The end of analogue TV

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At this time of year, and amid (hopefully) the rush and bustle of the build-up to Christmas, in this column we pause to look back and forward. Perhaps the most significant event of 2007 was the switching off, in Whitehaven, Cumbria, of the analogue TV transmissions. In the early hours of 27 October the plug was pulled on BBC2, making way for five digital channels. Eighteen days later the rest of the analogue broadcasts came off, freeing spectrum for another fifteen Freeview channels: the beginning of the end for a TV system which has served us since 1964. In December 2012, it will be gone altogether in mainland UK.
All new TV systems, signals, screens and hardware are now digital in their operation. Analogue TV is now quite obsolescent, retained only for compatibility with ‘legacy’ equipment; it’s the same with programme storage, where optical and magnetic recording on disc have ousted tape, perhaps only to give way themselves to memory ICs, now capable of holding 64GB of data, equivalent to 13 DVDs. It’s the same with radio, where DAB is becoming established, but may be superseded by a better system in the fullness of time.

Digital takeover

‘Digitisation’ of audio was relatively easy. We had Compact Disc in 1983 and Nicam TV sound in 1988. Digital TV, because of its enormously fast bit-rate, was a harder nut to crack, and it took until 1998 to get DTV broadcasting established from satellite and terrestrial platforms, only made possible by the brilliant MPEG2 data compression system, ultra-fast video data processing chips and huge memories, all dirt cheap. In 2006 this was developed into HDTV broadcasting, and in the same year high-definition DVDs came to market, fostered by short-wavelength, small-spot blue lasers. Meanwhile the screens on which to view HD had rapidly developed in plasma and LCD form to the point now where 1080p screens (with better specifications than the HD transmissions they receive) are becoming common, and all have digital hook-up facility. The rate of change has been very fast indeed.

Bemused technicians

The advent of digital TV has not done much for service engineers. The fact that the fault symptom (very often a complete lack of everything) often gives no clue to the cause of the trouble is perhaps the least of their troubles. The introduction of DTV coincided with a change of attitude by setmakers, many of whom cut back severely on their technical back-up service. Technicians’ instructional courses, in the case of many manufacturers, shrunk almost to zero, while the quality and scope of the one-to-one repair advice service – and even its operating hours – went down. Also around this time, service manuals ceased to be available in hard-copy form, and some workshops, not well equipped in terms of computer equipment and Internet access, struggled to acquire and use technical information, even such simple aspects of it as software keys for alignment and setting up.

Technicians had difficulty in tackling equipment which was totally beyond their previous ken, somewhat similar to that of a car mechanic expected to repair a space rocket – quickly, cheaply and with his existing tools. Those who were familiar with computers were better equipped to deal with digital gear, but they still needed support from the setmakers. It could be hard to distinguish between software and hardware problems, and the man in the technical office sometimes had no more of a clue than those who sought his help. Some makers, to reduce (they hoped to zero, perhaps) their spares stockholding, supplied no individual components, only complete boards and assemblies whose prices could be derisory, and virtually ensure that the repair quote was refused. And what if the diagnosis was wrong and the expensive PC board did not cure the fault? Wow….

Rejoicing on the roof

In contrast, the lot of the aerial rigger was (and is) improved in the new digital age, especially with Freeview aerial upgrades, a lucrative business which will be ongoing for many years. Forty years ago there was a boom in the aerial installation industry as people took up the new 625-line colour service. I wonder if any 1967 jobs are still up and running?

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