Why do shows look different when rerun on different networks?
July 27, 2008 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Do television networks, cable or otherwise, have a "color signature" so to speak. I am looking for an explanation to a phenomenon that I see when a television show changes network, be it for syndication, relocation, etc..

I've noticed that when a tv show gets reruns shown on a cable network, or it enters syndication, whenever I see the second run episodes they just seem.. different somehow. Aside from editing for time and content, is there an explanation for this or is it purely psychosomatic?

Specifically, I am thinking of when Mr. Show moved and had occasional reruns on TBS and Comedy Central, the show just looked fundamentally different then it did when it was on HBO. The color pallet was dulled, it just appeared different in a way bigger then the new footprint logo in the corner.
posted by mediocre to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have noticed this, too. I've always assumed it was because they were older shows, filmed and edited with marginally less advanced equipment, and I was just assuming they looked different because new shows look less dated than older shows...but that never seemed to quite explain it. I'll be watching this; I hope someone's got an answer.
posted by phunniemee at 8:01 PM on July 27, 2008

Here you go. (second question in the column)
posted by Navelgazer at 8:04 PM on July 27, 2008

I don't know the answer, but I just want to chime in to say that I think the frame rate seems to vary, too. The movies Seven and Fight Club both have subliminal pictures stuck into them, where there is just a flash of a picture for one frame. I've seen both those movies on television a few times. Sometimes I can see the picture and sometimes I can't, even when I know when it is going to happen and I'm looking for it.
posted by giggleknickers at 8:18 PM on July 27, 2008

giggleknickers: that is because film is shot at 24 frames per second, and video displayed at 30 frames per second (and is layered for better fluidity.) For the record, 24 FPS, which should seem like a disadvantage, particularly because it is unable to do the same layering (that is, in film, we see one frame and then the next, versus the progressive scan of modern video) is actually far more accurate to how the human eye organically sees things. Whether you catch the single-frame inserts of Tyler Durden will depend a lot on the broadcast and simple luck.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:32 PM on July 27, 2008

In Canada we sometimes get to see shows running simultaenously on both the original American network and also on a Canadian network that was rebroadcasting them. I noticed the difference in colour vividness very strongly between NC and Global TV, where NBC's version of Friends or Seinfeld were indeed much brighter and colourfol.

I know at the time there was no digital distribution, for the last episode of seinfeld the Eastern Canada affiliate station had the tape delivered to them under a guard that didn't let it be touched until the time to show it. So perhaps the original copy NBC uses gives this more vivid colour. It would be interesting to hear if there is some particular step between the image being recorded and broadcast and received on the television that having presumably fancier equipment could give this effect, or if it is more of a case of the network deliberately skewing their colours brighter the same way electronis shops always jam up the greens when they show sports game on HDTVs.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:39 PM on July 27, 2008

It is possible that it is tied up with the fact that the US uses NTSC [rather than PAL]:

American Cinematographer:
[T]he color and image integrity of an NTSC signal degrades significantly with each generation removed from the original. Despite these faults, NTSC actually has decent color rendition, but there are compromises when it comes to the television sets. A major problem lies in cabling: over distance, the nature of the NTSC color signal does not allow it to maintain phase integrity very well, so by the time it reaches the viewer, color balance is lost (which is why technological wags often deride NTSC with the phrases “Never The Same Color” or “Never Twice the Same Color”)

HD does not use NTSC so maybe that issue will disappear.
posted by meech at 9:55 PM on July 27, 2008

I particularly noticed how faded The Fifth Element seemed when it was on network TV, I think on ABC, compared to the DVD. On DVD it's eye-popping.
posted by kindall at 11:17 PM on July 27, 2008

I don't know for sure, but I have cinematography experience and I watch a hell of a lot of TV, so I've got my theories.

NBC tends to be cooler and more subdued, ABC more warm and bright, and CBS one or the other or a balance of the two, yes?

The NBC vs. ABC colour shift probably has a lot to do with where the shows are shot:

-NBC has a lot of shows set--and, more importantly, filmed--in New York, often on location, on overcast days, or with the lights filtered to imitate overcast, i.e. heavily diffused.

-ABC's shows, on the other hand, tend to be filmed in Hollywood, where it's always sunny, and the light naturally tends to be yellower and more harsh. ABC also does that thing that infuriates me: Their programs, especially the hour-long dramas, are almost always oversaturated, contrasty, and hazy, via post-processing and/or a combination of lighting and filters.

-CBS is generally a mix of East Coast or Midwest-set (usually the 3-camera sitcoms, which are, ironically, filmed in LA) and West Coast (dramas)--heck, CSI alone is all over the place!

Plus, they could all be using different film stocks and whatnot, but that'd more likely be a studio-to-studio difference, and we're talking networks.

One other HUGE factor is the subconscious associations with station identity and branding. Compare the old, crusty TBS to the new, brighter, clean-lined TBS. It seems a lot crisper now, but is it really? (The answer to that hypothetical is Yes; it's digital now. But you get the idea.) A similar shift can be observed on Fox every evening at the start and end of Prime Time, since the local affiliates tend to be relatively hokey backwoods affairs in places like Rochester, NY with budgets and equipment to match, so the network Prime Time feed seems much more slick and professional by comparison.

And, after all those factors, presumably there's a machine somewhere on the network end that controls the colour cast of the outgoing feed. If such a machine exists, I don't imagine the networks' respective White Balance Guys get together to discuss, let alone agree on, the perfect RGB values.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:20 PM on July 27, 2008

Ugh. Reading the AV club article tainted my answer. Those last two bits -- the bit about Fox and the final paragraph -- at least sort of address your original question.

Particularly the Fox bit: Reruns are generally picked up and broadcast by the local affiliate in the non-Prime Time (looks like crap) hours of the day.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:30 PM on July 27, 2008

Oh, also, reruns get played over and over and the tape wears out.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:34 PM on July 27, 2008

Even considering NTSC's weaknesses, I notice that live sporting events on FOX look more saturated and slightly better detail (in SD) than those on other networks: on NFL Sundays, the contrast with CBS is significant, and the CBS picture looks like it's from another decade. Picking up on Sys Rq, I'd class NBC as 'blues and yellows', FOX as 'reds', ABC as 'pastel' and CBS as 'snowy black'. (This is my impression from analogue cable, so there could be all sorts of things along the line to affect it.)

Still, there's going to be an opportunity to compare and contrast how networks tweak their pictures with the simulcast party conventions this year -- a pooled feed, with network-specific coverage.
posted by holgate at 12:50 AM on July 28, 2008

It also has to do with the medium the rerun is being stored on, and the methods used to do the transfer.

It also depends on the local station and their equipment- if they haven't set up their equipment right, the source material will look terrible. WCIU here in Chicago used to have this problem during one phase of their digital switchover- it looked like they just took a computer capture card and tapped into one broadcast stream to feed the other. So everything was just gross looking.

And then there's the cable/satellite companies. Some get their feeds directly from the broadcaster on fiber. Others just hang up an antenna and hope for the best. And then there's their internal distribution network.
posted by gjc at 6:57 AM on July 28, 2008

Even the highlighted answer is wrong.

The answer is that everyone has a different standard. Depending on the network and the network's O&O. Everyone chips their equipment differently. If you've ever seen a test pattern (bars), a chip chart sort of looks like that. It's all about calibration and the standards each network uses. Calibration of the cameras and calibration of the signal.

Everyone has a different standard.

A partial explanation that will clear everything up can be found here.

It's old, but it generally explains what I'm talking about.
posted by Zambrano at 9:11 AM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

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