Why such a confusing state of television in the world? Well, it’s really a matter of three nations and national pride. The Germans demonstrated one of the first TV productions in 1928 in Berlin, but the Americans were the first to develop a broadcast TV standard and later a color television standard that was also compatible with existing black-and-white sets. The price the US paid for being first was that the other systems, developed later, could learn from and improve on NTSC — which some wags call “Never (Twice) The Same Color.” Although the NTSC color standard is inconsistent and technologically inferior to systems developed later (except for a faster frame-per-second rate), many technical developments have improved the NTSC picture over the years.
Next came the Germans and their system of “Phase Alternating Lines” (PAL). The Germans added 100 more lines of resolution to the picture (625 versus 525 for NTSC) and improved the color system to get more consistent hues. This is the system currently in use in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and almost all of western Europe (except France). This means that a television set from the US (NTSC) will not be able to receive PAL transmissions, simply because its screen and working innards are a TV of a different color. For the same reason, a German TV set is useless in the US.
The French, not willing to settle for anything either the Americans or the Germans had done, blazed their own video trail and created a third TV system they named SECAM, which is a French acronym for a phrase having to do with “sequential memory.” The original black-and-white SECAM had an astounding horizontal resolution of 900 lines! (Close to today’s much touted high definition TV of 1000+ lines.) But with the advent of color, it would have taken way too much bandwidth to keep 900 lines. They settled, quite grudgingly I’m sure, for a mere 625 lines—equal to the Germans but at least more than the Americans (until HDTV came along). The upshot is that the French and Germans are unable to watch each other’s TV programs without a converter, even if they live near the border.
For an American or Canadian going to German-speaking Europe or vice versa, there are several possible solutions to the TV dilemma, most of them expensive.
- The simplest solution: Buy a PAL TV set before or when you arrive in Austria, Germany, or Switzerland. PAL sets can be expensive but they are very good, and you automatically get such features as Bildschirmtext, the videotext service available in all three German-speaking countries. That brings you all sorts of information, including news and even airplane departures and arrivals. There's one disadvantage: If you have US video tapes, they are unusable (unless you have a multi-system VCR), and you won't be able to receive Armed Forces TV in areas where US military are stationed. The advent of digital TV may help, but there are still some complications.
- The best answer (and the most expensive): Buy a multi-system television that handles all three TV systems. Then you don't have to worry about which system you're using, or even where you are. The disadvantages are mostly financial. A multi-system TV costs two to three times more than a normal TV. And it may or may not display the German Bildschirmtext.
- A multi-system VCR or DVD player: If you are primarily concerned about viewing video tapes or DVDs, a cheaper solution is to buy a multi-system video recorder or DVD player. Although this solution will usually not allow you to view German TV unless you also have a PAL TV set, the advantage is that most multi-system VCRs will work on any TV monitor — PAL, NTSC, or SECAM. This allows you to play tapes/DVDs from the States as well as rented or purchased PAL tapes/DVDs. Most of the better multi-system VCR models record from any one of the three systems into any one of the others. The cost ranges from about $500 to $2000. The cheaper versions will usually only play back in two of the systems (and play back SECAM in black-and-white only), and may not record in all three standards.
- A standards converter: If you want top quality for video tapes, and you view a lot of video, a separate standards converter used with a VCR or DVD player usually gives superior results compared to an all-in-one unit. Surprisingly, it may also be cheaper than a combined VCR/converter. . But some multi-code DVD players will play in either PAL or NTSC (but you need to check).
The solution you choose will depend on your goals and your financial situation. No one set-up is going to be right for everyone.
Will my US video tapes or DVDs work in Germany?
Several problems prevent you from playing a recorded American (NTSC) tape on a PAL VCR. (It’s the same for DVD.) These include a different frames-per-second rate (25 in Germany, 30 in the US and Canada) and different recording speeds (faster in the US). The good news is that blank US video tapes will work in a PAL VCR (but only in PAL mode). Standard VHS video tape cassettes bought in the US work just fine in Germany in a PAL video recorder (and vice versa). Although the European cassette is labeled “E-120” or “E-240” instead of the “T-120” or "T-240" in the USA, the only difference is the length of the tape. A US T-120 tape will record for about 150 minutes in Germany because the PAL recording speed is a little slower. A European T-120, on the other hand, will only record for about 100 minutes on a US video recorder. But a US tape recorded in PAL mode will not play in the US on a non-PAL VCR, and a European tape recorded in the US will not play back on a normal European VCR (but some German VCRs do play back NTSC tapes).
It is possible to have tapes “translated” from PAL to NTSC or the other way around (PAL to NTSC looks better). But tape conversions by a commercial firm are expensive if you have a lot of tape to convert. $15-20 for a standard two-hour tape is a commonly advertised rate for video conversion. That's fine if you only have a few tapes to convert, but not otherwise.
How about digital TV and DVD?
The emerging digital television standards offer only limited hope for a world-wide TV system. It appears that the world will continue to be divided up by television standards even after the introduction of terrestrial-broadcast digital TV. In Berlin and other major German cities all TV broadcasting over the air is now digital only! But most Germans get their TV via cable, so there are few digital TV sets in use. There’s also no high-def TV in Europe.
But Europe, Japan, and the US each seem determined to use slightly different digital television broadcast standards, continuing the current television Tower of Babel, albeit with a better picture. The new flat plasma and LCD digital TV screens can usually handle either PAL or NTSC (if you have the right tuner or other equipment). But the introduction of DVD (“digital versatile/video disk”) once again divided the world into several incompatible DVD video formats. Mostly for copyright reasons, the DVD world is divided into six worldwide regions. A DVD movie disk from America (Region 1) will not play on a normal German (Region 2) DVD player, or vice versa. Most DVD players in computers can switch to another Region Code, but some are easier than others to convert and there is a five-time limit.