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More Lines or Colour

Ian Atkins Wireless World, September, 1956
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Though it is generally believed that the next major step in television will be to add colour, the alternative of higher definition has had some support. In this article a studio producer gives his views.

Colour will not wait. When it is ready we shall get it, but that will not be until it is possible to make a good, stable receiver at a moderate cost. In my view, given the receiver, colour will be with us whether we like it or not. The alternatives we may expect surely are colour on 405 lines or colour with a higher standard of definition. 'More lines or colour?' is an academic question. I shall give it a most unacademic answer.

From the purely selfish and personal point of view of the studio producer the key to the answer lies in another question. What do we want to present on the television screen? Television can now do some things well and others less well. Do we want to do even better the things we now do well? Or do we want as it were to balance things up and improve in the respects in which we are now lacking?

This 'intimate, domestic medium', excels at present in the realistic. Actualities, outside broad- casts, travel programmes and other similar features are well served by the present standards of definition. The great popularity of the dramatized documentary programme is further proof of the success of realism on the television screen.

Writing in Wireless World for May, 1956, Dr D A Bell said:

'The great advantage of the higher definition is that large-scale effects can be presented with adequate detail eg, a display of massed folk dancing - and solo artists are normally presented as three-quarter-length or full-length portraits, not head and shoulders only. It liberates television from the state of being a specialized art having limited effects at its disposal in order to represent some form of entertainment and makes it as free as the black and white film to reproduce visual entertainments where so desired, or use more natural 'shots' if the moving picture is regarded as an artistic work.' (Dr. Bells italics.)

Dr Bell is saying that higher definition will, above all improve televisions ability to report; he adds, by way of afterthought, that 'if the moving picture is regarded as an artistic work' there will be some advantage in this direction also. This 'liberation' is pretty cold comfort to the studio producer who sees televisions task as in part to report, to reproduce and, equally important, in part to move towards establishing itself as an art form - in fact, to represent. The cinema is most memorable when, for all the freedom of its higher definition, it most uncompromisingly demonstrates that it is a specialized art. The picture is not, I am sure, as depressing as Dr Bell paints it. Higher definition would provide advantages to the creative worker in television - not because he could eliminate the close-up, eschew all the potentialities of the camera to select and emphasize, show all his characters in three-quarter or full-length figure and turn the viewers screen into a miniature proscenium arch, but because the effects at the disposal of his specialized art would be less limited. He could work in general with his cameras a little farther away from the scene. In particular, he would not be in the present predicament of fearing that, if a characters hands are on the screen, his head may be too small for subtle facial expression to be seen clearly in the average home. He could also view the steady increase in the size of viewers screens with equanimity.

But, and a very big but, given reasonable definition picture 'quality' is what really matters. I must not try to become technical, but is not this 'quality' a matter of tonal gradation, a function of noise, contrast range, gamma and so on? These are factors not inherent in the standards of definition of a system. A picture with the whites crushed and spurious modeling apparent on the faces must be just as horrible on 819 lines as on 405.

Higher definition will enable me to show a room on the screen more clearly, but will it help me to create more successfully that rooms 'atmosphere'? I think not. To capture that atmosphere must we view in a new 'dimension'? Is colour that dimension?

Monochrome Limitations

Television programmes cover a vastly wider range of type and style than the commercial cinema in its monochrome period. If the successes of the film documentary and avant-garde groups are added this disparity is perhaps not so great, but what is significant is that the areas in which television is, and black-and-white films were, less successful show a marked degree of identity. No really satisfactory way of presenting the dance on the black-and-white screen has been evolved;-realism succeeds, the unrealistic, the stylized is a much more chancy business; the black and white screen can be made to glitter, but it does not often glow.

It is in this realm of the unrealistic that I believe colour will open up vast new possibilities. Fussy detail and overcrowded background will give place to simplicity, but a warm and satisfying simplicity; neither cold grey emptiness nor hard black void. Of course, we shall make mistakes with colour. We shall at first think of it for its own sake and not as a means to an end. People will say, as they say about any new technical advance in any medium that colour has 'put television back twenty years'. But we shall hope to make these mistakes during an experimental period. Where we shall be lucky is in the fact that, for obvious reasons, the introduction of full-scale colour programmes will be a gradual process. We shall be able to present in colour those programmes which manifestly gain from it and to take time to learn why in others the gain appears to be a minus quantity.

This literally rosy prospect will, however, be conditioned by one factor; whether colour is introduced on present standards or at higher definition. Whether 'compatibility' in the strictly technical sense is a requirement of the system or not, a monochrome picture will undoubtedly be derived from the colour programme and that monochrome picture will have to be good. A considerable proportion of the experimental period will have to be spent in establishing the studio conditions necessary to give both good colour and good black-and-white.

The purely personal, selfish and parochial view of one studio producer, then, is 'colour first and higher definition afterwards'.

Does a less selfish and more forward-looking consideration alter this view? Is colour on 405 lines really good enough? Does it yield pictures as good as the present black-and-white picture? Are we right in hoping that the introduction of colour will not reduce the apparent definition? (May not, in fact, the addition of colour enable the viewer to pick out details by differences in hue, whereas on a monochrome picture he can distinguish only between different shades of grey?) Is the compatible picture on a monochrome receiver up to the requisite standard? Is the 'reverse compatible' black and white picture on a colour receiver up to the requisite standard? There is at present, I believe, sufficient diversity of view among the experts on the answers to these questions to frighten into silence the most foolhardy of the in-expert who cannot know whether a present defect is due to the system or standards in use on the one hand or to a particular piece of apparatus, a link in the electronic chain to-day, but due to be superseded to-morrow. We must trust the experts to make the right decisions. They have not let us down in the past.

More lines instead of colour, then? Surely to discuss the introduction of a higher standard of definition in the present Bands I and III is wishful thinking. Higher definition must mean, in this country, going to Bands IV and V. To do this without also introducing colour might be easier, but would it not also be lamentably uncourageous?

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