How do you watch George W. Bush without going blind?
January 29, 2008 1:50 AM   Subscribe

Does NTSC look as bad on actual NTSC televisions as it looks on my PAL television?

My evening news, here in Australia, just had a piece on Bush's State of the Union address, and it occured to me how fuzzy and old American television looks compared to Australian TV. Everything looks like it was filmed in the 70s or 80s.

America uses the NTSC standard, known to be a slightly lower resolution than the PAL standard that I'm used to, but is the fuzzy image I see the same as what Americans see when they watch TV, or does the process of converting to PAL mess with the picture and make it worse? Do PAL shows look awful on NTSC televisions? Will the shift to HDTV improve the quality? Input from people who've experienced both formats first hand would be much appreciated.
posted by Jimbob to Technology (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've been to the states a few times and watched some TV while I was there (I'm from the UK which also uses PAL). Let me assure you that it looks almost exactly the same quality as you get at home.

The problem, as I understand it, is the conversion process. Trying to stretch 200 lines into 240 lines being the fundamental issue (could be wrong about the exact number here). The technology until about 5-10 years ago was particularly bad and you would get the fuzzy/70s/80s style look that you describe. I believe there are better facilities now but I assume they are fairly expensive and that not all TV companies are going to have it.

Shows like Friends, CSI, etc, are shot on film and therefore don't suffer the same problem.

HDTV resolutions are the same across the board: 720p, 1080i/p etc are all global standards and everyone uses the same format, so yes it will solve the problem.
posted by jon4009 at 2:20 AM on January 29, 2008

Converting from NTSC to PAL involves both an increase in resolution, and a decrease in field rate. This isn't necessarily easy. I haven't noticed a noticeable decrease in quality on a new U.S. television, even though the resolution is slightly lower.
posted by grouse at 2:40 AM on January 29, 2008

Do not necessarily adjust your set! Entirely aside from technical considerations consider simple differences in interior design preference. For example my foreigner's impression of a lot of large US government institutions (Immigration, National Parks, Post Offices, etc) is that they seem to have a fondness for using rather brown-dominant colour palettes in their decorating. Also a quite particular set of typefaces - and lots of dark wood. To me places like press briefing rooms can therefore look like they have been time-shifted from the 70s and 80s when the rest of the world thought that this was a cool look too. Whether this is because they have not redecorated for a long time - or because those in charge of the re-decorating decisions are of a certain generation I do not know. Probably a combination.
posted by rongorongo at 4:45 AM on January 29, 2008

Response by poster: Well you're right, rongorongo, the color palettes also concerned me, everything looks kind of brown / orange...but this includes people's faces and clothes, not just the rooms they're in, so I figured this was an artefact of the conversion process.
posted by Jimbob at 4:55 AM on January 29, 2008

That's because they were designed in the 70s.
My television here looks comparable to the quality of when I watch in Europe. It might be that your news station is using the over-the-air quality broadcast, which on anything other than a smallish crt has lines and artefacts. Also, with NTSC many colours are different on some televisions (they call NTSC Never The Same Colour). Our television is not that bad compared with yours.
posted by ooklala at 5:32 AM on January 29, 2008

Best answer: I didn't particularly notice it on tonight's news, but quite often Australian networks - particularly the ABC - will also crop US-sourced footage to mostly hide watermarks/station IDs/misc crap. This, of course, means they've got to scale the image up even further to fill a PAL screen, resulting in an even softer picture.

I mentioned the ABC specifically because they also seem to take a lot of 4:3 footage from the US, crop/shift it to remove the guff, then crop it even further (& sometimes slightly stretch it) to suit their 14:9 (in a 4:3 frame) analogue / 16:9 digital broadcast.

IIRC there's also a slight colourspace conversion between NTSC & PAL, even digital sources, which can lead to come colours being a little off (over or under saturated).

As for HD : The frame sizes are pretty much common between PAL & NTSC countries, but for broadcast TV the 50Hz/60Hz difference still remains, so some conversion (either the usual 23.976/24fps => 25fps speedup, dropframe to 23.976fps + speedup, or frame/field based conversion of 29.97 => 25fps) will still be required. The first 2 will lead to the usual 4% speedup in PAL-land; the last usually results in some pulsing / blurring (because it's considered better than the alternative of image tearing).

The base quality of NTSC DVD (or HD), as viewed on a multistandard TV here in Australia, is barely distinguishable from PAL DVD (or HD).
posted by Pinback at 5:49 AM on January 29, 2008

I lived in the UK for a few years and definitely noticed that certain American TV shows or broadcasts looked terrible in terms of resolution and fuzziness - I'm thinking a few baseball games I watched, and news broadcasts that were shown on the nightly news when they were talking about America. The funny thing is, some UK TV shows or broadcasts look almost as bad on American TVs. I always thought their TVs sucked until I lived there and realized maybe American ones sucked instead.
posted by sutel at 7:06 AM on January 29, 2008

NTSC / 525i is basically rubbish to begin with. Conversion to other formats makes it worse.

This is one reason why HD has been slower to catch on in the UK than the US: in the US, the gains of HD on a big widescreen display are obvious, whereas you could buy a SD widescreen set in the UK long before HD and even now not feel like you're missing much.

On-the-fly PAL-NTSC conversions (e.g. FSC's live coverage of European football matches) tend to offer the worst of both worlds. Older conversions that haven't been updated since they were first broadcast -- PBS's 1970s-vintage BBC sitcoms -- also look like crap. But newer stuff is presumably provided to foreign broadcasters in HD and suffers much less when downsampled. (I transcode samizdat Xvid/DivX versions of British shows to MPEG-2 for TiVo upload, and they look pretty decent on my NTSC set.)

Older American shows shot to tape, especially classic two-camera sitcoms (Cheers, Seinfeld et al.) have a distinctive 'look' to them when broadcast abroad that immediately identifies them as American. There's a similar, slightly-washed-out effect with French SECAM stuff.
posted by holgate at 7:27 AM on January 29, 2008

Holgate, those be fighting words. NTSC is fine. At least it doesn't flicker.

Jimbob, you are seeing the effects of standards conversion and multiple compression passes.

Standards conversion is inherently hard since you are manipulating time. NTSC is 30 frames per second, where as PAL is 25 frames per second. To convert from one to another, you are either compressing 30 frames into 25 or stretching 25 into 30. This is particularly terrible for things like motion where accurate time sense matters. Standards converted sports is the worst.

Before the Australian stations are performing the standards conversion, the NTSC signal is squished down for satellite transmission, losing a lot of valuable information. So the conversion is being done on poor material to start.

When done properly NTSC->PAL and PAL->NTSC can look OK, but that usually involves playback off off Digital Betacam VTR into a Snell & Wilcox Alchemist. That costs a ton of money to arrange.

To answer your original question, no Americans do not see a fuzzy image. If they have a good television and a good service provider, the picture looks wonderful. If they have a bad cable provider, it very well may look terrible due to ghosting, line noise, bad compression of a digital tier, etc., just like any place in the world. In Europe I've seen great PAL and terrible PAL, based on the service provider.

In the future, things will be better as more and more television is produced in high definition. If shows are produced at 1080p 24f, the down convert to NTSC and PAL beautifully.

If you are ever in Los Angeles, I can give you a tour of my facility and show you what NTSC really looks like.
posted by Argyle at 9:06 AM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Holgate, those be fighting words. NTSC is fine. At least it doesn't flicker.
Heh. I just dropped back in here to see if anybody had mentioned the annoying judder associated with 23.976fps/24fps=>29.97fps 2:3 or 3:2 telecine. I gather Americans don't see it, in the same way that PAL people don't see the 50Hz flicker - you're used to it ;-)

So, do Americans notice the ~2x/sec judder of 2:2:2:2:2:2:2:2:2:2:2:3 telecine PAL=>NTSC conversions?
posted by Pinback at 6:17 PM on January 29, 2008

PAL and NTSC have different color gamuts.
posted by wackybrit at 3:33 PM on January 30, 2008

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