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Why do British television programs look different than American programs?
May 26, 2007 6:01 PM   Subscribe

Why do British television programs look different than American programs?

Sorry if this is confusing. I don't know how to explain this well, but does anyone know why most British television programs have that British-television-look? I can usually tell a show is British (this happens with Australian shows too) because of the look of the cinematography (I don’t know if this is the right word). I've always been curious as to why/how the camera look of those shows is almost always different than American shows I've seen.
posted by koshka to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think it has something to do with the acquisition & broadcast format differences. I think the UK is PAL and the US is NTSC.
posted by macadamiaranch at 6:05 PM on May 26, 2007


It's not confusing; I know what you mean. Many British tv shows are shot using videotape, and it definitely looks different than film, which is what's used to shoot most American tv. British tv always looks more real, and grittier to me; American tv looks more cinematic.
posted by iconomy at 6:16 PM on May 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'll ditto the feeling. I attributed one aspect of this to use of artificial lighting or lack thereof. British shows tend to use a minimal amount of lighting, compared to American shows that like to obliterate each and every shadow. I often just chalked this up to American companies having more cash to throw at their shows.
posted by Atreides at 6:21 PM on May 26, 2007


PAL is 625 lines, 25 frames per second. NTSC is 525 lines, 30 frames per second. When PAL video is broadcast over an NTSC channel, both the image and the timing have to be adjusted using a frame buffer. That causes a perceptible change in the video.

The vast majority of PAL-originated material broadcast in the US comes from the UK or Australia, so you've come to associate that particular change with British material and Australian material.

(PAL also uses a different method of encoding color, but let's not get into that.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:21 PM on May 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


It's a combination of things. Iconomy has the main one. Film vs. TV are very different looks.

In fact, the usage of different equipment from cameras to lighting to set design materials can drastically change the "feel" of how a show or movie looks.

I'm not sure if they use different cameras or lighting equipment over in the UK than here in the US, but because industries like film/TV tend to be somewhat tight knit, equipment usage tends to come by recommendation, etc.. so I wouldn't be too surprised if whatever "caught fire" over there in popularity might be different from what's used most here.
posted by twiggy at 6:23 PM on May 26, 2007


[NTSC is actually 29.97 fps, by the way.]
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:27 PM on May 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


It was/is possible to ID shows that were shot in Canada as well, due to the higher use of video vs. film.
posted by qwip at 6:28 PM on May 26, 2007


You may also be overlooking the perceptual difference made by the different school of sound - as that is one of the textbook examples of those things that you know something is different but you can't put your finger on what it is, and since you're not sure what the difference is, I wondered if you've just assumed it's entirely the look, or whether you are specifically interested in only the look. (American TV, for example uses a lot of foley while Brit tends to be very minimalist. This makes a big difference to the atmosphere and how you perceive a scene)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:32 PM on May 26, 2007


Different styles of scenery lighting, etc
posted by KokuRyu at 6:36 PM on May 26, 2007


I'd also wager that the vastly different cultures have contributed to vastly different directorial techniques and art design.

Plus it has been my experience that almost every US show gets about 10 coats of gloss put onto every frame to ensure that it is as appealing to advertisers as possible whereas many British shows, especially those put out by the BBC, don't have that same level of commercial pressure expected upon them.
posted by Effigy2000 at 6:47 PM on May 26, 2007


I will try to insert a followup question and hope I don't get caught:

Why do soap operas look different from regular TV? Something about film vs. videotape?
posted by charlesv at 6:48 PM on May 26, 2007


British tv always looks more real, and grittier to me; American tv looks more cinematic.

Yes, this is exactly what I was thinking when I mentioned "the look."

Thanks everyone for the answers. Makes sense now.
posted by koshka at 6:53 PM on May 26, 2007


[NTSC is actually 29.97003 fps, btw]
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:55 PM on May 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


soap operas vs. "regular" TV: same thing. soaps are often shot on videotape, TV shows on film.

actually technically NTSC is 60000/1001 fields/sec; its interlaced - 2 fields per frame. same with PAL; interlaced. a primitive but very psychovisually-effective form of image compression.
posted by joeblough at 7:13 PM on May 26, 2007


Thanks so much for this question. I have wondered for years why "Senfeld" looked so much different than a show like "The Cosby Show," but I could never describe it.

In regard to British TV, I guess this explains why on the show "As Time Goes By," the scenes when they are outdoors look dramatically different from scenes shot indoors.

Again, thanks for a great question.
posted by 4ster at 7:21 PM on May 26, 2007


Heywood Mogroot, you would quibble about a difference of one part in a million, a difference of less than one frame every nine hours?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:57 PM on May 26, 2007


It was/is possible to ID shows that were shot in Canada as well, due to the higher use of video vs. film.

I think most Canadian shows use film these days, except for various comedy shows (THHTTM, Just for Laughs, etc.) Do you have anything specific in mind?
posted by greatgefilte at 10:56 PM on May 26, 2007


I think, based on my own limited experience, that British shows use orchestral music more than American shows, which might also give it a more film-like atmosphere.
posted by gyc at 11:28 PM on May 26, 2007


I can't find it now, but I know this was mentioned in a previous thread. Sorta like how live TV looks different than pre-taped.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:34 PM on May 26, 2007


@-harlequin-, gyc

I'm sorry, I didn't mean the scenery/atmosphere/script/music that makes the show different. I meant that the actual film quality of the show looks different.
posted by koshka at 11:41 PM on May 26, 2007


Because Brits and Yanks think differently.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:44 PM on May 26, 2007


In regard to British TV, I guess this explains why on the show "As Time Goes By," the scenes when they are outdoors look dramatically different from scenes shot indoors.

Monty Python once made use of this by having a character walk outside for a moment, then duck back inside and announce to the rest of the cast, "we're surrounded by film!"
posted by Zonker at 12:48 AM on May 27, 2007 [3 favorites]


it's the teeth that're the dead giveaway.

i've always just attributed it to more money spent/higher production values
posted by wayward vagabond at 1:34 AM on May 27, 2007


I've noticed this for years, one of the major differences is when shooting outside, LA=sunny, UK=overcast
posted by garethspor at 2:14 AM on May 27, 2007


That Film outside vs VT inside division doesn't happen much any more.

Most quality BBC shows (contracted) are now shot on Hi-Def video - Dr Who, Hustle, Spooks (MI5), etc. The PAL to NTSC change can induce a slight colour shift and going back the other way -US to UK - gives a slight speed up too.

When it was filmed most BBC product was 16mm or Super 16, whereas US tended to be 35mm - hence the beautiful quality of remastered Star Trek vs grainy Brit film.
posted by A189Nut at 2:25 AM on May 27, 2007


AI89Nut: Most quality BBC shows (contracted) are now shot on Hi-Def video - Dr Who, Hustle, Spooks (MI5), etc. The PAL to NTSC change can induce a slight colour shift and going back the other way -US to UK - gives a slight speed up too.

Surprisingly, Doctor Who is not shot in HD, despite being the BBC's flagship Saturday night show. Here's why.
posted by afx237vi at 4:30 AM on May 27, 2007


PAL is 625 lines, 25 frames per second. NTSC is 525 lines, 30 frames per second. When PAL video is broadcast over an NTSC channel, both the image and the timing have to be adjusted using a frame buffer. That causes a perceptible change in the video.

This is what I always assumed. I've seen American TV in North America (Canada) and it pretty much looks like how British channels look like over here -- but American programmes on British TV usually appear to have less resolution (live broadcasts generally excepted).
posted by macdara at 5:52 AM on May 27, 2007


Oh, until the OP came back further down the thread I'd assumed we were talking about video formats too.

It looks 'more real' because it is. Less make-up on the actors makes a difference. It sometimes is windy or raining here and my (USian) SO refers to the quality of light we get under near-constant cloud cover as "like living in a Tupperware box". European outside filming usually doesn't involve coloured lighting to compensate for that.

I think Doctor Who is notable for mostly not being 'washed out' like that - it's far more colourful.

[Oh, and at my house there's a similar jab made at the CSIs -- when I say that the phrases "the orange one" and "the blue one" are used to identify what's on TV, I think most CSI viewers will know what I mean.]
posted by genghis at 7:59 AM on May 27, 2007


New British TV programmes should be a lot better, because they're recorded in high-def. Nearly all modern programmes in the UK, at least on the BBC, are now high-def. It's just the older stuff that's had to be converted between formats.
posted by humblepigeon at 8:42 AM on May 27, 2007


American TV does have an incredibly different mentality - quite apart from the whole VT/film thing, there's completely different lighting, a general spending of more money on everything, and more gloss and sheen everywhere. One thing that really annoys me about American TV is the constant, constant sound backing track - you never let anything lie silent, there's always some low mood-music there. In some shows it's just unbearable - just try to watch something like Desperate Housewives or Ugly Betty (not that you'd want to anyway, but you know) with all that plink-plink-plonk-plonk-plunk going on.
posted by reklaw at 9:59 AM on May 27, 2007


Oh, and for an idea of how American TV looks to us in terms of video quality, take a look at this mock-American report from parody-news show The Day Today. I understand they went to some trouble to get that NTSC-in-Britain look.
posted by reklaw at 10:02 AM on May 27, 2007


Not a single mention of different accents. Actually there's also a visible difference in the way US and UK actors/actresses carry themselves (speak, dress, body language, etc). I find it often pretty easy to pick out someone from around Europe before I even hear their accent because of the other mannerisms. Just a thought though, as I think I'd find it hard to differentiate UK and US TV if it was without people (shots of a building etc...without passing over things like electrical sockets of course)
posted by samsara at 10:07 AM on May 27, 2007


reklaw++ for sneaking 'The Day Today' into this
posted by zemblamatic at 10:48 AM on May 27, 2007


Nearly all modern programmes in the UK, at least on the BBC, are now high-def

That's true, the UK along with most of Europe moved to terrestrial and satellite HDTV-ish content a few years ago, so a lot of the material has been shot for that for a while now. Widescreen analog TV sets were also quite popular earlier than in the US, and shows were being shot with widescreen framing from the late 90s on. Even for US-based shows like, say, Buffy (broadcast in 4:3 in the US for the longest time) were broadcast as 16:9 in the UK. That framing has given UK drama shows a more film-based frame layout than similar US TV shows which have been slow to drop the 4:3 approach.

Also, the cultural influence of omnipresent and virtual daily shows such as The Bill, Casualty and so on has trained a whole generation of UK TV content creators and talent to perform a certain way. The everlasting soaps also made a contribution, as did the rise in the 90s of filmic limited-run serials such as Cracker. These all go for a more dramatic look than open-ended US serials. It may be a legacy of shows like Quatermass and 1984 that kicked off UK TV in the 1950s.
posted by meehawl at 10:57 AM on May 27, 2007


you would quibble about a difference of one part in a million

dude...
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:22 AM on May 27, 2007


I'm a bit late to the thread, but whatever.

- With older shows, it's definitely the BBC budget, low quality film outdoors vs. BBC budget, low quality video indoors thing. But it's also worth noting that American TV will almost always use artificial light on outdoor shoots to augment the natural light, or they'll go all out and dress a studio as outdoors. The Brits almost never do this, opting for natural light outdoors and artificial light indoors. This makes the transition that much more apparent. The Brits will also mix outdoor handheld camerawork with indoor static camerawork. I suspect they might even have separate indoor and outdoor departments, because it often seems like the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

- American TV shows tend to stick to rigid formulae: Three-camera sitcoms, one-camera dramas, soap opera focus-pulls, shaky-cam cop shows, etc., with the lighting being just as integral to the formula as the camera work. UK TV generally seems to imitate these American formulae, but they're usually quite a bit off the mark.

- The colour palette with regards to clothing, set dressing, etc. is completely different in the UK for some reason or another. The totally different quality of natural daylight in outdoor shoots (which would be imitated in studio) tends to emphasize this variation in colour palette. Also, it seems to me that UK cinematographers tend to oversaturate a bit to compensate for all the overcast skies.

- British actors are understandably much more pale than their spray-tanned Hollywood counterparts. This makes a HUGE difference.

- American shows tend to have more sound design and scoring, often to excess. Even sitcoms always have their little theme playing between every scene, over the shot of Jerry's apartment building, or wherever the next scene is set. British shows usually cut straight to the action.
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:22 PM on July 7, 2007


Another thing: While I understand the question isn't about sound, it's probably worth mentioning that the audio in American TV has much less dynamic range than UK TV. This would make the British programs sound "more real," since the audio is less compressed and therefore actually more natural.

Unfortunately, it can also make watching British TV extremely frustrating, because you're (okay, okay, I'm) constantly having to adjust the volume.

(I don't know if the audio *actually* compressed, or if it's just that American actors are better at projecting their voices at a consistent, un-Shakespearean level.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:45 PM on July 7, 2007


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