Digital Standard Bearer

ATSC President Mark Richer maps out the future of DTV

Long before he became president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) and began to map out the future of television, Mark Richer built a TV set from scratch.

Growing up on New York's Long Island, he helped his father build a color TV using the electronics hobbyist's trusty Heathkit. “I remember unpacking all the parts,” recalls Richer. “There were thousands of resistors and transistors and capacitors. It was scary.”

Years later, Richer, one of the recipients of a B&C Technology Leadership Award, is still preoccupied with the nuts and bolts of TV. As head of ATSC, an international organization developing standards for digital television (DTV), he helped establish the DTV paradigm for North America, Mexico, Honduras and South Korea. Now he is working with the ATSC board of directors to implement the multi-tiered DTV “strategic plan” that the group announced last year.

Richer, 51, has been influential in determining standards and finding new ways to capitalize on broadcasters' spectrum since the 1970s, when he helped test a closed-captioning system while a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, N.Y. His work utilizing the vertical blanking interval (VBI), the portion of the broadcast signal between video fields, to transmit captions and other data, such as scoreboard updates, has earned him two patents.

“My own career has kind of been happenstance,” he says. “Things sort of happened at the right time.”

Richer initially attended RIT for photography, a passion he developed in high school. But his interest turned to television after he took a part-time job at the TV studio of the nearby National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). The institute, which was developing a closed-captioning system for testing on PBS, hired him full-time and picked up the cost of his tuition.

Upon graduating with a degree in audio-video communications, Richer began a year-long stint at NBC affiliate WROC Rochester in roles ranging from camera operator and technical director to “midnight dubber,” preparing the next day's commercials.

After moving to Byron Motion Picture, where he learned the intricacies of videotape and telecine, he went to work for PBS in 1979. There, he climbed the ranks from lab tech on its closed-captioning project to VP of engineering and computer services.

In 1992, Richer joined the FCC Advisory Committee charged with recommending the new U.S. television standard. As chair of the group that oversaw the testing process, he served as the committee's liaison to the independent test centers.

Dick Wiley, the former FCC chairman (1970-77) who headed the advisory committee, praises the acumen Richer demonstrated in making sense of the barrage of technical information and refereeing the conflicting corporate interests.

“He understood the technology and understood the policy issues and could blend them in a way that very few people could,” says Wiley, now a managing partner of Wiley Rein, a Washington-based law firm specializing in communications law.

Glenn Reitmeier, VP of Technical Standards, Policy & Strategy for NBC Universal and chairman of ATSC's board, recalls Richer as a “tireless champion of inter-industry cooperation” during the testing.

“The situation was so competitive, and there was tremendous pressure to stay on schedule,” Reitmeier says. “Mark's solid engineering and leadership played a key role in keeping the advisory committee on track. Without this solid foundation, we probably wouldn't have the ATSC DTV standard.”

Reitmeier also applauds Richer's push for multicasting capabilities, which enable broadcasters to split their bandwidth into a variety of individual channels for programming and data services.

Richer served as ATSC's executive director for close to a year before leaving in 1997 to join Thomcast-owned Comark Corp. There, he set up turnkey installations to help TV stations implement DTV and ran marketing and business-acquisitions initiatives for the firm's U.S. operations.

In 2000, ATSC lured Richer back to be its president, a role that puts him in charge of a group that represents everyone from broadcasters, cable and satellite operators, and the motion-picture industry to equipment suppliers and consumer-electronics and semiconductor manufacturers.

“One of the great things about my position at ATSC is that I get to know the people and the organizations that are driven to make digital television a great success,” he says. “I've been extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a lot of terrific people.”