14 May 2022

Television prepares for its greatest triumph… to reach out beyond the frontiers of Europe and bring you instantaneous sights and sounds from six different countries. Here the Senior Superintendent Engineer of BBC Television gives fascinating details of a wonder which adds a new word to the TV vocabulary… Eurovision



TV Mirror cover

From the TV Mirror for 27 February 1954

ANOTHER new word in our vocabulary — Eurovision — short, of course, for European television.

We saw the first signs of this in August, 1950, when the BBC took the initiative in sending its outside broadcast cameras to Calais, setting up a link back to London and presenting Calais to English viewers (there were no transmitters working in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland at that time) in a couple of memorable programmes.

It is worth stressing that, technically speaking, this was practically an all-British affair. Our French television colleagues in Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française gave us all the facilities in their power, but ail the equipment used for these broadcasts was British, and the programmes were not broadcast to French viewers.

There were two reasons why this was so. Firstly, the French television standards are different from ours, and at that time no method existed for converting from one standard to the other.

Secondly, it would have been beyond the combined resources of RTF and the BBC to produce enough equipment to link Calais with Paris at the same time as linking Calais with London.

However, the fact is that the programmes were hailed as a success and for the first time viewers in one country had heard and seen, by instantaneous transmission, another people and another country.

The second step

At that time, the French and ourselves were the only people in Europe with fully operating public television services.

Both RTF and the BBC felt that the next step must be to link up our two systems in such a way that, whether the programmes originated in France or in Britain, they could be seen simultaneously by viewers in both countries.

A solution to the problem of converting from one television standard to the other thus became a paramount necessity.

This problem was studied by the BBC Research Department and by a company known as Radio Industrie in France. By February, 1952, results had been achieved, along the same general lines, on both sides of the Channel.

A demonstration of the two techniques was arranged in Paris, the general conclusion of which was that, although the results were still far from perfect, they were good enough to justify a first attempt at joint programmes. By then, sufficient equipment was at hand to set up a temporary link between Lille and London, Lille being already permanently linked to Paris.

This was a remarkable co-operative effort in which a dozen different organisations—broadcasters, Post Office administrations and private firms had collaborated. A large number of temporary links had been set up, standards converters had been installed in Paris and at Breda in Holland, and all had worked satisfactorily.

It was with a feeling of something like anti-climax that this complicated hook-up was taken apart early in June.

Since then there have been further significant additions to the European television family. Belgium started its bilingual service, with two transmitters in Brussels, on October 29 last.

The Swiss began with a single transmitter near Zurich on November 23, and then Italy started its service with seven transmitters on New Year’s Day.

At the same time there have been extensions to the television networks in France, Western Germany and Britain.



Worth attempting

The signals were converted from the French to the British standards at Cassel, one of the link points in northern France, by means of apparatus built at the headquarters of the BBC Research Department.

There resulted, in July, 1952, a series of programmes from Paris, jointly conceived and jointly produced by French and British producers, which were simultaneously transmitted by French and British television transmitters.

The week culminated with the celebrations in Paris of France’s National Day, the fourteenth of July (Quatorze Juillet). Not all the results obtained during the week were good, either programmatically or technically, but something had been achieved — a start had been made.

A month or two later we in Britain were beginning to plan the broadcasts of the Coronation. Television was about to start in the British zone of Germany and an experimental service was starting in Holland.

The BBC invited to London representatives of the television services of France, Western Germany, Holland and Belgium, to discuss the possibility of relaying the Coronation broadcasts on the Continent. Once again it was concluded that, although a great deal of improvisation would be necessary, the attempt was worth making.

A third television standard was now involved because, although we in Britain had decided long ago on a 405-line picture and the French had since settled on 819 lines for theirs, the Germans and Dutch — as well as other European countries — who came into the picture, so to speak, at a still later stage, had decided to standardise on 625 lines.

Tests were carried out in April, 1953, and the sequel to these is now history. The Coronation television broadcasts of June 2, 1953, were relayed by 12 television transmitters in France, Holland and Western Germany to a total of perhaps 2½ million viewers.

Not only that, but over a period of a week, both before and after Coronation Day, more than 20 BBC programmes were relayed by these countries.



The family grows

It is only natural that plans for 1954 should be on a more ambitious scale. These plans were discussed at a series of meetings in Paris early in January, to which meetings all the countries I have mentioned sent both programme and technical representatives.

The plan which was evolved was a bold one. Firstly, the number of participating countries is now seven. Secondly, it is proposed to link up these countries for a period of nearly a month, from June 6 to July 4. Thirdly, it is intended that over all parts of the network it shall be possible to transmit signals in either direction, a development which makes it possible for every country to contribute programmes as well as to receive them.

Thus the principal programmes, whether they come from Berlin, London, Paris or Rome, will be broadcast in all seven countries simultaneously.

The methods to be adopted will be much the same in general principle as those used previously. In order to make it possible to transmit signals in either direction at will, a considerable amount of extra apparatus will be needed, but even so it will not be possible yet to make a change of direction at a moment’s notice.



Linked by radio

An interval of a day will be needed, in many cases, between programmes from widely separated parts of Europe. Consequently, plans are being based on the idea that each country will have one day — or in some cases more than one day — on which it will contribute several programmes to the network.

People sometimes wonder why there should be such difficulties in linking up several countries by television, when for many years international sound broadcasts have been a commonplace.

I have mentioned one of the special difficulties, that of the difference of line standards. I have simply said that this problem has been solved, without saying how, since a description would be rather outside the scope of this article.

But the main reason is that it is practically impossible to transmit television signals over telephone lines, as used in Sound broadcasting, for more than three or four miles.

For television, special cables or radio circuits are needed, and these do not really exist as yet in Europe — certainly not as links between adjacent countries. Consequently, broadcasters have to improvise. And this they do by setting up their own temporary radio links—links which can carry television signals — or in some cases by simply picking up a nearby broadcasting transmitter and re-transmitting its signals.

One other difficulty which has to be overcome is that of language differences. This problem is being tackled in two ways. Either the “receiving” countries send their own commentators to the “originating” country to give their own descriptions in their native tongue or— and this can be a most effective method — the commentator does not leave his home country. He sits in one of his own Sound studios, looking at the picture in front of him, and superimposes a commentary in his own language.

For this, however, he needs to have a good idea of what the programme is all about, and for preference he should be able to understand the language of the country from which the programme is coming.

Is all this effort worth while? Well, the acid test will come in June. But this much is certain, that we cannot afford not to put the question to the test.

In doing so we shall certainly make mistakes, but in those mistakes, I firmly believe, lie the seeds of much that will be found to be good in Eurovision broadcasting in the future.


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