CHAT ROOM: Past is Prologue

In the Chat Room this month, THE STANDARD sat down with the Honorable Richard E. Wiley.  Widely known as the “Father of HDTV,” the former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission chaired the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service from 1987 to 1995. As the Next Gen TV era dawns – and as the Digital HDTV Grand Alliance celebrates its 25th Anniversary and as the ATSC commemorates 35 years – we asked Chairman Wiley for his perspectives on where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.

THE STANDARD: A generation ago, you led the effort to standardize “advanced television” and a new-fangled thing called Hi-Def. Our millennial readers may not even remember a time without HDTV. Tell us about how it came to be.

WILEY: At the FCC’s request, a federal advisory committee that I chaired spent some eight years in organizing and overseeing an international competition to select a new advanced video transmission standard for our country.  Beginning in 1987, the committee was focused on revolutionizing television through the development of widescreen HDTV.  Initially, every proposal submitted to us featured analog transmission but, in mid-1990, the possibility of all-digital systems became a reality – a huge breakthrough at the time that upped the ante on high-definition reception but also added other important elements like computer interoperability, multichannel service and datacasting.  After extensive testing of various entries, all of which were being subjected to real-time improvements, I convinced the digital proponents (who, at that point, had been vigorously competing against each other for over five years) to merge and create a single best-elements system.  Thus, in 1993, the “Grand Alliance” was born.  After additional technical efforts and laboratory and field testing, the advisory committee was finally able to recommend the Grand Alliance system to the FCC. And, with Commission approval on Christmas Eve 1996, it became not only the basis of our national video transmission standard (now ATSC 1.0) but also the world’s first digital high-definition television system.

THE STANDARD: That was a massive undertaking with enormous positive impact on consumers and the industry. Mr. Chairman, what specifically did the Advisory Committee do, and how many people were involved in its overall work?

WILEY: The Committee itself had only 25 members – the leaders of major broadcasting, cable, TV manufacturing and computer companies.  But, over 1,000 volunteers contributed their time and considerable expertise to our efforts, including the cream of the nation’s video engineering community. This blue-ribbon group was charged with recommending the first major broadcast television standard improvement since the introduction of NTSC color reception in the early 1950s.  Our work included supervising two advanced TV testing labs, one in Alexandria, Virginia for technical verifications and one in Canada for subjective viewer evaluations.  Like me, I believe that everyone involved in the advisory committee’s work was proud to participate in this pioneering enterprise – although, admittedly, it took much longer than anyone could have imagined at the outset.

THE STANDARD:  To quote Will Shakespeare, the past is prologue. In modern times, that means putting current events into historical context. Can you help us put the progression to what we now call Next Gen TV into context?

WILEY: As revolutionary as digital HDTV was and indeed still is, its underlying technology is over 25 years old.  And in the digital world, technological development moves at warp speed.  So now, ATSC 3.0 Next Gen TV is on the immediate horizon.  As an IP-based standard, it promises a blend of broadcasting and broadband, with greater robustness and efficiency, even higher quality video and audio (especially for mobile devices), and a host of advanced services like personalized content, targeted advertising and emergency warnings. Like the transition from NTSC to ATSC 1.0, from analog to digital, from standard definition to high definition, ATSC 3.0 won’t happen overnight.  It will take considerable local market cooperation among broadcast licensees.  And, a critical mass of U.S. broadcasters will have to voluntarily deploy the new standard so that consumer electronics manufacturers, national retailers and, ultimately, American consumers can participate in the Next Gen TV ecosystem.  However, without doubt, it all eventually will happen and will usher in another great video era.  And, as I see it, the digital technology beat will continue to go on and on in the future, to the great benefit of our citizens.