Quality Broadcasting

British broadcasting rightly has an enviable reputation around the world. Although our myopic and xenophobic public and politicians sometimes don’t recognize it, those of us who travel the world and sample what is on offer elsewhere, value its independence, creativity, quality of production and technical excellence. Well, I did, until recently.

Christmas is the season for re-runs, and tired old films to be brought out and dusted off to fill the schedules. But it is not that that worries me, nor Ann Widdecombe abandoning decorum on ‘Strictly’, nor Ronnie Corbett and yet more ‘Strictly’ on Christmas Day (at least ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ has been pushed to BBC2). No, what really rankles is that over the last 10 years we appear to have abandoned our previously high technical standards. Three things in particular really annoy me.

The first is the image quality trade-off that has been made in the adoption of digital transmission and HD. What we were promised was that the digital transmission would give us better quality pictures. In fact it has given us much worse quality and HD has made that all the more apparent. Watching the football at a friend’s house on his new HD set I was completely distracted by the intrusive compression artefacts. As the camera panned across the pitch following the ball, the grass was a blur, which seemed quite natural and could have been caused by the rapid pan. As the camera stopped moving to focus on the goalmouth, the grass would stay blurred for a moment and then, WHAM! it clicked into focus as compression algorithms realised that the static image could be transmitted in greater detail. In the analogue days the director would have been yelling at the cameramen, but now it is ‘digital’ we all shrug and accept it.

The second irritation is the BBC’s ‘now and next’. At the end of each show, the credits are squeezed (they are contractually obliged to transmit them, even if you have trouble reading them) into a fraction of the screen area whilst they present a list of the next programmes to be broadcast. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is that every time they start the squeeze sequence there is a noticeable jump in the image. The first time it happened, I just thought the technical staff had fallen asleep. But now it happens every time on every programme. What is probably going on is that they switch in a new bit of kit to do the squeeze, and it takes longer for the media to travel through it, so we miss a few frames and the credits jump. There was a time when everyone involved in transmission looked critically at everything broadcast and would jump on such issues. I was once almost fired in the middle of the Channel 4 News newsroom by an apoplectic editor, Richard Tait, for letting my piece of kit misbehave and show a blank green screen. Now, nobody seems to care.

But my final annoyance is that our transmission standards have slipped so badly. Our local transmitter suffered a fire in May and we lost a bunch of channels including ITV. When they replaced the transmitter, they upgraded it in some way, some very clever way, which now means lots of folks in Oxfordshire have not been able to receive some or all ITV channels for over 6 months. So however good Downton Abbey (filmed partly in Oxfordshire) or any of ITV’s other quality output was, we missed it. And, no, please don’t tell me to retune, I’ve done that and yes we had a great signal before the fire. Still, I suppose it stops me getting annoyed at the compression artefacts of the digital image.

Have a great Christmas whether you plan a ‘Strictly’ one or not.

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5 Responses to Quality Broadcasting

  1. Andy B says:

    If only the picture quality was the only problem…

    They seem to be making more and more programmes for 4 year olds. Someone has decided that factual television is too boring, and they’ve made the following mandatory:
    a) The presenter must talk to you in a state of constant excitement, as though he’d just snorted a couple of lines of cocaine. (which may explain things, I accept)
    b) There mustn’t be more than one or two actual facts, and the path to revelation must be slow and repetitive, involving inane leading questions and inappropriate travel decisions. “But how can it be that the sun comes up each day?” [Cut to presenter freshly transported at great cost to the Atacama desert so that we can understand what ‘sun coming up’ means].. “Find out in part three”.
    c) At no point must the screen show anything other than a mass of colourful moving pictures, explosions, close ups of people in crowds, replicating bacteria, spacemen and car crashes… After all, that’s the only way to compete with ‘Half ton man’ and ‘my wife is a hampster’ (important state funded social broadcasting on BBC 3)

  2. Peter Kwan says:

    I certainly agree with the quality issue. In broadcasting the word “digital” seems to mean low quality. I abandoned TV in 1999 and after the first couple of weeks of adjustment I haven’t missed it so the digital switch-over has passed me by. Instead I have radio but my DAB radio suffers badly from low bitrates and eats batteries much faster.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment Peter.
      Yes even DAB radio suffers from technology reducing the quality of the product.
      My favourite is that you can’t even tell the time now because the “pips” on the hour are in the audio stream, and have to be decoded, and that takes time. Try listening to an analogue radio and a digital one and the digital audio will be noticeably later than the analogue ones!

  3. Helen S says:

    Many moons ago I worked for SSVC, at an amateur TV station in Cyprus. This was in the days that video tapes were transported by Hercules to the attentive soap-starved military audiences. The tapes had to be counted in, cued up and broadcast via a bank of cumbersome, ancient tape players (with a vinyl LP and title cart waiting in the wings to play out music in case of a tape disaster). The worst sin in those days was to show ‘the clock’ which counted down the last seconds to broadcast. If I ever did show the black and white dial, I was bombarded the next day by comments and sniggers. However, I have seen the clock many times on our current TV system, transmitted by the so-called ‘professionals’. Shows they are human I guess…

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