January 02, 2010

BBC HD - Virgin Media comparisons

Here's an interesting addition to the debate on BBC HD picture quality on Virgin: DigitalWorldz.co.uk (thanks to Westburne for the link and 'Senor Ding Dong' for taking the time to put it all together).
What the Senor has done is compared this December's broadcast on BBC HD of the second Pirates of the Caribbean film with his (presumably V+) recording on the same from the previous year. And he sees little difference - in fact, if anything the newer recording is fractionally better.
Which is interesting. I've watched a lot of BBC HD over the Christmas break and I think the PQ has been very good - finished watching Day of the Triffids last night and it looked good to my eyes. Similarly, Cranford, Doctor Who and The Taming of the Screw all looked mighty fine too.
Have Virgin or the BBC been tweaking settings themselves, or did we all imagine a drop in PQ in the autumn? Senor DD does say that the bitrate we have now is slightly lower than we had when we only had a single HD channel:
What's interesting about these samples is that the old broadcast had an average bitrate of 17.60 mbps, and the new one 16.50 mbps. Checking some other older recordings against recent ones, it turns out that Virgin's version of BBC HD actually dropped its bitrate a little bit when they introduced the new HD channels, but all the testing they did to fine-tune the encoders at the time, which was quite visible on the first test versions of the new HD channels, obviously means they are now at least as efficient at the slightly lower rate, and in some cases even more so.
Presumably Virgin's use of MPEG2 means that 16.5mbps isn't quite as generous as it sounds but it does looks like we're getting pretty much what we were before.

So are we victims (or perhaps, in my case, an instigator) of a mass deception? I don't think so. I don't have the know-how (or the time) to do similar tests myself, but I did watch the movie A Simple Plan on the channel in the autumn and was unimpressed, yet when I watched it in 2008 I remember being blown away by the scenes in the woods. And there is no doubt in my mind that the episodes of BBC's Life were less detailed than the Nat Geo Wild Russia covering similar animals and landscapes. Here's what I posted in October:
I've just watched two wildlife programmes in HD back to back and I have to say that the quality of BBC HD is still sadly lacking when compared to National Geographic HD. First up I watched an episode of Nat Geo's incredible Wild Russia (Sunday evenings, 8pm) and was blown away by the detail in the footage of the polar bears, reindeer and the stunning floral meadows. Strangely enough, the episode of Life I watched straight after also had reindeer and polar bears. But it looked flat. Dull even. Some of the later shots of the humpback whales were incredible, but not for the picture quality, more for the drama of the "heat run". Having seen the effort the cameramen went to for these pictures, one can only wonder how they felt to see all their excellent work buggered up by the BBC HD channel's transmission shortcomings.
Similarly, The Thick of It looked muddy this season as did the second season of Criminal Justice, and I know many have been disappointed with Top Gear's HD debut. But, judging from what I've seen this last week or so, PQ is very good again on cable BBC HD - whereas on the satellite platforms it's apparently still weak (check out some of the screen grabs posted on the BBC's own blog posts).
Everybody is viewing the channel on different set ups and mine (just a 32in 720p TV) is far from ideal to be the last word on the subject. What do you guys think?

16 comments:

BikeNutt said...

I haven't watched BBCHD much over Christmas but I do have both Doctor Who's recorded and last night's Gavin & Stacey.

I did watch a recording of The Incredibles and it looked/sounded, well, incredible (as CGI movies tend to). There was evidence of some colour banding in a handful of shots but even in very challenging scenes like Dash being chased through the forest, the image did not break down. Very Impressive.

Erich said...

Great, finally some like-for-like comparison.

As I've said before myself, it didn't seem to me like there had been any drop in quality on BBC HD on cable. In fact, I think it generally looks better than most of the HD channels. They all have the odd dodgy looking program, some more than others, but that's always been the case, and there's very little doubt in my mind that many of the complaints about the quality of BBC HD on cable was based on the belief that the channel had suffered the same bitrate reduction as the sat version.

Lewpy said...

I personally have not noticed a drop in PQ on BBC HD via my V+ box.

Yes, quality varies from program to program, but never have I thought that the PQ is the same as an SD broadcast (or less): images have always been clearer and with more discernable detail, minimal MPEG blocking (which is one of my major issues with SD broadcasts), and a broader palette of colours.
If I am watching something on BBC1/2, I will always check if the same program is on BBC HD and will switch to HD is available.

I have a 40" Sony TV (capable of Full HD), but I only set my [original, unbranded SA] V+ box to 720p. I tried 1080i again the other day [as BBC HD is broadcast in 1080i], but the V+ menus look bad in the interlaced screen mode, and I really wouldn't be able to look at them for long without hurting my eyes :-(

lee said...

I watched a few things, including Dr Who on HD. My mum and dad, who, shall we say, aren't as "up" on technology as I am, commented that the pictured looked the same, when I flicked back-and-for between HD and BBC1 during the live broadcast.

This is my issue, the picture is crisp, clear and good sound, we've just lost that "depth" that HD should give you - that kind of 3D type effect where you feel you can almost put your hands behind things on the screen.

Perhaps that's where Ms Nagler has it wrong..she may be quite right in saying the quality hasn't dropped (still crystal clear pictures) but it's the HD specific element we've lost (the depth) - or has this been the way people have argued it to her so far?

Erich said...

No disrespect to your mum, but as poor a show as Dr Who is from a creative point of view, if broadcasts like that are the evidence of the supposedly lowered picture quality standards, I can assure you it's all imaginary. Most of it looked flawless from any technical perspective, and there was simply no comparison with the SD version on my 46" Samsung.

The mandate of HD is not to deliver an immersive 3D effect on all programs. In fact, such a thing is practically impossible, and would never have been the aim of a show like Dr Who, or indeed most other programs. Those sort of gimmicks are mostly for the kind of reference and demo material that was used early on to sell the potential "wow" factor of HD. Realistically, you can't really use exaggerated field-of-view, dramatic angles and over-saturated colors to film a regular episode of something like Gavin and Stacey.

matthew said...

i agree with lee's post,we just seem to have lost that depth from the hd pictures.It seems someone comes up with some technical reasoning but something is certainly different from when i got my full hd tv in early summer last year....sometimes the eyes have it!!

lee said...

Erich - clearly I neglected to add that I thought there was no difference either, and we were on a 37" LG, no shoddy piece of kit.

Besides your sideswipe at the program (no-one is making you watch it) I agree with your point tha things like Life, or Blue Planet will push to the extremes to show off HD, but even when I watch programs like the US Office, clearly NOT designed to be a big wow, it has much more depth.

I was going to type "I'm not after wow every time with HD", but then, why shouldn't I want that with such a technology?

Erich said...

Matthew, have you tried using your eyes on the screenshots in this post, then?
http://www.digitalworldz.co.uk/225579-bbc-high-definition-picture.html

Not only is there practically no difference between the 2008 and 2009 recordings, if anything the new one appears to be better, it's even difficult to distinguish from the BluRay version of the movie.

Subjective comparison of different programs is not reliable or even relevant. Although some broadcasts may look less crisp than others, the objective evidence, both technical and empirical, continues to prove that there has been no reduction in BBC HD's picture quality, and comparing Show X on BBC HD with Show Y on Net Geo or C4makes no sense at all.

lee said...

Erich - I agree with your notion of only like-for-like shows are relevant, and thus I've been comparing simulcasts of BBC1 and HD, and still struggling to see a big difference (Dr Who just being one example.

Ultimately, I do of course accept that each program will differ anyway, but I was hopeful that HD broadcasts would give me less need to get the blu-ray of something, yet this is no longer the case with BBC HD for me.

I appreciate your statement that subjectivity can colour things (no pun intended!) yet we can use subjectivity as one element, i.e. whilst not knowing ingredients of food, we can generally tell if a taste has changed.

In further the need for like-for-like comparison, being on Virgin, I'm going to see if I can find a person with Sky-HD, and look at their BBC broadcast, in case it's just a Virgin thing (although many petitioners to the BBC had Sky too - are we suggesting that ALL of those petitioners are making up a difference?)

Erich said...

but even when I watch programs like the US Office, clearly NOT designed to be a big wow, it has much more depth.
I think the technical standards of UK television is generally quite low. Although I haven't seen much of The Office US and couldn't comment on that one specifically, I would agree that US shows tend to look better. Sometimes softer, perhaps, but there's often a "richness" to the picture that you rarely find in UK broadcasts. Perhaps that's what you call depth.

I've been comparing simulcasts of BBC1 and HD, and still struggling to see a big difference (Dr Who just being one example.
I could obviously only comment on your Dr Who example, as I don't know what else you might have been comparing with, but having compared that one myself, I'm 100% confident in the technical quality of Virgin's version of BBC HD, and I think what you're looking for from HD is something that just isn't part of the "spec", if you like. Most American sci-fi shows will have an almost cinematic look compared to Dr Who's "telly look". I mean, with few exceptions, it sort of looks like Eastenders with sonic screwdrivers. I don't know enough about the ins and outs of equipment and post processing used in American shows, but there's a world of difference between those and UK shows. I downloaded some HD Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien recently, and although it was a lowly 12mbit/s MPEG2, it once again looked almost cinematic compared to Jonathan Ross on BBC HD. It was simply down to production qualities, though. Nothing to do with what kind of bitrate any given channel might have been encoded at.

I think in the early days of BBC HD, they tended to rely more on foreign material, and as they've started airing more and more home-grown shows like Dr Who, Gavin and Stacy, Top Gear, etc, etc, you're now getting the full force of the mediocrity of UK production standards. However, as flat and uninspired as the visuals may be, rendering of fine detail, as well as overall integrity and reproduction of the source material, is without a doubt better than the SD broadcast. I suspect, if you watched an SD version of The Office US and compared with the HD version, you wouldn't find much difference there in terms of the depth you mention. Similarly, I expect the Dr Who episode will eventually make its way onto BluRay, and that it will still be lacking the depth you're after.

I was hopeful that HD broadcasts would give me less need to get the blu-ray of something, yet this is no longer the case with BBC HD for me.
Interestingly, though, Senor DD's comparison shows that there was next to no difference between BBC HD's broadcast of the Pirates movie and the BluRay, so I'm still left with the conclusion that there is no technical problem with the channel.

I'm going to see if I can find a person with Sky-HD, and look at their BBC broadcast, in case it's just a Virgin thing (although many petitioners to the BBC had Sky too - are we suggesting that ALL of those petitioners are making up a difference?
It's still unclear if the 40% drop in bitrate of the sat version has indeed lowered the quality. The BBC say no, and Which? seem to agree. Whatever the case, there has been no such reduction for the cable version, so those who thought they'd experienced a drop in quality would probably be a mix of people who were imagining things, or, like yourself, probably just have expectations of HD that are separate from a discussion about MPEG and HD encoding quality. And I certainly wouldn't say you're wrong to expect that WOW factor from HD, but it's important not to conflate the issues and inadvertently exaggerate the nature of a perceived technical issue in a poll focusing on the latter. I'd be more than happy to support you in a poll about better overall UK production standards, acting, writing, and all the things that make UK television such a distant second to its American cousins. :)

lee said...

I'm sorry to hear that you think all UK tv is worse than America, we certainly can make drama, period drama and other shows, that at least rival and in some cases go beyond US counterparts, look at our exports that they remake (or try to) Life on Mars being a classic example - I guess sci-fi drama is the best genre I can think of, but the US version isn't a patch on the UK - and the Beeb came up with it first too!

I certainly agree with some of your points in your latest post, certainly things to think of, and I know you're going to hate this, but I know I can tell a difference between the first time I saw Nature programs (I think they seem to show off HD best) and the recent reruns of the same programs on BBC HD, I do take the point it's difficult when it's so subjective, but I know I can see a difference (I'm not really a slouch when it comes to technology either, I'm seriously hoping MPEG4 IPTV comes to Virgin within the next few years!)

Erich said...

Life on Mars UK vs US is another example that isn't like for like. While the UK version is arguably some of the best drama produced on this side of the pond in the last 10-20 years, despite not even being all that good, the US version wasn't anywhere near what's considered the best of US TV, and it was cancelled pretty quickly. If you want like for like, ask yourself if the UK could ever produce a Friends, a Frasier, a Seinfeld, or on the drama front, something like Lost, Sopranoes, True Blood, Mad Men, etc. Not a chance. The talent and money just isn't there, as the talent tends to go where the money is... the US. :)

The only reason the UK doesn't have a slew of failed US remakes is because they simply don't have the ambition to even try, or on the rare occasions when they do, they can't afford to license the name/concept. Coupling was widely described as an attempt at a British Friends, and shows like Spooks or the utterly pathetic Maximum Force were trying to emulate the likes of 24, but with no success whatsoever. You couldn't even mention shows like Dr Who or Torchwood in the same breath as even your average US sci-fi show, much less compare them to something as ambitious as BSG or X-Files, and I can't even count how many Seinfeld style attempts there have been starring UK "comedians" from Patrick Kielty to David Baddiel.

The UK is competitive in the documentary field, possibly even better than the US, but they're a decade or two behind when it comes to drama and comedy. Even Gervais thinks the US version of The Office is superior to the British one, and generally seems to share my views on the sorry state of British television.

As for the quality of BBC HD, I would bet you any amount of money that you couldn't tell the difference between a 2007 and 2009 broadcast of the same nature program on cable. Even if there had been a drop in encoding quality, the result would be blockiness, pixelation, and other compression artifacts, which is what the sat users claim to be experiencing, not this lack of depth you mention. There may have been programs with more of this depth a few years ago, but it wouldn't suddenly have mysteriously disappeared on a 2009 broadcast of the same program. That just doesn't make any sense.

I do agree that IPTV should be exciting, though. ;)

nigel said...

Erich,I profoundly disagree with your comments.
As pointed out on the BBC blogs, framegrabs are not really relevant when comparing moving picture codecs.
Similarly the picture quality difference you ascribe to US tv is a result of the way things are lit and the format they are shot on. Programmes with high production values are shot single camera, so the lighting can be optimized for ONE point of view, and recorded on 35mm film, which has a greater dynamic range than any of the digital formats currently available.

Individual arguments about HD picture quality are meaningless, since they will depend on the size of your TV, the resolution of your TV, the picture quality of your TV, the picture settings for your TV, the cable box, the cable used to connect the cable box, the cable box settings, how far you sit from your TV, the ambient lighting in your TV room, and your eyesight, to name a few variables.
However, when a sizeable number of the general public, independently arrive at the conclusion that PQ has declined, without knowing of any technical changes that were made, you can bet that something is going on.
All IMHO of course.

Erich said...

Erich,I profoundly disagree with your comments.
Only the ones about the creative quality of UK TV, I hope, as those are the only comments that could still be considered a matter of personal opinion. :)

As pointed out on the BBC blogs, framegrabs are not really relevant when comparing moving picture codecs.
They are, when every single frame of both sources are practically identical. And they clearly match up with my own experiences with moving video. I have last year's recording of Shrek The Halls, which again looks identical to this year's broadcast. Same box, same cables, same TV. There simply hasn't been a drop in encoding quality on BBC HD on cable, no matter how much some of you might try to convince yourselves otherwise. The general quality of much of their content is another matter. Is anyone here a member of the forum where Senor DD posted the pirates samples? if so, ask him if he could post a few snippets of the video he used for comparison. I will once again bet any amount of money they the moving pictures will tell the same story as the stills.

Similarly the picture quality difference you ascribe to US tv is a result of the way things are lit and the format they are shot on. Programmes with high production values are shot single camera, so the lighting can be optimized for ONE point of view, and recorded on 35mm film, which has a greater dynamic range than any of the digital formats currently available.
So we agree on that issue, then?

when a sizeable number of the general public, independently arrive at the conclusion that PQ has declined, without knowing of any technical changes that were made, you can bet that something is going on.
All IMHO of course.

Not when prompted by a leading question like: The BBC have lowered their bitrate by 40%, do you think the quality has suffered? The argument doesn't really become more credible when the perceived problems are described as something that couldn't possibly be a result of lower encoding specs. The simple answer is that there are just less programs with macro close-ups of animals, plants, etc, and more and more mediocre stuff like Eastenders, Gavin & Stacy, which simply wouldn't give you that "depth" or "wow" factor even if you bought it on BluRay. This is supported by the fact that so many people who believe there has been a drop in quality will still make comments like "so-and-so looked amazing last night", but "this-and-that the other day didn't blow me away".

For the record, I am perfectly happy to believe there is a problem on sat, but too much of the cable complaints just aren't supported by the evidence, and many of them were clearly born out of the belief that the sat and cable version were essentially the same.

lee said...

Erich, I do honestly appreciate your frankness, however I don't really feel I can contribute any further on the two topics:

1) (off-topic I know)whether you're aware or not, you have a strong bias against British TV, and a strong bias towards US TV. I don't doubt you this choice, but stating that Dr Who and Spooks (as two examples) are no good simply because you say they are, could potentially rub people up the wrong way. I'm not saying I'm one of those people, but when they pull in millions of viewers, clearly some people like them, and hopefully you can respect that it's possible something is good that you've missed, and that, for example, 10-12 million watching Dr Who must have SOMEthing in there.

2) you wish to bet money that I couldn't tell the difference between a broadcast now, and the same broadcast on BBC HD from 2 years ago. The point is, I can, and have, as I watched some of the same nature programs, and the difference is there. Again, I DO realise that that is subjective, and open to debate, however, again you seem to state the difference isn't there, and because you've said so, I have to accept it - which, obviously, I do not!

So, not having a go - I appreciate the post looks frank and perhaps abrupt, but I'm honestly not saying it with vitriol, just talking with the same frankness you have used too :)

Thanks for the debate!

Erich said...

1) (off-topic I know)whether you're aware or not, you have a strong bias against British TV, and a strong bias towards US TV.
I think "bias" is a little misleading, certainly if it's meant to imply a level of subjectivity. It's similar to how I might have a strong bias against rotten meat, and a strong bias towards fresh meat. :)

I don't doubt you this choice, but stating that Dr Who and Spooks (as two examples) are no good simply because you say they are, could potentially rub people up the wrong way. I'm not saying I'm one of those people, but when they pull in millions of viewers, clearly some people like them, and hopefully you can respect that it's possible something is good that you've missed, and that, for example, 10-12 million watching Dr Who must have SOMEthing in there.
Popularity is by no means a measure of quality. Eastenders is one of Britain's most popular shows too, but it's garbage in any objective assessment of quality. Dr Who at least shows a degree of ambition that's rarely been seen on British TV since the 70s, but it's still not able to compete with the best of the US. Not that they don't have bad TV at all, but the point is that their best TV is probably decades ahead of the UK.

2) you wish to bet money that I couldn't tell the difference between a broadcast now, and the same broadcast on BBC HD from 2 years ago. The point is, I can, and have, as I watched some of the same nature programs, and the difference is there. Again, I DO realise that that is subjective, and open to debate, however, again you seem to state the difference isn't there, and because you've said so, I have to accept it - which, obviously, I do not!
There is clear non-subjective evidence that there has been no drop in quality on cable. That's not to say that there aren't poor looking programs on BBC, but they've always been there, and the same is true for other HD channels too. That's certainly something that could be looked into, and the fact that different episodes of the same series can apparently differ significantly in quality does seem peculiar, but certainly in terms of diagnosing the problem, it's important not to confuse it with the recent bitrate debate, which appears to have caused different problems on the sat version of the channel. I've seen those first-hand now, and there's definitely something wrong, which appears to be directly related to the lower bitrate.


So, not having a go - I appreciate the post looks frank and perhaps abrupt, but I'm honestly not saying it with vitriol, just talking with the same frankness you have used too :)

Not a problem. I don't mind a frank exchange of opinions.