Three Decades of Digital Disruption: Glenn Reitmeier & HDTV
COW Library : Broadcasting : Glenn Reitmeier : Three Decades of Digital Disruption: Glenn Reitmeier & HDTV
Glenn Reitmeier is senior vice president, Advanced Technology for NBC Universal. He leads NBC Universal's technical efforts on industry standards, government policy, commercial agreements, anti-piracy operations and advanced engineering.
Reitmeier, who has a Master's degree in Systems Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, started his career at the Sarnoff Laboratories and spent 25 years there, pioneering the High Definition standard and accruing 54 Patents. Reitmeier is a Fellow of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and is a recipient of SMPTE's Progress Medal and the Leitch Gold Medal. He is recognized in the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame, and, in 2010 he received a Broadcasting & Cable Technical Leadership Award.
On the eve of accepting the National Association of Broadcaster's NAB Technology Achievement Award, Glenn Reitmeier talks to the COW about his career and achievements.
While I was an undergraduate in electrical engineering at Villanova University, I was fascinated by signal processing. I was fortunate enough to be able to translate that background into my first job, at the Sarnoff Research Center where I worked on applying advanced signal processing to TV. Working on TV was a revelation. It was so great to have not just the theoretical aspects of signal processing but to be able to see the results.
The environment at Sarnoff was wonderfully collaborative, with a talented group of individuals. One of the things I appreciate now even later in my career was that you'd walk down the hall and could talk to people who were the early inventors in color TV. One of my early mentors there was Bernie Lechner, who made outstanding contributions to the development of television. I always treasure his mentorship and guidance.
I remember very clearly the early SMPTE trials of component digital video. Merrill Weiss at KPIX hosted the technical trials and demos where we tried different sampling rates and looked at the technical impact of different sampling rates going back and forth into the analog domain. Ultimately we were able to show that a 3.5-megahertz sampling rate was workable, economical and high quality. In those days, the A/D (analog-to-digital) and D/A (digital-to-analog) converters took up a couple of rack-units worth of equipment. One of our contributions to that experiment was a six-foot high rack, full of filtering and digitization gear.
We've come a long way since then. I think each decade has seen some different waves of digital innovation. In the 1980s, the wave was clearly about digitizing the studio, digitizing production; we went from the component sampling rate and then parallel digital interfaces and then we went to D-1 tape, the first digital tape. Then we went to SDI and were able to do practical digital connection between equipment. In the 1980s, it was about digital islands in an analog sea. By the late 1980s, that flipped to analog islands in a digital sea. By then there were a lot of digital connections that started to be the backbone of studios.
The next wave was in the 1990s we started to see huge amounts of digital processing power impact the ability to transmit long-haul signals. The maturing of compression technology that led to digital TV and satellite and the launch of digital TV and HDTV took the rest of the 2000s.
My role in HDTV started in the late 1980s, when the whole industry was grappling with the question of what advanced TV would be. By the late 1980s, there were 23 proposals for Advanced TV. I think people forget how radical that was at the time. I started the digital television R&D program at Sarnoff, and that grew with the formation of what was called the Advanced Television Research Consortium made up of Sarnoff, Thompson, Phillips and NBC. We pioneered the use of MPEG compression, packetized transport and multiple video formats. That Consortium developed two systems: Advanced Compatible TV, an analog backwards-compatible widescreen improvement to NTSC and Advanced Digital HDTV. I led the development of Advanced Digital HDTV, which ended up being one of the four competing digital systems tested in 1992.
The Advisory Committee process in 1993 paved the way for a combined effort that led to the Grand Alliance and the collaboration between the four competing system. It was a very competitive environment with high stakes, frankly. It was quite an experience going from competing with the leaders of the other systems to working together and being part of the Grand Alliance. A lot of people said the former competitors would never get together and come up with anything other than a political compromise. But we did. We came up with something better. The participants in the Grand Alliance really took the high road and worked together. There was a brotherhood there. We've actually had a Grand Alliance 10 year and 15 year reunion and are looking forward to the next one in 2015.
Getting the HDTV standard set was the end of the beginning and the beginning of the real commercial phase. The system was tested in 1995, the ATSC standard was set by September 1995 and by the end of 1996, we received FCC approval. That was quite a political year in terms of quite a bit of questioning about various aspects of the standard from the computer industry and vigorous public policy debate about what was appropriate. The FCC made the good decision to launch HDTV as a commercial venture. Frankly, I think this country and the broadcasters have a lot to be proud of. They led the commercial transition to HDTV. We often forget it but we're the first country to complete the transition to digital and turned off the analog signal. We've upgraded the entire TV system to HD. The world didn't end the day we turned off analog TV and that's due to a lot of work and collaborative efforts. We shouldn't lose sight of this.
Above, April 1995, Grand Alliance NAB Booth
Above, 1996 Grand Alliance system at HDTV model station.
After the work on the basic standard was completed, we continued to work on the evolution of broadcasting equipment that would work with HDTV. Sarnoff launched a start-up, Agile Vision, a TV station in a box approach and a bit of a predecessor to a compressed switcher/splicer, sometimes called the Fox-Box. We also started a chip company called Next Wave, which was the leading supplier of VSB/QAM chips to the TV receiver industry. Both of those companies were successfully acquired. They're good stories of commercializing technology that came out of fundamental R&D and standards setting.
Some people said, wasn't it wacky to go from one end of the career spectrum to the other -- from an R&D lab to a content company? I never thought of it as a big leap. If you fold the spectrum into a circle, it's not a leap at all. That's because in my career in R&D, I always had to think about what the commercial needs were for technology that we were developing and "pushing" into the industry. Now, at NBCUniversal, just next to that on the circle, I could understand what we needed as a content business and know how to connect the technology dots, how to pull in the right technologies and drive the right standard to meet our business needs as a company. It's a tremendous environment at NBCUniversal and I appreciate every day.
Today at NBCUniversal, we're actively working on all kinds of new technologies and opportunities. We were founding members of the Ultraviolet consortium for file downloads of movies and TV. We're proud that Ultraviolet is having its commercial rollout this year.
From 2006 to 2009, I was chair of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), and I'm proud that during my tenure we started and completed the ATSC Mobile DTV standard for mobile broadcasting. We at NBCUniversal and our partners in the Mobile Content Venture are excited that Dyle will launch this year.
I think mobile broadcasting is going to be very important, because I'm taking a long-term perspective. Fundamentally as we look into the future, mobile devices will be an essential reason to use over-the-air spectrum. For primary TV viewing, so much of our delivery is through re-transmission, which is fine and appropriate. But when it comes to the spectrum piece of broadcasting, mobile will be very important.
As content owners and broadcasters, we always have to be aware of the underlying copyright and the chain of rights and economic value chain and where we participate in it. I lead the anti-piracy group at NBCUniversal, and I can tell you that the impact of piracy is very real. The fact of the matter is that piracy hurts both the movie and television content business and it's something we have to pay attention to. In addition to our defensive measures, NBCUniversal continues to work on "TV Everywhere" and the enabling authentication and authorization technologies and standards. I think enabling "TV Everywhere" ecosystem for content to be easily available to paying customers on any device is to everyone's benefit to help counter piracy.
A related concern is that we continue to innovative interactivity and audience engagement that lead to new revenue opportunity and content that people want to watch. As we get more and more Internet connectivity, TV will become more interactive and personal.
As much as I appreciate the Lifetime Achievement award, I'm not done yet. I think we've made tremendous strides in upgrading the technical quality of how we create content and tell stories and news, increasing their emotional impact. But, fundamentally, our storytelling is still pretty linear. I think as we get more Internet connectivity, we'll get more nonlinear in how we tell stories and inform people That's certainly something I intend to contribute to in any way I can. There's a lot of thought leadership and opportunity to shape the future here at NBCUniversal, which is one of the reasons I'm proud to be part of this great company. We're headed for a lot more change -- the digital future is likely to be even more different from today than we currently are from the analog era.
Image above, Glenn in 1997 with the new HDTV standard. Title image, Glenn in 1993 at NBC. Photo colored for effect.