Is there a reason for this or am I just nuts?
September 13, 2010 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Why do the "Big 4" US broadcasting networks look so different in terms of quality? Or is it just my imagination?

Growing up in the boonies, we didn't have cable. All we had were the Big 3 networks (early 80's; no Fox yet) and PBS via OTA antenna. I'd always noticed that there was a very distinct look to each network that I'd attributed to the strength of the signal. The local CBS affiliate had the strongest signal, and always looked best. The NBC affiliate was the weakest signal, and had a kinda grainy quality to it, and I'm not necessarily referring to interference. ABC and PBS were middle-of-the-road.

When we finally moved closer to town and got cable, I noticed that the picture difference wasn't just due to signal strength, and I've always wondered what could cause the difference.

CBS always seems to me to have the best overall picture. Colors are vibrant and objects have very clean lines, but it also lends an "artificial" feel to the broadcast. NBC is more "earthy" - there's a subtle grain in the picture, and browns, greens, and golds look particularly realistic. The object lines are fairly clean, but not nearly as much as CBS. ABC is middle-of-the-road. Colors are muted but not washed out, and the lines are fuzzier than both NBC and CBS; it's like somebody took a CBS feed and lowered the contrast by half. Fox seemed to have lines a little better than ABC, but colors look richer than on the other three.

Shows that "cross networks" like syndicated programming tend to have the quality of the network it's on: watching "Seinfeld" reruns on Fox, it looks more like "Fox quality" than "NBC quality".

So seriously, am I just imagining these differences, or are there real technical differences (cameras used, broadcast source and/or frequency, etc) causing them?
posted by ChrisLSU to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It down to signal amplification. CBS had the best signal amplification in your viewing area. Most TV stations don't say "One-hundred-thousands watts of coverage" but radio stations do, and you are probably familiar with some radio stations sounding better than others. You had to get PBS with an antenna because the antenna grabs as much signal as possible. Your TV would not have picked up PBS without it.
posted by parmanparman at 2:48 PM on September 13, 2010

The channels can be running at different compression levels, if you're on digital cable. This would account for Seinfeld looking different.

They could also be playing off of different sources now. Anybody know if reruns of Seinfeld are still played off of, say, a Betamax even now?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 2:51 PM on September 13, 2010

Anybody know if reruns of Seinfeld are still played off of, say, a Betamax even now?

Seinfeld would not be playing off of Betamax, but would almost certainly be playing off of BetaSP or DigiBeta.
posted by shmegegge at 2:57 PM on September 13, 2010

That used to be true, but since the DTV switchover, if you receive the channel without digital glitches, the sources and format are what cause differences.

All broadcast TV has to be within spec, meaning color saturation and brightness and black levels are all codified. Where each network decides to art direct must be within these ranges.

Each of the big four have a format they've chosen for head end delivery, like 720p or 1080i. Local affiliates have to broadcast digitally, but may not be broadcasting in the same format as the national. They might downscale to 480i for instance.

Further back in the production chain, it really depends on how the shows were shot. Film? Video? And then, if a show is in syndication, how the episodes were delivered. In your Seinfeld example, early syndicates probably got the show delivered on 3/4" or Beta SP transfers from the 35mm originals. More recent Seinfeld distributions have been newly transferred to hd.
posted by tomierna at 3:00 PM on September 13, 2010

Consider that the networks get their shows from independent production firms -- for example, "The Big Bang Theory," is broadcast on CBS, but it's produced by Warner Bros. Television and Chuck Lorre Productions.

The way this show is shot is very different from say, "Modern Family," which is broadcast on ABC, but produced by 20th Century Fox Television and Lloyd-Levitan Productions.

So, when you look at the "Big 3," you're really looking at the work of many, many different production companies and production methods (e.g. video vs. film vs. digital video). They may share some elements (e.g. all the Warner Bros shows may have been filmed in similar, although not identical, environments), but each show is pretty much an independent project with its own equipment and people.

Now, you may see a distinct "NBC look" as different than a "CBS look" because the vagaries of your cable set-up and your television. But in the end, the "NBC look" is just a function of the shows they've chosen to broadcast, not because their standard is wildly different than another network's.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:15 PM on September 13, 2010

Do you ever stay in hotels far from home? This should answer the "is it signal strength or local affiliate choices or my equipment" question. I strongly suspect the answer lies there. But it would cost money and time to figure out which one is right.
posted by SMPA at 3:30 PM on September 13, 2010

In the old days, it was due to physical things like being stuck with a transmitter from the '60s (whose big-ass $50,000 vacuum tube is starting to go) that just doesn't work as good as the newer ones. Or Channels X Y and Z got space on the good broadcast tower, but Q and R are stuck on the worse one.

Further, the different analog channels literally looked different. Channel 2 3 4 5 and 6 will look pretty much similar. And then 7 8 9 10 11 12 and 13 will have a sort of a look, and then the UHF channels will gradually change how they look. It has to do with the frequencies those channel numbers are on (2-6 are between 50mhz and 85mhz, below FM radio. 7-13 are above FM radio in the hundreds somewhere. And then UHF starts at 470mhz and went all the way up to 800-something) and the way they get noisy. Channel 2 will blast through trees no problem, but turn on an appliance and it goes nuts. Where the UHF channels don't care about that at all, but a light breeze in a nearby tree will start the ghosts. That's mostly why the different networks looked different. It's the same thing as why 530 AM sounds fundamentally different from 1690 AM. Vastly different sized waves carrying the same modulation can't help but "feel" different.

(Here in Chicago, channel 2 was (and still is, I believe) on the Hancock building. Awesome if you live north of the city. Horseshit reception, always, south of the city, especially if the line of sight between you and the transmitter is obstructed by some other building.

In the digital world, most of that is irrelevant. As long as you get enough signal, the digital stream comes through the same way it went in. However, what they put into the signal depends on a lot of things. To put out a decent digital signal, you need to pretty much completely rebuild your entire facility. Many of the Big Stations were already mostly digital, but the smaller ones weren't. I know a couple of networks here in Chicago, during the transition time when there were both analog and digital available, where the digital feed was simply a computer capture card hanging off the analog broadcast chain. That was because they were building out the new production facility, and just didn't have any other way to do it. Or if your I Love Lucy reruns are on some old tape format, you need to be able to digitize the output of your player. Cheap digitizers will look cheap on the air. Or the graphics- if your graphics machine is analog or only standard definition digital, you have to switch off the HD to insert graphics.

All of that is why digital can look different.

As to the "look" of a network, I wouldn't be surprised if a network didn't do some tweaking before they send the programs down the line. I can't say they do, but they might.
posted by gjc at 4:43 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think, at least in the digital world, CBS has gone with the quality over quantity thing. They have no sub channels, network-wide I believe, so the picture you get is compressed as little as possible.

And in the digital world, you might be noticing the difference between 1080i and 720p. Each has it's pros and cons, and each network picked their horse. Which is fine- except when your TV isn't very good at converting one to the other, and then half the channels look terrible.
posted by gjc at 4:47 PM on September 13, 2010

I think you're imagining it. I've received OTA HD for a few years now and all the major channels look equally good to me.
posted by wongcorgi at 4:54 PM on September 13, 2010

I'm glad someone brought this question up. Having lived in the South, the Midwest and the Northeast, all with different local affiliates and at different periods of time (early 1970s through now), I had always noticed subtle differences between the big 3 networks. These subtle differences were in picture quality, but also in sound quality. CBS was always crisp in picture and sound. NBC was slightly grainy and muffled. ABC was always loud and echo-y, with bright colors. Interestingly, these differences were consistent in every place I lived. In Orlando (1970s), Chicago (late 1970s-early 1980s) and Connecticut (1980s - present).

Starting with regular no-cable TV, then with cable TV, then with digital cable, and now with flatscreen/HD/surround sound/all-the-bells-and-whistles. Still the same differences I've always detected.
posted by sundrop at 6:10 PM on September 13, 2010

Seinfeld would not be playing off of Betamax, but would almost certainly be playing off of BetaSP or DigiBeta.

These days, it's more likely to be playing off of some sort of (fantastically expensive) disk-based playout system.

Otherwise, the originals were likely BetaSP or DigiBeta. HD content is most typically passed around the production world on XDCAM.

A few TV shows are still shot on film, which looks fantastic, but is quite expensive to do. Older shows that were shot on film can be upconverted to HD very easily, provided that the film stock was of sufficiently quality (rarely the case). Video-based production has only caught up to film in terms of quality very recently.
posted by schmod at 7:08 PM on September 13, 2010

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