Believe it or not, SMPTE really works only as a first-person pronoun.
An announcement from Amsterdam in September stunned the computer world. Microsoft, notorious for trying to keep its software proprietary, said it had submitted its Windows Media 9 compression system to SMPTE for standardization.
What’s SMPTE? The acronym stands for the Society of Motion-Picture and Television Engineers. But, even among SMPTE members, only a handful know what it really is (see sidebar “The Annual Time Code Convention”).
If that sounds like a secret society, the reality is even stranger. SMPTE began as a government plot.
Some are familiar with a later similar scheme. In World War I, radio played a major role in military strategy. Franklin Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of he Navy, signed an order eliminating patent claims to the technology for the duration of the hostilities.
Britain was on the same side as the U.S. in that conflict, but there was the possibility that the countries might be on opposing sides in the next war. The Navy Department didn’t want to take a chance on Britain’s Marconi Company hampering future U.S. military communications, so they introduced legislation giving the Navy a monopoly on wireless communications in the U.S.
When opposition from amateur radio operators and entrepreneurs threatened that bill, the Navy switched to Plan B. The U.S. should create a Radio Corporation of America, which would control American Marconi and all significant wireless patents.
That was the origin of RCA in 1919. No doubt Admiral Bullard, who pushed through the deal, would have been horrified if told that fewer than four score years later most of RCA would be sold to a company associated with the French government.
SMPTE, even earlier, also had military origins, this time the Army’s. With the war looming, the Army saw value in using motion pictures for training purposes. But a profusion of film formats made equipment expensive and difficult to repair or replace. A book published in London in 1899 listed 89 different, incompatible motion-picture film formats, with another 56 on the way.
So the government turned to a Washington, D.C.-based inventor, Charles Francis Jenkins, a motion-picture pioneer, to organize a society that could create order from chaos. After two false starts, the Society of Motion-Picture Engineers (SMPE) was formed in 1916. The T, perhaps unnecessarily, was added in 1950, long after SMPE began to get involved in video and television.
How does an organization go about transforming chaos into order? SMPE had a two-pronged approach. At meetings — and through a journal — the society would educate its members about the past, present, and possible futures of motion-picture technology. And working groups would hash out standards that were acceptable (see sidebar “No Pain, No Gain”).
That SMPE was successful is evident in almost any movie theater in the world. A 35-mm film print made in Hollywood can be shown in Britain, China, India, Japan, or Russia.
In video, SMPTE initially met with similar success. The gigantic quadruplex videotape format, using tape two inches wide, was initially developed at Ampex but was accepted industry wide after SMPTE standardization. The machines were actively marketed for almost three decades. But they remained big, heavy, and power-consumptive.
Ampex brought out smaller videotape formats almost as soon as the first “quad” machine was sold. There were competitive formats and proposals from a broad range of companies — Arvin, Bosch, Grundig, Hitachi, IVC, JVC, Machtronics, NEC, Norelco, Panasonic, Precision Instrument, Sony, Telechrome, Westel, etc. — but none seemed capable of supplanting quad in broadcast and high-end production.
Around 1976, that changed. The latest developments from Ampex and Sony were each deemed of the highest quality, but they were incompatible, and broadcasters didn’t want to move from the universality of quad to a situation where different tape formats might be needed to serve different TV stations.
ABC and CBS composed a white paper about how the new Ampex and Sony machines might be modified slightly into a new, universal broadcast videotape format. The white paper was submitted to SMPTE, and a working group headed by Fred Remley eventually reached consensus on the much-smaller-than-quad one-inch Type C format, adopted not only by Ampex and Sony but also by other manufacturers, broadcasters, and production facilities.
Today, less than three decades later, everyone records on — well, certainly not everyone records on Type C. Even ignoring high-definition and analog video, there are Betacam SX, D-5, D-9/Digital-S, Digital Betacam, DV, DVCAM, DVCPRO, DVCPRO50, and MPEG IMX professional videotape formats actively being marketed. Type C isn’t being marketed anymore, but some continue to record on the even-older 3/4-inch U-format videocassettes introduced in 1971.
SMPTE now has members is 85 countries worldwide and, seemingly, almost as many different videotape standards. Its standards, recommended practices, and engineering guidelines have never been mandatory, but now they seem more descriptive than prescriptive. And SMPTE is not alone.
In videography, the organization never was alone. The basic television standard used in the U.S. was created by the National Television System Committee (NTSC) — based (at least in part) on previous work by the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA) — and adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
When color was added, a second NTSC came up with the standard, and the FCC approved it, too (after a debacle involving non-standard color). When a flaw was discovered in the color standard, the Electronic Industries Association (a successor to the RMA) issued a tentative standard about it — one that was never finalized so that it couldn’t be approved by the FCC, such approval carrying potential consequences for those violating the government rules.
The IRE units of measurement for U.S. video signals came from the Institute of Radio Engineers, predecessor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The reel hubs on the quad recorder came from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). There was even a Joint Committee for Intersociety Coordination (JCIC), comprised of SMPTE, NAB, IEEE, and what was then known as the National Cable Television Association. Those members formed the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), whose digital television standard was approved by the FCC.
The list goes on. A common video test signal came from the Network Transmission Committee (NTC). The digital-audio inputs on videotape recorders use signals standardized by the Audio Engineering Society (AES). JPEG stands for the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the “joint” referring to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). MPEG, the Moving Picture Experts Group, falls under the same aegis. The basic component digital video standard, Rec. 601, is a recommendation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Liquid-crystal and plasma TV displays sometimes don’t seem to match any SMPTE standard but satisfy the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA). The Digital Visual Interface (DVI) found on such displays was standardized by the Digital Display Working Group (DDWG), formed in 1998. Some would say the DVI has been superceded by the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) working group.
Through it all, SMPTE perseveres, dealing with old 35-mm film standards and the latest in digital multimedia technology. But there’s a problem. It relates to the question, “What’s SMPTE?”
Like many other organizations, SMPTE has offices and a staff. But the staff will not standardize Microsoft’s Windows Media 9. The staff didn’t standardize the quadruplex videotape format.
The staff didn’t come up with the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. The staff didn’t get Ampex and Sony to agree on the compromises that led to the Type C videotape format.
If the SMPTE staff didn’t do all of those things, then who did? It was SMPTE’s engineering committees and working groups. And who comprises those? We, the people working in videography.
When you ask, “Why doesn’t SMPTE standardize _____?” you’re really asking, “Why don’t I propose the standardization of _____?” When you complain that a SMPTE standard doesn’t seem to apply to the real world, you’re saying, “I didn’t offer comments to help SMPTE figure out how the real world works.”
Back when videography was dominated in the U.S. by three commercial broadcast networks and a couple of powerful manufacturers, those organizations assigned engineers to serve on SMPTE’s working groups and committees to develop standards. Today, the field is much more democratized, and few organizations have the resources to pay engineers solely to work on standardization.
As a result, some SMPTE standards group meetings may be sparsely attended, and real-world input may very well be in short supply. It’s easy to blame SMPTE for the problems, but the headquarters staff isn’t involved in that work. SMPTE is no better than the video community that supports it.
To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s ‘possum Pogo, “We have met the SMPTE, and it is us.”
The Annual Time Code Convention
Videographers of a certain age can listen momentarily to an audio signal and say, “I hear SMPTE.” It’s not like holding a conch shell to the ear and hearing “the ocean;” those videographers do not imagine the sounds of grouped engineers. They actually hear a piercing electronic shriek, the sound of time code.
Why call it SMPTE? To many of those being introduced to videography at the time, the SMPTE-standardized time and control code was their only exposure to the society.
Why not just call it time code? Prior to the standardization, there were several proposals. So the data stream became known simply as SMPTE. And the question, “Want to join SMPTE?” carried connotations similar to those of “Want to sleep with the fishes?” Who’d want to be chopped into 80 bits per frame?
No Pain, No Gain
Stick top engineers in a locked room until they come up with a standard, and it’ll be the best, right? Not necessarily.
Given a brand new problem, the engineers might pick and choose among the best ideas. Unfortunately, standardization is rarely a brand-new problem. Often, it’s more of a political hot potato.
If Company A has the best idea, and, in fact, has essentially already implemented it, then Companies B, C, D, E, and F might reject that best idea because it would give Company A a head start. Instead, the group might achieve consensus on a mediocre idea that gives all participants the same starting position.
In standardization, this is known as The Equal-Pain Principle. The world eagerly awaits an Equal-Analgesic Principle.
True to Type
SMPTE’s first videotape standard had no type designation. It was for the only videotape recorders anyone could buy.
Types A, B, and C, however, were just three among many one-inch analog videotape formats available commercially. NEC wanted to make yet another one-inch analog format SMPTE Type D, but the “D” designation was used instead for digital formats.
Type E just added SMPTE designation to common 3/4-inch U-format videocassettes. Type F applied to the even-older half-inch open-reel videotape recorders previously standardized by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan (EIAJ). Type G applied to Sony’s Betamax, Type H to VHS, and so on. Analog videotape formats continued up the alphabet, while digital increased numerically from D-1. There are, however, neither D-4 nor D-8.
The latter was skipped to avoid confusion with the 8-mm Digital-8 consumer camcorder format. As for D-4, the problem was that the character for four can be pronounced as the word for death in some Asian languages. To put it in French, D-4 was avoided to eliminate Le Mort de Quatre.