Global vision 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

With the deregulation of television networks in western Europe and the ex-communist eastern European countries and Russia there is now a thriving trade in both programmes and formats.

The newly commercialised networks generally have far fewer restrictions and have to compete with rival networks for viewers – even in many cases against broadcasters operating in neighbouring countries, so all look for maximum viewing figures for the least money spent.

Since the best programmes command the most money, many poorer countries have to make do with buying old or less popular programming, but most countries rich or poor often decide just to licence a programme format for local production.

This is the case especially with quiz show formats where language and cultural differences would otherwise prove to be a barrier.

Some have been very popular – “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” for example has been licensed to over 60 countries, and most of these countries make use of the same graphics, sound effects and even many of the same questions that the original British show uses.

Another very popular programme type for export is the wildlife documentary – they can be cheap to produce and a commentary in a local language can easily be added. The activities of wild animals are often popular with viewers of all ages, as well as these documentaries having a long shelf life (unlike, say, current affairs).

The invention of broadcast-quality video tape recording by Ampex in 1956 finally enabled television programmes to easily be recorded in order to be repeated, archived or transported. It was previously possible to record programming using film but it was expensive, time consuming and the film itself could not be reused if a recorded scene didn’t turn out as expected.

Prior to 1956 film was the only choice for stockpiling programmes; indeed film was still used for many applications well into the 1970s since there was no need for the complex and expensive standards conversion that was required with videotape for sending programmes abroad to many other countries.

Editing programmes was extremely difficult with early video recordings; splicing tape – an imprecise method of editing which could cause the tape to snap – also prevented its re-use. With an eye to the costs and troubles of videotape, directors were often very reluctant to stop a video recording mid-scene unless absolutely necessary.

Live broadcasts from other countries were attempted using undersea cables as early as the 1950s and a link between Dover and Calais was established with standards conversion between the British 405-line and French 819-line monochrome systems implemented by pointing a 405-line camera at an 819-line monitor.

It wasn’t until 1962 when Telstar-1 was launched that regular live programme exchanges became truly feasible. The aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy was the first major news story to be covered by satellite and suddenly the rest of the world became a lot more accessible.

However, it took the launch of geostationary satellites like Early Bird, in a fixed position in the Clarke Belt, to make this sort of communication possible 24 hours a day rather than just twenty or so minutes.

Regular live exchanges of programme material then became practical as well as possible, but there was still the issue of standards conversion to overcome. Different countries (through accident or design) ended up using different standards of transmitting television programmes, especially prior to the 1960s when the United Kingdom was still exclusively using the pre-war 405-line system developed by EMI.

The bulk of mainland Europe adopted 625-line systems based on post-war CCIR recommendations, whilst France stuck – on monochrome and on its first network only – with 819-lines. Many others such as the USA and Japan went with a 525-line system instead, though not until the American networks had spent years arguing about the standard.

As well lines there were the differing number of frames per second to contend with – 50 per second in the UK versus 60 in America, which further complicates any attempt to do basic standards conversion. Simply pointing a camera at a monitor using a different frame rate results in an unacceptable flickering of the picture. And when line standards and frame rates are sorted, the complexity of the different systems used for transmitting colour pictures must be taken into account.

A solution to the problem of conversion first came when the BBC developed a Field Stores Converter which was first used for the Mexico Olympics in 1968; this was later followed by the DICE converter developed by ITN in 1972. These early converters were very complex and were the size of large wardrobes; nowadays it is possible to buy domestic quality converters for less than £100 that are housed in a small box.

All this shows that the trade in television programming has come a very long way since ITV first showed the likes of Dragnet back in the 1950s. Thames Television even chose its name partly on the basis of making the task of programme sales abroad easier.

The establishment of the World Intellectual Property Organisation in 1970 enabled people and organisations to jealously guard the world copyright of programme formats, hence helping further establish a global trade in both formats and completed programming. The cost of making programmes may have fallen dramatically in the last few years, but good television is still expensive to make – but far more enduring to watch.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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