Skip to main content

Poor Quality Video

One of the reporters I worked with during my early years in news had an instant response to any intuitively obvious fact someone pointed out to him: “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Though my friend died more than 30 years ago, my brain heard him uttering his mantra while I was watching a cable network the other day. As a writer for a technical journal about television I knew I was watching the results of too much compression. The picture kept freezing, freezing again, audio went out, and then it went blank.

That would have bugged my colleague to no end, but what would have taken him over the top was the little text box that showed up in the video that read “Poor Quality Signal.”

Tell me something I don’t know.

(click thumbnail)Producers have to make a decision whether or not they can live without the flawed video. Apparently, more and more, the decision is to live with it.I’ll leave out the name of the cable channel to protect the guilty, but I have to say that I sampled it occasionally over a week’s time, and the same problem, and text box, kept happening. I watched the exact same program a week later, and the program dropped out (and the text box came in) at exactly the same points.

First, let’s talk about that little text box. I, as a writer for a technical journal about television, realize that the signal chain between that cable channel’s playback facility and my home is long and involved, including at least a couple of trips out to space and back.

And somewhere in that chain is a black box that is running on the ragged edge, trying to resolve video that’s been compressed too much. And my guess is that there’s a switch that an operator can throw that would defeat the “Poor Quality Signal” text box, which all the other channels have had put in the admit-no-evil position. I know about that because I know a bit about how TV gets from the photographer to the viewer.

But as a viewer, I’m going to be tuning out pretty quickly when my program keeps getting screwed up, especially when the audio drops out and I can’t follow along. It’s insulting for there to be the same problem, in the same program, a week later, and to tell me once again in that text box that there’s a problem.

As a viewer, I’m thinking that if you knew there was a problem, in a week you should have been able to figure out how to fix it.

It’s interesting to me that the text box flagged “Poor Quality Signal,” not poor quality video. There are decisions every day that news departments and cable and broadcast networks have to make about whether or not to air poor quality video.


Much of the early Iraq war coverage was via satellite phone, where the video was very low quality. The audio was very understandable, and the news producer’s choice was between using low-quality video of the reporter doing his standup or Q&A with the anchors or putting up a graphic with a reporter picture on it. They usually chose the satellite phone picture, poor as it was.

That’s because the audio was (and often is) the most critical element. In an awful lot of television, the audio is the critical element.

Another show I watched recently was a documentary that must have taken a month or so to shoot. It relied heavily on multicamera interviews with very busy people. One of those cameras had a video problem that I can best describe as a flashing in the vertical center of the frame. You could certainly make out who was in the picture, but it was annoying.

When they discovered the video problem, given how important the interview subjects were, it was not an option to go out and re-shoot the interviews and B-roll again. They intercut the flawed video with the other angles. My guess is that they decided the video would carry the program and the viewer would get used to the problem. The other viewers probably did. I didn’t.


What bothered me is that the problem was there for each and every interview, which told me they weren’t checking their video as they went along. As someone who once shot film for 22 days at sea on the Coast Guard tall ship Eagle, waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering if the film was OK, since the coming of videotape (and optical disc, hard drive and solid state memory recording), I’ve become a big fan of checking video as a shoot goes along.

But whether it had been a problem with one interview or all the interviews, the producers have to make a decision whether or not they can live without the flawed video. Apparently, more and more, the decision is to live with it.

But don’t get me started on lip-sync. I’m convinced there will be a research project by a number of prominent scientists that will find that watching video where a person’s mouth is more than half a second out of sync with his voice causes ear hair to grow five times faster. Then someone will demand lip-sync gets fixed.