Updated: 04/22/2013

Film, Radio and TV - 29



Cable and

Satellite TV





The Beginning of U.S. Cable Television

>>In 1950, CATV, or community antenna television, was born in a small town in near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

An appliance dealer living in Lansford, some 80 miles away, was having trouble selling TV sets because of poor reception in his area. He reasoned that he could sell more TV sets if he put up a tall antenna in his community to pick up the TV stations from Philadelphia. (Recall from Module 17 that TV signals are line-of-sight and are blocked by mountains and tall structures.)

Using coaxial cable lines he distributed the TV signals from his antenna  to the homes of customers  --  and, thereafter we  assume sold many TV sets.

Today, of course, CATV, or cable television services, include not only area TV stations, but dozens of other programming services. The latter include FM radio, and movie and special interest channels from satellites. Many cable companies produce their own programs to serve local needs and interests.

Digital TV

The technical quality of on-air TV advanced recently with the adoption of broadcast digital TV or DTV.

By 2010 about half of the world's major countries had converted to digital broadcasting. 

The first country to make a complete switch to digital over-the-air (terrestrial) broadcasting was Luxembourg, in 2006.  Shortly thereafter, the Netherlands made the switch.  Finland, Andorra, Sweden and Switzerland followed in 2007.

In June 2009, all major broadcast stations in the United States switched to DTV.  We say "major" because some lower power TV stations were allowed to stay with the much older NTSC analog standard for a period of time.

Some countries don't plan a complete analog-to-digital transition until around 2020.

Digital TV uses a more efficient transmission technology allowing for improved picture and sound quality. In addition, digital signals provide more programming options through the use of multiple digital subchannels (channels of information within the basic broadcast signal).

Compared to analog signals, digital broadcast signals react differently to interference.

Common problems with over-the-air analog television signals include ghosting of images (seeing multiple faint images at the same time; note photo), noise or "snow" because of a weak signal, etc.

But even under these conditions an analog signal may still be viewable and you may still hear the sound. With digital television, the audio and video must be synchronized digitally, so reception of the digital signal must be very nearly complete. The nature of digital TV results in a perfect picture initially until the receiving equipment starts picking up interference or the signal is too weak to decode.  

With poor reception some digital receivers will show a  "blocky" video or a garbled picture with significant damage, other receivers may go directly from a perfect picture to no picture at all. This phenomenon is known as the digital cliff effect.  

There are two basic international standards for digital broadcasting, the ATSC, or Advanced Television Systems Committee standard adopted by United States and Canada, and DVB-T, or Digital Video Broadcast – Terrestrial  system used in most of the rest of the world.

Although the ATSC approach has weaknesses, most notably the ability to hold up under mobile conditions, it includes important features such as Dolby 5.1-channel surround-sound. The reduced bandwidth requirements of lower-resolution images allow up to six standard-definition subchannels or datacasting channels within the 6 MHz TV channel. How these will be developed and used remains to be seen.


Coaxial Cable

>>Most TV signals are still sent to homes by coaxial cable. On the right you can see a standard coax connector and (to the left of it) a cutaway view of the single copper wire inside.

Note the central wire is surrounded by a white electrical insulator. This in turn is surrounded by braided wire and metal foil shielding. This shielding serves to both confine the internal signal to the cable and keep external RF (Radio Frequency) energy from nearby appliances from interfering with the signal.

Although coaxial cable has been used for decades to conduct TV signals, it has a number of problems.

Topping that list is the need to constantly re-amplify signals (with the various problems that introduces) as they are sent through cables. You often see CATV cables and amplifiers attached to utility poles.


Fiber Optic Cable

>>The medium that is now taking over from coaxial cable is fiber optics (also called optical fiber or OF) .

The medium of transmission is light.

Light waves have an extremely high frequency and travel at 300,000-km (186,000-miles) per second. A single OF cable can theoretically carry trillions of bits of information every second.

The thickness of an optical fiber is only slightly larger than a human hair. The photo on the right shows a light-conducting OF strand going through the eye of a needle.

>>Fiber optic cables normally carry numerous OF strands within a single enclosure.

Compared to coaxial cable, optical fiber has ten advantages:

  • Much greater capacity. opticalfiber.jpgThe information carrying capacity of OF is hundreds of times greater than a normal copper wire. (Note on the comparison in this photo between an optical fiber link and a telephone cable with hundreds of wires.)
  • Low and very uniform attenuation (signal loss) over a wide frequency range. This greatly simplifies amplification of the signal.
  • Virtual immunity to all types of interference
  • No problems with leakage or causing interference with other signals16.gif
  • Insensitivity to temperature variations
  • Extremely small size
  • Will not "short out" in bad weather or even in water
  • Low cost
  • High reliability The fibers do not corrode or break down in moisture or salt air the way copper wires do.
  • Light weight Since they are not based on metal conductors, OF cables are lighter and much easier to transport and install.

As cable and telephone companies continue to move toward optical fiber, eventually, even home-to-home video transmissions will become as simple as dialing the right number.

Satellite Services   

>>Satellites hovering about 36,000-kilometers (22,500-miles) above the earth relay most television programming to world viewers. Each satellite or "bird" is composed of a number of transponders, or independent receive-transmit units.

Geosynchronous satellites rotate at the same speed as the earth and end up being stationary in relation to the earth's surface. This obviously simplifies the job of keeping them within the range of both the uplink and downlink dishes on the earth. (See illustration on the left.)

>>The reflector dish of a ground station uplink is shaped like a parabola, which is similar to the reflector of a powerful searchlight  --  the kind that can send a beam of light into the night sky.

Signals reflected from the center element will hit the dish and then be sent upward on their 36,000-kilometer (22,500-mile) path to the satellite.

>>The signal from the uplink ground station is aimed along a precise path to the appropriate satellite.

As illustrated on the right, once the signal is received, it is amplified, the frequency is changed, and then it is sent back to the earth.

The "footprint" (coverage area) of the returning signal covers many thousands of square kilometers or miles of the earth's surface.

>>Within the footprint area receiving dishes work in reverse of the uplink ground stations.

The signal from the satellite is collected in a dish and directed toward a receiving element, as shown on the right. This signal is then amplified thousands of times and fed to your TV receiver.


Satellite Distribution of Programming

>>Networks and TV production facilities routinely distribute their programming via satellite. This is typically how TV productions originating in the Los Angeles-Hollywood area are sent to the East Coast for network distribution.

Once they arrive on the East Coast, they are recorded, commercials are typically added, the programs is scheduled into the network agenda, and then beamed back up to satellites at intervals appropriate to the time zones across North America.

>>When the network-to-affiliate link is not being used to relay regular programming it's used to send news stories, program promotion segments, and other broadcast-related segments to affiliated stations. Stations not affiliated with a network can receive news and information from satellite services such as CNN.

Cable (CATV) companies also receive much of their programming from satellites.  This includes both TV and audio services.  Many TV and audio services (satellite "stations") are not broadcast over the airwaves, but are only available directly from satellites.

Satellite-to-Home Services

>>For people living in rural areas out of the range of local TV and CATV/cable services a satellite receiver may be the only way they can view TV.  Home satellite receivers can be cheaper in the long run than CATV/cable services and they open the door to hundreds of TV and audio channels.

There are two basic divisions of satellite services: the essentially free satellite services that use the C-band and Ku-bands, and subscription services such as the DISH and Direct-TV. The latter services, which offer hundreds of channels and the ability to record programs, have seen a steady growth rate over the last few years. Note graphs below.

>>Satellite-to-home services, such as Direct-TV and DISH, have their own satellites and home receiver systems.  Unlike the C-band and Ku-band services, once you acquire this type of receiver and receiving dish, you must pay monthly subscription fees.

Although many C- and Ku-band satellite services are also subscription based, there are several hundred free TV services ("stations") available. These include:

  • religious programming (more than a dozen channels; mostly conservative and evangelical in nature)
  • government programming (such as NASA's channel)
  • home shopping services (such as the Home Shopping Network)
  • various types of educational-informational services  (such as the Wisdom channel)

Even with the dozens of channels of free programming, the C-band and Ku band services have been declining in popularity. This is primarily because desirable programming is more readily available on DISH and Direct-TV, the large dishes involved, especially with C-band reception, and the problem of regularly having to readjust your receiving dish to one of the dozens of satellites.

Free to Air Services 

>>Much of the world can receive FTA (Free to Air) TV and radio broadcasts. This service works much like Direct TV and Dish, except most of the programming is free. This service allows users to install small (18-inch) dishes and inexpensive receivers (about $200) to pick up the programming.

FTA programming varies in different parts of the world and may or may not be scrambled and subscription based.

Satellite Audio Services

>>A single C-band or Ku-band satellite channel is capable of carrying both a TV signal and one or more separate audio channels. Taking advantage of this fact are more than 100 free audio services, most in stereo and many without commercials.

Some are standard radio stations that also distribute their signal by satellite. Examples are CBM-AM in Quebec and WQXR-FM in New York.  Others, which cover everything from classical to hard rock music, are music services available only by satellite.

Satellite audio services, such as XM-Radio and Sirius radio, were discussed in an earlier section.

Flyaway ENG Satellite Links

>>In the late '80s portable, freestanding satellite uplinks referred to as flyaway units were introduced for electronic newsgathering (ENG) work. This meant that TV links could be quickly set up in remote locations -- including foreign countries -- to transmit news to viewers.

A flyaway satellite uplink, complete with a telephone link, is shown in operation here.

>>In recent years another innovation has come to the aid of TV newspeople working in remote areas: satellite phones. Although limited in quality, this approach uses satellite audio channels to send highly compressed video signals.

More detailed information on newsgathering topics can be found - here.

>>In the next module we'll start the first of a five-part series on the social effects of television.

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