why are there 3 videotape formats?

My very first online shopping experience was very pleasant – buying a videotape from a place in the UK (Disney’s Song of the South - not available here). I go to play it, and the picture is scrambled & voices sound like the chipmunks. I go to the web site to see if I can return it, thinking it’s defective, but eventually discover there are 3 tape formats – PAL, NTSC, & SECAM. The little world map they provided with color-coding told me that the USA is NTSC format; tapes made in the UK are PAL. I’ve been told it’ll cost me about $20 to convert it. I don’t get it – what makes one country compatible with only a certain format and another country, a different one? My VCR manual said nothing about this. So I guess this means movie producers send master tapes to other countries to be reproduced for distribution. But what’s the purpose of having 3 different formats?

The US pretty much invented video tapes, but they have a different television broadcast system to everyone else - NTSC uses less lines in their disply than PAL, giving an inferior quality image in comparison.

Most countries outside of the US not only use PAL, but have VCRs that play both formats. The US only plays NTSC. Don’t ask me why - arrogance? Costs? Beats me.

There are more formats than that - I don’t know anything about SECAM, but BETACAM is excellent quality used in television production for Master tapes.

Someone out there no doubt is more clued up than I.

Sychor, if you figure out how to convert it, please let me know. I had a similar experience with THE BLACK CAULDRON (which is now available in the U.S. in U.S. format.) Stupid of me – I knew about the tape differences, but the U.K. tape said “Universal” on it, and I thought that meant it would play on any VCR, not realize that was the same as the U.S. term for “General Audience.”

Sigh. Anway, I tried to get it copied or converted, but failed – Disney has put copy-protection on their stuff, so that I couldn’t get it converted. Good luck with your effort, and please let me know whether you are successful.

It’s not a matter of video formats. It’s a matter of the format in which the TV signal is broadcast.

SECAM, PAL, and NTSC were developed in different countries back in the early days of TV (SECAM was French, I believe; NTSC American. I don’t recall offhand who developed PAL – British?). The goal was merely to set up a workable format for TV broadcasting. There are various ways to achieve this goal and the three different systems emerged. Once there, each country specified the system it would be using. Everyone needed to get a TV set in that system.

Why don’t they standardize? Because that would require everyone in the nonstandardized countries to buy a new television. Maybe HDTV will be standardized around the world, since it requires the same thing, but up until now the idea of telling everyone in your country to turn in their TV and get a new one was not going to go over very well. The broadcasters also didn’t want to go to the expense of broadcasting in multiple formats.

National egos were also involved, of course.

(BTW, The U.S. for a while had a different, CBS, color system approved by the FCC – but approval was rescinded when NBC lobbied hard against it, pushing their system because NTSC was compatable with existing B&W sets. The CBS system – using a rotating disk in the back of the TV – was considered technically superiour to NTSC, which was nicknames “Never The Same Color”)

Unfortunately HDTV looks like it will be more of the same. The format most commonly used here already seems to be inferior to the ones used elsewhere.

Ironically both the USA and Japan use NTSC. This may explain why VCRs aren’t marketed in this format.

The USA generally developes things first, then someone else improves upon it.

Sorta… but the version I heard was that people were aghast at CBS’s color system and were wondering who they’d paid off to get it approved. The problem with CBS’s system, which required a rotating color filter wheel in front of the CRT, was not so much that it wasn’t compatible with existing sets, (which it wasn’t) but that it didn’t scale up well. The rotating color wheel worked okay when all you had was a 5" screen, but if you had a 17" screen the wheel had to be roughly 6’ across and spin at some frightful rate. RCA’s system, while not giving picture quality as wonderful as CBS’s did (NTSC works because while the luminance (black and white) information in a video signal is fairly high bandwidth, the color transitions in a scene are far lower bandwidth, and the color information can be shoehorned into the part of the video signal where only the highest frequency luminance information would go… in other words, they’re trading some picture definition for color images), had the advantage of not requiring an enormous color wheel rotating at some godawful speed in people’s living rooms. The concern is what would happen if there was some problem with the color wheel, and it either came loose or seized up. All that kinetic energy would have to go SOMEWHERE…

Someday we’ll look back on this, laugh nervously, and change the subject…

Thanks guys. CK - I’ll let you know if I’m successful with a conversion.

Cowboy, considering all this happened less than 50 years ago, it’s amazing how lost the details are. I guess it depends whether you believe the CBS version of history, or the RCA/NBC version.

The CBS version was that whatever worked on the small screen would also work on the large and that the idea of a disk the size of a garage door in your living room was just so much propaganda.

On the other hand, through various schemes and never throwing away anything, I have 10 televisions in my house, ranging from a little 2" hand-held jobbie, through a couple of $39.95 throwaway black and white models, to a couple of full-size screens for family viewing. WHAT AM I GONNA DO WITH ALL THESE SETS WHEN HDTV ARRIVES?

Okay, here goes a dumb question, but I’m technically-challenged, so I confess, after reading your replies again, I’m a bit confused. Why is a tv signal involved in playing a videotape? In this case, isn’t the tv merely a “monitor” (like my puter monitor) on which to show what is on the tape? I could understand if the problem was with the VCR, but the tv?

Because the signal on the tape gives information about the number of lines on the screen, the scanning rate, etc. The VCR then produces a broadcast signal from this information (well, a cable signal, which is essentially the same thing). If the receiver is not set up to decode that signal properly, you get gibberish.

AFAIK, all video players use the same helical scan system.



Factlet: PAL and SECAM are semi-compatible; You can watch SECAM programs on a PAL set and vice versa, but only in b/w. Also, there are two variants of SECAM – SECAM-West (France) and SECAM-East (Eastern Europe, at least former East Germany). The former factlet refers to SECAM-East (don’t know about the West version).

Just happen to need the TV standards info for my work (Hey, I AM working!). See http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Contrib/WorldTV/

Great stuff in there about this.