Social construction of home electronic worlds.

Based on a historical case: From TV and HDTV (HD-MAC) to multimedia

Finn Hansen
Unit of Technology Assessment
Technical University of Denmark

This paper is a short description of the history of HDTV (High definition TeleVision) in Europe 1986-1993, from HD-MAC to digital TV. It is intended as an example of the social construction of the home electronic world. The intention is to show the complexity and flexibility of the meaning (social interpretation) of future consumer electronics.

In consequence of this I points to the need for further methodological development in the STS area (Science of Technology & Society), and I will mention some contributions, which are to be used in a further project on international electronic visual media.


The theoretical background for this paper is the SCOT approach on historical studies of technology and society (Social Construction of Technology developed by e.g. Wiebe Bijker, The Netherlands - se references).

The SCOT method focused on technology as 'interpretative flexible', the technology is formed within different interpretations: The meaning of the home electronics is created by several social groups. The use of technology is not defined by (or built into) technology, but is defined by relevant social groups.

Social groups can develop technology for their goals. In some period a 'closure' is in power - as an absolut dominance by single solutions in society. The Television has for a period after second World War been a well-defined international technology with known solutions (standards for broadcasting and products). There has been a closure - a stable, pre-structured and controlled social form of Television.

But as the failure of EC's HD-MAC project (1986-1992) has implied, the scene is now open: Television is not a pre-defined technology, it is an open room for several social relevant groups, incl. corporations and organisations. Television is recently redefined, especially by the social groups in the area for digital computer technology.

With this case on: High Definition TeleVision standardisation in EC (the HD-MAC story 1986-1992) I will focus on the ideas of:

  1. How is the agenda for technology development created as a social process?
  2. Which interpretations of television is pulled ahead today?
  3. Standardisation is one important key in the social construction of television technology.
  4. The historical dimension is important as a key to understand social processes through time.

Television and television standards

After the first television experiences in 1920-1940, TV was developed as a mass consumer product after second World War. Television was standardised in a number of national systems, which resulted in the existing colour-TV-standards: NTSC in U.S. and Japan, PAL and SECAM in Europe etc. Television was first constructed as transmission of pictures like the radio transmitted sound through air over long distance. The use of television was organised around national and private broadcasting stations, and the media production was developed on experiences from radio, theatre and film, and then formed into visual mass-media in the dominant political and cultural society.

The quality of the picture was - and is still - bounded by the transmission standard, which defines the television signal and system. The television has gone through several improvements since then (like the major shift to colour TV), but the quality of the television picture is restricted by the technical standard. The resolution is bound by the transmission standard. This is especially a problem, if bigger screens is desired. The idea to develop a new and better standard seems natural as next step in a continuing development of television.

But while the idea of an better television picture maybe seem simple and elementary, the social construction of such a standard is not! As the following will tell:

The Japanese proposal to CCIR

In 1986 the Japanese brought a proposal to CCIR, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union under FN) organisation for international standardisation of television. The Japanese proposed their new High Definition Television System, MUSE, developed by NHK with the Japanese consumer electronics industry, as an international standard. The Japanese electronics industry was a major exporter of television sets, and they was very strong in competition with Europe and US.

The reaction from Europe was "no"; the representation from France, The Netherlands etc. could impossible accept the Japanese standard. Furthermore after the refusal of the Japanese standard, the European countries started up their project to construct an alternate HDTV- system.

The European interpretation of the Japanese HDTV-proposal was a significant threat against the European television and consumer electronics industry, which was concentrated in 3 major corporations: Philips in the Netherlands, Thomson in France and Nokia in Finland. An accept of the Japanese standard could be the end to European television production.

On the technical agenda the standard discussion focused on questions like the use of 50 Hz (Europe) or 60 Hz (Japan) frames frequency in video signals. Although these specification has specific meaning in the technical construction of the television system, it was in this context primarily an instrument in the international Japan-Europe competition on the future television.

The European project: HD-MAC

The EC project did not start from scratch, but it took a starting point in the satellite transmission standard: MAC (Multiplexed Analogue Components; in this system colour and light information could be transmitted separate to avoid interference).

The European system was called HD-MAC: High Definition MAC. The HD-MAC system was close connected to the development of commercial satellite broadcasting. The technical MAC-standard itself had its origin in satellite broadcasting, and the band width of the TV- signal required satellite or cable transmission. And in EC an alliance with private commercial satellite broadcaster was adequate with the liberal political atmosphere.

The final HD-MAC standard had digital sound and analogue transmitted pictures. Which means the video signal is transmitted analogue as in the existing systems.

Through the EUREKA programme, started in 1988, EC funded the technological development of a alternate HDTV-system. The goal was to gain a better system than the Japanese MUSE, and to create a driving force for development of European electronics industry. And the way to do it, was to develop a better high-quality television with bigger and better picture and with better digital (CD) sound.

Besides being a reaction on the Japanese standard proposal, HTDV was the solution to another purpose: HDTV was the next generation of the TV, which would create a new expanding market for consumer electronics. While the existing market was stagnant.

In the publicity HDTV was presented as television with higher resolution. One main argument was: The picture of the television was like the film: sharp, clear colours and broad 16:9 format. HDTV was a monitor for wide- screen movies.

On the broadcasting side the EUREKA programme was supported by an EC-directive on satellite television broadcasting. The broadcasters was forced to use the standard and support the HD-MAC plan, as the directive imposed them to use the new proposed transmission standard.

But it did not succeed. The directive was meet by a remarkable contra reaction. The satellite broadcasters avoided the MAC-directive from 1986 by sending from other satellites, and later revision and strengthening of the directive was meet by strong resistance.

In 1990 the discussion in the public was very critical against the HDTV-plan. Cooper and Lybrand published a critical report ("Television in 1992") with a conclusion, which was widespread in the newspapers: HD-MAC was expensive for consumers, and it did NOT for years give any improvements in TV-quality.

In 1991 June-July a new EC directive is proposed, which starts a heated debate and controversy between broadcasters and EC, Philips etc. The directive is revised, and the result is a compromise - a recession for the HDTV-PROJECT.

But nevertheless the EC activity on HD-MAC was continued, now through subsidies to promote the use of HD-MAC system in television production.

In 1990 the Vision 1250 PROJECT is launched by EC to support production of HDTV-programs for HD-MAC.

In 1992 the HD-MAC system is demonstrated on the world exhibition in Seville, Spain. In defiance of the problems the system could still look like a potential success.

In EC 1992 it was proposed to make a 800 million. ECU support for production of HD-MAC-programs, as supplement to the Vision 1250. The purpose was to produce programs, which utilised the new HD-MAC system. But this gave new internal and increasing problems in EC: England starts to block the process and the subsidies to HD-MAC programs. First main English argument was political: The subsidies doesn't harmonise with a liberal free market, and they are not political accepted.

There is made several agreements and compromises in EC, e.g. by cutting the budget to 500 million ECU. Later the English argument is technological: The analogue HD-MAC system is old-fashioned, and will be outdated within few years. This argument is combined with the fact, that the two primary actors: Philips and Thomson is participating in FCC's test for an American digital television standard.

But let me here draw your attention towards some of the key questions in the international standard discussion:

International standardisation and discussion

In Japan the development of their MUSE-system continued, and in 1989 NHK started to broadcast HDTV from satellite.

Like the Japanese EC made their proposal for a world-wide television standard. In 1991 the proposal is to discussion in CCIR. But HD-MAC is not recommended as an international standard. On the contrary CCIR defines a group on digital television standards.

Still there is an agreement on the 16:9 width:height dimensions of the screen. The goal is to have wide screen films in television in high quality.

Despite no decision on international standard, the European and Japanese actors are continuing their development and support for their respective HDTV-systems.

The discussion of the future international HDTV-standard in this period (1987-1992) is focused on the contradiction between the Japanese system with 1125 lines and 60 Hz frames and Europe's: 1250 lines and 50 Hz frames. But despite the difference the discussion represents an agreement on, how the future television is interpreted: A better, high definition television based on further development of fairly old and well-known ideas. HDTV is a home movie.

Other important arguments in the discussion was the backwards compatibility. The Japanese system was not compatible with existing European and NTSC systems. It required a total shift in technology. The European system, in contradiction, could be implemented step-by-step, with the old system still running.

An important problem is the band width, where HDTV use increasingly band width. The increasing band width in the frequency allocation gives a decrease in number of channels and programs. The HDTV answer is satellite and cable transmission, which has the capacity for broadcasting HDTV. Terrestrial broadcasters is counted out, among these there is several of the old national public broadcasters.

But the discussion it not only on two possibilities: a new argument is appearing in the discussion: Should the video signal be transmitted as an digital signal instead of an analogue signal? A major actor is moving ahead:

Digital Americans

In 1990 June General Instruments, an US based electronic firm, - demonstrates a model for digital television for the very first time. This approach is then chosen by FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the US organisation for television standards. When FCC opened for the competition and test of an US HDTV-standard, the condition was, that proposals should take the digital television approach.

It should be noted, that US television industry is mainly owned by European and Japanese corporations, while the national computer industry is very strong.

EC's first reaction to the digital standard was to neglect it: The digital l solution was only a theoretical approach. And the digital solution had a major band width problem, which would decrease the number of transmitted programs. It was NOT any reasonable possibility on the agenda.

In 1991 we have three simultaneous television systems under way: The Japanese MUSE, The European HD-MAC, and a theoretical American digital standard.

The fall of EC's HD-MAC

I mentioned the satellite broadcasters resisting the MAC-directive and the English political veto against subsidies, factors which led to the internal crisis and fall of HD-MAC.

One main shift in Europe came about 1992. A Nordic PROJECT "Divine" demonstrated a functional laboratory model of a functional digital television system at the IBC exhibition in Amsterdam august- September. The demonstration was meant to show, that the digital television IS on the agenda for actual development of future television. The demonstration gave the result - the digital solution was now a practical, existing possibility. Although there were no production equipment available. This was the turning point for digital television.

Both Philips and Thomson was active in US, and they did participate in the FCC test 1992-1993 for digital television in US. The two European television companies worked on digital television, even though they at the same time was head producers of HD-MAC equipment.

Winter 1992-1993 Philips announce, that there will be no production of the HD-MAC televisions. This was the end for the European HD- MAC PROJECT. 1993 marts is the EC HD-MAC finally cancelled. EC was still room for discussion on, how to support European television, but now the digital standard was on the agenda for future European standard.

The winter 1992/1993 the HD-MAC died, the analogue model was finally dropped in 1993. New actors supporting a digital standard for production and distribution was on the scene, and pushing a new agenda for the television of tomorrow. After the American decision to select a digital system and the failure of HD-MAC the project the agenda for television is changed. The digital model is dominating, and several groups working on digital technology is expanding their work.

With the improvement in digital technology, one main argument for the digital television approach is compression, and the resulting growth in transmission capacity. I 1993 a factor of 4 (400%) increase in transmission capacity on all broadcasting equipment is mentioned as realistic. With this argument, which can be interpreted as a dramatically decrease in distribution cost, broadcasters rush towards a digital transmission.

Although the digital model in 1993/1994 is proclaimed as the future solution of television, IT is not the only one. In Europe the German PAL Plus standard is developed with improvements in the technical quality of television. Several alternate models does exist. And the development is continuing, with a spectrum of technical solutions to the television standard international.

The agenda for television development

I will emphasise the change in the interpretation of television in 1986 and in 1993/1994, after the major shift to digital television. First the interpretation of, how the agenda for development of television is changed:

Television is further product development for an existing and competing electronics industry. HDTV is interpreted as better television quality, an 'engine' for progress in European electronics industry and defence against the Japanese consumer electronic competition.

Television is going through a system change to digital television, where compression technology will reduce transmission costs, and increase number of channels, and turn TV into a computer compatible systems.

For my point of view, we have a shift from high quality product development to mass production with cheaper transmission and distribution.

This is at the same time a change in actors and power relations, both national and international. In 1986 the Japanese actors was the driving force on HDTV, with Europe as a major competitor. But in 1994 the scene has moved to America, as the important centre for television development, with European electronics industry as key participants.

In Europe 1986-1992 the Commission was a key and powerful actor. After the fall of HD-MAC, we find EBU, European Broadcasting Union among the strong important actors. While EBU is an active key actor in the organisation and development of European digital television.

The main controversy for EC 1986 was the Japan-Europe discussion, another controversy is today more important: Computer industry versus consumer-electronics industry. The keyword is multimedia, and the vision from several computer firms is that television is integrated as a part of the computer. Within this vision a stand alone analogue television has no meaning.

But even then, we have not only a change in actors, the focus and the agenda is changed: The existing concept of television as visual mass media is confrontation with the US computer points of view: television is a computer compatible picture monitor, which will show pictures from an increasingly amount of sources: Traditional broadcasters, CD's, on-line databases, games on discs or CD's, graphic programs etc. For computer firms the television is a way to further expand PC market into private homes.

This vision is on the agenda today, while video cards for PC's and Macintosh is moving ahead from computers stores into market.

This could imply a shift from mass media towards communication, and from one-way media to interactive media. The consumers and users will have to be their home-editors, editing pieces of a enormous mass of information from outside world. Supporting the consumers in doing this editing, selecting important information and cut out noise, will be a main challenge for media suppliers etc.

The interpretation of the television is open. The future television or it s successor is interpreted as an improved (but traditional) television, an multimedia PC with CD-ROM etc. - or virtual reality as an complete visual 3D representation of the world. The number of variations in increasingly high, while the technology is interpreted as: an electronic living book, a newspaper, a film-box, an .....

The theoretical problem: complex dynamic processes

The case point to a methodological and theoretical problem: How to handle these complex and open social processes? The process has following characterisation:

* The development is global, any major changes has influence world-wide and on other actors.

* The numbers of actors involved on the international scene is high, including electronics industry, EC and EUREKA, national and international organisations, national and international broadcasters including satellite broadcasters, consumers, interest groups etc.

* The social groups are acting on their own background, with their own goals - and concurrently in co-operation with other actors.

* No international actor has any ultimate power to set the agenda for future television nor to implement it.

* The network and alliances is important, but not stable in the process through time. The structures of power is changing over time.

* The social construction of the future television is a continuing and dynamic process through time, and through different situations, with different agendas and power-structures.

* The question of a future final international closure on television is an open question today, although several powerful candidates can be found.

The historical dynamics is important in the analysis. What at one point in time was a qualified solution (1986), is on another time out of date and a minor interpretation. The question is how to assess technology and decisions in the time dimension: We can today, in a 1994- perspective evaluate the European 1986-decision on HD-MAC. But is that interesting?

Even for the most powerful and biggest corporations in international electronics industry it is not possible to predict and control the future development of home electronics in the long run.

But are we then forced to accept, that the question: "What will be the future world of home electronics?" only can be answered by: Time will tell!

In the further project I will draw on the experiences from The History of Technology. This is an expanding field with some important contributors, like Thomas P. Hughes (US) and Håkon W. Andersen from Norway. Besides being an analysis with focus on time and processes through the time space, History of Technology is interdisciplinary analysis of the process with all its events, persons, firms, etc.

Important consumers in the background

The consumers role in this area points to a paradox: The consumers only have indirect influence. They appearing through the public debate, and typical after technical solutions is constructed. Consumers are invisible in the technological development process, and they only weak or indirect represented the main projects and programs (e.g.. EUREKA).

On the other hand the consumers as the markets buyers are the key argument and basis for launching of new products for market. As the actors in international television development has market-control as a key target, they necessarily is forced to interpret, what product the market will accept and buy.

Even before reaching the market, the HD-MAC system was considered as a failure, which only few consumers would pay for.

This indicate, that interpreting the consumers need and willingness to buy further electronic equipment have a central role. There is complex and often indirect relation between development of new consumer products and the human needs for these.

Where do we find the consumers needs are in the discussion? The main part of the discussion, I have referred, is focused on HOW to implement HDTV, and which standards it should be based on. But the question: WHY invest great resources in it, is fairly never mentioned. It seems strange. But here you should reflect on the history: The most common interpretation of the history of television is a continuing development of a better technology. Where the overcome of technical problems, always have been turned into economic marketing success. The television is the symbol of modern consumers welfare. The consumers did buy black & white television 1950-1970, they did buy colour television after 1965 in millions, they did buy video - so why not a better television, HTDV?

Why not? One argument is: Because the future is not mechanical constructed from the past. The trajectory of television has been strong, by now it looks like, it will break open.

Further project

This subject will be further studied and analysed in the project: "Social Construction of electronic visual media" starting 1.7 1994 at The Unit of Technology Assessment at the Technical University of Denmark. In these studies I will draw on the Social Construction of Technology approach combined with methods from history of technology.

The project will focus on a process-oriented analysis of the institutional and historical frames for the development of electronic visual media the last 15 year. It includes an investigation of the dominant actors involved in the development and the technology and their relations. The project will analyse the interpretations, the actors construct on television, video and multimedia.

The goal of the project is to contribute to the development of our understanding of technology by using Social Construction's methodologies. Within this a key discussion will take its starting points in 'technology frames', which covers the question of organising social groups within common interpretations of technology.


An example list of public articles (mixed Danish and English) on the subject is available; please write on e-mail to me: if you're interested.

A more in-depth analysis will be done in the above-mentioned research project from July 1994. An extended paper on "The history of the European HDTV-standardisation, HD-MAC", is published at TVI, DTU soon (in Danish).

Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, Trevor J. Pinch (ed.) (1987): The Social Construction of Technological Systems - New Directions in the Sociology and History, The MIT Press, Boston.

Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law (ed.) (1992): Shaping Technology/Building Society - Studies in Socio-technical Change, The MIT Press, Boston.

Håkon With Andersen (1990): "Et tankeskjema for teknologihistorie - er det mulig? Om forskjellen på å gå til kildene med et åbent og et tomt sinn", article in: Polhem no. 3, 8. volume.

Thomas P. Hughes (1983): Networks of power - Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

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