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Forgotten histories: France's post war HD television system

A Grammont 819-line set, circa 1951. Image http://www.earlytelevision.org
4 minute read
A Grammont 819-line set, circa 1951. Image http://www.earlytelevision.org

Replay: France has always liked to go its own way on technology, but not many remember its pioneering efforts with 819-line monochrome television. Given its role in HD history, however, maybe more should. And as for SECAM...

Always wary of the creeping influence on its own culture of Perfidious Albion, or, more precisely, the English language, France has a history of gleefully pursuing its own technological path. Justified by ministers over the years as a way of maintaining France and her overseas territories' own unique, for want of a better word, Frenchness, broadcast has long been part of that effort. But while most people can vaguely remember SECAM - or even MINITEL, its 'pre-internet internet' - fewer recall the 819-line broadcast technology that it deployed just after WWII.

Some history: just before war broke out, pretty much every country that operated a television service - and these were very much state controlled beasts back then – had its own broadcast standard. The co-operation that had made radio such an international medium was completely absent in the TV world, which in the equal absence of any appreciable number of viewers was left to do its own thing with nobody being much bothered.

Outbreak of war meant that all of a sudden the world's research scientists had something rather more urgent to occupy them for several years. And when nations returned to the technology the main focus, for the French anyway, was to improve picture quality by adding lines to the transmission.

Competing standards

Over a four year period, various different systems were proposed (and it was during this time of both development and obfuscation that the French industry really started going its own way from the other two main standards, the British 405 line and the US 525 line systems). By 1947 three main contenders had emerged, pegged at 729, 819 and 1015 lines respectively, and a year later the Minister of Information,  Francois Mitterand who would, of course, go on to become French President, opted for the 819 system that had been developed by the appropriately named Henri de France.

While the 1015 system would have been even more impressive, the 819 one was arguably the first HD service. Protectionism and military security were both cited in the French parliament as reasons for choosing it, while the fact that the country had a TV service far superior to anyone else for many years was certainly a factor in retaining it beyond the logic of all economic sense.

As Alan Pemberton points out on his exhaustive World Analogue Television Standards and Waveforms website (though you might have to use the Wayback Machine to find it now), in modern digital parlance the French picture would be described as 800x738 50 2:1. And given that the coarsest current digital HD standard can be equally expressed for comparison as 1280x720 50 1:1, take out the centre 4:3 portion to match the aspect ratio of the French signal and you have a 960x720 image...which is not too far an advance on what you could have seen in a Parisian garrett during the middle of the last century.

It was an impressive achievement, but, of course, France and its overseas territories alone was not a large enough market to sustain the format in the face of a globally developing broadcast industry and its cheaper sets on the consumer side and broadcast kit on the technical side. The signal also took up a relatively whopping 14MHz, double the amount of 625 line systems, meaning that less channels were possible. Plus there was the small matter of colour.

In living colour

de France was to pop up again with the invention of SECAM (Séquentiel Couleur à Mémoire) which was initially developed as a colour solution for the 819 standard as far back as the mid 1950s. However, the various regulatory bodies had eventually managed to impose their will on the European broadcasting industry landscape, and it had thus been agreed in the early 1960s that colour TV across the continent would be standardised at 625 lines. The 819 system was thus consigned to the dustbin of history despite all its technical superiority and, by 1967, a SECAM system was ready for introduction.

Essentially it used frequency modulation to encode chrominance information and also sent red and blue information one value at a time, taking the information about the other colour from the preceding line (hence the phrase ‘sequential with memory’). This reduction of the vertical colour resolution made it free of the colour artefacts that bedevilled early iterations of NTSC and PAL – it did a good job with both saturation and hue - and it was also robust over longer distances. But the format’s use of frequency modulation made it cumbersome to edit in the extreme. Indeed, most stations often used PAL for post, only transcoding to SECAM for TX.

Unlike the 819 standard, however, whose only other adherent was Belgium, the politics of the era saw SECAM gain significantly more traction outside France. The Eastern Bloc countries saw it not only as a way of trying to curtail the reception of West German and British PAL signals with all their dangerous American programming, but its robustness also fitted in with the long cable runs that were a feature of Russia’s broadcast infrastructure. It was also popular through the Middle East and the ex-French colonies in Africa.

The result was it lasted as long as its great rivals NTSC and PAL. Terrestrial SECAM broadcasts are still underway across the world from Afghanistan to Vietnam (or at least they were when this piece first appeared), but it ceased transmission in France in November 2009 as the country migrated to DVB-T. And finally, after a six decade rearguard action, the French joined the rest of the global broadcast community.

A Telstar story

There is one glorious story though from the early days of the broadcast era that highlights Gallic intransigence in all its best and most celebrated forms which Andrea Fickers recounts in his essay jauntily titled: National Barriers for an Imag(e)ined European Community: The Techno-Political Frames of Postwar Television Development in Europe.

In July 1962 a NASA rocket put the Telstar communications satellite into orbit and the British, French and Americans embarked on a series of test transmissions in the 18 minute window that the satellite was in view of all countries (this, obviously, was pre-geosynchronous orbits). The Americans dutifully sent the first signals to Goonhilly Down in Cornwall, with the BBC engineers equally dutifully responding with a test card and test sound. The French, however, transmitted the following message from their Minister of Telecommunication, Jacques Marette.

“This Franco-American transmission marks a historic date in the history of television. Thanks to the efforts of scientists and technicians of our two countries working together in close co-operation, you will be able to receive on your screens for the first time television pictures directly from Paris. Today, this is an experimental transmission. But in a few years, intercontinental television will become a daily reality…”

The BBC was furious, the Americans were no doubt puzzled by what amounted to an address to the American people, and inevitably an almighty row ensued.

Plus ça change (plus c'est la même chose)...as they say.

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