If you ever want to witness a fun, truly free sports game, then travel to Naples, Italy, and get a good seat on the bay of Via Marittima, south of the Capri ferry terminals. Nearly every evening a line of small boats fills the horizon at sunset. Then on some cue invisible to the watching public, the boats will start to race at full pelt toward the shore; on board are cigarettes and tobacco that will be smuggled, if and when the boats reach land. To the right of the bay, on the same cue, one or two customs boats will race out toward the smugglers.
Like gazelle being chased by cheetahs there will be only one victim for each attacking animal. In Naples, virtually every boat gets ashore and gets its cargo unloaded before the shore authorities can catch up to them. Some of the boats allow themselves to be caught, and are found with no contraband. It's a numbers game.
It's not surprising that the same technique was used in Italy to create pirate TV. When a different person occupied every channel in Rome and Milan, it was impossible for the Italian PTT to catch them all. And if they did catch one and put the station off the air, another entrepreneur quickly snapped up that empty channel. For this reason, the pirates had to stay on the air around the clock, or else their purloined channel would be “rescued” by another pirate. Even the current Prime Minister of Italy was involved; he had one of the first channels out there, and his enterprise survived and grew after the government caved in to the pressure against the so-called boring and unwatched output of the national broadcaster, RAI.
I visited a lot of these pirate stations and found a common belief that they were transmitting “broadcast quality” video. Most were using U-Matics with consumer modulators driving a PA into the antenna. A few later went on to use time-base correctors and, of course, some of the equipment became sophisticated enough to spawn a complete transmitter business.
It's our fault in the broadcast industry for not defining “broadcast quality” in performance terms. There is equipment available that can be used to create cheaply produced home video shows from the most questionable signals. But every time I see “broadcast quality” used as a marketing attribute it makes me groan internally.
The entertainment industry also avoided defining the performance standards of a CD, so we entered a long phase where everything was produced in “CD quality” — from satellite radio to MP3 players to “HD” Radio. In the case of one of the satellite radio providers, the allusion that its output was something you could hear from a decent CD player shows a deranged mind at work.
Does it stop there? No. It grows with technology, and the latest bandwagon to get on is describing products as offering “DVD quality.” The products I have seen using this descriptor include MP4 players, the output from computer processors and camcorders, and mobile networks offering “DVD-quality” video.
There is one startup from the Northeast that delivers video “in background” — in other words, not streaming live — that the company says “mimics what consumers expect.” What are “mimics” and “DVD-quality” doing in the same sentence?
I've seen claims of DVD-quality from products that “compress 20 times” that of MPEG-2. Ouch! And, of course, some of these products use display screens as large as 3.5 inches. The viewing experience obviously is going to be very compelling to broadcast-quality engineers.
There also are major issues associated with the expected use of products. Take some expensive portable CD players and then use an external audio chain to listen to the output. You may be surprised at how nasty the signals are. The manufacturer relies on you to use the sub-standard headphones supplied with the equipment to get rid of the higher-frequency hash. I'm going to try and do that with one of the relatively expensive portable DVD players to see what the video quality is really like. Just because it plays DVDs doesn't make it “DVD-quality” in my book.
Some of the airlines now are giving their first-class passengers laptop DVD players to while away flights of four hours or more. The quality of the players may be questionable, but I have seen the battery peg out before the end of the movie. Ensuring they have enough fuel is obviously something the smugglers in Naples take much more seriously.
Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.
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