Sped Up and Soapy

 

Last Sunday night, MeTV, a nationally syndicated broadcaster of television shows from the 1950s through the 1980s, aired some episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show that the show’s creator and producer, Carl Reiner, had selected as his favorites. For anyone familiar with viewing the show on a high quality format such as the Blu-ray boxed set, MeTV’s presentation most likely looked terrible not because the source they used may have been inferior, but because of what MeTV did to it, speeding it up to cram in more commercials, which unfortunately also gave it a “Soap Opera Effect”.

 

Speeding up old TV shows is a technology that has been widely used by cable and satellite channels for almost a decade now, but over-the-air broadcasters have used it less probably because their video is not compressed like cable and satellite signals, making more noticeable any dickering with their higher quality signal. In order to send the signals of hundreds of channels to their subscribers, cable and satellite providers compress them. High definition video over cable or satellite is often lower quality than the uncompressed video broadcast over-the-air. In addition to video compression then, cable and satellite channels have been digitally speeding up some old TV shows to put in more commercials. Speeding up a half hour show by 7 to 8 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to fit in 3 to 4 more commercials.

Chaplin The Kid
A publicity still from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, with Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. The jerky motion evident in movies of the early twentieth century was caused by shooting at a lower frame rate than the film’s projection rate. To avoid similar jerky motion when speeding up old television shows, programming providers interpolate digitally manufactured frames which unfortunately give the shows a more or less disquieting “Soap Opera Effect”. To see digital manipulation done well and not on the cheap, and for a worthy creative purpose, see Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary using archival footage of British soldiers in World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old.

Time and technology march on, and in the past few years even syndicated broadcasters whose channels primarily arrive to viewers over-the-air, like MeTV, have gotten into the digital manipulation for profit game. It’s also manipulation of the viewers, who may get the disquieting feeling that suddenly there is something off about their favorite old shows. They may feel they are losing their marbles, or being gaslighted by the programming provider subtly changing the look of shows. Some viewers, maybe most, may never notice the difference, which is of course what the programmers are hoping. The programmers want to make more money while not editing the shows for length. They are not concerned about artistic integrity in not editing as much as they are about too many viewers familiar with the shows noticing the edits and complaining, as well as having to put up a disclaimer at the beginning of the show.

It is beyond the scope of this post to explore why the FCC doesn’t require a disclaimer for time compression of shows or how the rights agreements work between the owners of the programming and the broadcasters. Ordinarily altering a creative work without permission from the originator would be a violation of copyright. Apparently the rights agreements allow time compression, at least for some shows. Since the manipulators can time compress digitally now without noticeably raising the pitch of the actors’ voices, as on a record played at the wrong speed, the use of the technology has broadened to more shows. Some viewers may notice that the actors in late twentieth century TV shows now talk as fast as the actors in screwball comedy movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Since the actors on the TV shows didn’t intend that kind of speed, the comic timing of their speech rhythms are disrupted.

The “Soap Opera Effect”, also known as “Motion Smoothing” or something similar, comes from interpolating digitally manufactured frames to keep the sped up video from looking jerky. New television sets have the feature in their settings for those viewers who like the way it makes fast action easier to follow. The reason it can make some video look like a soap opera shot on cheap videotape equipment is because of how it shares the characteristic of a higher frame rate than programming shot on film. Many viewers don’t care for the effect and, if they know where to find the setting on their TV, turn it off. Seeing a program sped up by the provider can make viewers scratch their heads and wonder if somehow the “Motion Smoothing” setting on their TV turned itself on again. No, do not adjust your set; that unsettling look of your favorite old show is originating from the programming provider.

TBS (Turner Broadcasting System), a basic cable and satellite channel, has been a primary purveyor of sped up programming, which is ironic considering its sister channel TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is committed to presenting movies in their original form without interruption.

The Dick Van Dyke Show was a high quality program in every way, from the writing to the acting to the photography. Like many shows before and after the relatively brief popularity of shooting on videotape in the 1970s and ’80s, The Dick Van Dyke Show was shot on film. Viewed on a standard definition television set smaller than 30 inches in diagonal measurement the higher quality of film was barely discernible from videotaped programming. It is in faithful reproduction on DVD or Blu-ray formats, viewed on a high definition television set larger then 30 inches, that the photography of of old shows shot on film really shines. Viewed under such conditions, The Dick Van Dyke Show is crystal clear and not in the least bit muddy or odd looking. All that went out the window last Sunday night with MeTV’s sped up presentation of the show. It’s doubtful Mr. Reiner, by all accounts a man of integrity, and as shown in his lifetime of work a man devoted to high quality creative presentation, knew or approved of MeTV’s video corruption of his most prized creation. In all likelihood he selected the episodes for presentation and contributed some promotional bits and that was the end of his involvement. Meanwhile, let the viewer beware.
— Techly

 

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Changing Partners

 

Video subscription service Netflix is increasing prices across the board early this year as the company finances its ever increasing production of original content. For about 4 million customers who still receive discs by mail, down from a peak of about 20 million in 2010, being asked to pay more to subsidize internet streaming content they may not want or, in many cases, be able to access, is a bit dispiriting, as if Netflix has forgotten the wisdom of the old saying “Dance with them what brung you.”

 

For most of this decade, Netflix has continued its disc-by-mail service as a legacy option while it focused on its streaming service and on offering shows produced in house. Customer service remained excellent even as the catalog of older movies and television shows available on disc steadily diminished. The large catalog of content from the mid-twentieth century and earlier is where Netflix really shined ten or more years ago. Blockbuster never offered as much, even in its belated transformation to Blockbuster Online. Redbox has also never had much to offer customers interested in anything other than the latest releases. Filmstruck had an extensive catalog of older, less widely popular content, but it closed shop last year.

WLEX-1928-BOSTON-POST
Clipping of a news story from the May 4, 1928 edition of The Boston Post, announcing the start of television broadcasts by station WLEX in Lexington, Massachusetts.

For people in rural areas, streaming is often not an option because they have no broadband service or service that is limited either in speed or data usage. There are probably some Netflix customers who simply prefer a disc over streaming, but the majority of the remaining disc-by-mail customers are likely people for whom streaming is not a viable option. It has become a niche market, to be sure, and one that Netflix will sustain only as long as it generates enough profits to supply cash for the rest of its business. That window is closing.

Next generation television, which will increase the opportunity for local broadcasters to open more sub-channels offering niche content such as old movies and television shows, is at least another year away, and probably two or three before widespread adoption. Next generation television is a voluntary standard for broadcasters to send a 4K signal accompanied by internet data over updated and more expensive transmitters. Home viewers will need a 4K television as well as a next generation tuner, known as ATSC 3.0, and an internet router in order to take full advantage of the new broadcast technology. Viewers can still watch programs broadcast in 4K without setting up to receive the internet portion of the signal, though it’s not clear now if broadcasters will encrypt some of their signals to make them available on subscription or only for those who have enabled the internet signal.

Since the FCC has made the switch voluntary, broadcasters have much wider latitude in how they implement the new technology than they did during the transition from analog to digital, and the power of the new technology itself makes more options possible. The question is whether home viewers will tolerate the targeted advertising enabled by the internet portion of the signal, looking on it as no different than any other internet service.

Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film adaptation by François Truffaut of Ray Bradbury’s novel, here with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, is the kind of movie that all but disappeared from broadcast television lineups in the past 30 years. With the possibility of more sub-channels becoming available after the 4K broadcast rollout, perhaps broadcasters will once again air movies like this.

For people who already have SmartTVs and use them for internet streaming there will probably be no difficulty in adjusting; for those people in the niche market of getting their video entertainment by way of a disc in the mail and then being left to enjoy it in peace, having to cope with only minor nosiness about them on the Netflix website, the adjustment may be a step too far into creepiness. It will be interesting to see if next generation 4K broadcast television and its improved reception in rural areas, combined with a wider range of content, fills the gap being left by the general move toward internet streaming and, if it keeps broadcast television free, whether it will be an improvement over most of those services, though it is hard to imagine a local television station going as far as devoting a sub-channel to obscure art house films.
— Techly

 

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Picture Perfect

 

People who prize the best television picture quality available were dismayed when manufacturers discontinued plasma television sets in 2014, leaving them only the option of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) television sets with comparable, or even better, picture quality, but at ten times the price. Prices on OLED sets have come down since 2014, though not to the level of plasma sets, which sold for under $1,000 as they were going out of production. The lowest price on an OLED set is still over $2,000.

 

Prior to the 1990s, consumers had essentially one option for television set technology, the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). There were projection television setups available which never amounted to more than a small niche segment of the market. The CRT was capable of excellent picture quality in the areas of color fidelity, contrast, and deep black levels, but it was hampered by poor resolution and practical limitations on picture size because of its bulky form. The poor resolution was primarily an artifact of the television signal available from mid-century through the 1980s at least, and when high definition television signals became widely available after the turn of the century, it was theoretically possible for CRT sets to remain in production with the capability of resolving the high definition signal, however there was still the problem of increasing screen size without the set becoming impractically deep as well.

3 inch TV set
A 3 inch TV set receiver. Photo from The Library of Virginia.

Of the television set technologies competing to replace CRT after the turn of the century – Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), rear projection and front projection, and plasma – LCD emerged as the sets capable of widest distribution because of their lower prices and variety of screen sizes, while both types of projection sets remained niche products, and plasma became the choice of videophiles who didn’t care for the fuss and expense of projection sets. All was well then for plasma set buyers until manufacturers looked ahead to the production of ultra high definition, or 4K, sets after 2010, and the manufacturers of plasma sets, primarily Panasonic, Samsung, and LG, found that it would be difficult to create a plasma set capable of 4K resolution, while the other technologies, including the newcomer OLED, were more amenable. One by one the manufacturers dropped out of producing plasma sets.

In this scene from the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film Contact, with Jodie Foster, an alien race bounces back to Earth the first television signal it intercepted from our planet. Warning: foul language.

The more than acceptable replacement for plasma when it came to picture quality was OLED, and when users of plasma sets needed to replace them eventually they could turn to that option rather than to LCD ultra high definition sets, which had improved over the years but still had their shortcomings reproducing a cinema quality picture. The problem with OLED was the high price, a problem caused partially by LG for some time being the only major producer of the sets. Sony and Samsung have started producing sets, and their competition may induce more significant price drops in the next year than have taken place since plasma sets went out of production in 2104. When it comes to buying technology products, and particularly the television sets of the past twenty years, it takes a keen eye for the markets to know – or rather to guess well – when to take the leap and buy without feeling suckered because the very next fiscal quarter the bottom dropped out of the price, and that $3,000 television in the living room is now selling for less than $1,000 at the big box stores. In any case, the picture quality of an OLED 4K television set would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago, and each person accounts its value differently.
— Techly

 

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The Night Light

 

There was a time, thirty and more years ago, when late night television struck a delicate balance between light entertainment and interesting conversations with political and media celebrities in a talk show that was perhaps taken for granted at the time and has not been repeated since, namely The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In the time since, there have been other late night shows which touched on some of the same notes, particularly the ones hosted by David Letterman, but none have reproduced the entire formula, if indeed they were even trying. Since 2016, reruns of The Tonight Show have been airing, and viewing them is a revelation in comparison to the shows currently airing.

 

Phil Donahue Johnny Carson 1970
Johnny Carson appeared in August 1970 as a guest on the syndicated daytime talk show The Phil Donahue Show. Phil Donahue, on the right, talked with a wide variety of guests, much like Carson did on his show, with the difference being that Donahue often went into greater depth in his interviews, many times having only one guest on for an entire hour long show. Photo by Rollyn Puterbaugh.

Late night television talk shows have never been a fountainhead of intellectual conversation, but compared to what passes for conversation on today’s shows, the talk shows of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s could almost pass for Socratic dialogues. Perhaps with the atomization of media into YouTube and social media outlets, where people can select snippets of the shows they want to watch, having long form dialogues between host and guest is no longer salable. In that case, it’s hard to say whether the fault belongs with the audience or with the purveyors, or even whether either party sees assigning blame as necessary. Maybe they are all happy with the new situation.

Thanks to the same internet media outlets which have served the short, snappy comedy bits on the new late night talk shows well, many of the older shows which have a more limited audience, such as the earliest Tonight Show episodes hosted by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, or Johnny Carson, are available for those who know where to look. Meanwhile, for those less internet savvy, there are reruns of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson available on select television outlets around the country.

An appearance by the Smothers Brothers on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in January 1991 exemplifies the kind of classy, understated comedy rarely seen since then on the late night talk shows or anywhere else on television.

It’s interesting that a talk show, of all formats, can hold up to scrutiny from thirty years on, because much of the political jokes and movie and television show plugs from the era of original airing have of course dated, and some may even be incomprehensible to many viewers now. What makes return viewing worthwhile is the charm and charisma of the host, Johnny Carson, in relating to his guests; the polish of the show’s production and its good natured sensibility; and the view into a world which expected a little more from its viewers in the form of attention span and intellectual capacity than what is expected today by most of the late night television media, never mind the distorted mirror held up to our society by the trashy daytime shows which we acknowledge with revulsion or delight, depending on our point of view.
— Vita

 

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What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

 

It’s fair to say subscribers to cable and satellite television services dislike their providers in large numbers due to high prices and poor customer service. With the option of internet streaming television service becoming more popular every year, cable and satellite subscribers are increasingly resorting to getting their television service the newest way and dropping the old service, though ironically they can sometimes still be tied to the cable company because it provides their internet service. For some people, particularly those with a low bandwidth limit on their internet service, the oldest way of getting television service can be the best, which is to say receiving broadcast television with an antenna.

 

Family watching television 1958
Family watching television, 1958; photo by Evert F. Baumgardner.
What, no rabbit ears? They must have had a rooftop antenna.

 

There is no such thing as an HDTV (High Definition Television) antenna except in the minds of marketers and confused consumers. An antenna is an antenna is an antenna. Standard definition and high definition digital signals are merely the format of the content that TV stations broadcast, not the method. The method is the same as it was when the format content was analog, and that is electromagnetic frequencies in the MegaHertz (MHz) band of the spectrum, in Very High Frequency (VHF) or Ultra High Frequency (UHF). Any antenna can pick up analog and digital signals as long as it is optimally configured to pull in those frequencies. That is known as the antenna’s “gain.”

 

It is the tuner in the television set that needs the capability of properly displaying the digital signal. That is why older analog television sets needed a digital converter box when the the digital television transition occurred in 2009. No one needed to go out and buy a different antenna then, but that didn’t stop unscrupulous or ignorant salespeople from selling plenty of “HDTV” antennas to confused consumers.

 

Because many of the new antennas being marketed as “HDTV” have a mod, futuristic profile, looking much different than the old rabbit ears indoor antennas and the old coat hanger outdoor antennas, consumers can come to believe they are not like those antennas, and marketers are happy to let them believe that. In truth, much of the new antenna designs are due to making them omnidirectional or UHF-only, both of which are not necessarily improvements over the old designs.

 

Log periodic VHF TV antenna 1963
VHF TV antenna, 1963; photo by Edward Finkel.
VHF-only antennas were used when few UHF stations were on air.

 

Omnidirectional antennas pick up signals over 360 degrees, but that also means they pick up a lot of interference and are weaker at picking up a strong signal from one direction. The old design, a large coat hanger antenna on the rooftop is still best at picking up a distant signal from one direction and tuning out interference from other directions. The UHF-only design allows an antenna to have a low profile because of the characteristics of the UHF signal, but at the obvious cost of not being able to pick up VHF signals. Manufacturers did this in the belief that after the digital transition there would be far fewer TV stations broadcasting over VHF because the digital signal is more efficient over UHF, and because they felt consumers would prefer the smaller profile.

 

Consumers prefer small profile antennas for some settings in particular, such as apartments and in neighborhoods with a homeowners association, where landlords and homeowners association boards would like to have them believe they are not allowed to put up a high gain antenna outdoors. Section 207 of The Telecommunications Act of 1996 says landlords and association boards cannot get away with blanket prohibitions. This is especially worth noting because clear reception of a digital signal requires a higher gain antenna than is necessary for receiving an analog signal. A preamplifier on the antenna can help, but because a preamplifier increases signal noise as well, it is best used for boosting the signal as it travels down a long cable run to the television set, rather than as a stopgap to make up for low gain from the antenna. A strong over-the-air signal is worth the trouble it can require, however, since the resulting television picture is much sharper than an equivalent cable or satellite derived picture. In order to carry hundreds of channels, cable and satellite companies need to compress their signal data, losing definition. Broadcast signals are not compressed.

 

Antena de TV - TV antenna (3149926874)
Modern UHF-only TV antenna; photo by Flickr user shaorang,
from Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, España.
UHF elements in front are backed by corner reflector elements.

 

Whatever you do when you cut the cable or satellite TV cord, think twice before falling for the “HDTV” antenna ads currently airing. Like all con games, they rely heavily on the greed of the mark in believing he or she can get something for nothing. To that end, the TV huckster does not say directly that the mark can get all the same channels cable and satellite services provide, but through clever wording he allows the unsophisticated mark to infer that and jump to conclusions. The wreckage can be found in online forums. Tempting as it can be to jeer at these consumers for getting what they deserved, they are more deserving sympathy in the recognition that it has taken only one generation to pass for them to forget or never realize there once was a way to watch television without paying for it. These people often are purchasing the product because they are too poor to continue paying high cable and satellite bills. The marks more deserving contempt are some of the better educated high rollers who, ignoring reality, willed themselves to believe Bernie Madoff really was getting them something for nothing. They might have been better off cutting out the middle man and investing directly in the booming market for “HDTV” antennas.
― Techly

 

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