What were the first HDTVs?

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.