What were the first HDTVs?

        Tech | HDTV

Microsoft Program Manager Suze Woolf demonstrates the potential for HDTV in a 1995 meeting.  See more HDTV pictures.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

High-definition televisions (HDTVs) are competing with standard televisions for shelf space in electronics stores. And the HDTVs are winning. But where does this technology come from, and how old is it?

The answer may surprise you. While HDTV is a little more than 10 years old in the United States, the technology's origins date back much further. To learn about the first HDTV sets, we need to head over to Japan.

By the late 1960s, Japan had established itself as an innovative and technologically oriented country. While much of the world viewed Japan as the birthplace of cheap electronics, Japanese companies and even the Japanese government poured resources into technological development.

One area of development was in television broadcast. Improving broadcast standards in Japan would lead to a new market for high-end televisions. The NHK Corporation -- also known as the Japan Broadcasting Corporation -- decided in 1968 to create a new standard for television broadcasting. In the 1970s, Japanese engineers developed the MUSE high-definition system.

Panasonic designed a prototype television in 1974 capable of displaying 1,125 lines of pixels [source: Consumer Electronics Association]. Standard-definition television can only display 480 lines. The Panasonic television followed NHK's standards -- an analog signal that packed more information than traditional television signals.

By the 1980s, NHK had developed the technology to the point that it was time to shop around for other customers. It became clear that if NHK could convince the world to adopt its standards, Japanese television manufacturers would make a fortune.

Japan's advances in television broadcast technology coincided with a politically charged situation in the United States. If it weren't for a metaphorical game of tug-of-war between television broadcasters and companies invested in two-way radio communications, HDTV may not have made its way to the United States.

The Race to HDTV in the United States

By 1998, HDTV had become a major buzz word at conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show.
By 1998, HDTV had become a major buzz word at conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show.
AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

A battle raged in the United States during the early and mid 1980s. On one side of the battlefield was the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). On the other side was Land Mobile, a lobbying organization led in part by Motorola. Land Mobile's objective was to claim unused ranges of television frequencies for two-way radio broadcasts. The NAB wasn't eager to hand over these airwaves, claiming the radio communications would interfere with broadcast frequencies.

The NAB had a big problem -- Land Mobile was making progress with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Land Mobile's argument was that the airwaves in question weren't being used for anything and were being wasted. That's when John Abel, then-president of the NAB, pointed to HDTV. He said that the unused airwaves could be used for high-definition broadcasts. If the FCC reallocated the airwaves to Land Mobile, the United States might not be able to take advantage of HDTV.

To help make his point, Abel arranged for representatives from NHK to demonstrate HDTV technology in Washington D.C. in 1987. But the commissioner of the FCC at the time, Mark Fowler, refused to see the demonstration. Despite Fowler's response, several politicians saw the demonstration and were surprised to see such advanced technology come out of Japan. The demonstration appeared to seal the deal -- HDTV would come to the United States. But the lawmakers were determined that this would only happen under their own terms.

The fear was that by adopting the Japanese standard, the United States would permanently position American television companies behind Japanese manufacturers. The solution was to create a new set of high-definition standards for HDTV in the United States.

This led to the formation of the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS). The committee decided that the new standard would have to follow two rules: It would need to be analog and it couldn't negate the existing television broadcast technology. Several companies and organizations sent proposals for standards to ACATS. Out of a field of 23 contenders, ACATS narrowed down the choices to six candidates. Each group had to create a system that could be tested by 1991 and had to pay an entrance fee of $200,000.

Developing HDTV

As the six contenders worked on their approaches to HDTV, there were a few interesting developments. One was that the prospect of digital television became viable. When ACATS made the determination that the approaches should be analog, it was because the committee believed a digital solution wasn't feasible. But further consideration led to the conclusion that digital would be the future of terrestrial television transmission.

ACATS submitted each approach to extensive testing in a special facility designed specifically for that task. At the end of testing, ACATS determined that a digital approach was superior to analog. Two of the six proposals were analog approaches. These two, including a proposal submitted by NHK, faded away.

There were no clear winners among the digital approaches. ACATS concluded that there should be a second round of testing. The four remaining competitors weren't keen on the idea of another round of expensive development and testing. As a result, the four remaining groups formed a consortium with several other companies called the Grand Alliance. It was the Grand Alliance's goal to finalize the HDTV standard in the United States and produce a working HDTV machine.

The Grand Alliance divided up the machine into several subsystems and assigned each subsystem to a specific group. The first HDTV machine in the United States was a prototype built by committee. The committee included companies like General Instruments, Zenith, Philips and AT&T. ACATS approved of the standard and the path was cleared for manufacturers to market consumer televisions. The first HDTV sets hit the consumer market in 1998.

Those sets came from manufacturers like Panasonic and Sony, and had a different appearance -- they were wider than standard televisions. That's because the new HDTV standard also included a new aspect ratio. The standard aspect ratio was 4:3, the new ratio was 16:9. They also came with a hefty price tag -- the first sets on the American market cost $7,000 or more. If you had the cash to drop on one of these sets you might have been disappointed to find that there wasn't much programming available.

Today, several cable and satellite companies offer high-definition content. The move to create standards for HDTV also helped push the United States to switch from analog to digital signals. But that's another story.

Learn more about HDTV by following the links on the next page.

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Sources

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