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June 2008      back to HDTV index

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What you watch is far more critical to picture quality than your choice of TV. 99% of the time that there's a crappy picture, it's because you're watching a poorly produced TV show, or something that got screwed up someplace in the broadcast chain. I know – I spent many years fixing these problems, and they are rampant today.

I quit my real job in Hollywood in 2004 to do this website full-time. Now all I saw was consumer video, and it's awful!

DVDs are great, but most of what comes off the air and through cable and satellite is awful, both for all the added noise and artifacts, and the fact that the picture rarely fits the screen.

Since I came from the industry which produces and distributes all the programming for much of the world, I know all too well what's a problem with the program and what's a problem with the display.

My background is in program creation, network distribution and to some extent local TV stations. I have less experience with CATV.

Regions

I'm an American and write from this perspective. DVDs, the best source of HDTV, don't vary around the world, but off-air TV varies wildly.

All my comments about off-air TV and the FCC don't apply outside the USA.

As far as I know, only the USA is dumb enough to have thought it could auction-off VHF TV airspace to private businesses to make a profit for the US government. Research Joel Brinkley's writings for the best explanation of this fiasco.

Comments about DVDs and other sources apply worldwide.

Movies on DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray

DVD, HD-DVD and Blu-ray are the very best sources. Even regular definition DVDs (movie DVDs from Hollywood, not your wedding video) look fantastic on 60" plasma sets so long as you're not sitting too closely.

These are the best sources for many reasons, including:

Movies are hand-made works of art. We in Hollywood spend many hours agonizing over every possible aspect of the production, pre-production, and I personally was involved with the post-production, which is going from film to final DVD. There is nothing second-rate about movie DVDs. They are gone-over many times and optimized in numerous ways before they get to you.

Unlike cable and satellite TV, even standard-definition DVDs have a much higher data rate which permits a stellar image. SD DVDs use a data rate around 10 Mb/s. HD and Blu-ray are much higher.

Unlike any other time in history, even a used $5 DVD looks pretty darn close to the digibeta telecine master from which the DVD is authored, so long as you're not sitting too close. I've been around Hollywood a long time, and I can't see any bothersome difference between a DVD and the original with the very rare exception of seeing a little noise around sharp lines and opening credits if I'm sitting too closely.

Of course you always can find bad anything, but a Hollywood movie DVD is your very best bet for a perfect picture and sound. Most of what people think might be defects, like dark or off-color pictures, are almost always exactly as the director wanted it. In fact, often DVDs give the director his first chance to get the colors perfect, since there are more flexible color correction tools in transferring from film to a DVD than there are in optical printing a movie for the theaters.

It doesn't matter if you're watching Blu-ray, HD-DVD or even a regular $5 used DVD. Even though the HD discs can be a little sharper than the SD DVD, 98% of what makes a color picture is the lights, darks and colors.

If you don't want to buy a Blu-ray player today, even an ordinary DVD player is a wonderful source to watch on a huge HDTV.

 

Wide Screen vs. Full Screen DVDs

What do these mean? What's the difference?

It's simple: DVDs care about quality and fitting your screen. That's why each standard DVD movie usually comes in two versions, Wide Screen and Full Screen, to fit every kind of HDTV. It's funny how standard definition movies do this far better than HDTV itself, which almost never fits the screen.

Wide Screen

If you're watching a 16:9 wide screen or HDTV, select the usual DVD default of widescreen. This way you'll get the wide movie just like in the theaters. Your wide screen usually fills up perfectly. Often a little is sliced off the ends of the original 1.85:1 image to fit the 1.78.1 (16:9) screen, and just as often when transferring from camera negative, the Hollywood transfer to DVD can pick up a little extra image area at the top and bottom of the frame not seen in theaters, if the DVD needs it. Sometimes 1.85:1 movies will have a little black on top and bottom.

If the movie was shot in 2.40:1 Panavision (scope), you'll get black bars top and bottom. This is the only way to fit the much wider Panavision rectangle on your not-quite-as-wide widescreen. This is the way it is, and why the ASC was so rightfully livid about using an arbitrary 16:9 format for HDTV.

Full Screen

If watching on a normal TV, choose the less popular Full Screen option (if the DVD has it). Your conventional 4:3 screen will fill with the image, yay!

Most widescreen DVDs will play with black bars top and bottom on normal TVs, which is the only way to fit the wider image on a 4:3 screen.

Visually impaired people may prefer the Full Screen option even with a wide TV. In Full Screen, faces and objects are usually cropped more tightly and therefore larger.

How you Get These Two Versions

DVDs get you these versions in several ways.

When I bought the DVD for Elf, there were two DVDs in the case: one for Wide Screen, and a second for Full Screen. That's cool. Each DVD has all the artwork, and they are both in front of me when I open the case. It costs only a few cents to press each DVD, and for all I know, probably costs less to press a second conventional DVD instead of making a more complex two-sided one.

More often, you'll get one disc with two sides but no label except a tiny ring in the middle. Each side has a different version.

Less often, you'll have a setup menu menu option for the two versions.

DVDs often but not always, come in these two versions. If there's only one version, it's usually Wide Screen for movies, and Full Screen for TV re-runs, training, advertising and promotional sales-pitch give-away DVDs.

 

Netflix

Like HD? You're going to love Netflix! For an actual total of $18.31 a month, they just keep mailing us all the HD DVDs we can watch. They also have Blu-ray and, of course, the world's largest selection of seemingly every DVD ever made. When I wanted to borrow the movie to which my dad took my mom for their first date in 1957, it was right there.

Better than the best selection, price and content, is that Netflix' website just works. It works so easily I use it as an example of how every website should work.

HD disks cost no extra at Netflix. Hallelujah!

It's not "renting," since we've got unlimited access to borrow whatever we want. The only difference in rates depends on just how many discs you'd like to have out at the same time. We're on the three-at-once plan, so we always have one in if another one or two are in the mail.

Netflix is like a library membership. Borrow all you want. The membership is priced only on how many you'd like to have out at a time.

Better than a library, they mail them to you for free, and you drop them back in the mail one-by-one, postage-free, when you're done. It only takes two days for the round-trip, so we always have discs to watch.

When you sign up, all you do is put the movies you want in your "queue," the long list of movies you want to watch. As you return them, Netflix automatically sends you the next movie. If you don't own a computer, no big deal: just log on once every few months on a friend's PC and add enough discs to your queue to hold you for the next two months. The monthly fee is paid automatically.

In case you didn't know, you don't even need to get dressed. The US Postal Service picks up mail from your own mailbox, so just ask your mailman, and you can leave the return envelopes in your mailbox for free pickup. Easy!

HD DVD versus Blu-ray

Blu-ray and HD-DVD have the same picture quality. Each are superb. The final result is more dependant on who made the disc than the technology behind it.

The reason for having two formats, like having two kinds of cola, is that each belongs to a business which has much to gain by you buying their brand of cola — oops — DVD. Each side has a lot of money to make by selling you on it, but it doesn't matter to you.

HD DVD and Blu-ray were in a race. last I checked, HD DVD lost and Blu-ray won, so if buying a player, get Blu-ray player.

Technically, the Blu-ray system has very slightly more capacity, but my pals who run around Hollywood demonstrating equipment in 2008 tell me that they've found that the movies on HD DVD tend to look better because they just happen to have been transferred more carefully than those on Blu-ray. They expect that to change as Blu-ray becomes more prevalent, but for today, they carry an HD-DVD player for demonstrations.

Digital Broadcast TV

Few people realize it, but free digital TV and HDTV has been on the air since 1997!

Over-the-air digital TV has the technical potential to look fantastic, because it has enough data rate (19.2Mb/s max.) to look great. Free over-the-air TV has about ten times the data rate that a cable or satellite channel has.

Another advantage of digital broadcast TV is that each channel can have four separate SD programs running at the same time.

Digital is how your tiny digital phone can talk for hours to a tower miles away with a tiny battery. Likewise, DTV signals can go much further much clearer than analog TV. Analog TV is like kid's big walkie-talkies that can't work more than 100 feet away. You may be able to get more stations on DTV than you ever could on regular free analog TV!

Couple these two factors, and if you pop up an antenna, you might get 60 channels of free TV. Laugh all you want, but even having worked in this for years, the last thing I'm going to do is spend my own money to watch TV.

Unfortunately, even though the transmission chain is excellent, most of what gets broadcast is poor compared to a DVD.

Most television coming over HD channels are just regular old programs stretched to fit the bigger screen. Upconversion just makes the picture fit, it can't make it any more detailed. This means most HD channels aren't HDTV at all.

When I say most broadcast sucks, I'm saying "most" because every once in a while you get something truly wonderful on HD broadcast. It's just that with all the HD gear I sold into Hollywood, most of what's broadcast are sloppy SD (standard definition) pictures.

In addition to sloppy production values, broadcast HDTV usually looks awful because the broadcast industry is bleeding itself to death by not having any ability to get the pictures to fit the screen.

I won't watch HDTV TV because the picture is usually just an SD picture plopped in the middle of a black HD frame. I'd rather watch the regular SD channel instead, because it fills my HDTV.

Your local TV station only can broadcast pictures as good as it gets from the network or other sources of programming. Most of these have already been degraded due to data compression to have the same problems as cable TV.

Even when you're enjoying a prime-time program in genuine HD, the commercials are probably SD and won't fill the screen. I bust out laughing out of embarrassment for the industry when an otherwise excellent HD show is marred by having its bumpers (the little promos between the show and the ads) in standard definition. It's creepy seeing the same elements from the show suddenly in lower definition during its own promos. Crikey, the broadcast industry needs to get its act together.

Cable and Satellite

Cable and satellite get their programming from the stations, and the stations get it from the networks. It never gets any better running through the cable or satellite system.

Premium services that generate their own unique content, specifically HBO, can be superb. When I was in Hollywood, the HBO folks were nuts about quality, paying for their own special transfers of films and sometimes sending people out from New York to supervise. If I watched TV, I'd pay for HBO.

Cable TV and satellite vary. You're only getting a data rate of about 1.5 Mb/s over CATV or satellite This is what causes the weird artifacts people see, like motion problems, weird flocks of ants crawling around sharp edges and blocky squares and rectangles happening as programs fade out.

It's not just your cable system; TV networks sometimes get cheap and use low data rate for moving programs around, the the results look awful even on broadcast TV.

Most "HD" channels are simply upconverted from SD most of the time, worse, many of them use nasty ways to stretch a picture to fit the larger screen.

The only consistently good source of broadcast HD programming I've seen is Discovery HD. (I don't pay for any of the premium channels.) This will change all the time and from cable system to cable system, so follow your eyes. What's important is if the cable channel itself only buys HD content, or if it also accepts SD material.

Why Most TV Programs Suck

People will watch anything. TV is all about getting as many people as possible to watch something.

Technically, things are getting worse because production is getting sloppier. Here are some specifics:

1.) Reality shows. These are shot in the field, usually by temporary crew, without as much careful lighting and grip as traditional drama. There is less control in the field compared to the studio, and it takes al lot of work to light a set outdoors. Most video crews don't want to go through the effort of three trucks full of lights, grip and generators to make it look right.

2.) LEVELS!!! The thing that's wrong with half the images I see on TV is that the levels get too hot someplace along the line. In the old days, people had to listen to the engineers otherwise video didn't work, and the engineers insisted everyone watch the waveform monitors so that highlights like people's foreheads didn't get blown out.

Today, anyone can pick up a camcorder, edit on their MacBook, and off it goes to the network. This gives everyone a lot more creativity, but as the folks at NBC explained to me, the people who used to know how to read a waveform monitor just don't work in TV anymore.

When levels get too hot, people's foreheads go from fleshtone to vivid orange and yellow to white. The hues go all over the map, just an overexposed digital still image, and it looks like crap compared to a well done film transfer on DVD.

3.) Too many channels. Trying to cram more channels into a cable or satellite system leave fewer bits for each. Also, since each channel will have fewer viewers, each now has smaller budgets with which to create quality programming. The BBC does what it does because I believe it's only got two channels, while all of America creates fewer good shows while having far more channels. Again, I don't watch TV, so you folks know better than I here.

4.) We haven't hit the bottom yet. More bad excuses for sex, violence and stupid stuff is on the way. As old people die off and there are fewer and fewer people watching TV, TV's ratings are continuing to drop at record rates. Normal people don't watch TV, they're playing on the Internet. As TV's ratings continue to evaporate, there is much less money going into TV to produce programs.

Why do you think I quit Hollywood in 2004 to work on this website instead?

If you do want to watch a show, buy the series on DVD. It will look much better than it did on TV because it won't have been through all the processing and data reduction that happens on the way to your TV set via network, satellite and cable distribution.

Plug

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If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy, please help me to continue helping everyone.

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

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