Digital TV: we should never have gone there

A TV salesman is advocating the government buys a set top boxes for each analogue TV in Australia. He says it’s the best way to save the government money, because it’s costing AUD$50m/year to dual broadcast. And in financial terms, he’s right. Perhaps banning the sale of analogue sets might also hurry things along a little. $150m is his estimate for the government to bail itself out of dual-broadcasting.

But digital signals bite arse; SDTV has the same resolution as analogue, with the upside of no ghosting and the downsides of a loss of colour-depth plus dropouts affecting the audio and video streams. If you’re not getting ghosting on your current analogue signal (or it’s not annoying you), SDTV is a step down. HDTV is a massive improvement in raw data resolution, but no TVs are capable of displaying a raw 1920 x 1080 (the 1280 x 720 signal is academic, because it isn’t broadcast in Australia; and the signal is 1080i, there isn’t enough bandwidth allocated for 1080p) picture.

I don’t remember the step from Black and White TV to colour, but I know that colour sets were happily picking up the B&W signal before the changeover, and B&W sets kept working after the changeover. That would be bi-directional compatability. Same gig with FM radio when it went stereo – bi-directional compatability, because the stereo signal was on a seperate carrier encoded as the difference to the mono signal – cunning. Digital and analogue are co-existing quite happily at the moment, because the signals are being duplicated and transmitted (has anyone noticed the digital signal lags the analogue signal by about a second?), and apparently it costs a pretty penny to keep the dual broadcast going – probably in equipment maintenance costs (I don’t think the electricity is costing $1m / week).

So what do you actually get for your dollars in converting? If you step up to HDTV (no native resolution sets, remember) you get native widescreen capability rather than letterboxing, plus 5.1 sound rather than poxy stereo. Because of the compression, for a given set of bandwidth, you can have more video streams (approximately four SD can fit in the bandwidth of a single HD broadcast). Bitrates and compression can both be played with to improve the signal’s reliability and quality. And channels don’t bump into each other like they do in the analogue world (which is why the stations are on such widely seperated bands). But look at pay TV – like Bruce said, 57 channels and nothing on. Are you fixated by what’s currently available on broadcast TV? Will more channels increase the amount of TV you want to watch?

What was the point in this whole process anyway? What’s wrong with the PAL signal, and why did we rush in and select digital TV formats? Why didn’t the Australian government emulate the Irish government and just sit on it’s hands for a decade, waiting to see what happened in the US, Japan, Europe and China, and then evaluate the technical aspects of the winning systems? Why encourage the public to run around spending $10,000 a TV on technologies that are prone to disappointing failure (pixel death)? Any why are we shipping so much cash offshore to pay for the damn things?

We should have delayed going down the Digital TV road until it became attractive.

5 thoughts on “Digital TV: we should never have gone there

  1. Philip

    The SD digital signal does not ‘bite arse’. As well as the elimination of ghosting, it also eliminates other signal noise that would be present as ‘snow’ or ‘static’ on the screen of an analogue television. Contrast is better, pictures are sharper, the sound is better and the picture is in widescreen (in both SD and HD – you don’t need HD to get widescreen). This is in no way a step down from analogue broadcasts. The identical resolution between analogue and SD digital is correct on paper, but to the human eye the improvement in picture quality is obvious even though the resolution does not change.

    If you’re getting a clear pcture on your analogue set, you will get a clear picture with a digital box. If there is anything wrong with your current signal, you might have a problem but you also might not. A cheap experiment with a set top box ($69 at some supermarkets) will give you the answer. If it doesn’t work, just give the box to a friend or relative who has a better signal.

    Digital TV is very attractive to those who want a sharp widescreen picture on their existing TV set without paying for a new one. Those people, with normal TVs, are the majority of viewers.

  2. daniel

    If you’re getting dropouts on digital, your antenna needs an upgrade.

    By the way, for analogue reception problems, check this guide.

  3. Richard

    There was never any need to duplicated the HD broadcast with a digital standard resolution
    broadcast. Here in the States I enjoy HD broadcasts on my analog TV’s every day, provided by
    local stations and my cable provider. I simply tap the S-Video analog output of my HDTV box into my analog TV set. I enjoy all the benefits you enjoy with your SD digital broadcasts, but my analog set can take advantage of the enhanced horizontal
    resolution, so my set displays such broadcasts with the quality of a good DVD, not standard
    analog TV resolution. It was a poorly undersood technical decision driven by political and
    not technical concerns. In the end you have wasted bandwith for no good reason and have
    confussed the poor consumer and delayed the adoption of a superior broadcast system.


  4. Bob Miller

    An answer to Richard.

    What is the difference between the resolution of a good DVD and analog TV resolution? Both are 480i.

    And as to the delay in the adoption of a superior broadcast system, compared to what? Compared to the US? The Australian DTV transition that this author laments is selling receivers at five or ten times the rate of receivers sales in the US. And Australia has not resorted to a mandate to force the sale of digital receivers as the US has.

    No OZ may have a problem with their digital transition but it is no where as disasterous as the US one. As one poster above notes you can buy a receiver in OZ for $68 which is US$49.27 and that is in a convenience store no less. In the US you can hardly find a receiver for sale and if you do it is at a much higher price. In OZ you can easily find information about OTA DTV broadcasting whereas in the US you would be hard pressed to find someone who knows much at all in any electronics outlet.

    In OZ you can buy an HDTV DTV COFDM receiver from LG Industries, the company that holds the patent rights to the US OTA digital standard 8-VSB. But you cannot buy an 8-VSB STB OTA DTV receiver made by LG in the US the biggest TV market in the world because LG stopped making them. Figure that one out.

    OZ has only made one real mistake in thier digital TV transition. They mandated HD and outlawed multicasting of SD. If they changed that one thing they would have the same or even greater success than what is happening in the UK, Italy, France and other countries.

    In the US we didn’t mandate HD but we do have must carry laws here that protect broadcasters from having to worry at all about their OTA spectrum since they can demand carriage on cable. Broadcasters would have and will go nuts with OTA once our modulation is changed and it will be with multicasting, something US broadcasters have been after to the exclusion of almost everything else for years. They were even willing to allow the junk modulation 8-VSB to be foisted on the US when threatened with loss of must carry. Every time broadcasters appear before Congress it is to demand mulitcasting must carry on cable. That is their Holy Grail

    OZ,s DTV transition is light years ahead of the US and when they allow multicasting, being debated now, this trend will accelerate. You got one thing right, Oz has a superior broadcast system. Somthing the US does not have.

  5. Richard

    Bob, I see you like spreading misinformation across the globe. First: DVD’s and down converted HDTV have the potential for greater resolution than analog broadcasts because both can contain far more horizontal resolution, even if both are locked into a 480i or 580i scan rate. Second: My comments had nothing to do with the North American or OZ modulation systems. Both work very well dispite your propaganda to the contrary. My comments were that manating Standard Def digital broadcasts is a waste of bandwidth since any analog set can display a superior picture by merely using a little black box to down convert the digital broadcast, be it 480i, 480p, 480i, 580p, 720p or 1080i so that such broadcasts can be viewed at often a better resolution than provided by merely broadcasting a standard resultion digital service.


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