Uncle Sam Looks at Television

The tall man with the whiskers and the red, white, and blue suit plays an important role in any consideration of television. When and what kind of television you can expect depends fundamentally on the frequencies used for transmitting television sound and pictures and Uncle Sam’s Federal Communications Commission allocates the frequencies.

It is FCC’s job to decide, on the basis of television’s importance as a public service in relation to the importance of other bidders, which frequencies should be assigned to television and which to the other services making use of the air waves. The other bidders include standard broadcasting (AM), frequency modulation (FM), aviation, short wave, police and fire, maritime communication, government ser-vices, and others who have a claim to a share of the radio “spectrum,” as the whole range of frequencies is called. (See chart on p. 33.)

In the decisions handed down in May 1945, FCC assigned commercial television to the “lower” frequencies and proposed that it stay there for the time being. Meanwhile, however, FCC is encouraging research and experimentation which may show that better television pictures can be, transmitted via the higher frequencies.

FCC maintains a staff of engineers and advisers to help it in making its decisions. It is their duty to make a thorough study of all claims to a share of the wave spectrum. The communications industry has also set up a Radio Technical Planning Board (RTPB) comprised of leading engineers. Their job is to uncover as many facts as possible regarding all the various services desiring to make use of the spectrum, and to make recommendations to FCC for assigning frequencies to the various services.

Although FCC recognizes that much laboratory and experimental work remains to be done to improve television standards, it has kept the way open for commercial television at low frequencies. The 1945 allocations decisions left the commercial television broadcasters the lower frequencies already in use, but indicated that in the end these might be turned over to FM broadcasting and other radio services. In allits recent reports, FCC has put increasing emphasis on experimental work in the higher frequencies, with the intent of moving all television broadcasting “upstairs” later.

The commissioners have assigned commercial television to the lower frequencies where it now is because they believe it is in the national interest to have television get under way soon after the war. They don’t want to do anything to slow up this new industry that unquestionably shows considerable promise. Also, it is an industry which, if given its head, may offer employment to thousands in the postwar years.

Why the controversy then?

Right about herd, someone usually struggles to his feet and asks, “Well, if no one knows what kind of a picture we are going to get on our television receivers because the space in the spectrum has not yet been definitely assigned, why do such leaders in the television industry as RCA and Philco say that the present picture is good enough for us, and why do others, like CBS and Zenith, recommend that better pictures be developed before television receivers are put on sale?”

Well, you might look at it this way. Some people like the present television pictures and recommend that everybody buy receivers built to present standards. Others think that better pictures can be produced and urge you to wait. If you happen to be a television set manufacturer or dealer, you are likely to recommend the present television pictures wholeheartedly. If you happen to be a broadcaster, your television programs and your ability to sell television to commercial advertisers depend upon the quality of pictures that your listeners can view in their homes. So you are likely to be a let-us-wait-awhile enthusiast. Of course you might happen to be both a manufacturer and a broadcaster, like General Electric. In that case it probably won’t make any difference to you whether people get television now or next year—except that you will want to get back your investment in television research as soon as possible.

Battle in the spectrum

Before the war, television was given permission to operate in the portion of the spectrum between 50 megacycles and 300 megacycles. Of course, television today doesn’t have exclusive claim to this part of the spectrum; it has to share the spectrum with other services, such as government radio, ship-to-shore communications, and so on. Now one faction of the radio industry, headed by CBS, Zenith, and the Cowles Broadcasting Company, wants television to be moved: upstairs in the spectrum. Television broadcasting on the ultrahigh frequencies above 400 megacycles will make possible, they believe, a wide-band, fine-screen system that will give you better pictures in your home.

At the same time, wartime scientific research has shown that these same high frequencies are useful for ship-to-shore, ship-to-ship, ship-to-airplane, and other maritime and aviation services.

And so what was once the empty attic of the spectrum, now becomes a battleground. It is not a certainty that post-war television will be far enough advanced to make use of this portion of the spectrum.

Should FCC have waited for engineering probabilities to become certainties before allocating channels for tele-vision in the radio spectrum? Would you crowd maritime and aviation services in the high frequencies to make room for commercial television? Should manufacturers be forced to wait until improvements are made in television before they, start manufacturing sets, thus postponing any return on their investment in research and development?