January 18, 2011

BBC HD channels - picture quality so-so?

You may recall a year or so ago that there was a lot of noise when BBC HD's bit rate on satellite was lowered, new encoding devices were introduced and everyone was up in arms. Us cable customers were eventually told that we should have been affected and were told to get back into our box.
Well, I watch a fair amount of BBC in high def, both on the BBC HD channel and on BBC1 HD, and I still think we are being short changed with picture quality, especially on drama series. Over Christmas I thought that the PQ on Upstairs Downstairs, Eric & Ernie and a number of other programmes was somewhat lacking in definition, and this weekend I watched the final episode of Zen, a programme that should have shown Rome in all its glittering glory but looked to my eyes strangely muted. Some programmes seem to sparkle appropriately - Human Planet had some great photography, even if the narrative felt strangely cobbled together - whilst with others the difference from SD is barely notable (The One Show, for example).
What does everyone else think? US imported drama such as Damages or Mad Men looked great on BBC HD, so why is the UK shot stuff so so-so? Is it production (cameras, tech standards) or transmission?
Or shall I get back in my box?

15 comments:

Neil Gillibrand said...

It could be down to the programs themselves and not the BBC PQ? Is the One Show actually filmed in HD? I don't know but I can't see the BBC wasting money filming that rubbish..... in HD....

Also saw an article about a year ago stating that PQ can be reduced because of the type of camera's, post production etc used. So while the channel - in this case the beeb - are chucking it out in full quality the original PQ is simply not up to scratch? If you follow me!!!

Just a thought.

Dan Lucyszyn-Hinton said...

The BBC have pretty stringent standards regarding the technical capabilities of any camera used, regardless of resolution.

However not every programme is going to be shot and transmitted in 1080p, many people still regard 720p to be HD too. I watched an episode of Lark Rise to Candleford last night, and to me the PQ was stunning; no noise, no compression artifacts even in the darkest parts of the frame and great detail.

So the short answer is: HD comes in many flavours and only covers resolution (the actual size of the video in pixels) - the rest of the issue is to do with the programme makers.

Hornet Productions said...

I have always had an issue when watching Doctor Who - a programme that should look amazing in HD but doesnt cut the mustard on V+ box

jonwheal said...

@Dan: No programmes are transmitted in 1080p or 720p. All UK HD broadcasts, on satellite, cable and Freeview, are 1080i.

@Neil: Yes, the One Show is made in HD; and @Nialli: to my eyes it looks much better for it. Although it's still rubbish, of course.

There are so many factors affecting perceived picture quality it's almost overly facile to talk simply in terms of SD and HD. A high bitrate SD stream will look much better than a low bitrate HD stream. A highly-focussed SD image run through an unsharp mask filter can appear higher resolution than an unfiltered HD image. An SD image at 544 x 576 will look softer than one at 720 x 576 -- yet they're both called SD. Compare the snooker coverage on Eurosport SD with BBC Two SD. Same cameras, same production suite, yet on Eurosport it looks far fuzzier.

mercelous said...

There is definitely something not right with the BBC1 HD picture quality on virgin and I am not happy. I watched Eastenders last night and it just looked upscaled to me even though it is now HD. I then watched Coronation Street on itv1 HD and it looked stunning. It sparkled and glistened and really stood out. I really am sick of the BBC feeding us a load of rubbish and short changing us, why can't they give us the best quality we deserve (they get enough money from us for it).

BikeNutt said...

Even the missus can see the difference between Corrie & Eastenders in HD.

The BBC's definition [sic] of HD is mediocre.

Erich said...

There's nothing wrong with BBC HD the channel, but there's something wrong with the technical standard of British TV production. American imports look just fine on BBC HD, but if you compare your average British drama with an equivalent US drama (if the term "equivalent" even applies), the Brits look like they're at least a decade behind. There's far more to getting an HD production to look right than simply buying the right cameras, and with very few exceptions, that's a nut British TV has yet to crack. It has very little to do with the utterly confused and misinformed resolution/bitrate debate.

jonwheal said...

Andy Quested (the BBC's beleaguered HD technologist) has claimed that "other channels use artificial means to enhance perceived PQ". I assume (wrongly perhaps?) he is talking about the application of unsharp filters. Try it yourself: open up any digital photo of your own in Photoshop, Corel, the Gimp or whatever your preferred photo editing program is; resize it to a manageable size (say 800x600); then apply an unsharp filter. Ta-da! It looks instantly much sharper. I would bet that this accounts for much of the difference in appearance between BBC HD and some of the other HD channels. But if viewers prefer the sharper version, who is to say that it's an "artificial means" of achieving a quality picture?

Nialli said...

All I know is that to my eyes many of the dramas on the BBC HD channels look a little "flat" compared with the US HD stuff I've seen. It's true elsewhere too - Thorne on Sky1 HD a month or so back wasn't that great and Murder on the Orient Express on ITV1 HD at Christmas didn't blow me away either.
I don't feel short-changed by the BBC - it offers remarkable value for money in my book - but there's something still not right to my eyes with much of the home produced HD content

Oblong said...

The UK has always used a colouring and lighting that is more similar to what you might see in a cinema as the PAL system could always more accurately recreate colours. The US have always colourised and lit scenes differently to improve how the picture looks on NTSC.

I guess it's a matter of taste.

Nialli said...

One thing I will say about being underwhelmed by BBC HD is that it makes my V+'s meagre hard disc easier to live with: I don't bother recording any BBC programmes anymore in HD. I either watch live, watch recorded SD or HD via VM iPlayer.
My HD recordings are mainly Sky movies, Sky1 and C4/E4/Film4 now, with the occasional recording from ITV1 and Five. Not watching a huge amount of TV at the moment anyway as I have Boardwalk Empire by other means to enjoy.

Nialli said...

(Oh, and FX HD of course - True Blood and Breaking Bad both look stunning and are HD-worthy.)

Redemption80 said...

Don't think its a technical issue with BBC HD channels or that the UK is behind the US, though budget wise it will be.
Could just be the way its produced, not all people like that super sharp crispy look.

Eastenders does look oversoft to me, while Coronation Street has been oversharpened and looks fake, albeit impressive at times

I have the H264 TS streams of the last season of Doctor Who on my PC HDD, and some of that is reference material.

Andy said...

What an interesting set of posts! Just found them. What's interesting is that VIrgin encode the BBC HD Channel and other than a few updates it's virtually the same as it was in 2006. I am quite happy that there is discussion on programme styles - that's always fare and is something that can be discussed outside of technical issues. Andy

Andy said...

PS That is both BBC HD channels and fair!