Special Guest Column: The Digital Television Revolution


For over 60 years, the United States and its millions of television viewers were well-served by an analog NTSC broadcast standard, originally adopted in 1941 and colorized in the 1950s.  But, beginning in 1987 – spurred on by research and development taking place in other parts of the world – our government began to envision the potential of a greatly improved analog television system. 

Due to the efforts of the FCC, a private sector advisory committee,  and pioneering proponent companies who agreed to blend their individual concepts into a so-called “Grand Alliance,” what emerged after nearly a decade of work was a new all-digital broadcast standard, one which facilitated the delivery of wide-screen high definition television.

Without question, this new service has radically transformed TV viewing throughout our nation. Indeed, it is difficult to remember what NTSC reception was like compared to the dazzling displays routinely available today in virtually every American home, office and public place.  In short, the video revolution that has occurred has become commonplace in our society.

Nevertheless, as we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the FCC’s adoption of the Grand Alliance digital television standard, it seems appropriate to take note not only of what has been accomplished but also how it all came about.

Digital video (and HDTV), so prevalent today, were concepts alien to many working on the development of advanced television, both here and abroad.  All of the over 20 advanced television submissions to the FCC advisory committee (which was organized to recommend a new broadcast standard) were based on analog transmission.  And the systems being developed in Japan and Western Europe similarly were focused without exception on improvements to the existing technology.

Fortunately, however, the FCC and its advisory committee were open and receptive to the possibility of a digital video future when the concept was initially introduced by a proponent company based in California.  To their credit, the other entities that were to form the Grand Alliance were willing to revise and reshape their own systems to what eventually became a universally accepted digital broadcast standard.  Moreover, and importantly, the multitude of technical experts involved in the advisory committee – working in an open and peer-review process – were able to learn and adapt from one another’s research and thinking.

In the end, the Digital HDTV Grand Alliance – a combined, best-of-the-best solution – came together and proved to be superior to any of the individual proponent systems.  But, it was only after a prolonged period of technical analysis, developmental efforts, and laboratory and in-the-field testing – and also because of the flexibility and willingness to compromise in the national interest by all of the participants.  In all, it was a towering achievement in which everyone involved can take justifiable pride.

In the digital world, the reality is that technological changes and advances move at warp speed.  And the Grand Alliance – as wondrous as it has been – is premised on technology that is now some 25 years old.  Thus, the existing broadcast standard as documented by the Advanced Television Systems Committee is now regarded simply as ATSC 1.0.  What lies ahead on the immediate horizon is yet another digital video reinvention: Next Gen TV or ATSC 3.0 – something that promises even greater picture and sound clarity, system capacity, technical flexibility, and viewer benefits.

While the overriding goal of ATSC 1.0 was HDTV, the new standard has been designed in recognition that video has moved beyond the familiar arm, desk or bar chair to mobile and handheld devices of infinite variety and utilization.  Accordingly, a system that will bring with it enhanced robustness and throughput is essential in the television world of tomorrow.

Speaking personally, as one who was actively involved in helping to shepherd the adoption of our current standard, I applaud and look forward to the implementation of ATSC 3.0 and to what doubtless will be another exciting video millennium.

The Honorable Dick Wiley, founding partner of Wiley Rein LLP, played a pivotal role in the development of HDTV, serving for nine years as Chairman of the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service. Previously, as FCC Chairman, he fostered increased competition and lessened regulation in the communications field. A long-time ATSC friend and mentor, Wiley has received numerous accolades throughout his storied career, including being named “Washington Visionary” by The National Law Journal, “The Most Influential Media and Telecommunications Lawyer in the United States” by The International Herald Tribune, and one of the top “100 Men of the Century” by Broadcasting & Cable. The Globe and Mail and many others have dubbed him “The Father of High-Definition Television.”