As well as the day-to-day operational servicing of the programme departments, Thames’ Engineering Department plays a central role in designing, installing and maintaining technical facilities both inside and outside the studios. In many instances this research has benefited not only Thames’ productions and transmissions, but also other television companies in Britain and abroad.
Among the department’s current projects is one commissioned by the Independent Television Companies Association: an investigation into the feasibility of digital television, a system which borrows computer techniques to bring mathematical constancy to the television signal.
In simple terms, the system converts the television signals into digital codes at source. From then on, until decoded for transmission, the signals remain faithful in every detail to that which was encoded. Pictures generated in this way can be bounced off satellites without the slightest visible deterioration: live coverage of the US elections, for example, would be as clear as racing from Doncaster.
If the system were adopted, many of the familiar studio controls on picture quality would no longer be necessary. Ultimately, it may be possible to transmit digitally to the domestic receiver, when the familiar and often frustrating picture control knobs could largely be eliminated.
As with many revolutionary innovations, digital television will be costly. Even by today’s standards, equipment which can scan up to 80 million numbers per second is sophisticated, and sophistication is expensive. Part of engineering department’s job is to determine how few numbers need to be used to achieve the perfect picture.