A significant event in the history of technology happened yesterday, and it passed so quietly that we almost missed it. The last few remaining NTSC transmitters in the USA finally came off air, marking the end of over seven decades of continuous 525-line American analogue TV broadcasts. We’ve previously reported on the output of these channels, largely the so-called “FrankenFM” stations left over after the 2009 digital switchover whose sound carrier lay at the bottom of the FM dial as radio stations, and noted their impending demise. We’ve even reported on some of the intricacies of the NTSC system, but we’ve never taken a look at what will replace these last few FrankenFM stations.
If you are an American you may have heard of ATSC 3.0, perhaps by its marketing name of NextGen TV. Just like the DVB-T2 standard found in other parts of the world, it’s an upgrade to digital TV standards to allow for more recent video compression technologies and higher definition broadcasts. It has an interesting backwards compatibility feature absent in previous ATSC versions; there is the option of narrowing the digital bandwidth from 6 MHz to 5.5 MHz, and transmitting an analogue FM subcarrier where the old NTSC sound carrier on the same channel would have sat. Thus the FrankenFM stations have the option of upgrading to ATSC 3.0 and transmitting a digital channel package alongside their existing FM radio station. It’s reported that this switchover is happening, with one example given in the Twitter thread linked above.
The inexorable march of technology has thus given better quality TV alongside the retention of the FrankenFMs. We have to admit to being sorry to see the passing of analogue TV, it was an intricate and fascinating system that provided a testbed for plenty of experimentation back in the day. Perhaps as we see it slip over the horizon it’s worth pondering whether its digital replacement will also become an anachronism in an age of on-demand streaming TV, after all it shouldn’t have escaped most people’s attention that in 2021 the good TV content no longer comes to your screen via an antenna socket. Meanwhile we’ll keep our CRTs running, just in case we ever want to relive a 1980s night in with a VHS tape of Back To The Future.
Header image: Mysid, Public domain.
In a time when multi-channel digital TV is the norm it’s a surprise to find that a few low-power analog stations are still clinging on in some American cities. These are sometimes fill-in stations for weak signal areas, or more usually the so-called “FrankenFM” stations who transmit static images or digital patterns and derive income from their sound channel lying at the bottom end of the FM band to form unintended radio stations. Their days are numbered though, because the FCC is requiring that they be turned off by July 13th. There’s a way forward for the broadcasters to upgrade to low-power digital, but as you might expect they’re more interested in retaining the FrankenFM frequency from which they derive income.
The industry is represented by the LPTV coalition, who have requested permission to retain their FM frequency alongside their digital service. This has faced stiff opposition from other broadcasters, who see the very existence of the FrankenFM stations as a flagrant flouting of the rules that shouldn’t be rewarded. The FCC have yet to make a ruling, so there remains a slim chance that they may win a reprieve.
The sad tale of the few lingering analog TV stations in the USA is a last flickering ember of a once-huge industry that has been eclipsed without anyone but a few vintage technology geeks noticing, such has been the success of digital broadcasting. But analog TV is a fascinating and surprisingly intricate system whose passing however faint is worth marking.
Header: Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Analogue TV is something that most of us consider to have been consigned to the history books about a decade ago depending on where in the world we are, as stations made the transition to much more power and frequency efficient digital multiplexes. However some of them still cling on for North American viewers, and [Antenna Man] took a trip to Upstate New York in search of some of them before their final switch-off date later this year.
What he reveals can be seen in the video below the break, an odd world of a few relatively low-power analogue TV stations still serving tiny audiences, as well as stations that only exist because their sound carrier can be picked up at the bottom of the FM dial. These stations transmit patterns or static photographs, with their income derived from the sound channel’s position as an FM radio station. While his journey is an entertaining glimpse into snowy-picture nostalgia it does also touch on some other aspects of the aftermath of analogue TV boradcasting. The so-called “FrankenFM” stations sound much quieter, we’re guessing because of the lower sound carrier deviation of the CCIR System M TV spec compared to regular FM radio. And we’re told that there are more stations remaining in Canada, so get out there if you still want to see an analogue picture before they’re gone forever. Where this is being written the switch to DVB was completed in 2013, and it’s still a source of regret that we didn’t stay up to see the final closedown.
Does your country still have an analogue TV service? Tell us in the comments.
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