Television: What does it mean today?

Wed, 11/30/2005 - 7:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph. D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

This has been an incredible year for television. It has almost lost its definition. I'm not talking about resolution—I'm talking about the meaning of the word "television."

When I started working in television several decades ago, it was well defined. It was ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. It was an expensive CRT-based box that also supported TV repairmen. A TV repairman could make a fine living off of 400 or so customers with color TV sets. There was some talk about "cable," but no one I knew actually saw a cable system. I worked in R&D at Zenith in the Chicago area. Life was much simpler then.

My first encounter with cable was over a problem it caused with an innovative synchronization circuit developed by a friend at Zenith. The circuit counted horizontal synchronization pulses to derive a rock-solid vertical synchronization pulse. This circuit eliminated the vertical and the horizontal hold controls on television sets. But cable used a television camera with a free-running horizontal synchronization signal generator. This meant that the fixed numerical ratio between horizontal synchronization pulses and vertical synchronization pulses did not exist. Consequently, the circuit which generated vertical synchronization pulses did so at the wrong time. A "cable mode" add-on circuit was required. The only place we could observe this problem was in Janesville, Wis.

Cable grew and became much more important. In response, the "cable-ready" television was developed to tune the extra channels. At the same time, others in the R&D department worked on flat screen TVs that could hang on the wall. They were based on plasma discharges which emitted ultraviolet light to illuminate colored phosphor dots. Another group worked on liquid crystal displays, and a third group developed a projection system using lasers. But for a couple of decades, hang-on-the wall television was "10 years away." We got so used to "10 years away" that we didn't expect it to ever happen.

Still, the concept of "television" was fairly clear.

Walter Ciciora
Over the last few years, we've seen changes in television, but not as rapid as the pace of change this year. In the recent past, the cable industry added fiber optics and became two-way. Pay-per-view became impulse pay-per-view. Early talk about direct broadcast satellite (DBS) seemed impossible because of a lack of spectrum. Some said that DBS meant "don't be silly." Then television became digital and enabled DBS to have a competitive number of programs. In fact, DBS had more channels than analog cable, forcing cable to respond. We heard the telephone companies talk about delivering video to the home, but it was just talk. High definition television (HDTV) started out as an expensive pipe dream. When digital came to cable, it brought near-video-on-demand and true video-on-demand. There has been some experimentation with interactive television.

The cable modem marked the tipping point. The cable modem and the DOCSIS standard which made it into a commodity changed everything. Now, subscribers had a significant alternative to analog and digital television. Data rates grew and video compression became more efficient so that acceptable video and audio could be downloaded over the cable modem. Shortly after the cable modem became pervasive, voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) was introduced and gained acceptance with "all-you-can-eat" service plans that provided unlimited service in the United States for a reasonable, fixed charge.

But the last couple of years saw accelerated change, with change at blistering speeds this year, leading to the question, what is television today?

The personal video recorder (PVR) (also called the digital video recorder— DVR) went from a techie novelty with brand names like TiVo and ReplayTV to a must-have cable and DBS set-top box, setting records for adoption rates. The TiVo phenomenon has advertisers frightened. Rather than recognize that most people ignore ads that are not directed to their interests, advertisers like to assume that all ads have some impact. The ability to skip over ads that are not of interest troubles advertisers and those who depend upon advertising income.

The PVR has another negative impact. It blunts cable's VOD advantage. Viewers have become accustomed to the "season ticket" method of accumulating episodes of their favorite programs and then watching them at some convenient time, skipping over ads. Viewing has become decoupled from the clock. DBS can do this too. TiVo blunts the network's strategy of setting their best programs opposite other network's best programs. The viewer with a PVR doesn't much care. He can easily watch one while recording another. Or, if the received signal is digital, he can record two channels while watching a third. The whole paradigm of viewing has been turned upside down.

TiVo added another twist. It allowed certain models to be connected to the home network. This allowed several features. The digital pictures stored on computers connected to the network could be viewed in a slide show. Music on the computer could also be played through the TiVo. The TiVo could be commanded via the Internet to record shows not previously scheduled. Also, the programming stored on the TiVo could be downloaded to the laptop for viewing later, perhaps on the airplane. While this did not gain a lot of notice in the press, the Apple video iPod, which performs a similar function, dominated consumer news for a few weeks. The video iPod becomes the new portable video device. Even the broadcast networks are offering iPod downloads of their programs for a fee.

At the same time, cell phone TV has become one of the hottest consumer subjects. Cell phones seem to be morphing into all-purpose devices with features such as cameras, MP3 players, personal photo collections, GPS receivers, and now, specialized television receivers with resolutions and bandwidths appropriate for their screen size.

The phone companies are now heavily investing in fiber-to-the-curb and fiber-to-the-home.

So, what is television now?

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