Who Needs Message When You’ve Got Medium?

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) some time ago, it seems, altered its high-definition (HD) television (TV) standards, so that instead of broadcasting at ~15Mbps bitrate, they’re now broadcasting at something more like 9Mbps. The BBC insist that the current picture quality is every bit as good as the previous incarnation. A small but extremely vocal group of viewers disagree… at length.

Their outraged hyperbole is quite amusing – some have gone so far as to compare the BBC’s current HD TV picture quality to “LP VHS” cassettes, which is more than a bit daft. Many seem convinced that any reduction in any quantifiable unit of measurement (i.e. bandwidth) must be a bad thing, regardless of whether they can actually spot a difference or not. And some others appear to just be grumpy curmudgeons who like to whinge on about how things aren’t as good as they used to be, and bitrates and encodings and so on are all moot because the Beeb hasn’t produced anything worth watching in years, anyway. (Whether these grumpy chaps actually have HD televisions, I have no idea – standard-def was surely good enough in their happy, Cold War-era youth, yes?)

Can you tell the difference between a 15Mbps television stream and one at 9Mbps? Probably, under the right circumstances. Does it really matter?

Obviously it does to some. I wonder about most of the people who are upset about this, though. It’s almost as if some ill-defined and relatively meaningless quantification of quality is more important to them than the actual contents of the show itself. Some of the critics of the BBC’s HD TV change seem to be taking a stance of “give me Blu-Ray quality or give me nothing”, which seems a bit retarded, to put it mildly. Is the medium – HD TV – really more important than the message – the programming? To some people, evidently yes.

That makes me wonder – are there people out there who watch television shows only because they’re broadcast in HD? Is this (IMO) pointless marketing hype so important that its presence or absence renders the actual substance moot?

We don’t get HD television, at home. Mostly this is because we’re cheap; in part this is because two of our three televisions aren’t, um, HD, so it’d be a moot point. Nor do we have a Blu-Ray player. We do sometimes watch downloaded 720p and even the very occasional 1080p show… sometimes even on the HD TV.

None of us enjoy the HD stuff one iota more than the SD stuff we watch. None of us enjoys any of the SD stuff – or even the sub-SD rips off the ‘net (300MB for a two-hour movie? Sssh, don’t tell the MPAA!) that we sometimes watch – any less because it’s not HD.

I mean, I don’t watch Better Off Ted – which is a great show, BTW – just so I can see every hair on Portia de Rossi’s head. I watch it because it’s fantastically entertaining. Not being able to count every pore on Michael Cudlitz’s face does not in any way diminish my enjoyment of Southland, which I’ve written about before.

Last night, I watched two episodes of The Honeymooners, and laughed no less hard than I would have had the show been in HD. Or in color. A couple nights ago, I was watching some first-season episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo. It didn’t have the best picture quality in the world (there are some pretty apparent color-balance issues between shots, among other things) but it was still hilarious.

Even if you gave me, free, a 60″ HDTV, a Blu-Ray player, a high-def receiver, and a posh surround-sound system, and all the various cables and things to hook it up, I still wouldn’t watch, say, Biggest Loser or Dancing With the Stars or The X-Factor or Skins or Nip/Tuck. I don’t find them sufficiently entertaining/interesting/enthralling, and no amount of picture quality is going to change that.

If you’re appalled and outraged that – OMG! – the BBC has reduced the bandwidth of the shows you watch, maybe it’s time to reconsider why you watch what you do. If you want to slag off the Beeb over the quality of their programming, by all means feel free – but complain about the quality of the programming, not the quality of the transmission.

I kind of wish that a really top-tier show with huge viewership would have the proverbial balls to drive this home by shooting and broadcasting a season – or even a substantial portion of a season – in standard-definition black-and-white, just to make a point about the overall unimportance of “HD”… and color… as anything but marketing hype. I can’t see any of the reality TV shows doing it, but I could just about see, say, The Office doing it… or Top Gear, though they do so many strange things I wonder if anyone would notice.

Published in: General | on December 10th, 2009| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 12/27/2009 at 11:24 pm Allen Crawford Said:

    You have to admit though, Top Gear would be much better in HD than in SD. I agree the programming matters most, but there are just some shows (Top Gear included) that would look way better and be more enjoyable in HD, and to dumb any picture quality down for no good reason (though they likely have a valid reason) is indeed silly, especially what we have to pay to get all these TV stations (you do pay for the shows you watch, right?).

  2. On 12/30/2009 at 4:47 pm Nemo Said:

    Top Gear is probably one of the shows that would most benefit from higher bitrates, because things on the show have a tendency to move fast. Of course, the majority of the BBC’s programs aren’t of supercars zooming around at speed, et cetera – nor are they shot or edited with an annoying vignetting effect, producing subtle gradations with the potential to really show up the slightest compression artifacts, either. (Pet peeve, as a photographer.) For much more common talking-head news or comedy shows, even the “reduced” 9mbps bitrate is probably four or five megabits more than it really has any need to be…

    Now, if they’d just stop broadcasting Radio 7 at a miserly 64kbps…

    And yes, we pay for about 95% of what we watch. (The exception being some unlicensed non-Crunchyroll anime fansubs, and some Australian shows, for which no legal form of supported viewing appears to exist in the US.)