Foxtel made a major announcement this week in relation to TV resolution. They will start broadcasting shows in 4K – or more accurately 3840 pixels wide by 2160 pixels high. It started me thinking about the progression of television broadcasting and the varying standards we have viewed over the sixty-two years since Bruce Gyngell uttered the famous words, “Good evening, and welcome to television.” That first official broadcast by TCN-9 Sydney on 16 September 1956 was in monochrome (commonly called black and white) and the resolution was not measured in pixels but in the number of ‘lines’ broadcast. The 405-line monochrome analogue television broadcasting system was the first system to be used and it is worth searching online for that first footage to see what the first “high definition” looked like. The 405-line system was a breakthrough and a much better resolution compared to earlier versions, hence the “high definition” tag. It is always dangerous when a product receives a relative rather than absolute label – such as new or high – as there will always be another ‘new’ or better version coming out. I digress.

The aspect ratio of the first broadcast was 4:3 which meant that the viewing screen was thirty-three per cent wider than the height. This is not how we typically view the world but the first TV screens were based around a cathode ray tube (CRT) which, ideally, would have been perfectly square.

Colour television technology had actually been developed by this time but development was limited due to the ban on production of television sets and radio equipment by the US War Production Board during World War II.

Finally, on 1 March 1975, all television broadcasts in Australia were in full living colour. Well, maybe not full living colour but the broadcasts upgraded from monochrome to colour at least. Australia adopted the PAL (Phase Alternating Line) standard rather than the competing NTSC standard which delivered 625 lines (576 active lines) at 25 frames per second. This was a standard that delivered higher resolution than NTSC with a lower frame rate.

Since the introduction of colour forty-three years ago, we have gone through a number of viewing standards. 720p was called HD (High Definition) and it delivered 1280 pixels by 720 pixels. Note the aspect ratio was changed to 16:9 to give a wider screen more akin to how humans see the world. After HD came…Full HD or 1080i. This increased the pixels to 1920 by 1080 but delivered an interlaced signal where half the screen is updated followed by the other half – in an interlaced fashion.

After that came the confusingly called…Full HD. What? This time the Full HD was called 1080p meaning the pixels remained the same but this time the full picture was drawn without the need for interlacing. We all thought 1080p was magnificent and laughed at that old Standard Definition (SD) television but along came 4K (or Ultra HD). A 4K image displays 3840 pixels by 2160. This keeps the aspect ratio the same but simply packs more pixels into the screen. With the limitations of the human eye on a small screen, it makes it difficult to notice a lot of difference between 4K and 1080p – but we are no longer buying small screens. A major breakthrough in screen technology was when CRT was replaced with Plasma screens and suddenly a massive screen was a 42-inch diagonal that was only 10cm thick. It seems like 42-inch screens are now given away as prizes in cereal boxes. It is not uncommon for screens of 55; 65; 75 and even 85 inch to be hanging on the walls of houses now. When the screen sizes grow, the number of pixels becomes more important.

Hence the decision by Foxtel to start to broadcast some shows in 4K. They will start with the cricket broadcasts in October and, where the raw footage is suitable, I am sure we will see those broadcast in 4K as well.

Just when we thought we were well and truly on top of it, Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, has begun the world’s first regular TV broadcasts in 8K. That is 7680 pixels by 4320 pixels. I wonder how long it will be before we all sit around a coffee shop laughing about those old days when we only had 4K TV to watch!

Mathew Dickerson

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