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MAINTAINING STANDARDS

 

INTRO

If you’re ever tempted to buy a camcorder or a pre-recorded movie when you’re on holiday abroad, dont! At least not until after you’ve read our in-depth guide to world video standards

 

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Most of the technology involved in colour television broadcasting was developed during the 1950s and early 60s. This was the era of the Cold War, a period of considerable international tension, distrust and secrecy. We should probably count ourselves fortunate that there are only three incompatible colour television systems in use throughout the world today...

 

NTSC came first, in 1954. It stands for National Television Standards Committee, the US Government body responsible for the development of colour TV. Wags and wits used to say it stood for Never Twice the Same Colour, an allusion to the somewhat unsteady colour rendition of many early TVs. It’s a lot better these days and NTSC is now used throughout North America and Canada, much of South America, Japan and parts of the Pacific basin, roughly covering the areas of the world that came under American influence at the end of the second World War. For the record NTSC colour TV pictures are made up 525 lines, with a frame repetition rate of 60Hz, (in other words 60 still pictures per second are used to create a moving image).

 

During the early 1960s several brave attempts were made to establish a common technical standard for colour television in Europe but the French had been working on an advanced colour TV system of their own for some time and were loath to give it up. It subsequently became known as SECAM (Sequential Coleur a'Memoire). In the end they decided to go it alone, leaving most of the countries in Western Europe to adopt the slightly simpler 625-line/50Hz PAL system, that had been developed in Germany. PAL stands for phase alternate line, a reference to the system’s colour error correction process. The PAL system is now used across much of the middle East, India, parts of Africa and Australasia. SECAM, which also uses a 625-line/50Hz display format was adopted by much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

 

Up until about twenty five years ago these differences didn’t really matter much to anyone outside of the broadcasting industry. VHF and UHF television transmitters have a range of around 20 to 30 miles and serve local populations in fairly well defined geographical areas. Up until that time most televisions were built locally, in the countries they were to be sold and used in. Then it happened. Within a period of about five years television became a global concern.

 

Looking back, and with the benefit of hindsight it’s apparent there was no single cause, rather a combination of factors including the development of communications satellites, video recorders, cheap air travel and the rise of the mighty Japanese consumer electronics industry. But by the end of the seventies incompatibilities between the world’s TV systems really did start to matter.  

 

The fallout continues to affect us today, though it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be. However, the bottom line is, there’s every chance that a television, video recorder, camcorder, video disc player or video games console purchased abroad will not work in this country. The same applies to pre-recorded software on tape and disc, though here at least there are some solutions.  The only bit of good news is that blank VCR and camcorder tapes normally work okay, wherever you get them from, though differences in tape speeds, between NTSC and PAL/SECAM video recorders means running times printed on sleeves and boxes are invariably wrong.

 

The technical differences between the three systems are intrinsic, and normally there’s nothing you can do about it. So if you’re ever tempted to buy a cheap camcorder whilst on holiday in the USA, or a TV in a French hypermarket, don’t, unless you’re prepared to shell out for one of a handful of top-end TVs with multi-standard decoders, that can also process ‘raw’ NTSC or SECAM signals, fed in through their AV input signals!

 

Tapes and discs are another matter. Similarities between the PAL and SECAM systems means that the information that ends up on video recordings made on VCRs and camcorder are essentially the same. In other words pre-recorded tapes brought in France or Eastern Europe should play properly on PAL machines, and vice-versa, though on some machine the pictures may be in black and white.

 

It’s also possible for some PAL VCRs to replay NTSC coded tapes on ordinary PAL TVs. This facility arose out of rationalisations Japanese television and VCR manufacturers introduced into their products. In order to simplify production for global markets they developed multi-standard microchip decoders, that require minimal modification to adapt them for use on products destined for NTSC, PAL or SECAM markets. One of the spin-off is that PAL video recorders can be designed to partially decode NTSC recordings, sufficiently for many recently made PAL TVs to finish the job and display a stable colour picture. Similar techniques are employed on video disc players, many of which have ‘NTSC replay’ facilities. Unfortunately this rather neat trick only works one way, and there are no equivalent NTSC video recorders available in the USA or the Far East, that can replay PAL coded tapes.

 

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TRANSCODING VCRs

Following the development of the camcorder in the mid 1980s there has been a steady stream of home videos passing back and forth across the Atlantic, between friends and relatives. Unfortunately most of them will have been unwatchable, due to the incompatibilities between NTSC and PAL recordings and equipment. However, about five years ago Panasonic introduced a VCR that looked as though it would solve everyone’s problems. The NV-W1 ‘World’ video recorder features a digital ‘transcoder’, that electronically converts video signals from one standard to another. Pop in an NTSC tape and it will convert the picture to PAL or SECAM, and it works just as well the other way around. Connect it up to a second video recorder and recordings can be easily copied, from one system, standard or format, to another.

 

Sadly the NV-W1 depends on a lot of rather expensive technology and it has never sold in sufficient number, to bring about any significant economies of scale. Currently it sells for around £1500, which puts it well beyond the means of most camcorder owners. Nevertheless, these machines have created a small cottage industry of companies offering highly competitive video conversion facilities, both here and in the USA and Canada.

             

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KEEPING IT LEGAL

The import, saale and general traffic in pre-recorded NTSC software on tape and disc, from the USA to  Britain -- rarely the other way around -- raises a number of tricky questions.

 

First the good news. Customs and Excise tell us that they’re not interested in hassling people with single copies of tapes or laser discs brought whilst on holiday. That’s provided they’re not pornographic or obviously offensive, and assuming the officers concerned are satisfied they’re for personal use. Much the same applies to buying software by mail-order -- you can even buy laser discs on the Internet these days.  Pack your suitcase with a dozen copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or try to import a crate load of discs and you can be sure to run into trouble. By the way, ‘transcoding’ copyright recordings, ie getting a tape or disc converted from NTSC to PAL is illegal.

 

Now for the bad news. A recent amendment to the Video Recording Act makes it illegal for anyone to sell a recording -- on tape, disc or whatever -- that doesn’t carry a numbered British Board of Film Certification (BBFC) certificate. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s an old movie like The Sound of Music or a recent release such as Apollo 13, if it doesn’t have a uniquely numbered BBFC sticker or label it’s illegal’, says Helen Fripp, spokesperson for Pioneer LaserDisc.

 

There’s a small crumb of comfort for those selling so-called ‘parallel imports’ the ruling is not retrospective. Up until now this has been a grey area, as far as the law is concerned, and existing stocks can be sold off. ‘Until recently trading standards officers have tended to turn a blind eye to parallel imports’ explains Fripp, ‘but now they’re taking the matter much more seriously and can be expected to crackdown’. It looks like holiday bookings to the USA will be up again this year...  

 

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1996 0306

 

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