25th Anniversary Videos of the World Premiere of
the Digital HDTV Grand Alliance System
April 10, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the World Premiere of the Digital HDTV Grand Alliance system at NAB95. To commemorate the occasion, I'm releasing some "never-before-seen" recordings of the Grand Alliance's first demonstration and press conference on this special page.
Unfortunately the video quality is very poor, having been shot on an 8mm analog camcorder in a darkened room. Worse yet, the tape deteriorated and some portions were simply unrecoverable. I did my best to restore what I could, which to the best of my knowledge is the only existing record of the events. If anyone has a recording, please let me know...
To give some context to the event, consider that by 1991, a heated "winner take all" race was underway among four competing digital systems and two analog systems. In early 1993, after rigorous testing of the proposed systems, the "Special Panel" that was convened to select the winner ruled out the analog approaches, but was unable to find a clear winner among the digital systems. With the encouragement of Advisory Committee Chairman Richard Wiley, the four competing proponents joined forces in May 1993 to form a "Grand Alliance." It was a daunting task - the Grand Alliance was expected to produce a "best of the best" system that was equal to or better than the four predecessor systems in every respect, spanning dozens of rigorously conducted tests.
By NAB94 the Grand Alliance's theme was "Pardon Our Dust - System Under Construction." Many skeptics doubted that the former competitors could collaborate effectively to produce any result at all. Other skeptics doubted that any system could be better than all of its predecessors in every respect. And still more skeptics doubted that a digital approach could ever achieve the required performance and cost to be a practical system for broadcasting and consumer electronics. It was the digital "stone age" - computer monitors were 640 x 480 and 16 colors; PCs ran DOS; ethernet/IP didn't exist; internet access was via 19.2 kbps dial-up modems, HTML 1.0 was only for simple hypertext linking of text pages and cell phones were analog. And those Grand Alliance kooks thought that broadcast TV could be five times the display resolution, with a million times more colors and sending data a thousand times faster than computer modems...
In early 1995, the Grand Alliance was behind schedule. Prototype hardware subsystems built by Grand Alliance members AT&T, General Instrument, Philips, Sarnoff Labs, Thomson and Zenith were being integrated at Sarnoff, but it was a painstaking process. There was no test equipment - just our software simulations that ran on high-performance workstation clusters, logic analyzers and oscilloscopes. Yes, back in the stone age...:
Against that backdrop, it was an incredible milestone when the Grand Alliance announced the completion of its prototype system and delivered it for testing on March 31, 1995. The previous day, Grand Alliance members had gathered to review the prototype's performance and reach a final "go / no-go" decision. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the completion of system integration on March 30, 1995":
April 10, 1995 – The Grand Alliance HDTV system makes its world premiere demonstration at NAB95
"But wait, there's more..." A second prototype system had been constructed as a "spare", which was shipped to Las Vegas for its World Premiere to the industry at NAB95. On April 10, 1995, the skeptics were stunned to see the first digital television pictures - and in full HDTV!
The Grand Alliance theme at NAB95 was "From Vision to Reality." Here is a recording of the introduction to the World Premiere demonstration of Grand Alliance HDTV:
At the Grand Alliance press conference that followed, Jim Carnes (Sarnoff CEO) gave a high level technical overview of the Grand Alliance HDTV system. Yes, it was full HDTV in a single broadcast channel. But it was a flexible digital system that offered so much more. Jim also describes the four demonstration kiosks in the Grand Alliance booth: 1) HDTV, 2) comparison of HDTV, SDTV and analog NTSC, 3) Flexible Use of the transmission channel (i.e., multicasting and datacasting) and 4) Interactive Advertising. My team at Sarnoff had taken on the task of developing the demonstrations to show the long-term opportunities of adopting a digital television standard. Here is Jim's commentary:
Jerry Pearlman (Zenith CEO) spoke next, emphasizing the Grand Alliance's investment and the development of a revolutionary, world-leading digital HDTV system. He also urges rapid adoption of the system by the FCC and commercial deployment by broadcasters. (Jerry references satellite TV - the DirecTV system was under development by Thomson, Hughes and Sarnoff, in parallel with the Grand Alliance effort). Here is Jerry's commentary:
Finally, Grand Alliance leaders Bruce Allan (Thomson), Carlo Basile (Philips), Ralph Cerbone (AT&T), Jae Lim (MIT), Bob Rast (General Instrument) and Glenn Reitmeier (Sarnoff) joined Jim and Jerry for the press Q&A session Here are the introductions:
After 25 years, it's fascinating that the questions and discussion in 1995 foreshadow many subsequent developments. There are questions about receiver prices, licensing, spectrum auctions, FCC adoption, HDTV launch strategy, satellite television and the role of ATSC and other standards organizations. You'll even find me discussing progressive and interlaced scan and the tradeoff between quality and quantity for multicasting. Watch the Q&A below:
Finally, In November 1995, the Grand Alliance staged an extensive interoperability demonstration at MSTV's annual HDTV update in Washington, which featured format conversion between interlaced and progressive scan formats and high-speed ATM data network, satellite and terrestrial broadcast transmission. This video has my slides explaining the demo and a short tour of the Grand Alliance prototype hardware encoder
April 10, 1995 was a triumphant day for the Grand Alliance and it is certainly one of the most memorable days of my career. The Grand Alliance had overcome tremendous obstacles to define and deliver our system. We didn't know how all of the testing would go and we had no idea of the opposition that would emerge from the computer industry the following year, but that's a story for another time. Most aspects of the Grand Alliance's vision have indeed become a reality, such as HDTV, multicasting and flexible channel use. Our interactive advertising ideas were well ahead of their time, but will hopefully manifest themselves with ATSC 3.0. (Hmmm, maybe those capabilities in 3.0 didn't just happen by accident....?!?)
Enjoy these videos as we celebrate the 25th anniversary world premiers of the Digital HDTV Grand Alliance system, which became the ATSC (1.0) standard and broadcast television as we know it today.
April 10, 2020
This page has a history of the Grand Alliance formation and efforts, with photos and links to many additional items. Read the Grand Alliance press releases and brochure from NAB95 and see photos of our demonstrations for the FCC...
For a more complete history of HDTV development, the FCC Advisory Committee process and the four competing digital systems that were the predecessors of the HDTV Grand Alliance system, please start here...