How Digital Television Works

Digital Compression

The idea of sending multiple programs within the 19.39-Mbps stream is unique to digital TV and is made possible by the digital compression system being used. To compress the image for transmission, broadcasters use MPEG-2 compression, and MPEG-2 allows you to pick both the screen size and bit rate when encoding the show. A broadcaster can choose a variety of bit rates within any of the three resolutions.

You see MPEG-2 all the time on the Web on Web sites that offer streaming video. For example, if you go to, you will find that you can view streaming video at 56 kilobits per second (Kbps), 200 Kbps or 500 Kbps. MPEG-2 allows a technician to pick any bit rate and resolution when encoding a file.


There are many variables that determine how the picture will look at a given bit rate. For example:

  • If a station wants to broadcast a sporting event (where there is lots of movement in the scene) at 1080i, the entire 19.39 megabits per second is needed to get a high-quality image.
  • On the other hand, a newscast showing a newscaster's head can use a much lower bit rate. A broadcaster might transmit the newscast at 480p resolution and a 3-Mbps bit rate, leaving 16.39 Mbps of space for other sub-channels.

It's very likely that broadcasters will send three or four sub-channels during the day and then switch to a single high-quality show that consumes the entire 19.39 Mbps at night. Some broadcasters are also experimenting with 1- or 2-Mbps data channels that send information and Web pages along with a show to provide additional information.