the related way the EU mandated GSM protocol across Europe, thus (so they say) giving Europe a big head start over the US in mobile-phone technology?

    The riposte that the delays in sorting out America’s more liberal split between three conflicting mobile-phone protocols in fact left the US able to leapfrog a technology generation sounds right — though perhaps a case of a libertarian position being right for the wrong reasons? With some technologies, a one-generation delay like that can leave a player permanently stranded (like France with Minitel), so was US free-market phone protocol policy right after all, or was the US lucky with this one?

    I’d be interested what your thoughts are on this.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Brian, you’re lucky that “[your TV now] emits something more like a dozen channels in better quality”…

    It’s worth pointing out that this is only true inside the M25 and in various other large English conurbations.

    Anyone trying it in the “provinces”, or, heaven forbid, in Scotland, will end up with a blank screen.


  • Mark: Yes, I am sympathetic to the view that the lack of mandated standards has allowed the US to leapfrog a generation of technology, and my expectation is that Europe is going to lag behind in terms of 3G services. I wrote a piece on this (which in retrospect I think was a bit of a rant) late last year, plus a variety of followups, including this one last week.

    It does however, remain the case that the US was slow compared to Europe and much of Asia in adopting earlier generations of mobile phones. How much of this is due to the incompatible technologies and how much is due to cultural factors or one particularly bad regulatory decision (that receiving parties would pay for incoming calls) is harder to say.

  • Devilbunny

    I have to agree with the digital-sucks crowd. My in-laws have it, and the choppy encoding artifacts and slow tuning are infuriating (switching channels, for example, takes perhaps 2 or 3 seconds, instead of being instantaneous). The on-screen program guide is nice, and I haven’t tried out their pause-rewind-ff-resume iControl service (this is Time-Warner).

    I have basic cable – $10 a month for about 15 channels. I got this so I could have Fox (no local affiliate, and I do love the Simpsons) and clear reception.

    The next tier up is maybe 60 channels for about $45 a month.

    Digital starts around $80 or $90 a month.

    That’s an awfully steep hill in prices to climb, even if you do want the extra channels.

    Michael, thanks for the instruction. Incidentally, why do you think that the mobile-holder-pays-all-airtime was a bad decision? It seems to me that it was the only way to get Americans to call one; our billing system is so radically different from the European model that we can’t imagine paying to call someone in the same town.

  • Two things. The problems described with digital cable sound like the cable company has set the bitrate too low on the individual channels, and possibly is using a lousy pixel resolution as well. They have done this in order to be able to broadcast a larger number of channels. The MPEG-2 codec being used is very flexible, and allows lots of tradeoffs between bitrate and picture quality. I think cable companies are stupid to be too greedy in this regard, but I think that is more the fault of management than the technology itself. (Getting DVD quality on a digital cable system is easy. You just change a setting and accept you will have fewer channels). As a contrast to this, satellite operator BSkyB in the UK are a classic example of how to do it right. They know their customers want good quality pictures and they give them good quality pictures. (Starting at $80 a month for digital strikes me as stupid, too. It doesn’t cost them that much to offer it).

    The trouble with called party pays mobile calls is that the system discourages people from leaving their phones turned on, because they will then have to pay for incoming calls. If a lot of people’s phones are turned off all the time, we get less in the way of network effects that will encourage even more people to have mobile phones etc etc. (Yes, I know that fewer people are switching their phones off for this reason than used to be the case, and mobile phone penetration rates in the US are now quite high. However, I think this did slow down takeup rates for mobile phones for a while). Also, there are other countries with free local calls like the US in Asia. Most have adopted caller pays for mobiles, and mobile take up rates have still been high.

  • Warmongering Lunatic

    James —

    The trouble with claiming that there was no market pressure is that the market is artifically limited to start with. If TV stations bought, owned, and could sell their spectrum for any purpose on a truly free market, there would be some natural market pressure to encourage more efficient use and the like.

    How quickly (or even if, really) that would lead to digital TV is questionable, of course, but since the TV stations aren’t under the same market pressures as they would be if they owned their spectrum, I’m not all that bothered by the FCC pressuring them in order to free up spectrum to auction off.

  • Devilbunny

    Michael –

    Thanks for the heads-up. I was unaware of any country besides the US and Canada that had free local calls.

    I just looked at Sky’s pages, and must say I’m impressed. So many channels, so little money! One big difference, though – there are a lot more movie channels on American services. (13 HBO channels, 14 Showtime, etc.) They’re premium, of course, but they’re only available on digital; that’s one of the digital selling points.

    The satellite services are cheaper than cable, relatively speaking, for most of the higher-service tiers, but there’s not a low-end service (<$20/mo).

  • There is also the ultra-low end package, in which you buy a dish and set top box and simply watch the unscrambled channels without paying a subscription. There are thirty or forty such channels at the moment, something like 15 of which come either directly from the BBC or via some BBC joint venture.

    What Sky did was to force its entire customer base to upgrade from analogue to digital. It did this by spending a lot of money on giving away digital set top boxes, which meant that it essentially did without profits while it was going through the transition. However, once it did this, it was in a position to sell interactive services to many more people than it could have merely with analogue, and more importantly it freed up the spectrum it had been using for analogue so as to offer more channels and better quality pictures. US cable companies would be smart to do the same, as for one thing getting rid of the analogue service would give them much more bandwidth for offering better quality digital service. Sky consistently wins awards for providing being amongst the best companies in Britain in terms of its management and customer service.

    As of about two weeks ago, DirecTV in the US is also owned by Rupert Murdoch. It will be interesting to see how well it is run. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the people who have been running Sky in the UK ending up on the other side of the pond.