audio video playback
TV: The little box is about to grow up
You, like most readers, would probably be quite incensed if I told you when—on what date, and at what second—you would be allowed to read this column. And you might also resent it if you were to discover that your favorite art museum or photo gallery had cut its master-pieces into rectangles, mounted spaced apart and interlaced with strips of advertising for shampoo, aspirin, and toothpaste. And yet, that s what today’s “free” TV offers us. Its programs are fleetingly broadcast at the specified time, take it or leave it. Even worse, the integrity of works of art are ruthlessly slashed by clusters of commercials and cut to marketable segments; “edited for television” is the euphemism as briefly flashed on the screen but never advertised.
I suppose when a program is specifically produced for television we can’t quarrel, though I really feel that we should be paid for the time and torture of sitting and waiting through all those commercials. However—misrepresentation is a mild word for the exploitation of art of other media, primarily films, whose dramatic entity, their painstaking construction, is ruthlessly destroyed. All that’s faithfully presented is the title, used to bait an audience.
In the name of “free” TV, the networks have been using their vast resources to campaign—and lobby—against free choice by the audience, and the Federal Communications Commission, which is supposed to regulate them, has in fact done all within its power to discourage competition. Most of us would probably have objected if highways were restricted to trucks and taxicabs, but for decades we have lived with our public airwaves in a strait-jacket. At last, within the past few months, there have been rumblings that TV’s full potentials should be realized. The Senate’s Antitrust Subcommittee is considering a bill to require government agencies to weigh the effects on competition before issuing rules. The House Communications Subcommittee has severely criticized the FCC for restricting cable systems: “Constraints should not be imposed upon cable television simply to protect broadcasting from competition.” While in the past the FCC has tended to consider service innovations in terms of their effect on the broadcasters, it was urged to adopt restrictions only if, otherwise, overall service would be harmed. And the D.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that the FCC has no jurisdiction over intrastate cable communications that do not involve over-the-air telecasts.
Considerations, recommendations, and even legal rulings aside, the days of the networks/FCC stranglehold are inevitably numbered: all those specialized interests cannot be denied forever. Significantly, ev-
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ery time the video disk is mentioned in this column, reader response takes a predictable upswing.
In case you missed our last coverage in the August issue, there are two promising but incompatible contenders for the TV screen; either would let you play the program of your choice on your present set, much like a phonograph record. One system is being jointly developed by Philips and MCA, using a player to be manufactured by Magnavox and possibly licensees; the other is RCA’s. A third system, Teldec, has made a lackluster debut in European countries and isn’t in the running over here; it is handicapped by a rather delicate 10-minute disk.
The Philips/MCA player would offer normal, rapid, or slow forward play; slow or rapid reverse; and freeze-frame or still, all without wear on the disk because it is “played” optically by a no-touch laser beam, read by a photodiode. Each disk can carry 54,000 frames of TV information; a digital counter permits rapid search.
The RCA system is built around a metal-coated disk, grooved to guide its player’s stylus, with slots to carry the information. The stylus has an electrode, and the proximity of the slots induce changes in capacitance, producing the TV signal.
Both types would use 12-in. disks, with up to 30 minutes playing time—in color or b&w—per side, though only the RCA one would utilize both sides. The Philips/ MCA one might also offer an 8-in. 10-minute version for binding in publications.
The Philips/MCA player is slated to retail for $500, the RCA one for $400. However, the former’s programs would be less costly: $2 to $10 for a complete, possibly multidisk, film feature. The RCA disk is expected to sell for $10, or $12 to $15 for a complete feature film.
Latest word is that both systems are still scheduled to be tried for user experience with limited regional marketing late this year. Then, hopefully, distribution will be gradually broadened in ’77, the pace to be determined by the economy (and, no doubt, public reception).
Meanwhile, Sony isn’t waiting for the disk to cut into its videotape business, to which it has made a major commitment. It has just come out with a more compact $1,300 deck version of its previously reported $2,295 Betamax console. Where the big one incorporates its own 19-in. color TV, the deck can be hooked up to any standard set. Like the console, it permits the user to watch one program, while taping another—in color, too. And it also has a timer that can automatically tape a program while the owner is away—though unfortunately play capacity per cassette is limited to an hour. Rumor has it that Sony is working on increasing this, or else would develop a changer.
Deck or console, results look to me very decent. Sure, there’s some loss compared to the original telecast—it doesn’t seem quite so sharp—but if you didn’t know you wouldn’t notice the difference.
The Betamax system represents a significant breakthrough in tape economy: a fullhour video cassette is $15.95, a half-hour one $J 1.95. That’s more than the promised disks, but the user can record on them. However, unlike the console, the deck has no input for a camera, so that it is limited to taping programs off the air, or else playing the software library already offered for it by Time-Life. Perhaps one of these days we’ll see a battery-powered portapak version for shooting on the go.
By now it should be obvious that we haven’t even started exploiting TV’s potentials. The White House’s Office of Telecommunications policy has recommended stereo or multichannel sound and superimposed captions or subtitles for the deaf or non-English-speaking public. Britain’s Sunday Times reports that both the BBC and rival ITV have been experimenting with a “teletext” system that permits customers to select from up to 100 pages of news, weather, financial, and other information on his TV set at the press of the appropriate button, switching off the normal program. The user requires a special decoder on his set.
Remember Peter Goldmark of LP and EVR fame? Goldmark Communications Corp. of Stamford, Ct,, has developed a Rapid Transmission and Storage system, using a $300 attachment for the TV set. Its memory will store desired information transmitted at extremely high speed over the air during nonbroadcast hours, or by cable or satellite. Up to 2,800 different half-hour lessons can be broadcast within eight hours. A single hour-long video tape can hold up to 60 different half-hour programs. By using primarily stills and sound, reserving motion when needed for clarity or emphasis, program costs may be trimmed up to 90 percent compared to film or video tape. This fall the system will be introduced in six community college districts across the U.S.
Fascinating footnote: Same firm has also received a patent for an optical cropping process that permits wide-screen films to be shown on TV sets without distortion. TV’s aspect ratio (width: height) is half of that of wide-screen CinemaScope. Transcan’s automatic scanning allows film to be transferred directly to video tape, without special print. Cued instructions on digitally recorded magnetic tape control a rotating mirror—between film projector and the “copying” TV camera—to position the wide-screen image; the system offers nine different cropping frames. A special “Panamorphic” lens, developed in conjunction with Panavision, also permits variable squeezing of the image to suit the TV format. But whichever way you slice it, and to paraphrase Al Jolson, “We have seen nothing yet!”
Those omnipresent “idiot boxes” are about to grow up and take us, culturally, out of the dark ages. O