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


Nearly as Good as New


The past thirty years have been a golden age of film restoration, starting with the 1989 restoration of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Robert Harris led that work, and he has had a hand in restoring many films since then, including Vertigo (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964). It’s a shame that great movies need restoration at all, a state of affairs principally due to neglect by the very studios that made them, often at a cost of millions of dollars. Hollywood studios were far less concerned about art or historical preservation than they were about business, and movies retained little value for the studios after their initial theatrical release.

Peck Moby Dick
Publicity still of Gregory Peck from the 1956 film Moby Dick. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.


Indeed that was the situation for movies until home video opened a new and lucrative avenue for the studios in the 1970s and 1980s. Until then, to the extent the movie studios kept original film elements at all, they kept them in slipshod conditions which allowed the films to deteriorate to one degree or another. By the time demand returned for some of the better movies, restoration was necessary to have a salable product. VHS (Video Home System) tapes could skate by with no restoration because of the low resolution of the format, but laser disc was several steps above VHS in quality and created the first push to restore old films.

Laser disc never caught on the way VHS did, however, and its appeal was limited to cinema buffs. The biggest nudge toward film restoration came in the 1990s with the popularity of DVD (Digital Video Disc), an improvement in quality over VHS at about the same price for content and playback equipment. With that change in the market, movie studios saw the value in packaging their backlog of films in the new format, creating a greater need to restore at least some of those in highest demand. Since the turn of the century, high definition televisions and further improvements in home video resolution have brought the home theater experience into the mainstream, and the demand for quality restorations of old films is at a peak and will probably stay on a plateau hereafter.

There is a limit to how much detail the human eye can discern in the limited space of the typical home theater. DVD was a huge improvement over VHS, and Blu-ray was almost as big an improvement over DVD. 4K resolution is not quite as great an improvement over Blu-ray as numbers alone would suggest, simply because the law of diminishing returns starts to take effect. In the confines of a home theater, even using the best equipment, viewers are less able to discern the finer detail there on the screen. 8K resolution is overkill for all but the most dedicated home video enthusiasts with deep pockets.

Another reason for home video improvements driving film restorations less in the future is the switch by consumers from owning content on physical media, such as a Blu-ray disc, and streaming content in a rental agreement over the internet. Already the rollout of 4K discs has slowed to the point that many good old movies may never be remastered for the format. The potential sales aren’t high enough to interest the major movie studios. As to streaming 4K content, that is subject to the vagaries of the consumer’s internet connection. Some of the 4K content may not be as advertised because of the huge bandwidth requirements, and streaming true 8K content would probably require a 5G internet connection and an actual unlimited data plan from a viewer’s Internet Service Provider (ISP).

In any event, these are good times for fans of old movies. Some classic films, like director John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby Dick, which have long deserved restoration but were nonetheless neglected for whatever reason by the major studios, have been restored by smaller distributors of home video content who have determined it would be worth their time and effort. The movie studio Paramount last year restored It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and remastered it in 4K, though in a sign of the times they have released the new version only for streaming and have not pressed discs of it. Another classic film, Life with Father (1947), awaits true restoration, and viewers should meanwhile beware the versions for sale which trumpet digital remastering or restoration.

Life with Father (1947)
Screenshot from Life with Father (1947), with Irene Dunne and William Powell. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Like It’s a Wonderful Life, Life with Father had also fallen into the public domain; unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, Life with Father has not attracted anew the attention of the major studios. While Paramount has lavished care on restoring It’s a Wonderful Life, slapdash outfits have been appropriating Life with Father for the sales catalog, offering horrendously bad versions of it and relying on the phrases “digitally remastered” and “restored” to dupe the ignorant. They hope naive consumers will infer that “digitally remastered” means “improved”. It means no such thing; it means only that the film has been scanned to a digital format, a necessary step in making analog movie film available for home viewing on a DVD, Blu-ray, or 4K player. “Restored” is a relative term and can mean the absolute minimum amount of work was put into it, as is usually the case with the shadier outfits.

Robert Harris worked on this 2014 restoration and remastering of the 1964 film My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

Check reviews online, preferably not on Amazon because the reviewers there rarely get to the nitty gritty about the quality of the transfer, and instead prefer to bloviate about the movie itself, seeing it as their chance to be an authoritative movie reviewer like Roger Ebert. Better are the reviews on news sites or websites specializing in film industry or home theater matters because they generally do mention the quality of the transfer, though consumers still have to take some of those reviews with a grain of salt when they include affiliate links to sites selling copies of the movie. Be wary during research and you’ll have less chance to regret a purchase and better enjoyment of a great old movie given the attention it deserves.
— Techly


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


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