Broadcast TECH canvassed industry experts past and present for the top 25 products and innovations that have changed TV. Will Strauss reveals the winners, starting back in 1956 and through to the present day
- Ampex VRX-1000 (1956)
Originally designed as a time-shifting device for US broadcasters, the VRX-1000 was the first commonly available video recorder.
Later renamed the Mark IV videotape recorder, the VRX-1000 was introduced at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters in Chicago.
Charles P Ginsburg, who led the Ampex research team, described the Chicago demonstrations as “like dropping a bombshell on the broadcasting industry”.
CBS Television City in Hollywood was the first broadcaster to use the device when it aired a delayed Douglas Edwards With The News.
- Mostek MK4096 Dynamic RAM chip (1973)
An enabling technology, Dynamic RAM made digital video devices possible.
“For the first time, these chips were fast enough to accommodate the constant re-reading to generate the next line or frame of video,” says Root6 head of systems integration Phil Crawley.
“Without Dynamic RAM, there would have been no picture-in-picture, no timebase correction, no standards conversion and no digiscan telecines.”
- SMPTE Timecode (1975)
A digitally encoded signal that is recorded on videotape to identify each frame by hour, minute, second and frame number, timecode has transformed TV production.
The original standard, C98.12-1975, was developed in collaboration with the American National Standards Institute. “Unsung, unsexy, but crucial,” says consultant Hugh Waters of Waters Technical Services.
“Without timecode, the electronic television production industry we know today simply couldn’t have existed.”
- Quantel DPE 5000 (1978)
The DPE 5000 was the first fully specified Digital Video Effect (DVE) system.
“Along with previously available slides, resizes, squishes and zooms, it allowed you to rotate the picture,” explains Evolutions operations director Owen Tyler.
“You could also enjoy a dazzling palate of mosaics, trails, strobes and split screens, and for the really brave, a tumbling cube.”
- GEC-McMichael ACE Standards Converter (1981)
Cost-effective standards converters, based on a BBC invention, allowed US television series and sport programming to be delivered, as video to the UK, and vice-versa.
“Before the ACE and converters of this type, entertainment and sport shows were acquired with two entirely separate rigs: one 525 lines and one 625 lines,” says David Klafkowski, joint managing director at The Farm Group.
“Tell the kids today and they wouldn’t believe you.”
- Fuji 250asa (1981)
The advent of faster, more sensitive film stocks in the early 1980s – not just from Fuji but also Kodak and Agfa – combined with higher-speed lenses gave cinematographers greater options.
“Instead of being limited to studios, we could embrace shooting on location,” says freelance DoP Stephen Murphy.
“We could also utilise more available light and light larger areas with the same size of lighting package.
“Using naturalistic, soft light sources became much more practical and work began to take on a more cinematic visual style.”
- Quantel Paintbox (1982)
European Broadcasting Union (EBU) director of technology and innovation Simon Fell remembers the impact Quantel Paintbox had when it launched:
“For the first time, digital painting work with dedicated hardware was affordable.”
- AMS Audiofile (1984)
The first hard disk-based digital recording, editing and playback system “set both picture and sound post on the road to digital”, says Pinewood Studios Group special projects consultant Dennis Weinreich.
“Other systems with greater elegance and integration followed, but when AMS showed the prototype for the Audiofile, no one could have realised its impact.”
Halo chief exec John Rogerson agrees: “I don’t think anyone would argue that it sounded better than tape, but the concept was revolutionary, offering flexibility and greater speed.
“With the AMS Neve Logic mixing console, it was a truly formidable bit of kit.”
- DaVinci (1984)
“Programmable colour correction changed the way we light, shoot, edit and present images,” says Waters.
“Although there had been several programmable colour-correction systems available for a while, they were all quite limited.
“It was probably the one built by VTA Technologies, a post house in Florida, that had the biggest impact and whose legacy lives on as the DaVinci Resolve.
“I believe it was the first grading system to have a multi-vector secondary colour correction and adjustable ‘windows’ that could be graded independently.”
- Quantel Harry (1985)
Quantel’s digital editing and visual effects compositing system Harry made the impossible possible.
“Harry was the first real hard-disk-drive frame-storage device,” says Framestore founder Mike McGee.
“It enabled true multi-layered compositing of images, typography and animation.
“The fresh, sharp and textured images we were able to produce were previously only available to graphic artists working in print.”
From that point, it became practical to combine animation with live action, replicate actors in a scene, extend sets and integrate green screen.
“Many other tools evolved from the Harry concept,” says Deluxe chief operating officer Lesley Marr.
“Notably the Quantel Henry product used on the famous Guinness surfer commercial. It influenced VFX in movies and, along with CGI software developments, helped to shape the way post has developed.”
- Sony DVR-1000 (D-1) (1987)
The first practical digital video recorder, the D-1 was capable of recording individual luminance and colour difference signals.
“For the first time, we had digital 601 and 422 images recorded without compression or loss,” says Fell.
- MPEG Digital Compression (1988)
The Motion Pictures Expert Group (MPEG) isn’t a manufacturer, but rather a body from which some key technology standards have emerged.
Without it, however, TV and online distribution as we know it would probably not exist.
“MPEG digital compression systems enabled the introduction of digital TV and led directly to today’s multichannel world,” says Arqiva broadcast and media technical design director Tony Mattera.
“These systems, pioneered by NTL in the early 1990s, continue to be developed. With the improvement of MPEG2, and now H.264, multiple SD and HD channels can be transmitted in the space once occupied by a single, analogue service.”
Or, as Red Bee Media chief technology officer Steve Plunkett puts it: “Multichannel digital television, HD, file-based workflows and IP-based distribution simply wouldn’t be possible without continuous improvements in video-compression algorithms.”
- Avid Media Composer (1989)
Other companies may have been first to market with computer-based nonlinear editing, but it was Avid that made it ubiquitous.
In April 1989 at NAB, Avid/1 (eventually renamed Media Composer) was unveiled.
Using an Apple Mac II plus dedicated Avid hardware, it allowed the creation of a detailed list of edit points rather than a rearrangement of the original source material. It liberated television editing.
“At the time, Lightworks was possibly the better technology, but Avid pulled ahead by making Media Composer universal,” says Neil Hatton, freelance post-production and management consultant.
“It was marketed as ‘change your mind without losing your mind’, a reference to the ability to reorder and recut to your heart’s content. People took to it straight away.”
Evolutions’ Tyler agrees. “Anywhere in the world an editor or producer can find an Avid cutting room and be entirely at home,” he says.
It even helped change the shape of production teams, according to Alias Hire managing director Mike Smith:
“You used to have VT editors, assistants, tape ops and runners. Now you have an edit system connected to a server with terabytes of already ingested footage, a dual screen, mouse and keyboard and a built-in vision mixer all in a small room. And one editor.”
- Photorealisitc RenderMan (1989)
Pixar’s legendary CGI rendering software RenderMan was release commercially as Photorealistic.
“Through being able to create new experiences, limited only by imagination, that need nothing more than computers and a few talented people, it made a profound contribution to TV and film,” says Mediasmiths chief technology officer Steve Sharman.
- Satellite (1989)
Some innovations are so small you can’t even see them. This is not one.
“In 1988 there were only four channels,” recalls BSkyB chief engineer, strategy and architecture, Chris Johns.
“Then, in 1989, [thanks to satellite broadcasting] the choice was doubled overnight.”
And that was just analogue – then came digital satellite broadcasting in 1998.
“Digital and the expansive bandwidth allowed the cost of channels to drop and the breadth of broadcast content to the home to expand at a huge rate,” adds Johns.
Satellites had an impact on TV in other ways too.
The first piece of satellite news gathering – the signing of the Channel Tunnel agreement in 1987 – changed how TV news operated.
“It made it possible to deliver live TV reports from anywhere in the world,” says ITN director of technology Keith Cass. “We still see innovation in satellite technology changing the face of television.”
- Steadicam (1990s)
Although invented by Garrett Brown in the 1970s and widely used in features, it took a while for Steadicam to infiltrate TV.
“By the time ER came around in the mid-1990s, the infamous walk-and-talk shot had become a staple TV drama technique,” says Murphy.
- EVS LSM (1994)
Tapeless workflows have improved the scope of live television, thanks in part to technology such as EVS’s first live slowmotion product, the HCT2, a RAM-based video recorder that allowed for instant slo-mo replays.
“Tapeless working has influenced what’s possible on-site at an OB, from the massive impact of EVS on sport to pushing footage to an on-site edit and pulling the finished packages back for instant broadcast,” says Arena Television head of engineering Gareth Wildman.
- Digital Betacam (1994)
Digital Betacam (Digibeta) was the first tape format robust enough for TV production.
“It enabled productions to shoot in the field in high quality,” says Channel 4 broadcast development engineer Shane Tucker.
“It also allowed post-production to be much more creative and, of course, was a reliable delivery and interchange format that’s still used almost 20 years on.
The transition to file-based workflows hasn’t been as immediate as expected, which is largely down to the success of Digibeta.”
“[Digibeta] gave videotape some aesthetic value and made both shooting and editing more flexible and creative,” explains BBC North controller of production Mark Harrison.
Prime Focus broadcast managing director Rowan Bray believes Digibeta was symbolic of the move to digital. “There were a few bits of kit that took us on that journey,” she says, “but the change from Beta SP to Digibeta was the one where we had to look at the whole acquisition and editing path and convert to digits throughout.”
- Tektronix Profile (1996)
“The broadcast video server enabled true multi-channel broadcasting, which was never possible using tape,” says C4 chief technology officer, broadcast, Kevin Burrows.
Sold to Grass Valley Group, the Profile became one of the cornerstones of the broadcast industry’s transition to digital.
- Apple Final Cut Pro (1998)
The latest incarnation of Apple’s non-linear editing system might have caused some consternation among professional users, but the first iteration of the “high-street” editing software “demystified post-production – for good and ill”, says Harrison.
- Dolby E (1999)
A method for squeezing six audio tracks into the space normally occupied by two, thus allowing the easy transmission of 5.1 surround sound to domestic viewers.
- Sony DSR-PD150 (2002)
Cheap digital video (DV) cameras, particularly the Sony PD150 and before it the Sony VX1000, changed what we see on television, spawning whole sub-genres. But while they liberated the filming process, allowing an operator to record for long periods, for example, there were knock-on effects.
“A new job, the self-shooter, was created,” says freelance online editor Ian Brown.
“After that, the indiscipline of shooting hour after hour of meaningless content, only to create the story in the edit suite, began to slowly creep its way towards ruining what used to be a professional medium fielded by craftsmen.”
- Nucoda Film Master (2003)
In the 1980s, grading a one-hour TV show went something like this: feed edited A+B 16mm fi lm reels onto two telecine machines; load EDL into grading desk; activate power on two large pumps that fill the telecine gates with perchloroethylene fluid to fill in cell base scratches; start grading. And that was just the support act.
When the gig started in earnest, you had to deal with leaking fluid, drifting colour, dust and more.
The modern-day process is far simpler and instantaneous, according to colourist Vince Narduzzo, pointing to the Nucoda Film Master.
“Film has pretty much become digits,” he says. “Apart from the occasional computer crash, we can concentrate on grading pictures with extraordinary levels of manipulation compared with the steam-driven telecine suite.”
- Arri Alexa (2010)
The move to HD, in particular to HD cameras, sent ripples through production, affecting everyone, including editors. “In my experience, the Red One changed things as it opened the door for HD cameras to be used on BBC drama, and now the Arri Alexa seems to have taken over,” says editor Kristina Hetherington.
DoP Gavin Struthers adds: “When the BBC stated that S16mm was no longer broadcast quality, television went entirely digital almost overnight.
“The Alexa was born from this sudden move away from film and, in a way, has Red to thank.
“However, I think the Alexa has had a bigger overall impact on British television. It has been superbly marketed, it has a simple user interface coupled with an easier post workflow, it has the advantage of Arri’s vast array of film accessories – and it generates beautiful images.”
- Canon XF305 (2010)
The Marmite of the camera world. “Love it or hate it, this camera changed the industry,” says freelance TV cameraman Mark Moreve. “There had been issues with other small-form cameras, but the XF305 ticks all the boxes.”
Over to you…
This list was compiled with the help of some senior figures from across the broadcasting industry (see below), but with so much kit to choose from, you might not agree with our panels’ choices.
Is there a glaring omission from our list? Tell us what you think should have been included by tweeting with the hashtag #TechTop25. And you can vote for the piece of kit that you think has had the biggest impact on TV by clicking here.
This article is taken from the August/September issue of Broadcast TECH. Click here for the digital edition
Andy Bell, VoD technical project manager, Channel 4; Rowan Bray, managing director, broadcast, Prime Focus; Ian Brown, freelance online editor, managing director, Impossible Ideas; Kevin Burrows, chief technology officer, broadcast, Channel 4; Keith Cass, director of technology, ITN; Phil Crawley, head of systems integration, Root6; Simon Fell, director of technology and innovation, EBU and director, Innovizr Ltd; Mark Harrison, controller of production, BBC North; Neil Hatton, UK Screen technical sub-committee chair and freelance post production and management consultant; Kirstina Hetherington, freelance editor; Chris Johns, chief engineer, strategy and architecture, BSkyB; David Klafowski, joint managing director, The Farm Group; Lesley Marr, chief operating officer, Deluxe; Tony Mattera, technical design director, broadcast and media at Arqiva; Mike McGee, founder, Framestore; Mark Moreve, freelance TV cameraman; Stephen Murphy, freelance cinematographer; Vince Narduzzo, colourist, Narduzzo Too; Steve Plunkett, chief technology officer, Red Bee Media; John Rogerson, owner and chief executive, Halo Post Production; Steve Sharman, chief technology officer, Mediasmiths; Mike Smith, managing director, Alias Hire; Shane Tucker, broadcast development engineer, Channel 4; Owen Tyler, operations director, Evolutions; Hugh Waters, consultant, Waters Technical Services; Dennis Weinreich, special projects consultant, Pinewood Studios Group; Gareth Wildman, head of engineering, Arena Television