I suspect there's an epidemic in the Washington area. The ailment isn't contagious, is curable and is a self-limiting condition. Still, if you've ever had it, you know it hurts like nothing else.


I grew up here so I'm not affected, but I wonder about other people. The cabbie who understands the zone map but not much English; the Indian woman in a blue sari who serves me lunch at a vegetarian restaurant; the Italian mother wheeling her toddler down a supermarket aisle stacked with cereal boxes screaming at her in idiomatic English. How do they cope, I wonder, so far from their language and customs?

Many must find it lonely -- particularly when they watch the cultural cacophony we call television. Ah, well: Let them watch videotapes sent by friends and family in their native lands. A 30-minute infusion of home-grown news and music might perk them up. But it's not that simple.

You can't, for example, watch French videotapes on a VCR purchased in America or treat your friends in the States to videos recorded from English telly or send American videocassettes to your cousins in West Berlin or Copenhagen or Brazil.

Whatever the shortcomings of American commercial television, the medium itself remains a marvel, a key to improved world communications. But thanks to politics and economics, there's very little that's universal about television transmission or videotaping. We're still worlds apart electronically. That's a shame, because sharing information could pull people together and move us closer to being a global village.

We can exchange compact discs, records and audio tapes -- those are standardized throughout the world. We can even trade computerized information to a greater extent than previously. But cross-cultural videotape swapping and the internationalization of TV technology still remain dreams.

The world is a patchwork of different television systems, none of them compatible with another. Unlike Europe and parts of Asia, the United States, Mexico, Canada, Japan and parts of Central and South America, for example, all use the National Television Systems Committee television format. The first color system developed, NTSC uses 525 scanning lines and 60 frames (pictures) per second.

In TV's early days, NTSC was unstable, prone to color shifts and known derisively as "Never Twice in the Same Color." So German electronic engineers and other Europeans developed another system, PAL (Phase Alternate Line), the 625-line, 50-frame television format used in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, most of the European continent, Australia, India, China, Brazil and Argentina.

The French decided to go their own way and developed SECAM (Syste`me Electronique pour Couleur avec Me'moire), a different color system that uses 625 lines and 50 frames. The Soviets and their Eastern European satellites went with versions of SECAM (the better to stop their subjects from viewing Western European TV), as did several non-PAL Middle Eastern countries and parts of Greece.

To complicate matters further, China originally used SECAM but switched to PAL to demonstrate its independence from the Soviets. There's also MESECAM in parts of the Mideast, a format different from French and European SECAM. And there are subsystems: PAL (Brazil), PAL N (Argentina), PAL B/G (Western Europe), PAL I (United Kingdom), SECAM D/K (Eastern Europe) and SECAM (parts of China).

Confusing? You betcha. And all these systems are incompatible with one another, giving us the video Tower of Babel. So let's say you represent an organization and you want to show NTSC videos to your clients in Vienna, London and Paris. Until recently you had only two choices: either ship over an NTSC VCR and TV or buy a multi-standard VCR. Both choices are costly and clumsy.

All manufacturers of VCRs (only Japanese and Korean companies make them) produce multi-standard models that can switch among SECAM, PAL and NTSC, but they have serious drawbacks for most consumers. They are expensive and cumbersome, lack multiple speeds, tuners and deluxe features, and work only in conjunction with equally expensive multi-standard TV sets or modified monitors.

Worse, many are shabby recorders (with poor NTSC performance) designed as playback-only models for the Mideast market, where there's little worth taping off the air. Only one multi-standard VCR is available from a major manufacturer in this country, an industrial model by Panasonic that won't display a picture on a standard TV.

Of course, there's not an enormous demand for such machines, though I think there's an obvious market for them in the Washington area. But there are other reasons they're unavailable here. VCRs are cheaper in the United States than overseas, where they often sell for double our prices. Manufacturers don't want entrepreneurs buying up multi-standard VCRs here and shipping them to Europe for re-sale. You can buy a multi-standard machine overseas and bring it home, but it's not wise: You won't have a service contract; nor will you be able to buy parts for it here.

Fortunately, there's one small company -- an American one at that -- offering us the only chance to see and exchange videotapes from anywhere in the world. Instant Replay Inc. (2951 S. Bayshore Dr., Miami, Fla. 33133; 305-448-7088) makes five models (adapted Hitachi and Matsushita machines) of "the Image Translator -- your passport to world communication."

These VCRs (starting at $659 for a non-recording player) connect directly to virtually any standard TV and play NTSC and PAL in color, SECAM in black and white; record NTSC in color in all speeds from NTSC sources; record SECAM and PAL from those sources in black and white; and play both PAL speeds. The exception is the $1,995 top-of-the-line World Traveler, which plays all systems and subsystems, including SECAM, in color. Other features available include wireless remote, VHS hi-fi, dbx sound processing, surround sound and HQ.

Universal VCRs aren't for everyone, but shouldn't there be a choice? More than 45 million VCRs are expected to be produced worldwide this year, with the British and West Germans approaching our 40 percent ownership rate. A lot of people would trade and show tapes from and in other countries if they could. If nothing else, multi-standard VCRs could help cheer up some homesick folks in the Washington area and give Americans living abroad a little taste of home. ::