TV History: HDTV

Ask any critic: We’re living in the era of Peak TV, when major cable and streaming projects have become as important and glamorous in our world as theatrical films are, sometimes even more so. Television’s been an important part of our lives for seventy years, but other than for live events, it’s always been the (relatively) family-friendly, 21 inch-wide, generally low prestige cousin of the movies. That all changed in this century, and this post will claim it’s partly due to a non-artistic advance that’s supposedly “merely” technical, as if anything is “merely” technical: The stunning quality, size, and affordability of today’s high definition home screen.

The traditional movie theater is increasingly reserved for spectacle; your living room flatscreen is now your movie screen, just as your laptop or tablet has become your kitchen table TV, and your mobile phone became your daily, carry around computer message center. Just considering sheer cultural impact, “The Sopranos”, became “The Godfather” of our era, and “Game of Thrones” has been “The Lord of the Rings” of the past decade. It’s hard to recall how recent this all is. Even a quarter century ago, you’d have to have been a Hollywood millionaire with a 35mm home theater to see a picture anywhere nearly this good in your living room. Now you only need $500, and 55 inches (diagonal) of wall space. The story of how video reached film quality, and is now approaching the limits of human eyesight, involves enterprise, decades of backdoor deals, art, science, the politics of the Sixties through the Eighties, and a high money stakes engineering fight with Japan; which we won. Here’s how it happened.

The first working televisions of the 1920s had a vertical screen shape, or aspect ratio, chosen to match the human face. The pink-and-black picture was the size of a business card, made up of 60 thin vertical lines side by side. Like steam automobiles, this was only a brief pioneering phase of a new business. It was quickly superseded by a much more successful TV technology, cathode ray picture tubes, big flat-bottomed vacuum bottles on their sides. Picture quality and detail improved rapidly throughout the Thirties, putting home television within reach of being practical. Tests of eyesight and visual detail showed that the up-and-down resolution of horizontal lines were more important to sharpness than the side-to-side scan, which could vary in quality.

By 1941, a set of Depression-era business, technical and New Deal political compromises worked out the technical “Bible” of American television. How good were those rules? They would remain set in stone (sort of) for the next 60-plus years, here as well as in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and after the war, Japan. It was an enduring standard for a reason: It was a decent, not perfect, compromise between picture quality people would accept, and TV they could afford.

If we had really wanted even sharper pictures, we could have done it. In the Fifties, France had 819-line TV, the sharpest black and white ever broadcast, because their PBS-like cultural content lent itself to it, even at higher expense to every set owner.

But why? The engineering of cathode ray picture tubes effectively limited their maximum size to roughly 30 inches. Anything much beyond that width that was stretching it considerably, with the lo-o-o-ng neck of the tube requiring a TV set that would have been roughly four feet deep. If you can’t make a really big picture practical, normal living room seating distances made a less detailed picture more than acceptable.

From 1951 on, American TVs were usually 21 to 27 inches, measured diagonally. This varied remarkably little through the next half century. TV became color, and started broadcasting in stereo sound. Sony Trinitron and Panasonic replaced RCA and Philco in the nation’s color TV buying habits. But right up through the end of the 20th century, “TV” usually meant a big square box, with a 525-line picture the shape and roughly the size it had been in the “Leave it to Beaver” era. You don’t have to be very old to remember the rounded-off, slightly oval rectangular logo that meant TV in every language in the world.

Europe entered the Fifties with a jumble of TV standards, some of which were easily convertible, and some weren’t. By the beginning of the Sixties, everyone from the British to the Sicilians made plans to move to 625-line picture detail continent-wide, phasing out all of the old national TV systems. This would be Europe’s enduring standard for the rest of the century, and any American traveling abroad has to admit we were impressed with the beauty and proto-HD-like sharpness of European hotel TVs, even in Communist countries. For a long time that high picture quality forestalled much European interest in improving it further.

As elsewhere, in America there were some unusual uses of television that pushed its limits. For decades before there was pay-per-view, there was theater television. As a union projectionist, I saw some of the technology of the waning era of boxing matches (“The Thrilla From Manila! No Home TV!”) and other special events (“Minister Louis Farrakhan Speaks Live Via Satellite!”) shown with specially leased and temporarily installed TV projection equipment. On a big movie screen, the image was usually dim and ghostly, resembling live broadcasts from the Moon. Old projectionists said that the fighters wore contrasting black and white trunks because otherwise nobody could tell who was who.

Projection TV was possible in the home from the beginning, but it didn’t catch on because it didn’t work very well under normal room lighting. Then in the early Seventies Advent, a stereophonic sound manufacturer, surprised the industry by having a cult hit with its big screen home theater system, a video projector precisely lined up with a curved, highly reflective screen whose image was still bright in moderate lighting. It became a status symbol of the wealthy, seen in movies like “Semi-Tough” (1977) and “Superman” (1978). Front projection had a niche market with early adopters and the well-to-do for a generation.

Bars took notice. After all, they were the original hosts and introducers of American television to the masses. They’d featured live sports from 1939 on. But the phrase “Sports bars” describes a jump forward, made possible in the late Seventies and turn of the Eighties by a combination of adapting this new home video projection technology with another development whose commercialization time had come, satellite TV. The rooftop dishes were big by today’s standards, four to six feet. Front projection still required some dimming of the room lights, but in bars that was seldom a problem.

There were press reports in the early Eighties that the Japanese had solved the problem of providing a vastly superior television picture and were ready to unveil the solution. These reports were substantially correct. Known but to a few, Sony Corporation videotaped some of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in HDTV, although it could not then be broadcast or viewed anywhere. It was for posterity’s sake, a mark of pride: here’s the proof that we got here first. Sony, and Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, the counterpart to the BBC, had a complete working system built around a next generation high definition image, 1125 lines high. You couldn’t even see the TV scan lines in the picture anymore; it was so clear and sharp it was like looking out a widescreen window. In 1987, the American Film Institute hosted the first domestic screenings of the revolutionary new technology, introducing it to Hollywood. Sony returned the favor with a multimillion-dollar gift and a new building for AFI.

Sony’s Hi-Vision was incompatible with existing television and would require a complete replacement of every single transmitter, receiver, and recorder all over the world. As you might imagine, that prospect did not faze Sony one little bit. Promoting this system was a major reason why Sony bought Columbia and TriStar Pictures and became a force in Hollywood. American and European electronics manufacturers belatedly came up with other solutions, but most of the U.S. media industry quietly prepared to adopt Sony Hi-Vision as the nation’s sole television system. By the late Eighties, America was convinced that Japan could win just about any technical battle it chose to. But there were some snags.

The HDTV cameras worked, the HDTV sets worked, but Sony’s impressive demonstrations ignored one stubborn problem: Bandwidth, the vast amount of room that their Hi-Vision channels took up in the radio spectrum. The challenge was comparable to having to retrofit the entire Interstate Highway system to be 28 lanes wide. In Japan, NHK and Sony had a unique solution: HDTV would be delivered via satellite or cable, not interfering with conventional broadcasting. But America didn’t go for that. We didn’t want a gold-plated system that only 3% of the country could afford to watch.

The FCC hosted a bake-off of high definition TV systems, a series of objective, side by side viewing tests. The winner had appeared out of nowhere: a wholly digital proposal by a mid-sized San Diego laboratory, General Instruments, not any of the electronics or media giants. This was, as you’d expect, a colossal shock and a comedown for Sony, who’d invested billions in a successful attempt to get the world thinking about HDTV. Sony’s analog Hi-Vision had terrific pictures, but so did the digital system, with the promise of even better ones.

The main reason for the choice: Digital allowed a radical degree of signal compression, keeping terrestrial broadcasting as an option. You didn’t need those metaphorical 28 lanes of broadcast spectrum to carry this signal; you could carry all 28 lanes and more in the existing space. In fact, you could compress several high definition pictures and a half-dozen “old” definition ones into the space of one existing analog channel. This also allowed auctioning off existing bandwidth, creating immense profits as well as the opportunity to build innumerable new wireless services for the Internet of Things.

There was big money to be made in remaking television, almost as radically as Hollywood remade itself when sound came in. The home electronics industry loves new developments attractive enough to tempt consumers into scrapping perfectly workable equipment—vinyl records, black and white TV, open reel tape, VHS, wireline phones, fax machines, modems—and now, all of existing TV, as the end of the 20th century loomed. Surely, they thought, the public will jump at this as soon as they see the pictures. It would take ten years (1998-2008), though, not much different than the sluggish adoption of color television (1954-1965).

Sharper pictures, a workable way to distribute them, and a national analog-to-digital transition that would make buckets of money for all sides. Now there was just one bottleneck remaining on the road to high def in your living room: waiting for the flatscreen. The picture display of the early HDTV sets was a heavy picture tube, not all that much larger than the end-of-old-TV sets of the Nineties, or at best it was a monstrously large rear projection TV set, about the size of a player piano.

Any electronics-minded boy of the Sixties read endless predictions about future TV sets you could hang on a wall. Science fiction, like “Fahrenheit 451” often refers to it. But there was no practical way to actually do it until plasma sets came along, about twenty years ago. They were immensely expensive, were only 40 inches at first, and it took time for them to come up to HDTV levels of detail. But once they did, there was no looking back. Plasma paved the way for the cheaper LCD and LED technologies of today. There are still some older TVs in use with inexpensive digital converter boxes; in fact, I have a few. But effectively, the high definition television revolution is over.

Seeing reruns of comedies and other taped programs from even the most recent years of low def look a little strange to us now, with their boxy shape and crude “TV look”. We no longer remember how Jetson-y the new HD sets looked when we first encountered them. Soon it’ll be hard for our kids and grandkids to imagine anything else.

One crucial side benefit to digital high definition television: virtually the same technology, at least on the camera and editing side, became the basis for the standard for theatrical motion pictures as well, unifying two separate-but-equal branches of the moving image for the first time. The same camera, using different settings and accessories, could “film” (yes, we are still in habit of using the word) a feature film, a documentary, or a TV show.

The movie studios desperately wanted to get out from under their lifetime bondage to Eastman Kodak, but movie theaters were a trickier problem for digital conversion. They couldn’t use big flat screens; the screens still aren’t nearly big enough. At last, projection TV technology advanced greatly since the ancient days when I used an Eidophor, a bottle full of a shimmering, micron-thick layer of tinctured mercury floating on liquid, scanned by intense electron beams, sitting on top of a souped-up version of a classroom’s opaque projector. One of the most widely used theater projection systems uses a digital reflector with hundreds of thousands of microscopic mirrors that move many thousands of times per second. It also uses a spinning color wheel, straight out of the abandoned and forgotten color TV system that once had a legal monopoly in the United States. Not everything old is new again, but a few things are, from time to time.