Today in Tedium: Back in 2017, I wrote a nice lengthy piece on the evolution of TV technology, particularly a forthcoming standard called ATSC 3.0, which when fully rolled out could greatly change our relationship with broadcast-quality television. (Among other things, it’s based on the internet protocol, or IP, standard.) While a number of stations have voluntarily launched it around the country, there’s not really many TVs out there that natively support the technology at this time—you have to buy a set-top box to get the full experience. But ATSC 3.0 is out there in the wild as a mainstream standard in at least one country—Jamaica, where it launched in earnest just a few months ago. Today’s Tedium spends a little time thinking about television standards, because it’s what we like thinking about. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The percentage of Americans over the age of 18 that can access ATSC 3.0 content, according to TV Tech. While not exactly extremely common at this point from a viewer standpoint, it’s likely to become far easier for consumers to digest it than the prior change to HDTV, which required customers to buy new hardware to use their current devices. ATSC 3.0 is, and will likely remain, optional. (But will anyone know about it?)
Television Jamaica turns on the ATSC 3.0 signal for the first time.
Shout-out to Jamaica, which is one of the first countries in the world to embrace ATSC 3.0
To me, it’s extremely fascinating to see the early adopters and the late bloomers when it comes to television standards.
And in the case of ATSC 3.0, South Korea and the U.S.—two centers of technological innovation, collectively the homes of some of the world’s most prominent technology companies—seem like obvious choices to be early adopters of the next generation of television technology.
But Jamaica? Now, there’s an outlier. But earlier this year, Jamaica became just the third country in the world to embrace the technology. Why the early adopter status? Simply put, Jamaica is running later to the transition to digital television than other countries, and as a result it ended up jumping directly to the ATSC 3.0 standard, other than going with an older technology.
Nonetheless, Jamaica is excited about this shift. In an article in the Jamaica Gleaner, Claire Clarke-Grant, manager of broadcast services at the Television Jamaica, expressed excitement about the potential of the new digital technology.
“It just doesn’t get any bigger than this,” Clarke-Grant said. “To be working in media at this point in time when this kind of transitioning is happening is not comparable to anything else. I think the last time we had something that shook up television in this way was television going from black and white to color.”
(Of note: both the newspaper and television station are owned by the same media conglomerate, RJRGLEANER.)
Now, to be clear, not everyone is quite through their DTV transition process. The United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union lists at least 17 countries that have not started their transition to digital television; numerous other countries are listed as having “no information” on DTV transition status, many of which are a little shakier on the global stability status than others.
And to be clear, ATSC 3.0 is far from the only standard here. The Digital Video Broadcasting, or DVB, standard is actually much more common globally.
So the fact that Jamaica chose ATSC 3.0, which is not only uncommon globally but basically brand new, basically makes it a unicorn of sorts on the global stage. Jamaica, broadcasting pacesetter? Sure, why not?
Among the countries that have successfully transitioned to digital television: North Korea
One notable fact about the digital television transition is that, if you go by Wikipedia, many of the countries haven’t completed their digital television transition despite decades of lead time, and a significant number have barely even started.
The countries closer to starting than finished are usually a bit shakier on the diplomacy front than others; countries that have experienced war in recent decades, such as South Sudan and Kosovo, are on the list of countries yet to complete a transition, in some cases blowing set-in-stone regional deadlines by years.
When your country is a global hot spot, transitioning to high-quality digital TV is easier said than done. A 2015 story from Al-Monitor, for example, noted that Palestine’s DTV transition was easier said than done.
“While we are technically prepared to make the move to digital broadcasting, we can’t predict what the occupation authorities will do,” said Usama Abed, a senior official at the Palestinian Ministry of Information who was quoted in the piece.
Admittedly, that Wikipedia list may not be totally up to date, as highlighted by the story of North Korea. While South Korea’s neighbor is on the list of “transitions not yet started or planned,” along with countries like Lebanon, Chad, and Haiti, there is reporting to suggest the country actually implemented a digital television standard a few years ago.
Back in 2020, the North Korea news analysis site 38 North explained that the rise of digital television created an opportunity to give the country’s citizens something that wasn’t always a guarantee—access to multiple channels.
On top of that, the country has created an IPTV-based technology called Manbang, serving essentially as a Netflix of sorts for North Korea.
The country moved its state media channels to a multi-channel format, which the website noted was an attempt to make broadcasts more attractive to North Koreans who have more access to foreign content than they might have had in decades past.
One strategy behind the DTV move might have been tactical in nature. The country implemented the DVB-T2 standard for digital television, which is common throughout the world, but conveniently not in the part of Asia where it is located.
“That means North Korean digital TVs won’t be able to receive broadcasts from neighboring countries—something that is currently a problem for authorities in the northern and southern border regions,” author Martyn Williams wrote.
When your neighbor to the south counts both Samsung and LG as major TV manufacturers, and said neighbor is among three countries to be using next-gen ATSC standards, the last thing you’d want to be doing if you’re North Korea is using the same standard as the neighbor you’re next to.
At least that’s my read on it.
The increase in sales in 27-inch television sets during the first quarter of 1991, according to the Los Angeles Times. The growth emerged despite the fact that there was a recession at the time that was leading to lower spending overall.
There was a stopgap between NTSC and HDTV you probably didn’t know about; in fact, there were two
But enough about broadcast standards for a second. Let’s talk television standards—particularly those you’re probably not familiar with.
For decades, we appreciated television’s ability to bring images into our home, despite a clear imperfection in how TV worked—the fact that the screen was delivering black lines between those images, a common feature of most CRT televisions interlacing. In a way, we were really only getting half the experience from our TVs, though if you sat far enough away, it was hard to notice.
It was a key aspect of the television experience, and we just lived with it. Some people obsessed with retro gaming can’t live without out.
But in the late ’80s, as rumors of a forthcoming high-definition television standard were starting to bubble up, television manufacturers had a problem. Simply put, screens were getting bigger, and with larger screens came more noticeable interlacing, meaning that to get a proper television experience, people had to sit further and further away to get a decent experience from a given screen.
TV manufacturers were looking for ways to fill the gap without waiting for broadcasters to embrace a big, hairy standard, which would cost them billions to put into place.
So the TV makers came up with a stop-gap—a way to kill the interlacing on these old television sets. And that approach was something called Improved Definition Television, or IDTV. Essentially, given the existing limitations of the current television signal, manufacturers took the approach of attempting to improve the quality by simply filling in more of the picture.
This was more than possible. As anyone who used a computer monitor in the 1980s could tell you, computer CRTs were generally of a much higher fidelity than was possible with a television set.
But just as Samsung and LG go out of their way to sell us on high-end OLED screens, companies like Sony, NEC, and Panasonic were ready with IDTV-compatible sets. As Popular Mechanics noted:
By doubling the number of scan lines in each field, the vertical resolution of the picture can improve 40 percent.
Noninterlace scanning is augmented by improvements elsewhere in the signal processing chain. Philips for example, combines noninterlace scanning with a digital field-comb filter. This improves luminance and chrominance separation while reducing the number of hanging and crawling dots that some-times attack a picture.
Essentially, this was the 1980s equivalent of a common tool used on modern televisions—upscaling, the concept of showing a signal at a higher level than the original production was produced.
While this technology was somewhat obscure even for its time, it did have a somewhat more common follow-up technology, called Enhanced Definition Television or EDTV. This technology, which came out of Japan and was called ClearVision in that country, was a key bridge technology, and even benefited from some broadcasts in the Japanese market. These screens, which produced images at 480p, were better TVs than either IDTVs or the old scanline-driven ones, but were somewhat overshadowed by higher quality HDTVs, which began to emerge at roughly the same time.
But they did have a moment in the sun of sorts, thanks to video game consoles such as the Sega Dreamcast. EDTVs are well-suited for video games of the GameCube/PS2/Dreamcast/Xbox era—particularly the Dreamcast, which straight-up came with a VGA connector.
But these technologies got overshadowed, at least in the U.S. NTSC kept its hold on us in the 1990s, and soon enough, HDTV had started to emerge, making an imprint in part because it was so much better than NTSC—and in part because people were eventually forced to use it.
The year that Mitsubishi, the last major manufacturer of rear-projection television sets, stopped selling the devices. While flat-screens had grown in prominence during this period, rear-projection had held on as something of a cheaper option for those who wanted massive television screens.
Before I go, I just want to give a shout-out to the FrankenFM, a notable quirk of broadcasting I first covered in 2016. It’s the unusual thing that gave the band TV on the Radio its name, and it was a sneaky way that broadcasters expanded terrestrial radio for a time.
While the FrankenFM was supposed to be killed by FCC rulemaking that required low-powered analog stations to go offline last year, it looks like they may have a second life, thanks to ATSC 3.0. As TV Tech notes, a variant of the FrankenFM emerged last year in San Jose, California, where KBKF-LD received a license to operate an FM carrier with its ATSC 3.0 station.
“During development of ATSC 3.0, a number of use cases were discussed; many were documented,” ATSC President Madeleine Noland told the outlet. “I can’t recall this being one of them.”
Meanwhile, more FrankenFMs are slowly emerging; in Fresno, KMCF-LD recently got an ATSC 3.0 license complete with an FM audio carrier on 87.7. Its goal? To launch a FrankenFM station on the signal, right where Channel 6 is.
It’s like the monster won’t die.
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