Sunday, May 11, 2008

The BBC Just Don't Get Hi-Def!

It seems somewhat ironic that within just days of making the big announcement about the upcoming free High Definition TV service from the BBC and ITV, I should find two pieces of evidence indicating that the BBC are either totally incompetent or just plain clueless when it comes to being realistic about the importance of content for High Definition (HD) video.

Online internet sites offer upload/download of 720p high def video already, and the number of these video hosting sites is growing, seemingly almost daily. But in the meantime the BBC seem determined to just ignore the demand for HD and create barriers to entry.

The newly launched (and rather excellent) Reel Show TV features the main High Definition guy at the BBC reviewing the new Sony PMW-EX1 camera (it's in part 3 or 4 of the first edition if you want to check out the video). The man from the Beeb talks about how impressed he is with the new Sony camera, but somehow neglects to point out the most important things about it, leaving the seemingly more knowledgeable interviewer to step in and do it for him. Nevertheless the BBC rep says the camera gets an 11 out of 10 on their scale of evaluation (based on using a 'benchmark' Sony Z1 camera) and then goes on to say that the output from this '11 out of 10' camera is not allowable for their High Definition service! WTF?!! This is a camera that received a ringing endorsement from the Hollywood film professionals who make up the membership of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) who professed themselves blown away at a cinema screening of a film made using the camera. But it's not good enough for the BBC's artefact-ridden, heavily compressed HD service!

The reason, apparently, is that the camera only outputs HD at 35Mb/sec where the BBC have arbitrarily decided they won't accept anything less than 50Mb/sec. The man from the Beeb declares that this is to keep standards high, whilst admitting that the picture quality, even at the 'lowly' 35Mb/sec is outstanding and that he couldn't see any differences in picture quality. Sometimes I think the world really has gone mad with the idiotic bureaucrats having completely taken over the asylum.

Further evidence that the BBC is letting incompetents make the key decisions on HD comes from an interview with prize chump Russel T Davies (aka 'Billy Bunter'). Davies explains that Doctor Who isn't being made in high definition because the increase in budget required to shoot in HD is not worth it. WTF?!! Even the internet's moving to High Definition, and yet the BBC's so-called 'prime' BAFTA award-winning drama series - the one that generates an absolute fortune through merchandising and sales abroad - has decided it's not worth bothering with. This is the same sort of monstrously stupid short-term thinking that caused the BBC back in the late 80's to trash so many of the old Doctor Who video source material, not realising that they'd just thrown away a small fortune in future VHS and DVD sales.

Regular readers will know that I think Russel T Davies makes a lousy 'head writer' for Doctor Who. I'm enjoying the current series far more than any previous one, and that can only be explained by the fact that it's because Davies has not written any of the last 4 or 5 episodes. But to have the 'head writer' now making use of technology decisions that will affect future transmissions, worldwide sales and sell-on Blu-Ray opportunities is utterly ridiculous.

His words MIGHT have some sort of value to them if the appallingly bad Torchwood hadn't switched to high definition right from its first episode. This series doesn't get anything like the viewing figures Who does (despite the non-stop ads), primarily because it not only has unbelievably juvenile writing, but also the worst acting I've seen on a prime time series in a long, long time. It makes Hollyoaks look like an oscar winner! And yet it has the 'budget' for HD, where Doctor Who doesn't!!!! The first series of Torchwood is being released for the THIRD time (talk about flogging a really dead horse!) next month, this time on high definition Blu-Ray disc. Fans of Doctor Who who prefer high definition viewing are wasting their time hoping for something similar. The series isn't shot in high definition and therefore won't appear in high definition.

While we're on the subject of HD, and because even I'm getting sick of my own ranting about the fools, dolts and nincompoops that seem to control nearly every aspect of our lives, it seems best to try and end on a happier note by mentioning the wonderful folks at Digital Juice. These guys show what a company can achieve when it employs people who are genuinely passionate (and not just people who keep telling you how passionate they are - Microsoft take note!) and care about quality. Their customer service is fantastic, their web site contains some of the best 'free training' on video that I've seen, their products are market leaders, and even the packaging shouts 'quality' at you. They've just relaunched their magazine (available as a free PDF download) and, of course, most of their products are produced ready for instant high definition. While the BBC seem happy to pay obscene amounts of money for spinning '6 o'clock news' graphics these guys produce the same sort of stuff for very affordable prices, with strictly limited copies so that you don't run the risk of the whole world and his wife using the same material. I just wish more companies operated the way they do.


Anonymous said...

The BBC are not excluding use of "non HD quality footage", merely limiting it to a maximum 25% of a programme's content, much as they do with DV on SD. I have their new spec as a PDF, so will have to email it to you.
Apparently S16mm film is not of high enough quality, even when telecined to HDCAM!
As you suspect, this has a lot to do with the extreme compression that achieves a broadcast HD data rate of around 6.5 Mbps, and fears of what that might do to film grain.

They kind of have a point with HDV and even XDCAM though - it is not only the low data rate but also the interframe compression that causes problems.
The current "required delivery format" - HDCAM - has a data rate of 135 Mbps which makes even 35 Mbps appear very poor by comparison. And from September the mastering format will be HDCAM SR at 440 - 880Mbps, so you can see where they are going with this.

I know that data rates are not the only factor, it is also about the type of compression used, but they serve as a good general guide.
The latest technology - wavelet compression - is a big improvement on DCT, but "visually lossless" makes about as much sense as "fresh frozen" to me ;)

Andy Benjamin said...

Hi there Ian - it seems my appearance on the 'Reel Show' has stirred you up somewhat! I'd like to comment on a few of your responses. In a limited time, I had to get over some of the camera issues that I felt were important and unique. We have a team here at the BBC whose job is to assess any suitable new cameras coming onto the market, and we tend to home in on any unique features, good or bad. Just one really bad feature could mean the camera is rejected, even if the rest are exemplary.

We scored the EX1 14% higher than the Z1 (which I suppose is actually 11 of 10 roundabouts), whereas other cameras had previously only been around the same or a couple of percentage points higher. This scoring takes into account all camera features not just picture quality, but operational aspects, weight, button placement, sound features, and much more. Each feature is scored, weighted for importance, then added up to give a total.
This scoring is only looking at the camera section, and as such does rate the EX1 highly.

However, the recording section compresses the image more than our lowest acceptable quality at 50MB/s. We have done extensive tests, considering the whole production chain from origination through a variable post production route, playout and transmission, and decided on this figure. Comparable trials at Sky have also confirmed this.

A cinema screening of EX1 material could of course look great, with controlled post production and a high bit rate playback.

The transmission bit rate for all HD output (BBC and non BBC) was decided upon by extensive audience testing on a huge range of material, and is of course a compromise between quailty and available channel space.

I think the main confusion was that I do rate the EX1 camera section very highly, wheras the recording section falls below our quality threshold.

Ian said...

I'm afraid I'm still confused. On the one hand you seem to be saying that EX footage is "high bitrate" (when shown in a cinema) but too low for hi-def TV?

Ed Moore said...

Hi Ian,

FYI I am reliably informed by some crew on Doctor Who that they've been shooting HD since season 3. I believe the first two seasons were shot on DigiBeta due to a very cheap deal struck with a local supplier, and at that point no-one involved knew if it was going to be the big hit it turned into.

Incidentally I'm totally with you when it comes to Torchwood. Makes me all sad inside..

Anonymous said...

I think the point Mr Benjamin is making is that material originated with interframe compression at 35Mbps may look good on a digital projector in a cinema when it has been edited and mastered at higher bitrates with intraframe compression eg HDCAM. However, if it is shown with another round of interframe compression and a much smaller bitrate - ie HD broadcast chanels - it looks crap!

"The transmission bit rate for all HD output (BBC and non BBC) was decided upon by extensive audience testing on a huge range of material, and is of course a compromise between quailty and available channel space."

This bit makes me laugh however. It seems more like greed and stupidity on the part of the broadcasters [not only BBC] that agreed to such a low bitrate of around 6Mbps. We all get lousy pictures, so they can run E4 AND E4+1 etc, despite the fact that everybody has Tivo or Sky+ or Virgin+ or Freeview+. Also pointless, as they don't increase their advertising revenue as planned, merely fragment their audiences and share the same revenue across more channels.

And you know what's worse?
The bit rate per channel is variable, so if you notice the picture quality getting worse in the middle of a programme, it is probably because the broadcaster has stolen bandwidth for the commercials on one of their other channels!

Of course Mr Benjamin is concerned more with camera usability and recommendations for their producers, rather than the technical broadcast specs that I emailed you. But they are clearly being absurd over S16mm film. When telecined at HD resolution, grain is not a problem when the film is shot and exposed correctly, even using 500ASA stock. You will get far worse noise [like grain, only worse] from many of the highe-end HD cameras when usin ggain or "pushing the ASA" in post. But they don't have a rule about that!

Ian said...


Thanks Ed. That sounds more promising, although the quotes from Russel T Davies about not wanting to waste the budget on hi-def were from an article published earlier this week (wish I could find the wretched thing again to find out when the interview actually took place).

Ian said...

Nigel (loopy films)

Thanks for the explanation.