A Word on International Standards

Call it nationalism, pride, healthy competitive spirit…or…pig-headed stubbornness, but most of the nations where television started decided to have their own, completely different, completely non-interoperable standards for broadcast video signals. The ripple effects of that decision has been trickling down and causing headaches for video content producers for almost a century now.

I should probably clarify that it wasn’t entirely based on any of those things mentioned above. In fact most of it had to do with the way electricity is generated and sent to homes in each of those places, and THAT decision can probably be chalked up to pig-headed stubbornness. In North America, for example, the electricity in your outlets is a form of AC current that is delivered at 110 volts and 60 Hertz, or cycles per second. In many places in Europe, including the United Kingdom, the domestic juice is of the 220 volt, 50 Hertz flavor.

It’s entirely reasonable to say, “So what? I get a little doohickey that plugs into the outlet and then I can plug my phone into the doohickey and everything works, right?” Well, yes…but technology has evolved pretty tremendously in the last, oh, eighty years or so. Today, you can even get televisions and computers as well as other electronics that have a switch on the back that lets you plug them into 110 or 220 volt outlets. The complex electronics in the guts of your device clean, rectify, step down the power and provide exactly the type of electricity that particular device needs.

But back in the 40s and 50s, televisions were already pretty cutting edge things, even with their huge, heavy cathode-ray and vacuum tubes. The idea of transistors was just starting to form in the scientific community, and if you’ve ever opened up a television made before 1980, you might notice it looks like something from the movie “Wild Wild West.” So instead of complex electronics, televisions relied on the electricity coming out of your wall to do important things to the broadcast signal, like synchronize it with the electron beam that scans across the glass on your set and makes the picture. If you live here in the U.S. the signal scans odd lines once, and then even lines once using the 60 cycles per second frequency of the electricity in the wall. It takes both odd, and even lines to make a picture, or one frame of video, so you end up with 30 frames of video per second, as dictated by our 60Hz electricity signal in our homes. Conversely, in Wales, they rely on their 50Hz electrical signal, and they also need to scan the whole screen twice to make a frame, so they get 25 frames per second, instead of 30. But, if you’re English, don’t worry, 10 Downing wouldn’t let you settle for an inferior signal, you get MORE resolution than us Yanks, enjoying 625 horizontal lines of resolution to our meager 525 lines.

And if you live in, say, Marseille, you thrill to the technological standard known as SECAM. (North America and The United kingdom use NTSC and PAL respectively.) SECAM, which has the same numbers as PAL encodes its color and brightness information differently than NTSC and PAL, and it comes in three different variants depending on which country you are in.

Obviously, this is a headache. But there is good news. We’ve touched on this before so let’s recap a bit. The first positive in this discussion is that computers don’t really care what standard you’re using, they have the processing power to play video at nearly any frame rate or resolution. Yes, they can be prevented from playing certain content by using various digital rights management schemes, but that is an option for content producers, not a requirement.

The next piece of good news is that people in most parts of the world, really love North American movies and television. As a result it has been commercially advisable for device manufacturers of both DVD players and Televisions to include the ability to play NTSC Video in most parts of the world, regardless of what their national television standard is, or how their electrical outlets work. (Unfortunately the reverse is not nearly as true, making playing European content here much more difficult.)

The final piece of good news is that we have crossed over to the hi-definition revolution, and hi-definition does away with all of those silly national boundaries. Occasionally we still have a few issues between 25fps hi-def content not being converted to what is considered “Film Standard”, but in general Hi-def content is equally playable on Blu-Ray, streaming services, and more both here and abroad. I must admit, there are multiple flavors of “High definition” video and that becomes confusing in itself, but, at least it doesn’t depend on archaic standards from the era of vacuum tubes.

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t leave a short summary of what that means for someone who just wants to distribute their content to the widest audience possible: If you’re making a DVD in North America and want it to be viewable in as many foreign countries as possible, you may not even need to convert your video to multiple standards. If time and budget permit, doing so will ensure both compatibility and the best possible video quality, no matter who is watching.

Making a Blu-Ray? Unless your content is 25FPS, you’re in the clear. Region codes for preventing / allowing playback in various countries is yours to use as you see fit. If you ARE using 25FPS content, converting to a Hi-Def 24P file is easier than many other types of conversions.

Distributing digital content for computers? Go nuts! They are up to the challenge, provided your end user has the correct playback software, and most of the time that software is free and readily accessible. These days, televisions and home entertainment equipment is so sophisticated even content meant for computers can be played back on a television equipped with a USB slot, or a gaming system or a digital media hub like Roku™ or Chromecast™.

In 2014 we still live in an amazing era where, in a few cases, we are still hobbled by technological standards adopted a century ago. The situation is improving and there are multiple technologies and strategies to get your product out to as many people, in as many places as possible. iDea Replication is here to help you take advantage of these options and find the one that is right for you and your project.

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