Television Standards

Relative Merits of the different TV standards

The differences between each of the main TV systems are not quite as clear-cut as one might at first imagine. While NTSC generally has a reputation for poor colour accuracy, this is only really true of broadcast television and as a video format it has some distinct advantages over the other systems. The three systems are a compromise and many efforts have been made over the years to address the shortcomings in each of the systems.

NTSC/525-line Advantages

NTSC/525-line Disadvantages

PAL/625-line Advantages

PAL/625 Disadvantages

SECAM/625-line Advantages

SECAM/625 Disadvantages

Additional Features:

Stereo Sound


The BBC-designed Teletext system is known in some quarters as World Standard Teletext. There is an enhanced version known as FastText which defines four links to additional pages that can be followed with one of four coloured buttons on the Teletext receivers remote control. The US "CC" is known widely in technical circles as LITO = LIne Twenty-One! where it lives.

Why different standards?

Not all the worlds TV receivers work in the same way. Different countries use different types of broadcast TV system, most of which are to varying extents incompatible with each other.

Unfortunately, video recordings retain many of the characteristics of the original signal of which they are a recording. In general, recordings are more likely to be compatible than receiving equipment, but only with their own "family".

Why did this occur?

In order to work, TV receivers require a source of field timing reference signals. These are signals that tell the TV receiver to be ready to receive the next picture in the stream of images. Early set designers decided to use the mains power supply frequency as this source for two good reasons. The first was that with the older types of power supply, you would get rolling hum bars on the TV picture if the mains supply and power source were not at exactly the same frequency. The second was that the TV studios would have had enormous problems with flicker on their cameras when making programmes.

There are two mains power frequencies widely used around the world: 50Hz and 60Hz. This immediately divided the worlds TV systems into two distinct camps, the 25 frames per second camp (50Hz) and the 30 frames per second camp (60Hz).

Later, the 60Hz camp made a small adjustment and changed the field rate to 59.94Hz when they added colour to the signals. The issue of field frequency remained sufficiently deep-rooted in both TV standards that the vested interest remained long after the original technical justification had gone.

The biggest compatibility problems between TV standards remain related to the field rate; these are also the hardest problems to solve.

Compounding the Problem

Beyond the initial divide between 50 and 60Hz based systems, further sub-divisions have appeared within both camps since the inception of Colour broadcasting. The majority of 60Hz based countries use a technique known as NTSC originally developed in the United States by a committee called the National Television Standards Committee. NTSC (often scurrilously referred to as Never Twice the Same Colour) works perfectly in a video or closed-circuit environment but can exhibit problems of varying hue when used in a broadcast environment.

This hue change problem is caused by shifts in the colour sub-carrier phase of the signal. A modified version of NTSC soon appeared which differed mainly in that the sub-carrier phase was reversed on each second line; this is known as PAL, standing for Phase Alternate Lines (it has a wide range of facetious acronyms including Pictures At Last, Pay for Added Luxury (re: cost of delay line) and People Are Lavender). PAL has been adopted by a few 60Hz countries, most notably Brazil.

Among the countries based on 50Hz systems, PAL has been the most widely adopted. PAL is not the only colour system in widespread use with 50Hz; the French designed a system of their own - primarily for political reasons to protect their domestic manufacturing companies - which is known as SECAM, standing for SEquential Couleur Avec Memoire. The most common facetious acronym is System Essentially Contrary to American Method, SECAM was widely adopted in Eastern Block countries to encourage incompatibility with Western transmissions - again a political motive.

In general, since the field and scan rates are identical, you can expect to get a monochrome picture from a PAL video recording replayed on SECAM equipment and vice versa. Transmission frequencies and encoding differences make equipment incompatible from a broadcast viewpoint. Transcoders between PAL and SECAM, while often difficult to find, are reasonably cheap.

In Europe, a few Direct Satellite Broadcasting services use a system called D-MAC. Its use is not very widespread and is transcoded to PAL or SECAM to permit video recording of its signals. It includes features for 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratio transmissions and an eventual migration path to Europe's proposed HDTV standard. There are other MAC-based standards in use around the world including B-MAC in Australia and B-MAC60 on some private networks in the USA. There is also a second European variant called D2-MAC which supports additional audio channels making transmitted signals incompatible, but not baseband signals.

In addition to the incompatibilities of 50 and 60Hz systems and the different Colour systems, there is a further barrier to compatibility. Fortunately, video recordings themselves are not affected by this; only TV signal reception equipment. For various reasons of number of stations and terrain, TV pictures can be transmitted in any of three main frequency ranges, VHF, UHF and Microwave (Satellite Direct Broadcasting). Equipment designed to receive signals in only one of these bands cannot receive transmissions in any of the other bands.

Further, there are differences between the encoding of the sound between countries using the same frequency bands. Within 50Hz PAL UHF transmissions, audio signals can be at 5.5Mhz offset (system G), or at 6MHz offset (system I). Similar differences exist between the Middle Eastern versions of SECAM (MESECAM) and the Eastern Bloc (OIRT) version.

Further complications

In addition to standard combinations of Scan Rate, Colour System and transmission frequencies, there are further complications when it comes to additional features like stereo sound, sub-titling and information services. Fortunately, such differences do not effect the basic operation of equipment conforming to the same broadcast standard, but they can restrict the use of various features.

In the cases of both stereo sound and additional textural information carried in the top few lines of the picture, there are three competing systems of varying technical merit. The oldest still operational of the stereo sound systems is the American MTS system based on NTSC transmissions, only slightly more recent is the twin channel FM-FM system used in Germany, Austria, Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The most recent system, NICAM 728, was designed by the BBC in the late 1980s using digital audio technology.

The oldest of the subtitling systems is almost definitely the BBC- and IBA-designed Teletext system which has been is use in the UK since the mid-1970s. It is also the most widespread and the most flexible of the systems in widespread use. The US Closed Captioning system came about through political pressure from organisations for the deaf in the USA and has not been developed beyond the simple job of producing subtitles. The French developed a subtitling and information system called Antiope which has not found favour elsewhere, largely due to the existing widespread use of the BBC-developed Teletext system. A few US stations have now adopted BBC-style Teletext and a few manufacturers, most notably Zenith, fit the decoders to their sets.

The Main Video Signal Standards
  Frame/Field rate Aspect Ratio Scan Lines
TV standard Colour System Subcarrier Frequency
NTSC 29.97/59.94 4:3 525
PAL-M 29.97/59.94 4:3 525
SECAM-M 29.97/59.94 4:3 525
PAL 25/50 4:3 625
SECAM 25/50 4:3 625
CCIR SECAM 4.25/4.40MHz
D-MAC 25/50 4:3 or 16:9 625
PALplus 25/50 16:9 625
HiVision 60/120 16:9 1125
Hi-Vision MUSE Unknown


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