Richer Drives Digital Revolution

At age 14, Mark Richer helped his father assemble a complicated Heathkit
color TV in their Long Island, N.Y., home. His dad may have panicked at the
elaborate high-tech jigsaw puzzle, but the son was unfazed, laying the first
brick in Richer's engineering career.

Today, as president of the nonprofit Advanced Television Systems
Committee (ATSC), Richer is busy setting digital-TV standards, a critical piece
of the broadcast industry's migration to digital transmission.

“I'd always follow my father around the house, learning how to fix
things,” Richer remembers. “I would take a nail and wire to make electronic
magnets so I could pick up paper clips.” Yet by the time he headed to the
Rochester Institute of Technology, his focus was photography. While there, he
took computer classes and started working at the campus television studio,
which was a member of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

After a brief stint at WROC Rochester, he moved to Washington, D.C.,
where he worked for Byron Motion Pictures. But his work as a PBS laboratory
technician proved career-defining: the development of a closed-captioning
system. “We were working on everything from the encoder on the broadcast side
to the caption-creation equipment and consumer decoders built around a Texas
Instruments chip and Sanyo TV sets,” he recalls. “That was a great

Why? It gave Richer a chance to work with some of broadcasting's
engineering legends, like ABC's Jules Barnathan, who helped the commercial
networks deploy closed-captioning. And it was those relationships that led to
his embracing the biggest challenge of his career: developing the ATSC

“When I was asked by [FCC Advisory Committee Chairman on Advanced
Television Service] Dick Wiley and others to get involved, I had no idea what I
was getting into,” Richer says. “I couldn't possibly have conceived what
this would become.”

It was 1996, and Richer headed up testing of the various ATSC
proponents. Monthly meetings would involve upward of 50 people representing
manufacturers jockeying for position in the labs. “They all wanted to do
tests that would give them a better position and hurt the other systems,” he
recalls. “There was a lot of debating, and it was quite something.”

It was the inability of the tests to define a clear winner that led
Richer to the conclusion that another round of study was needed. As a result,
Wiley made it clear to the proponents that the only way to achieve victory was
for all concerned to pool their technologies and form the ATSC grand

Given competing interests, the decision could have proven disastrous;
instead, a comprehensive DTV standard was born, giving the industry
broadcasters the flexibility to move forward easily.

“Once we began documenting the core standard, it became clear there
were other elements that needed to be put in place,” says Richer. One of his
regrets is that the industry spent so much time arguing over things like
interlace versus progressive scanning and not enough time discussing the total
digital universe. But thanks to his leadership, they are now.

Richer points to two current ATSC initiatives that define the importance
of its work. One is the Advanced Common Application Protocol, a standard that
will help broadcasters deliver interactive services. The other is the Program
Metadata Communications Protocol, a system that will provide makers of
automation, traffic and other gear with a common interface for metadata

“Work like this requires some level of a vision,” he says. “It's
important to give people confidence that they'll be able to work through the
inevitable technical problems.”

Such vision was demanded in 2000, when broadcasters began to question
whether the ATSC digital-television standard was sufficient to meet future
needs. Concerns that DTV signals weren't robust enough led to consideration
of a new transport method. Richer, after leaving the ATSC in 1998 to work at
Comark, returned to help define new standards.

“All the broadcasters were taking a serious look at [COFDM, a
modulation standard that differs from the 8VSB standard used by the ATSC]. My
belief was that, if there were any outstanding issues, we would bring the
debate into the ATSC and form a task force,” he says. “We went through a
lot of touchy issues, but the task force resulted in industry consensus.”

More important, armed with better vision and confidence, ATSC can move
ahead with the DTV conversion.