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Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television

Brinkley, Joel (1998). "Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television." New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. 447 Pages. ISBN: 0-15-600597-2. US$27 [hard cover], US$12.00 [paperback].

Reviewed by Dr. Ralph D. Berenger, the American University in Cairo

In the early 1980s US broadcasters faced two major headaches spawned by greed and jingoism. Their comfortable, tidy, oligopolistic—and profitable—broadcast world was about to be shaken by the digital revolution, where foes and friends were often indistinguishable. New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Joel Brinkley takes the reader on a roller coaster through boardrooms, bureaucracy, technocracy, and hubris (individual and national) in "Defining Vision." It is a ride worth taking for broadcast students, educators, historians, and international political economists.

Represented by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), radio and television companies considered the broadcast band spectrum their personal property. This largesse suddenly came under assault from the land mobile industry that wanted more spectrum space for a variety of public interest broadcast services such as police, firefighters, ambulance, quick response units, and other emergency services. Broadcasters, too, saw a new threat from across the sea. The Japanese spent $300 million and hundreds of thousands of engineering man-hours developing high definition television (HDTV). NHK unveiled its Muse system in 1986 to US policymakers and consumers. The picture quality was superior to the current analog systems in the United Sates, and Japanese-made monitors were designed to fit the wider formatted movies without the annoying letterbox effect.

Brinkley chronicles the scrimmages involving development of HDTV in the US like a general writing his wartime memoirs—if that general had access to the thinking of his opposition, that is. First the grand alliance—RCA, Zenith, AT&T, Phillips, General Instruments and MIT—had to admit that a victory by any one of them in the costly race to develop HDTV would be a defeat for the others. They were able to convince a willing FCC Advisory Committee that cooperation was possible in building a single system. Committee chairman Richard Wiley's role in HDTV cannot be understated (and Brinkley doesn't). His single-minded pursuit of high definition television as the national (and, it turned out, international) standard most probably resulted in its acceptance.

US broadcasters had worried privately and publicly as well, that the future of television would be dictated by a consortium of Japanese electronics magnates and NHK, the world's second-largest broadcasting company. Across the Atlantic, the European Union was equally concerned, and promised up to a billion dollars to Europeans to come up for a system on its own or else adopt the Japanese HDTV, since the Americans seemed not to be players in the game as the century's ninth decade unfolded. But the European effort never got off paper. US broadcasters at first fretted about a new "yellow peril" that posed as great a threat to them as it did to the automobile industry a decade earlier. Ever opportunistic, however, broadcasters found the Japanese an unlikely ally in their fight to snatch the unused frequencies from land mobile companies. HDTV, as the Muse system showed, required additional bandwidth space. Obviously, they reasoned, Congress and the FCC could not allocate precious broadcast spectrum space to land mobile users when they, the "rightful frequency heirs," needed the frequencies for HDTV.

At the same time, MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, who Brinkley treats somewhat derisively, was telling anyone who would listen that "HDTV had to be digital," not analog, which would allow for signal compression that would fit into existing frequencies. One naysayer echoed a common broadcast engineering complaint at the time: "we will have digital HDTV when we have anti-gravitation machines." Broadcast engineers at the major manufacturers nodded in agreement: digital high definition television technologically could not be done. The NAB, in its attempt to protect its space band largesse, inadvertently kicked off a race to develop HDTV in the United States that took on the trappings of a crusade to "rescue" the future of television in the United States from the hands of foreign interests. Along the way, General Instruments research engineer Woo Paik invented digital television (because, as a non-broadcast engineer, he didn't know that "it was impossible").

HDTV uses a compressed digital broadcast signal that not only remained within a single frequency but allowed broadcasters additional capacity to sell secondary services such as pager services, email, Internet connections, digital music, and pay-per-view movies. With such an entre to new revenue flows, the reader would be surprised to learn the depth of NAB's animus to HDTV. Simply put, broadcasters used the HDTV concept to wrest away additional public airwaves spectra and then, among themselves, grumbled that they were unwilling to invest in new high definition cameras, monitors, and other equipment that would allow them to broadcast signals in both progressive scan (favored by the computer programming and manufacturing sector) and interlaced (favored by broadcasters) modes. Another opponent of a high definition television standard was the fledgling computer manufacturing industry in the mid-1990s, which didn't want the additional expense of adding interlacing decoding to what essentially was a dedicated proscan system.

After seven years of ups and downs in a process that often threatened to sputter, splinter, and spin totally out of control, HDTV in a digital form arrived in the US shortly after Thanksgiving in 1997. Despite all predictions to the contrary, the HDTV "turkey" arrived fully stuffed with enough goodies to ease its transition into the marketplace. The result was acceptance of the Americanized international standard by the European Union and the final, if not sad, acknowledgment by NHK that its analog Muse system was outmoded before it even got much beyond a toehold in its native land.

In "Defining Vision," Brinkley has crafted a highly readable, almost techno-mystery story with well-defined characters: heroes, villains, and rascals alike. At times he seems to get into the heads of the key players, which he explains as a literary device borne from extensive interviews with the principals who told him what they were thinking at the time. The effect rounds the edges of what could have been a highly technical, heuristic, and sloggish recitation of engineering reports, public hearings, and dreary diary entries from the participants. To his credit, the author explains his process to readers in an epilogue, thus enhancing the book's credibility. Furthermore, in this paperback edition, the author has updated and expanded several sections over the hardcover version, including an appendix and FAQ that are instructional.

About Ralph D. Berenger

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