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How Digital Television Works

If you've looked at television sets at any of the big electronics retailers in the United States lately,
you know that digital TV, or DTV, is a big deal right now. Most stores have whole areas devoted
to digital TV sets. You're also hearing a lot about four other toics!
"#TV and "#TV broadcasts
#igital satellite services
#igital cable
#V#s and #V# layers
Unless you are a$ong the eole in the United States who have urchased a #TV set, what you
have in your living roo$ is a nor$al analog TV that see$s to be working %ust fine desite all the
hye. Most eole, faced with this level of roduct roliferation, can only ask, &'hat the heck is
going on here()&
*n June 12, 2009, television stations in the United States co$leted the transition fro$ analog to
digital broadcasting. +onsu$ers receiving local television signals over analog antennas now $ust
use converter bo,es to receive rogra$$ing on their TVs. This deadline was ushed back
several ti$es in the last few years because of both broadcasters' and consu$ers' inability to $eet
the -++'s criteria for a successful transition to digital broadcasting.
The change was last scheduled to take lace on -eb. ./, 0112, but was ushed back one final
ti$e to allow $ore eole to urchase new TVs or converter bo,es to allow the$ to $ake the
transition. So$e stations, however, switched to digital broadcasting in -ebruary 0112 anyhow
because they'd already contracted ti$e to broadcast on digital trans$itters and staying analog
would re3uire a costly budgetary ad%ust$ent.
In this article, we will e,lore the world of digital television so that you can understand e,actly
what is going on in this $ediu$.
Understanding Analog TV
To understand digital TV, it's helful to understand analog TV so that you can see the differences.
4If you've read "ow Television 'orks, then you know how analog TV works5.
The analog TV standard has been in use in the United States for about 61 years. To review
3uickly, here are the basics of analog television trans$ission!
7 video ca$era takes a icture of a scene. It does this at a fra$e rate of 81 fra$es er
The ca$era rasterizes the scene. That is, the ca$era turns the icture into rows of
individual dots called i,els. 9ach i,el is assigned a color and intensity.
The rows of i,els are co$bined with synchroni:ation signals, called horizontal
sn! and verti!al sn! signals, so that the electronics inside a TV set will know how to dislay
the rows of i,els.
This final signal, containing the color and intensity of each i,el in a set of rows, along with
hori:ontal and vertical sync signals, is called a !o"#osite video signal. Sound is co$letely
searate. 'hen you look on the back of your V+; and you see the yellow lug, that's the lug for
co$osite video. Sound is either a white lug 4on V+;s that do not handle stereo sound5 or a red
lug and a white lug 4on V+;s that do handle stereo5.
There are lots of different things you can do with a co$osite video signal and a sound signal.
"ere are %ust a few!
You can broadcast the$ as radio waves. 'hen you attach an antenna to your TV set and
ick u local stations for free, you're receiving broadcast television fro$ local TV stations.
You can record the$ with a V+;.
You can trans$it the$ through a cable TV syste$ along with hundreds of other
co$osite signals.
Many different kinds of e3ui$ent understand co$osite video signals.
'hen a co$osite video signal is broadcast over the airwaves by a TV station, it haens on a
secific $re%uen!. In the United States, we know these fre3uencies as V"- channels 0 through
.8 and U"- channels .< through =8.
The co$osite video signal is trans$itted as an 7M signal and the sound as an -M signal on
these channels. See "ow TV 'orks for details on trans$ission, and "ow ;adio 'orks for details
on 7M and -M. The -++ allocated three bands of fre3uencies in the radio sectru$, choed
into >?M": slices, to acco$$odate these TV channels!
6< to == M": for +hannels 0 to >
./< to 0.> M": for +hannels / through .8
</1 to =21 M": for U"- +hannels .< through =8
'hen your V+; wants to dislay its signal on a nor$al analog TV, it takes the co$osite video
signal and the sound signal off the tae and then $odulates those signals onto a >1?M":
4channel 85 or >>?M": 4channel <5 carrier, %ust like a TV station would. Instead of broadcasting it,
however, the V+; sends it straight to the TV. 7 cable bo, or satellite bo, does the sa$e thing.
;ight now you hear a lot about &digital satellite syste$s& and &digital cable syste$s.& The set?to
bo, receives a digital signal fro$ the satellite or cable@ the bo, then converts that signal to an
analog signal and sends it to your analog TV. That's why if you're a digital cable or satellite TV
subscriber, your rovider robably told you that the Aune 0112 #TV transition wouldn't re3uire you
to buy new e3ui$ent.
True digital TV, on the other hand, is co$letely digital and involves!
Digital !a"eras working at a $uch higher resolution than analog ca$eras
Digital trans"ission
Digital dis#la at a $uch higher resolution
You can see the difference in resolution in the ne,t section.
What&s Wrong with Analog TV'
If you currently have an analog TV, and it works fine with broadcast TV, cable TV,V+;s, satellite
TV, ca$corders and so on, an obvious 3uestion would be, &'hat's wrong with analog TV(&
The $ain roble$ is resolution.
The resolution of the TV controls the crisness and detail in the icture you see.
The resolution is deter$ined by the nu$ber of #i(els on the screen.
7n analog TV set can dislay 606 hori:ontal lines of resolution every 81th of a second. In
reality, however, an analog TV dislays half of those lines in a >1th of a second, and then dislays
the other half in the ne,t >1th, so the whole fra$e is udated every 81th of a second. This
rocess is called interla!ing.
That's been the way TV works for years. But now we've used to looking at co$uter $onitors and
e,ect $uch better resolution. The lowest?resolution co$uter $onitor dislays ><1 , <=1 i,els.
Because of the interlacing, the effective resolution of a TV screen is erhas 6.0 , <11 i,els.
So the worst co$uter $onitors you can buy have $ore resolution than the best analog TV set@
and the best co$uter $onitors are able to dislay u to .1 ti$es $ore i,els than that TV set.
There is si$ly no co$arison between a co$uter $onitor and an analog TV in ter$s of detail,
crisness, i$age stability and color. If you look at a co$uter $onitor all day at work, and then go
ho$e and look at a TV set, the TV set can look very fu::y.
The drive toward digital TV is fueled by the desire to give TV the sa$e crisness and detail as a
co$uter screen. If you have ever looked at a true digital TV signal dislayed on a good digital
TV set, you can certainly understand why ?? the digital version of TV looks fantastic) There's no
co$arison. 'ith .1 ti$es $ore i,els on the screen, all dislayed with digital recision, the
icture is incredibly detailed and stable.
It's hard to convey the difference between a #TV signal and an analog signal without an actual
de$onstration, but here's a static co$arison that can hel you understand the idea. Below is a
icture of an odo$eter!
This is a nice, cris icture. Cet's assu$e that this icture is being dislayed on a good digital TV
so that this is what you actually see. The following hoto shows you what you would see on an
analog TV!
You can see that the analog TV icture is $uch fu::ier than the digital TV i$age. Cook, for
e,a$le, at the teeth on the gears. There's a significant difference in icture 3uality that's even
$ore obvious when the i$age is $oving. It is that 3uantitative difference that drives the interest in
digital TV. 7nd as if the incredible icture weren't enough, digital TV also offers $uch better
TV )oes Digital
The ter$ &digital TV& is used in $any different ways right now, deending on who$ you're talking
to. There's also the ter$ &"#TV,& which is the $ost advanced for$ of digital TV in use in the
United States. The reason it gets confusing is because digital TV in the United States co$bines
three different ideas.
The first idea that is new to digital TV is the digital signal.
7nalog TV started as a broadcast $ediu$. TV stations set u antennas and broadcast radio
signals to individual co$$unities. You can attach an antenna to your TV and ick u channels 0
through =8 for free. 'hat you receive, as described earlier, is a single, analog co$osite video
signal and a searate sound signal.
#igital TV started as a free broadcast $ediu$ as well. -or e,a$le, in San Aose, +alif., you can
tune in to about a do:en different co$$ercial digital TV stations if you have a digital TV receiver
and an antenna. The -++ gave television broadcasters a new fre3uency to use for their digital
broadcasts, so until the digital transition is co$lete, each broadcaster has an analog TV channel
and a digital TV channel. The digital channel carries a .2.82?$egabit?er?second strea$ of digital
data that your digital TV receives and decodes.
9ach broadcaster has one digital TV channel, but one channel can carry $ultile su*+!hannels if
the broadcaster chooses that otion. "ere's how it works!
*n its digital channel, each broadcaster sends a .2.82?$egabit?er?second 4Mbs5 strea$ of
digital data. Broadcasters have the ability to use this strea$ in several different ways. -or
7 broadcaster can send a single rogra$ at .2.82 Mbs.
7 broadcaster can divide the channel into several different strea$s 4erhas four strea$s
of <.=6 Mbs each5. These strea$s are called su*+!hannels, and this tye of broadcasting is
called "ulti!asting. -or e,a$le, if the digital TV channel is channel 68, then 68.., 68.0 and
68.8 could be three sub?channels on that channel. 9ach sub?channel can carry a different
The reason that broadcasters can create sub?channels is because digital TV standards allow
several different $or"ats. Broadcasters can choose between three for$ats!
,-0i ? The icture is /1<,<=1 i,els, sent at >1 interlaced fra$es er second 481
co$lete fra$es er second5.
,-0# ? The icture is /1<,<=1 i,els, sent at >1 co$lete fra$es er second.
.20# ? The icture is .0=1,/01 i,els, sent at >1 co$lete fra$es er second.
10-0i ? The icture is .201,.1=1 i,els, sent at >1 interlaced fra$es er second 481
co$lete fra$es er second5.
10-0# ? The icture is .201,.1=1 i,els, sent at >1 co$lete fra$es er second.
4The && and &i& designations stand for &rogressive& and &interlaced.& In a rogressive for$at, the
full icture udates every >1th of a second. In an interlaced for$at, half of the icture udates
every >1th of a second.5
The <=1 and <=1i for$ats are called the /D 4standard definition5 for$ats, and <=1i is roughly
e3uivalent to a nor$al analog TV icture. 'hen analog TV shows are uconverted and broadcast
on digital TV stations, they're broadcast in <=1 or <=1i.
The /01, .1=1i and .1=1 for$ats are HD 4high definition5 for$ats. 'hen you hear about
&"#TV,& this is what is being discussed ?? a digital signal in the /01, .1=1i or .1=1 for$at.
-inally, the "# for$ats of digital TV have a different as#e!t ratio than analog TVs. 7n analog TV
has a <!8 asect ratio, $eaning that the screen is < units wide and 8 units high. -or e,a$le, a
&06?inch diagonal& analog TV is .6 inches high and 01 inches wide. The "# for$at for digital TV
has a .>!2 asect ratio, as shown below!
The tye of signal, for$at and asect ratio have all changed in the rocess of converting fro$
analog TV to digital TV in the United States.
Digital 0o"#ression
The idea of sending $ultile rogra$s within the .2.82?Mbs strea$ is uni3ue to digital TV and is
$ade ossible by the digital co$ression syste$ being used. To co$ress the i$age for
trans$ission, broadcasters use 123)+2 co$ression, and MD9E?0 allows you to ick both the
screen si:e and bit rate when encoding the show. 7 broadcaster can choose a variety of *it
rates within any of the three resolutions.
You see MD9E?0 all the ti$e on the 'eb on 'eb sites that offer strea$ing video. -or e,a$le, if
you go toi-il$.co$, you will find that you can view strea$ing video at 6> kilobits er second
4Fbs5, 011 Fbs or 611 Fbs. MD9E?0 allows a technician to ick any bit rate and resolution
when encoding a file.
There are $any variables that deter$ine how the icture will look at a given bit rate. -or e,a$le!
If a station wants to broadcast a sorting event 4where there is lots of $ove$ent in the
scene5 at .1=1i, the entire .2.82 $egabits er second is needed to get a high?3uality i$age.
*n the other hand, a newscast showing a newscaster's head can use a $uch lower bit
rate. 7 broadcaster $ight trans$it the newscast at <=1 resolution and a 8?Mbs bit rate, leaving
.>.82 Mbs of sace for other sub?channels.
It's very likely that broadcasters will send three or four sub?channels during the day and then
switch to a single high?3uality show that consu$es the entire .2.82 Mbs at night. So$e
broadcasters are also e,eri$enting with .? or 0?Mbs data channels that send infor$ation and
'eb ages along with a show to rovide additional infor$ation.
4uing a Digital TV /et
If you go to an electronics store today to buy a new TV set, there are four tyes of sets that you
will see on the shelf!
Analog TV sets
Digital+read sets ? They should be identified as standard definition 4S#TV5 sets. These
TVs are nor$ally <=1 dislays with a digital tuner built in. The roble$ with these sets is that
their $a,i$u$ resolution is the low <=1 S# resolution, so if you want to watch high?definition
TV, you won't be able to use these sets.
HDTV+read sets ? These sets are essentially $onitors able to dislay .1=1iG resolution
in the .>!2 asect ratio. They $ay or $ay not have tuners built in.
5ntegrated HDTV sets ? These sets have a digital tuner for broadcast #TV signals
integrated into an "#TV dislay. 'ith the standards changing so $uch, you $ay end u aying
for an integrated tuner that beco$es obsolete.
The referred way to handle "#TV is to urchase the co$onents searately!
7 .>!2 "#TV dislay caable of /01 and .1=1iG resolution
7 digital receiver
7n antenna
Since the "#TV dislay will be the $ost e,ensive iece and will likely last .1 years or $ore,
buying the co$onents in this way allows you to change the receiver if you need to. There are
currently three tyes of receivers!
.. You can urchase a set?to bo, and a Yagi antenna to receive broadcast "#TV signals.
0. You can urchase a set?to bo, and a s$all satellite dish to receive "#TV signals fro$ a
8. You can urchase a board for your co$uter that lets you use your hard disk as an "#TV
storage device, along with a Yagi antenna, and use it to receive signals on both your co$uter
$onitor and your "#TV dislay.
-or $ore infor$ation on digital television and related toics, check out the links on the ne,t age.