the emergence of motion pictures and television is typically linked
to the rise of commercial culture and mass entertainment, the extent
of industry growth cannot be adequately explained without acknowleging
the extensive benefits that came from technical standardization.
Incorporated in July 1916, the Society for Motion Picture Engineers
(SMPE) sought to act as a professional forum for its members, and
to publish technical findings "deemed worthy of permanent record."
The impact of the society, however, extended far beyond the research
reports published in SMPE's Journal and Transactions. With
film pioneer Francis Jenkins installed as its charter president,
the society took as its first task the development of a 35mm format--the
standard upon which the the motion picture and telefilm industries
were built. Subsequent SMPE interventions codified two-color cinematography
(November 1918), three-color technicolor (August 1935), and optical
sound recording technologies (September 1938, October 1930). Although
the organization began as a professional association for technical
specialists, its public actions worked as an antidote to the high-risk
economic and methodological instabilities that accompanied the introduction
of each new film/television technology.
interests in television predated by decades the formal addition
of "Television" to the society's name in 1950 (SMPTE). Groundbreaking
work was published on alternative delivery systems ("Radio Photographs,
Radio Movies and Radio Vision" by C.F. Jenkins, May 1923), on vacuum
tube imaging devices ("Iconoscopes and Kinescopes" by V.K.Zworykin,
May 1937), and on RCA's field test of a comprehensive broadcasting
system in New York (R.R.Beal, August 1937). While this pre-war flurry
of engineering interest in television may suggest a proactive and
determining influence, subsequent actions demonstrate just how provisional
SMPE's recommendations were. For example, although the Journal published
standards for CBS's new high-resolution color television system
in April 1942, the subsequent combination of coercion and economic
clout lead the government to opt for an inferior system in 1947.
The FCC favored RCA/NBC's less developed alternative, thereby forcing
engineers to impose color information onto the limited black-and-white
bandwidth of NTSC--a system that had itself been hastily (and some
would say prematurely) adopted in 1941. Or again, despite the open-ended,
forward-thinking proposals put forth by Jenkins for theatrical television,
pay per view, and set-licencing subsidies in 1923, the harsh regulatory
realities of the FCC licensing freeze from 1948-52 effectively deferred
development of alternative delivery technologies for decades. A
three network oligopoly would dominate for almost thirty years as
a result of the freeze; enabled by economic and regulatory collusion
rather than engineering wisdom.
such actions demonstrate the provisional nature of the society's
recommendations--SMPTE is not a government regulatory body like
the FCC, but an association of professionals representing a wide
range of proprietary corporations--subsequent breakthroughs mark
key points in the history of television technology. Standards for
the eventual victor in the color television race (NTSC) were finally
published in April 1953. Engineers from Ampex disseminated information
on the first commercially successful videotape recorder in April
1957--an event that led to the precipitous death of the kinescope,
initiated intense competition among VTR developers in the years
that followed, and altered forever the way viewers see liveness
(live-on-tape). Although American industry lagged behind foreign
competitors in the race for viable "digital" video systems, SMPTE
began to disseminate engineering standards for a spate of new digital
television recording formats developed in Europe and Japan starting
in December 1986.
international battle over high-definition television (HDTV) demonstrates
the strategic role a standardizing organization can take in the
international arena. NHK in Japan had produced and begun marketing
an HDTV system in the early 1980s--long before American corporations
entered the fray with working prototypes. European corprations soon
offered a competing system. U.S. broadcasters, however, resisted
HDTV development given the tremendous costs involved in changing-over
from current transmission systems. Eventually, however, SMPTE worked
on and proposed a third HDTV system. Unlike the analog systems from
NHK and Europe, SMPTE's late start allowed them to propose an all
digital sytem. When the FCC started competitive trials between three
American-centered consortia--and then cancelled the trial before
rendering a verdict on the winner--the implications were clear.
Government intervention meant that the U.S. would produce a single
"consensus" HDTV system. The resulting "grand alliance" minimized
the risk of losing an expensive R and D race, and affirmed SMPTE's
all digital lead. The foreign trade journalists howled at the prospect
of what many now considered--given America's late HDTV entry and
government muscle--the odds-on international favorite. Engineering
standards, then, can be political footballs used for economic leverage
and technological nationalism. They also frequently provide a demilitarized
zone for manufacturers; especially for those corporations that wait
on the sidelines to apply the lessons of the proprietary risk-takers;
that wait, in short, until the corporations that are first off the
technological runway go down in flames. Japanese equipment manufacturers--Sony
and Matsushita--stood on the sidelines and watched pioneers Ampex
and RCA in the 1960s. Computerized video and HDTV now show that
the process works in other directions as well.
Courtesy of SMPTE
future influence will depend upon how well it comes to grips with
several substantive changes. It must respond to the technological
"convergence" blurring boundaries between film and electronic media;
it must continue to demonstrate the value of common technical ground
within the proprietary world of mulitnational corporations; and
it must engage a membership that increasingly lies outside of the
confines of engineering. As studios are reduced to computerized
desktops, and practitioners with technical backgrounds cross-over
into creative capacities (and vice versa), technological discourses
will become no less important or problematic. Given the inevitable
capital-intensive nature of electronic media--and the public shift
to paradigms of decentralization, entrepeneurial imperative, and
market volatility--issues of standardization and technological "order"
will be more crucial to the future of television than ever.
William. Fifties Television. Urbana, Illinois: University
of Illinois Press, 1990.
David, Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger. Classical Hollywood
Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
George. Life After Television. (New York: Norton, 1992.
in Motion Picture and Television Technology. White Plains,New
York: SMPTE, 1991.
Brian. Misunderstanding Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 1986.
also Jenkins, Charles