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Forums Broadcasting Q: What’s up with all the 4:3 pillar-box clips on network TV news?

  • Q: What’s up with all the 4:3 pillar-box clips on network TV news?

  • Anonymous

    November 9, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Apologies if this has already been discussed to death, but I just have a question out of curiosity as a viewer of network TV news programs:

    I watch network TV news programs via over-the-air HDTV broadcasts on my 42″ 1080p LCD TV.

    Frequently during the course of a news broadcast, they’ll switch from the HD full 16:9 widescreen studio anchor shot to an on-location report which is displayed as 4:3 pillar-boxed. Occasionally, but less frequently, the remote feed is 16:9 HD. My TV displays all this as expected. The video isn’t squished or stretched, it’s either proper 16:9 or proper 4:3 PB in a 16:9 program.

    Thus my questions: These days, are most remote cameras typically SD or HD cams? Are the remote cams typically shooting 16:9 and protecting for 4:3? Are many of the remote cams actually only SD cams & shooting 4:3? Or is the transmission/relay gear a limiting factor & the video is cropped to 4:3 to save bandwidth (?) before it gets to the network? Do the networks crop most remote feeds to 4:3 PB regardless of the original aspect ratio or SD/HD format as a way to tell the audience: This is a crappy remote feed, so don’t worry if it doesn’t look as good as our studio shot?

    That last one is the real puzzle for me because often the 4:3 PB feed looks every bit as good quality in terms of resolution & overall quality as the studio shot, with the only difference being the remote feed is shown as 4:3 PB and the studio shot is 16:9. In other words, do the networks often crop full-quality HD-originated feeds to 4:3 PB just to distinguish “remote” from “studio” for their audience?

    I see this on all OTA news broadcasts from ABC, CBS, NBC & PBS. I’m hoping you broadcast folks can shed some light on this. Thanks!

  • Micah McDowell

    November 9, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    It gets weirder when you have analog SD cable like I do. The HD news network feed is letterboxed to 4:3, so remote cams are 4:3 pillarboxed to 16:9 and then letterboxed again to 4:3. It drives me nuts.

    I also saw a situation once where a show was shot 16:9, letterboxed for a 4:3 SD broadcast which was then pillarboxed for the HD network which was then letterboxed again for my analog SD cable. Ended up with a tiny distant rectangle of a show.

  • Jeff Markgraf

    November 10, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Warning – long post.

    TV stations and the networks have a lot of $$ tied up in legacy equipment. That money they spent several years ago on new SD cameras/tape decks, etc., may take years to amortize. I went through this at ABC a number of years ago, and accounting insisted on an 8-year schedule. So when ABC replaced their aging 1″ VTRs with D2 composite digital decks, they missed the DigiBeta revolution by a couple of years. But those D2 decks weren’t going anywhere until they had been fully written down. Period.

    Networks (and major market stations) have millions tied up in older equipment. As they replace ENG cameras, they’ll replace them with HD models. But the SD stuff still works, day in and day out. NBC is particularly stuck in SD field equipment. KNBC in LA has very few HD cameras in the field. KABC has mostly HD, but they made the commitment early. KCBS/KCAL appear to blow up some of their SD live shots to fill the 16:9 frame.

    Another thing to consider with field acquisition is bandwidth. I think a microwave feed tops out at 18 Meg per second, so HD has to be compressed to use a standard microwave link. I recall Sony Beta SX and some others squeeze the video into that bandwidth…otherwise it’s SD or nothing. Or satellite for the live shot, which is out of reach for smaller markets.

    Back at the station, a modern HD switcher can be set to automatically place the SD 4:3 video sources into a pillar-boxed background, so at least the whole 16:9 frame looks pretty and there aren’t any black bars.

    As the network news budgets have shrunk, they’ve had to rely more than they used to on affiliate-based crews and and locally-sourced equipment… all of which is more likely to be SD rather than HD. In fact, I often see more SD material on the network show than on the local show.

    On a side note, the real fun can be seen on local when a piece of video is not flagged correctly. It’s painful to see anamorphic 4:3 video inside a pillar box. Umm, did no one notice the squeeze? I see it a lot on the early shows (4, 5 or 6pm), where the deadlines are tighter and mistakes more likely to get through.

    Just a couple more notes…

    The networks rarely do live shots, but they do rely heavily on tape being fed to them, (rather than actual tapes delivered from the field). So SD vs HD is often a bandwidth issue (even satellite still requires more bandwidth for HD).

    As far as resolution… as Dave pointed out, cable & satellite TV are re-compressing the already compressed broadcast stream, so it starts to look pretty bad very quickly. OTA video can look pretty good (as long as you don’t mind motion artifacts!). I can easily distinguish between a satellite live shot vs microwave, and newer station cameras vs. tape from the local stringer shooting HDV. When KABC pulls something from their highly compressed affiliate news feed, it looks awful. So does KNBC’s low-res stuff from their affiliate feed that looks like single-field up-converted to interlaced. Weird.

    Are we sorry we asked yet?

  • Anonymous

    November 10, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    Great info … keep it coming.

    I only watch TV via OTA HD broadcasts on my 42″ 1080p HDTV. The broadcast towers for all the major affiliates are only a few miles from my house so I get great reception >98% of the time. I’m proud to say I’ve never been cable or sat. TV customer in about 50 years of watching TV. 🙂

    My favorite bit of broadcast aspect ratio craziness is when our local PBS affiliate, OPB-TV, broadcasts a HD show as a 16:9 LB inset in a 4:3 PB in a 16:9 broadcast … and then puts up their “OPB HD” bug logo in the lower right corner!

    This inevitably happens when OPB-TV shows an episode of a weekly HD program which normally is broadcast correctly in full screen HD, but for whatever reason they’re showing this particular episode doubly wrong. Of course as a viewer I don’t know if the show was delivered to OPB-TV from PBS incorrectly or if they’re messing it up themselves. It’s especially embarrassing when it happens to one of the shows OPB-TV produces for PBS (such as Art Wolfe’s excellent “Travels to the Edge”.)

    Do local affiliates get/accept phone calls from viewers when this sort of thing happens, or is there usually no way to get a message to the control room (after normal bus. hours, etc.) … or once a show has started is a broadcaster normally loath to change/correct the aspect ratio on-the-fly (if this is even possible)?

    Anyway, now that the HD revolution is here (I guess), as an audience member, my viewing experience has been decidedly mixed. Just my $0.02 US.

  • Jeff Markgraf

    November 11, 2009 at 1:34 am

    Do local affiliates get/accept phone calls from viewers when this sort of thing happens, or is there usually no way to get a message to the control room (after normal bus. hours, etc.) … or once a show has started is a broadcaster normally loath to change/correct the aspect ratio on-the-fly (if this is even possible)?

    Don’t count on ever getting master control on the phone, unless you get the direct line from a friend at the station. Even then the guy on duty may not know anything’s wrong, or may not be able to fix it.

    Does Oregon have a statewide public TV network, or are the various markets fully independent stations? If the stations are mostly fed from a central hub (as in Oklahoma), it’s possible that only the network feed in in HD, with the local station just bypassing the SD master control switcher for net feeds only. The re-broadcast may be local, and therefore in SD.

    It’s hard to tell what happened in the scenario you describe. There’s no excuse for SD on the HD unless the program is only available in SD. Both public TV stations here in LA (KCET & KOCE) have several secondary channels, so one may see an HD show on the main channel one night, then see it again a week later in SD on one of the secondary channels. In that case, the SD feed is letter-boxed. Sometimes I’ll see an SD program that was letter-boxed for aesthetic reasons (especially documentaries) shown on the HD feed, so there’s pillar-boxed material inside a letter box inside a pillar box, all in HD (16:9) with the logo in the black pillars. Yikes!

    Always keep in mind that in the broadcast world, it’s the revolution, and digital broadcast isn’t necessarily HD broadcast. Not a single station is required to air HD programming. It’s just digital (except in some small markets, where it’s still analogue).

    I’ll be quiet now, ’cause I could talk about this stuff for hours…

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