The compatibility debate


October 07, 1990|By Hans Fantel | Hans Fantel,New York Times News Service

To the fulminant debate on future television standards -- which concerns the introduction of high definition television (HDTV) and its impact on existing broadcast technology -- some calm but cutting observations were added by James C. Davies, an executive of Barco Inc., a company that makes video projectors in Kennesaw, Ga.

In the course of his arguments Mr. Davies takes a few potshots at some sacred cows.

Significantly, his remarks were published not in one of the broadcasting journals but in Audio, a magazine uninfluenced by the strife in broadcasting circles.

One of Mr. Davies' targets is the notion of compatibility, which has become a shibboleth in the broadcasting industry.

Compatibility means that telecasts in the future system must also be receivable on existing television sets.

An earlier instance of compatibility was the introduction of stereo sound in television.

Even those who don't have a stereo TV set can receive the programs, though only with mono sound.

Likewise, compatibility for high definition television means that the owners of conventional television sets would still be able to see programs emanating from HDTV broadcasters, though only with the present low-definition quality.

It is widely believed that the Federal Communications Commission has mandated compatibility for any new television system to be licensed in the United States.

But Mr. Davies points out that this is not so.

All the FCC said is that the new broadcasters must abide by the present channel allotments and continue to provide service receivable on present sets.

The latter provision is to insure that the roughly 260 million television sets in the United States will not be rendered unusable.

It is the broadcasters who interpret this to mean that the government insists on past and future television systems being compatible.

Yet there is an alternative implicit in the government's guidelines.

One might set up a separate high-definition system concurrent with the present system.

That way, conventional sets would still receive programs from existing television stations while a new high-definition system of transmitters and receivers could establish its own technical standards without regard to the old.

Establishing and maintaining two parallel broadcasting systems -- one for high-definition pictures and one for conventional quality -- would be expensive for broadcasters.

That may explain why it is the broadcasters, rather than the government, who focus on the issue of compatibility.

To put the broadcasters' position in another light, Mr. Davies draws a parallel to a recent development in audio -- the launching of compact disks.

"When CDs were introduced," he comments, "no one was concerned that they weren't compatible with vinyl records or cassettes, and no one complained much -- at least not publicly.

"For the past several years, the three formats have existed side by side, and the marketplace is deciding which it likes better."

Mr. Davies expects the same will happen if two incompatible television systems are allowed to coexist.

"I believe that high definition television will eventually win out," he adds, "because it delivers vastly superior pictures."

Mr. Davies wonders why this kind of reasoning has not been applied to the current debate about television standards.

"Can you imagine someone publicly stating that CDs should be compatible with vinyl records?

"Moreover, can you imagine the two should be compatible even though . . . the quality of CDs would have to be downgraded to insure that compatibility? He would probably be laughed out of the room."

Yet in TV this kind of proposition is now receiving serious consideration.

Both the private and governmental agencies which will decide the future of television include advocates of compatibility who appear unconcerned that every compatible system developed so far entails compromises in picture quality.

As for the government's requirement that any new television system must conform to current channel allocations, this applies only to terrestrial broadcasts -- that is, broadcasts from ground-based transmitters.

It does not apply to future systems based on direct reception from satellite relays or to programs distributed by cable.

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