Worldwide Analog Video Standards

A look at global analog video standards

NTSC PAL SECAM map

 Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In the world of analog television, there are three standards, and they're all incompatible with each other: NTSC, PAL, and SECAM.

The is television was "invented" at different times in various parts of the world (U.S., U.K., and France). Politics pretty much dictated at the time which system would be employed as the national standard in these countries.

NTSC

NTSC is the U.S. standard that was adopted in 1941 as the first standardized television broadcasting and video format, and it is still in use. NTSC stands for National Television Standards Committee and was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the standard for television broadcasting in the U.S.

NTSC is based on a 525-line, 60 fields/30 frames-per-second at 60 Hz system for the transmission and display of video images. This is an interlaced system in which each frame is scanned in two fields of 262 lines, which is then combined to display a frame of video with 525 scan lines.

This major drawback to this system is that it did not anticipate color TV broadcasting. A dilemma arose as to how to incorporate color without making millions of black-and-white televisions obsolete.

A standardization for adding color to the NTSC system was adopted in 1953. However, the implementation of color into the NTSC format has been a weakness—thus the term for NTSC became known by some professionals as "Never Twice The Same Color". Ever notice that color quality and consistency varies quite a bit between stations?

NTSC is the official analog video standard in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, some parts of Central and South America, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea.

PAL

PAL is the dominant format for analog television broadcasting and video display. It is based on a 625 line, 50 field/25 frames a second, 50 Hz system. Like NTSC, the signal is interlaced, composed of 312 lines each. It features a better overall picture than NTSC because of the increased amount of scan lines. Since the color was a part of the standard from the beginning, color consistency between stations and TVs is much better. The downside to PAL is that there are fewer frames displayed per second (25). You can sometimes notice a slight flicker in the image, much like the flicker seen on projected film.

Because PAL is the dominant format, it has been nicknamed "Peace At Last", by those in video professions. Countries on the PAL system include the U.K., Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, China, India, most of Africa, and the Middle East. 

SECAM

SECAM is the "outlaw" of analog video standards. Developed in France, SECAM, while superior to NTSC, is not necessarily superior to PAL. Like PAL, it is a 625 line, 50 field/25 frames per second interlaced system, but the color component is implemented differently than either PAL or NTSC. SECAM stands for Sequential Color With Memory. In the video profession, it has been dubbed "Something Contrary To American Methods," due to its different color management system. Countries on the SECAM system include France, Russia, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Middle East.

SECAM is a television broadcast transmission format, but it is not a DVD playback format. DVDs are mastered in either NTSC or PAL and coded for specific geographical regions, with regards to playback compatibility. In countries that use the SECAM broadcast standard, DVDs are mastered in the PAL video format.

In other words, people that live in countries that use the SECAM format also use the PAL format when it comes to DVD playback. All consumer-based SECAM televisions can view both a SECAM broadcast signal and a PAL direct video signal from a source such as a DVD player, VCR, or DVR.

Stripping off all the technical jargon regarding NTSC, PAL, and SECAM, the existence of these TV formats simply means that video in one place may not be the same as video in another. The main reason that each system is incompatible is that they are based on different frame rates and bandwidths, which prevents such things as videotapes and DVDs recorded in one system from being played on others.

Multi-System Solutions

There are some consumer solutions to these conflicting technologies. In Europe, for instance, many TVs and DVD players are both NTSC- and PAL-compatible. In the U.S., this problem is addressed by retailers that specialize in international electronics products.

Worldwide Standards for Digital Television

You would think that the worldwide implementation of digital TV and HDTV would solve the issue of incompatible video systems, but that is not the case. There is a world of controversy surrounding the adoption of a universal high definition standard for digital television and other media.

The US and several North American and Asian countries have adopted the ATSC (Advanced Television Standards Committee) standard, Europe has adopted the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) standard, and Japan is opting for its own system, ISDB (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting). Although there are obvious differences between HD and analog video, the frame rate difference still remains in PAL and NTSC countries.

In countries that have been on the NTSC analog television/video system, the HD broadcasting standards and recorded HD standards (such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD) still adhere to the NTSC frame rate of 30 frames per second, while the HD standards in countries that have been on the PAL broadcast/video standard or the SECAM broadcast standard adhere to the PAL frame rate of 25 frames per second.

Today, most televisions, as well as almost all video projectors, are able to display both 25 frames and 30 frames per second HD format signals.

In terms of broadcast, cable, and satellite television in the digital age, there will still be compatibility issues worldwide. With the implementation of video processing and conversion chips in more video products, it may become less of an issue moving forward.