TV Is Pictures and Sound; 'Taint Numbers and Specs

You might not have noticed that all television control rooms have monitors of both the picture and sound variety. Okay, so there was one recent abomination, at a U.S. public broadcasting service that shall remain nameless, where operators couldn’t actually watch motion video, but that was the exception that proves the rule (and I hear it was also corrected).

This ain’t about the dynamic range, color gamut, and motion rendition of CRTs versus other displays, and it ain’t about comparative audio transducers. It’s more basic.

There’s a good reason for all those monitors. You’re supposed to look at and listen to them.

Some days I feel like a wild-eyed revolutionary when I suggest that what’s important about the TV technology business is pictures and sound. Methinks that in this digital age I’m supposed to be in love with numbers.

Now then, there’s a word worth a moment’s thought. Pronounce the “b” in numbers, and you’re talking about digits, figures and their relatives. Don’t pronounce the “b,” and you’re talking about stuff that dulls the senses, like, for instance, the aforementioned digits and figures.

Okay, I’ll grant you that some numbers are important. If you don’t fit your U.S. broadcast into 6 MHz, you won’t keep your license for long. If your sound carrier ain’t 4.5 MHz above your picture carrier, no one can hear you scream. But those numbers ain’t got anything to do with the picture and sound monitors in control rooms.


Our Beloved Commish, aka the FCC, says that if you broadcast digital TV you’ve got to transmit a number called “dialnorm” that correlates to the program loudness. Most broadcasters seem to be at least trying to figure out how to deal with that (loudness not being something we’ve enumerated in the past), but this time a certain Columbia broadcasting system that shall remain nameless is the exception that proves the rule.

They say dialnorm doesn’t work. Ulysses S. Grant once said the best way to get rid of a bad law is to enforce it. The nameless network thinks a better way is to ignore it.

Anyhow, that’s a policy dispute. Methinks the bigger problem is numbers substituting for quality.

Back in the good old days that lasted from 1941 to around 1997, there was basically one flavor of TV in the U.S. By the numbers, it had 525 total scanning lines per frame and 30 interlaced frames per second (29.97 when color came in). I could throw in more numbers, but I don’t want to numb you.

Now then, the fact that there was one flavor of TV surely doesn’t mean there was only one level of quality. In a taste test, you can tell differences between different brands of vanilla ice cream, and you’ve probably got a favorite. It was the same with 525-line TV. There were differences between cameras, recorders, and monitors, and if you were around back then, you probably had a favorite.

To do a “taste test,” you lined up the cameras, shot a scene, and looked at a monitor. The one that made the pictures you liked most was your winner. It was just that simple.

After you bought your cameras, you still looked at monitors. That’s how you could tell such stuff as whether the tubes suffered from beam starvation (tubes were glass cylinders that...; oh, never mind). If there’s a branch of our business that still values picture monitors, it’s video operators and colorists. They work by pictures, not numbers.

If a camera’s gamma is supposed to be .45, why do operating panels include gamma controls? The idea is to make good looking pictures (or, if specifically desired, a particular kind of bad looking picture), not to match numbers.

Here’s another number: +4 dBu. That’s a common audio-program operating level. You can crank up a mic preamp to the point of distortion and then turn down the level on a mixer’s input channel so that VU-meter peaks hit +4 dBu. Does it sound good? Repeat after me: Distortion is bad. Video ops and colorists look at pictures; audio mixers listen to sounds.

Today we’ve got more flavors of TV. There is 1080-active-line HDTV and 720-active-line HDTV. There is mono, stereo, and 5.1-channel surround sound. In other words, there are numbers.

So, what’s better: 1080i or 720p? Whoops! I forgot that it ain’t polite to discuss religious beliefs. Let me try again. What’s better: 1080i or 525-line TV?

If you go by the numbers, there ain’t any contest. Both are interlaced, so we can put that tenet of faith to rest. One’s got a lot more lines than the other.

So let me make the question a little more interesting. What’s better: a $1,000 1080i camcorder/lens combo or a $60,000 525-line version? Are you pausing to think? How about if I make the choice between a broken $1,000 1080i camcorder and a perfectly maintained and set up $60,000 525-line version?

Think you know the answer now? I don’t. I’d want to look at the pictures from each—and listen to the sound on playback. Maybe the way the 1080i camcorder is broken doesn’t matter. Maybe there’s a ton of light, so sensitivity is not an issue. Maybe small-format depth of field is a good idea in this case. I don’t know, and neither do you.

There’s a new tiny camcorder with built-in surround-sound capture. Is that a good thing? Are you sure? Have you listened?

Are your pictures red? Is that because the camera settings are off, or is the lighting red? Is it red intentionally?

Does your sound seem hollow? Quick, what number represents hollow? THD? Insertion gain? IMD? SNR? Methinks you ain’t going to find one, but you can identify the hollow sound pretty quickly by listening.

Okay, that’s enough preamble. Here comes the constitution in its entirety: If it looks and sounds good, it is good. If it looks and sounds bad, it is bad.

Forget numbers.