Goodbye to 68 years of NTSC compatibility

Casio NTSC displays PAL program

This is a big day for technophiles as well as technologically nostalgic. An analog TV broadcast standard which has maintained compatibility for 68 years will end today. A B&W TV designed around the 1941 NTSC standard would have been able to display some broadcasts on channels 2-13 yesterday. A color TV designed around the 1953 standard would have displayed some broadcasts in color yesterday. For anyone who appreciates the engineering required to progress technology while maintaining backwards compatibility, the story of the NTSC compatible color standard is interesting. I'm surprised that modern technology and ingenuity couldn't have kept ATSC (DTV) compatible with NTSC for another decade. This would have been more than long enough for internet video to make DTV obsolete. But despite the 'generous' (taxpayer funded) converter box subsidy, planned obsolescence and DRM trumps consumer convenience and compatibility.

As the earliest color TV standard, NTSC was getting a bit long in the tooth. It earned a reputation for failing to be as good as the newer PAL or SECAM standards. It was said that NTSC stood for "Never The Same Color" or "Never Twice Same Color". It's unlikely that accurate color's reliance on phase stability over a scan line would have made it possible to do this PAL trick of restoring a color video from a B&W film of a TV screen.

As with any technological change, there are advantages and unexpected disadvantages. ATSC's advantages are obvious:

  • Higher resolution, more stable, accurate color.
  • It frees bandwidth for other services.
  • Resolution is high enough to be used as a computer text display.
  • More people will receive a perfect picture.
Some of the disadvantages are unknown, but here are a few problems I forsee:
  • Fewer people will have an acceptable picture. (while the coverage will allow some in suburbs to receive a better picture, rural viewers who had an acceptable analog picture might not receive anything at all.)
  • Portable ATSC TVs will be more expensive and will consume batteries faster.
  • Since battery powered ATSC digital TVs haven't been perfected, they won't work well in weather or other emergencies. This is important because weather radar and other emergency maps provide information specific to a viewer's locale, this is very difficult if not impossible to provide via NOAA or commercial radio. Internet/cell phone services are often the first to go in an emergency and so they cannot be relied upon either.
  • Given the amount of time there was to plan this transition, it was poorly managed.
  • The billions of dollars and years of engineering that went into a slightly higher resolution TV standard could've been been put to a better use. Discounting the money spent by consumers on HDTVs, this project has cost taxpayers approximately $5 Billion. While the recent bailouts make $5 Billion sound like pocket change, this is actually 1/4th the cost of the entire Apollo moon lander program, which was completed in less time!
  • Many devices will go into landfills before the end of their serviceable life. (e.g. almost all battery powered TVs such as the Casio in this photo are impractical to use with any of the Federally subsidized converter boxes.)
  • Newscasters must shave and apply makeup more often.
  • ATSC is heavily encumbered with expensive patents and royalties which, all else being equal, would nearly double the cost of the pocket Casio TV in the above photo. This also means that it may be impossible to create an opensource television or other free (as in freedom) ATSC compatible device (e.g. PVR.)

The photo above is of a portable NTSC TV receiving a PAL signal. The black-level is wrong, as are the horizontal and vertical sync intervals. There is no color and the sound modulation and frequency spacing are wrong. The fact that it works at all demonstrates just how robust analog technology is. If E.T. were looking for a an easily decipherable video signal from the U.S., she should focus on TV signals from 1941-2009. So long analog NTSC, it has been fun.

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