MAC – see what happens when governments make technical decisions on political grounds…

In the early 80s, before the UK government killed off the UK’s Independent Broadcasting Authority and privatised its laboratories near Winchester (now owned by NTL), IBA engineers came up with a new TV system which they called MAC (multiplexed analogue components).

MAC used the extra frequency space available from satellite transmitters to deliver clearer pictures. Whereas ordinary PAL separated the black and white content of a TV signal from its colour by frequency, MAC separated the signals in time, by sending them in bursts. MAC also delivered widescreen pictures, more like a cinema screen.

In 1982 a UK government committee gave MAC its blessing and four years later the European Commission issued a legal order or Directive (86/529/EEC) which decreed that every satellite broadcaster in Europe must use MAC, instead of the existing PAL system. But Europe then split the standard in two; the UK insisted on a full-blown system called D-MAC, while France and Germany settled for a stripped down version called D2-MAC.

This made it far more expensive for electronics companies to develop microchips for receivers. It also made Britain the odd country out.

When BSB signed up to provide Britain’s satellite service, using D-MAC was part of the deal. Chips were ordered from ITT in Germany, but proved so difficult to make that they were late.

By the time MAC was working in the lab, Luxembourg satellite operator Astra, and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky, had spotted a loophole in the EC Directive which said that all European broadcasters had to use MAC. The Directive applied only to satellites that worked on the frequencies officially reserved for direct broadcasting into the home.

Astra and Sky used lower frequencies so did not have to use MAC. In the UK BSB sat helpless, waiting for expensive MAC chips from Germany, while Sky broadcast in PAL to receivers that used tried, tested and cheap circuitry.

Some European satellites used MAC for a few years, mainly because the pictures are easier to scramble and harder for pirates to hack. But MAC was doomed, because Digital TV was already working in laboratories round the world.


Although MAC gave clearer pictures, most viewers did not care. Their TV sets were often too badly adjusted to show the difference anyway.

All in all MAC cost European industry many hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development. It could be regarded as money down the train or money well spent on building a knowledge base for digital TV.