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ATSC Celebrates 25 Years

Top engineers and technology executives from the broadcast, consumer-electronics and cable industries gathered in Washington, D.C., Thursday to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the standards organization that created and implemented the U.S. digital-television standard.

The mood was buoyant. Key players in the country’s move to HDTV reflected on the long road to the ATSC standard and shared old photos and videos of the early days of DTV, and ATSC president Mark Richer showed videos of top engineers at the 2008 NAB Show wishing the ATSC a “happy 25th birthday.”

An advance cocktail reception Wednesday evening featured exhibits of seminal DTV gear, such as the first Grand Alliance 8-VSB (vestigial sideband) modulator and Zenith’s first ATSC decoder box, which sold for $6,000, as well as footage of CBS medical drama The Littlest Victim, which was produced in 1998 using the analog Muse HDTV system.

Richard Wiley, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service and now a top communication lawyer, gave a keynote address in which he saluted the “profound intellectual and technical contributions the association has made to our nation’s digital-television program” and declared that the U.S. “did it right” in the way it set about creating a DTV standard.

“The ATSC standard was not dictated from on high by government bureaucrats,” Wiley added. “Instead, it was an open, collegial and peer-review process.”

Wiley noted that the standard did face strong opposition from various “doubters, skeptics and naysayers.”

“Where are those folks today? They’re in their houses watching beautiful wide-screen high-definition pictures,” he quipped.

The rest of the day featured more tributes to the ATSC, including remote HD testimonials from Cable Television Laboratories chairman Richard Green, NBC president John Eck and Dolby Laboratories president and CEO Bill Jasper.

PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger was on hand to give a keynote address, saluting engineers as the “unsung heroes” of the broadcast industry. And Capitol Broadcasting president Jim Goodmon remembered the launch of the country’s first HDTV station at WRAL Raleigh, N.C., in July 1996 and showed footage of WRAL’s first HD documentaries.

“Let me say as a broadcaster how much we appreciate all that you have done in creating a new standard for our industry,” Goodmon said. “I believe local broadcasting is still going to be around because we’ve gone to digital. If we hadn’t done this, we would be cooked, trying to compete with everyone else without being digital.”

A panel of Washington players -- including representatives from CBS, the Consumer Electronics Association, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association -- discussed the remaining work that needs to be done before the Feb. 17, 2009, turnoff of analog signals, which will mark the official end of the DTV transition.

But the rest of the meeting’s focus was on the new business opportunities DTV presents for broadcasters besides delivering HD pictures.

ION Media Networks CEO Brandon Burgess spoke about broadcasters’ efforts to create a new technical standard within the ATSC for broadcasting to mobile devices, ATSC Mobile/Handheld (ATSC-M/H), and members of the ATSC’s planning committee detailed efforts to create another new standard to support non-real-time delivery to devices with video storage, as well as an overall upgrade of the ATSC standard called “ATSC 2.0.”

For her part, Kerger said PBS is very interested in the ATSC’s efforts at mobile and non-real-time delivery. “We have to go where our viewers go,” she added.