How Television Works

By: Marshall Brain  | 
Man standing in front of ten modern televisions showing the same image.
Do you understand the technology behind TVs? Peter Cade / Getty Images

Television is certainly one of the most influential forces of our time. Through the device called a television set or TV, you are able to receive news, sports, entertainment, information and commercials. The average American spends between two and five hours a day glued to "the tube"!

Have you ever wondered about the technology that makes television possible? How is it that dozens or hundreds of channels of full-motion video arrive at your house, in many cases for free? How does your television decode the signals to produce the picture? How will the new digital television signals change things?


If you have ever wondered about your television (or, for that matter, about your computer monitor), then read on! In this article, we'll answer all of these questions and more. See the next page to get started.


History of TV

The history of television, often abbreviated as "TV," is a journey through innovation, beginning with mechanical scanning systems and evolving into the modern televisions we know today.

Early Days

This journey began in earnest with the first demonstration of moving images using a spinning Nipkow disk, a rudimentary form of mechanical scanning. However, it was Philo Farnsworth's image dissector that marked a pivotal moment in television technology. Farnsworth's invention, which was showcased in a public demonstration, utilized a new technology that captured moving images without the need for mechanical parts, paving the way for the electronic television.


In the early stages, the TV screen size was quite small, with a flickering image that left much to be desired. Despite these limitations, the excitement around the ability to broadcast moving images through radio waves captured the imagination of viewers.

Regular television broadcasts soon became a reality, initially reaching a limited number of people due to the scarce availability of high-end TVs. The Farnsworth television, named after its inventor, stood out for its use of the image dissector, which allowed for clearer pictures than the spinning disk systems.

Modern Television

As television technology advanced, so did the quality and features of the TV sets. The screen size increased, offering viewers a more immersive experience. Modern televisions now boast operating systems that support a wide range of applications, from streaming film and TV shows to browsing the internet, all delivered with clarity and precision that far exceeds the European standard of earlier days.

From the abbreviation "TV" to terms like "radio" and "broadcast," the lexicon surrounding television reflects its roots in radio waves and its evolution into a ubiquitous form of entertainment and information. Today, most people have access to a variety of systems, including high-end TVs that offer not just content but a gateway into a world of interactive media, thanks to ongoing innovations in television technology.


TV Pixels and Your Brain

Let's start at the beginning with a quick note about your brain. There are two amazing things about your brain that make television possible. By understanding these two facts, you gain a good bit of insight into why televisions are designed the way they are.

The first principle is this: If you divide a still image into a collection of small colored dots, your brain will reassemble the dots into a meaningful image. This is no small feat, as any researcher who has tried to program a computer to understand images will tell you. The only way we can see that this is actually happening is to blow the dots up so big that our brains can no longer assemble them, like this:


Pixelated image of a little boy.
Pixelated image of a little boy.

Most people, sitting right up close to their computer screens, cannot tell what this is a picture of — the dots are too big for your brain to handle. If you stand 10 to 15 feet away from your monitor, however, your brain will be able to assemble the dots in the image and you will clearly see that it is the baby's face. By standing at a distance, the dots become small enough for your brain to integrate them into a recognizable image.

Both televisions and computer screens (as well as newspaper and magazine photos) rely on this fusion-of-small-colored-dots capability in the human brain to chop pictures up into thousands of individual elements. On a TV or computer screen, the dots are called pixels. The resolution of your computer's screen might be 800x600 pixels, or maybe 1024x768 pixels.


TV Motion and Your Brain


The human brain's second amazing feature relating to television is this: If you divide a moving scene into a sequence of still pictures and show the still images in rapid succession, the brain will reassemble the still images into a single, moving scene. Take, for example, these four frames from the example video:


Each one of these images is slightly different from the next. If you look carefully at the baby's left foot (the foot that is visible), you will see that it is rising in these four frames. The toy also moves forward very slightly. By putting together 15 or more subtly different frames per second, the brain integrates them into a moving scene. Fifteen per second is about the minimum possible — any fewer than that and it looks jerky.


When you download and watch the MPEG file offered at the beginning of this section, you see both of these processes at work simultaneously. Your brain is fusing the dots of each image together to form still images and then fusing the separate still images together into a moving scene. Without these two capabilities, TV as we know it would not be possible.


The Cathode Ray Tube

A diagram of a cathode ray tube.

A few TVs in use today rely on a device known as the cathode ray tube, or CRT, to display their images. LCDs and plasma displays are other common technologies. It is even possible to make a television screen out of thousands of ordinary 60-watt light bulbs! You may have seen something like this at an outdoor event like a football game. Let's start with the CRT, however.

The terms anode and cathode are used in electronics as synonyms for positive and negative terminals. For example, you could refer to the positive terminal of a battery as the anode and the negative terminal as the cathode.


In a cathode ray tube, the "cathode" is a heated filament (not unlike the filament in a normal light bulb). The heated filament is in a vacuum created inside a glass "tube." The "ray" is a stream of electrons that naturally pour off a heated cathode into the vacuum.

Electrons are negative. The anode is positive, so it attracts the electrons pouring off the cathode. In a TV's cathode ray tube, the stream of electrons is focused by a focusing anode into a tight beam and then accelerated by an accelerating anode. This tight, high-speed beam of electrons flies through the vacuum in the tube and hits the flat screen at the other end of the tube. This screen is coated with phosphor, which glows when struck by the beam.


Inside a CRT

Diagram of a cathode ray tube.

As you can see in the drawing, there's not a whole lot to a basic cathode ray tube.

There is a cathode and a pair (or more) of anodes. There is the phosphor-coated screen. There is a conductive coating inside the tube to soak up the electrons that pile up at the screen-end of the tube. However, in this diagram you can see no way to "steer" the beam — the beam will always land in a tiny dot right in the center of the screen.


That's why, if you look inside any TV set, you will find that the tube is wrapped in coils of wires. On the next page, you'll get a good view of steering coils.


TV Steering Coils

Steering coils inside an opened television.

The following pictures give you three different views of a typical set of steering coils:

Steering coils inside an open television.
(Note the large black electrode hooked to the tube near the screen — it is connected internally to the conductive coating.)
Steering coils inside an open television.

The steering coils are simply copper windings. These coils are able to create magnetic fields inside the tube, and the electron beam responds to the fields. One set of coils creates a magnetic field that moves the electron beam vertically, while another set moves the beam horizontally. By controlling the voltages in the coils, you can position the electron beam at any point on the screen.



TV Phosphors

Illustration pinpointing the angular gyrus of the brain.
Electrical fields may cause a large number of ghost sightings. Learn about electrical fields and find out how electrical fields relate to ghosts.

A phosphor is any material that, when exposed to radiation, emits visible light. The radiation might be ultraviolet light or a beam of electrons. Any fluorescent color is really a phosphor — fluorescent colors absorb invisible ultraviolet light and emit visible light at a characteristic color.

In a CRT, phosphor coats the inside of the screen. When the electron beam strikes the phosphor, it makes the screen glow. In a black-and-white screen, there is one phosphor that glows white when struck. In a color screen, there are three phosphors arranged as dots or stripes that emit red, green and blue light. There are also three electron beams to illuminate the three different colors together.


There are thousands of different phosphors that have been formulated. They are characterized by their emission color and the length of time emission lasts after they are excited.

The Black-and-White TV Signal

An illustration of the raster scan pattern created by electronic circuits inside the TV.

In a black-and-white TV, the screen is coated with white phosphor and the electron beam "paints" an image onto the screen by moving the electron beam across the phosphor a line at a time. To "paint" the entire screen, electronic circuits inside the TV use the magnetic coils to move the electron beam in a "raster scan" pattern across and down the screen. The beam paints one line across the screen from left to right. It then quickly flies back to the left side, moves down slightly and paints another horizontal line, and so on down the screen.

In this figure, the blue lines represent lines that the electron beam is "painting" on the screen from left to right, while the red dashed lines represent the beam flying back to the left. When the beam reaches the right side of the bottom line, it has to move back to the upper left corner of the screen, as represented by the green line in the figure.


When the beam is "painting," it is on, and when it is flying back, it is off so that it does not leave a trail on the screen. The term horizontal retrace is used to refer to the beam moving back to the left at the end of each line, while the term vertical retrace refers to its movement from bottom to top.

As the beam paints each line from left to right, the intensity of the beam is changed to create different shades of black, gray and white across the screen. Because the lines are spaced very closely together, your brain integrates them into a single image. A TV screen normally has about 480 lines visible from top to bottom. In the next section, you'll find out how the TV "paints" these lines on the screen.


Painting the TV Screen

Standard TVs use an interlacing technique when painting the screen. In this technique, the screen is painted 60 times per second but only half of the lines are painted per frame. The beam paints every other line as it moves down the screen — for example, every odd-numbered line. Then, the next time it moves down the screen it paints the even-numbered lines, alternating back and forth between even-numbered and odd-numbered lines on each pass.

The entire screen, in two passes, is painted 30 times every second. The alternative to interlacing is called progressive scanning, which paints every line on the screen 60 times per second. Most computer monitors use progressive scanning because it significantly reduces flicker.


Because the electron beam is painting all 525 lines 30 times per second, it paints a total of 15,750 lines per second. (Some people can actually hear this frequency as a very high-pitched sound emitted when the television is on.)

When a television station wants to broadcast a signal to your TV, or when your VCR wants to display the movie on a video tape on your TV, the signal needs to mesh with the electronics controlling the beam so that the TV can accurately paint the picture that the TV station or VCR sends. The TV station or VCR therefore sends a well-known signal to the TV that contains three different parts:

  • Intensity information for the beam as it paints each line
  • Horizontal-retrace signals to tell the TV when to move the beam back at the end of each line
  • Vertical-retrace signals 60 times per second to move the beam from bottom-right to top-left

So how does this information get transmitted to the TV? Read the next page to find out.


Composite Video Signal

Illustration of a typical video signal in a TV.
A typical composite video signal

A signal that contains all three of these components — intensity information, horizontal-retrace signals, and vertical-retrace signals — is called a composite video signal. A composite-video input on a VCR is normally a yellow RCA jack. One line of a typical composite video signal looks something like the image on this page.

The horizontal-retrace signals are 5-microsecond (abbreviated as "us" in the figure) pulses at zero volts. Electronics inside the TV can detect these pulses and use them to trigger the beam's horizontal retrace. The actual signal for the line is a varying wave between 0.5 volts and 2.0 volts, with 0.5 volts representing black and 2 volts representing white. This signal drives the intensity circuit for the electron beam. In a black-and-white TV, this signal can consume about 3.5 megahertz (MHz) of bandwidth, while in a color set the limit is about 3.0 MHz.

A vertical-retrace pulse is similar to a horizontal-retrace pulse but is 400 to 500 microseconds long. The vertical-retrace pulse is serrated with horizontal-retrace pulses in order to keep the horizontal-retrace circuit in the TV synchronized.

Color TV Screen

Illustration of the color spectrum in a television.

A color TV screen differs from a black-and-white screen in three ways:

  • There are three electron beams that move simultaneously across the screen. They are named the red, green and blue beams.
  • The screen is not coated with a single sheet of phosphor as in a black-and-white TV. Instead, the screen is coated with red, green and blue phosphors arranged in dots or stripes. If you turn on your TV or computer monitor and look closely at the screen with a magnifying glass, you will be able to see the dots or stripes.
  • On the inside of the tube, very close to the phosphor coating, there is a thin metal screen called a shadow mask. This mask is perforated with very small holes that are aligned with the phosphor dots (or stripes) on the screen.

When a color TV needs to create a red dot, it fires the red beam at the red phosphor. Similarly for green and blue dots. To create a white dot, red, green and blue beams are fired simultaneously — the three colors mix together to create white. To create a black dot, all three beams are turned off as they scan past the dot. All other colors on a TV screen are combinations of red, green and blue.

In the next section, you'll learn about the color TV signal.

Color TV Signal

An illustration of a color TV signal.

A color TV signal starts off looking just like a black-and-white signal. An extra chrominance signal is added by superimposing a 3.579545 MHz sine wave onto the standard black-and-white signal. Right after the horizontal sync pulse, eight cycles of a 3.579545 MHz sine wave are added as a color burst.

Following these eight cycles, a phase shift in the chrominance signal indicates the color to display. The amplitude of the signal determines the saturation. Here is the relationship between color and phase:

  • Burst = 0 degrees
  • Yellow = 15 degrees
  • Red = 75 degrees
  • Magenta = 135 degrees
  • Blue = 195 degrees
  • Cyan = 255 degrees
  • Green = 315 degrees

A black-and-white TV filters out and ignores the chrominance signal. A color TV picks it out of the signal and decodes it, along with the normal intensity signal, to determine how to modulate the three color beams.

TV Broadcasts

Illustration of video and sound being modulated into separate signals in a TV.
The composite video signal is amplitude-modulated into the appropriate frequency, and then the sound is frequency-modulated (+/- 25 KHz) as a separate signal.

Now you are familiar with a standard composite video signal. Note that we have not mentioned sound. If your VCR has a yellow composite-video jack, you've probably noticed that there are separate sound jacks right next to it. Sound and video are completely separate in an analog TV.

You are probably familiar with five different ways to get a signal into your TV set:

  • Broadcast programming received through an antenna
  • VCR or DVD player that connects to the antenna terminals
  • Cable TV arriving in a set-top box that connects to the antenna terminals
  • Large (6 to 12 feet) satellite-dish antenna arriving in a set-top box that connects to the antenna terminals
  • Small (1 to 2 feet) satellite-dish antenna arriving in a set-top box that connects to the antenna terminals

The first four signals use standard NTSC analog waveforms as described in the previous sections. As a starting point, let's look at how normal broadcast signals arrive at your house.

A typical TV signal as described above requires 4 MHz of bandwidth. By the time you add in sound, something called a vestigial sideband and a little buffer space, a TV signal requires 6 MHz of bandwidth. Therefore, the FCC allocated three bands of frequencies in the radio spectrum, chopped into 6-MHz slices, to accommodate TV channels:

  • 54 to 88 MHz for channels 2 to 6
  • 174 to 216 MHz for channels 7 through 13
  • 470 to 890 MHz for UHF channels 14 through 83

The composite TV signal described in the previous sections can be broadcast to your house on any available channel. The composite video signal is amplitude-modulated into the appropriate frequency, and then the sound is frequency-modulated (+/- 25 KHz) as a separate signal.

To the left of the video carrier is the vestigial lower sideband (0.75 MHz), and to the right is the full upper sideband (4 MHz). The sound signal is centered on 5.75 MHz. As an example, a program transmitted on channel 2 has its video carrier at 55.25 MHz and its sound carrier at 59.75 MHz. The tuner in your TV, when tuned to channel 2, extracts the composite video signal and the sound signal from the radio waves that transmitted them to the antenna.

VCR and Cable Signals

VCRs are essentially their own little TV stations. Almost all VCRs have a switch on the back that allows you to select channel 3 or 4. The video tape contains a composite video signal and a separate sound signal. The VCR has a circuit inside that takes the video and sound signals off the tape and turns them into a signal that, to the TV, looks just like the broadcast signal for channel 3 or 4.

The cable in cable TV contains a large number of channels that are transmitted on the cable. Your cable provider could simply modulate the different cable-TV programs onto all of the normal frequencies and transmit that to your house via the cable; then, the tuner in your TV would accept the signal and you would not need a cable box.

Unfortunately, that approach would make theft of cable services very easy, so the signals are encoded in funny ways. The set-top box is a decoder. You select the channel on it, it decodes the right signal and then does the same thing a VCR does to transmit the signal to the TV on channel 3 or 4.

Satellite TV Signals

A DirecTV small-dish satellite system.
Small-dish satellite system
Photo courtesy DirecTV

Large-dish satellite antennas pick off unencoded or encoded signals being beamed to Earth by satellites. First, you point the dish to a particular satellite, and then you select a particular channel it is transmitting. The set-top box receives the signal, decodes it if necessary and then sends it to channel 3 or 4.

Small-dish satellite systems are digital. The TV programs are encoded in MPEG-2 format and transmitted to Earth. The set-top box does a lot of work to decode MPEG-2, then converts it to a standard analog TV signal and sends it to your TV on channel 3 or 4. See How Satellite TV Works to learn more.

Digital TV

Sony Wega 42" XBR Plasma TV with built-in HDTV tuner
Sony Wega 42" XBR Plasma TV with built-in HDTV tuner
Photo courtesy Sony Electronics

The latest buzz is digital TV, also known as DTV or HDTV (high-definition TV). DTV uses MPEG-2 encoding just like the satellite systems do, but digital TV allows a variety of new, larger screen formats.

The formats include:

  • 480p - 640x480 pixels progressive
  • 720p - 1280x720 pixels progressive
  • 1080i - 1920x1080 pixels interlaced
  • 1080p - 1920x1080 pixels progressive

A digital TV decodes the MPEG-2 signal and displays it just like a computer monitor does, giving it incredible resolution and stability. There is also a wide range of set-top boxes that can decode the digital signal and convert it to analog to display it on a normal TV. For more information, check out How Digital Television Works.

Monitors vs. TVs

Your computer probably has a "VGA monitor" that looks a lot like a TV but is smaller, has a lot more pixels and has a much crisper display. The CRT and electronics in a monitor are much more precise than is required in a TV; a computer monitor needs higher resolutions. In addition, the plug on a VGA monitor is not accepting a composite signal — a VGA plug separates out all of the signals so they can be interpreted by the monitor more precisely. Here's a typical VGA pinout:

  • pin 1 - Red video
  • pin 2 - Green video
  • pin 3 - Blue video
  • pin 4 - Ground
  • pin 5 - Self test
  • pin 6 - Red ground
  • pin 7 - Green ground
  • pin 8 - Blue ground
  • pin 9 - No pin
  • pin 10 - Digital ground
  • pin 11 - Reserved
  • pin 12 - Reserved
  • pin 13 - Horizontal sync
  • pin 14 - Vertical sync
  • pin 15 - Reserved

This table makes the point that the signals for the three beams as well as both horizontal and vertical sync signals are all transmitted separately.

For more information on television, display types and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Where is the cheapest place to buy a TV?
Walmart and Best Buy seem to post the most TV deals and both retailers are known for offering great markdowns. Amazon is also a great place to score some deals if you already know what you want and are willing to skip the in-store visit to check the TV out on display.
What is the best TV to buy?
Every TV has pros and cons. Even the best TVs have at least one drawback — the steep price you're likely to pay for top-of-the-line tech. However, the best TVs currently include the Vizio M-Series Quantum and Sony's Bravia X900H Series. OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays are less common and very expensive, but if you're willing to splurge, check out the LG OLED CX series and the Samsung Q900TS.
When is the cheapest time to buy a TV?
Black Friday, or the Friday following Thanksgiving in the United States, offers some of the deepest discounts on TVs. But the second best time to score a deal is in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, which always takes place on the first Sunday in February.