Wiley Defined Hi-Def

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Former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley has been a driving force on the HDTV issue since its beginning almost two decades ago. Now a partner in the Washington law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding, Wiley headed the FCC's Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), which helped forge the HD industry. He spoke to B&C's John Eggerton about the early challenges.

When did you first get the HDTV bug?

I worked on [then-analog] HDTV starting back in 1987, back when I was head of the advisory committee for the FCC. When digital came along in 1990, it was even better. This has long been a passion of mine.

We turned our recommendations in to the commission in 1995, and they recommended a standard in 1996, and that was the start.

Were there key points at which the development of HDTV could have gone down the wrong path?

Yes. The early one was the cutoff in 1990 for the international contest to pick the system that would be the basis of the HDTV standard. They were all analog systems.

Then I got the word that there was a digital system out there. I got word back to the people involved, and [General Instruments executives] came in to see me just before the Memorial Day weekend.

I walked over to the GI offices and said, "Can it really be?" Digital was always the holy grail. The Japanese and Germans had been telling us [digital] wouldn't happen until 2005. But General Instrument got it started in 1990.

Any more crucial points?

Another was that all the digital systems, while they did better than analog, had been developed on the fly. So I made the decision that we would put them all through a second round of testing and gave them the alternative of developing a single "grand-alliance" standard.

They had negotiations over several months, and it almost all fell apart. I got a call, and they were all, appropriately, at the Grand Hotel over on 23rd Street [in Washington]. They said they were going to go home 'cause it hadn't worked. I said, What are we apart on?

Some were for progressive-scan, some analog scanning. Let's stop focusing on the differences. Look at what we agree on, I said. Don't we agree that we have to go HDTV? They all said yes. I said, Don't we agree we have to double the amount of lines? They said yes. A day or two later, we were able to get the standard adopted, and I got it over to the FCC to get Chairman [James] Quello to bless it. That was really important.