Off Topic: Crappy Looking TV. Who to Blame?

Discussion in 'TiVo Coffee House - TiVo Discussion' started by Maxwell Horse, Jan 7, 2008.

  1. Maxwell Horse

    Maxwell Horse New Member

    Dec 29, 2007


    Hi, guys. I apologize for posing this non-TIVO related question, but this is something that has REALLY been pissing me off (and confusing me) lately. It’s obvious from reading some of the posts on this forum that you guys seem to know a lot about general issues of TV broadcasts and cable companies, etc—so I thought it might be worth a shot posting this question here. Also, I’ve seen the occasional thread here discussing cable TV in general, so I don’t think I’m breaking any major protocol here.

    Basically, I’m pretty distraught (pissed, frustrated, pick your adjective) by just how bad so many of my TV channels look. (We have standard basic cable. Not digital cable. Standard TVs. No hi-def anything. We have Cox Cable. We live in Rhode Island.)

    I KNOW that cable TV didn’t used to look this way. We’ve had cable for years (as have most people) and I can’t remember ever consistently seeing problems like I have recently. I remember I used to (as recent as, say, 6 years ago) be able to turn to any channel, whether it was PBS, or CBS, or A&E or HBO (we had premium cable for a time) and have absolutely no problems. Everything always looked “normal.” (Assuming the cable was working, which it usually was.) Heck, the idea that I should even be on the look out for “problems” wouldn’t have even occurred to me back then—that’s how consistent things were. The only “problems” I would have with a program back then were if the actual content of the program or execution of the subject matter was poor. (Or if the cable was out completely, but that’s a different issue than what I’m complaining about today.) Ah, what innocent times those were. Nowadays, often the actual “look” of what’s on screen is so “off,” in one way or another, it hardly matters what the program is. It could be the best movie ever made, and it’s still going to suck with the way it looks on say, the USA network. I guess you don’t notice consistency and reliability until it’s gone.

    I don’t think every channel suddenly turned crappy all at once. I suspect that this has been a gradual process, steadily growing worse over recent years, but it’s only within the past several months that I’ve been consciously aware of it. I think it’s probably been like that classic movie “Ten Little Indians,” where one-by-one, each individual channel has started to look crappy, and I haven’t noticed until recently, when things reached “critical mass.” As of this typing, there are probably more channels than not that have some kind of visual problem or another.

    I also don’t believe that it’s a problem with my particular TV or the coaxial cables. (Doing some channel surfing with the TV in the other room backs this up.) I can’t “prove” it, but I honestly don’t believe these problems are due to anything on “my end.”

    Just to give you a general idea, here is a partial list of some of the stations I’ve noticed problems with. As you see, the “problem symptoms” aren’t 100% identical from channel to channel. I will list a couple problem-free stations too, just to give credence to the idea that this isn’t a problem on my end.

    --NBC 10: One of the few stations that seems to come in okay. And that’s a shame, since I pretty much hate their entire trashy lineup, including their “news broadcasts.”

    --PBS: We have access to three PBS channels. But two of them are so bad-looking that it’s almost comical. WGBH Channel 2 is so dark and fuzzy looking that I don’t even bother any more to see what’s on it. I haven’t noticed much “macro-blocking” per se— but the extreme fuzziness and darkness renders any such small blessings irrelevant. (It might be relevant to note that I don't believe there were any problems such as these, say, 10 years ago.) WGBX 44 is nearly as bad.
    --Only PBS 36 (WSBE) actually looks decent. This is the only PBS station on which a program is actually enjoyable to watch.

    --FOOD NETWORK: Has some broadcast issues. Admittedly it’s not always easy to tell, since the network’s executives have curiously come to the decision that all new Food TV programs must be shot with the ugliest cinematography possible—apparently using first-generation webcams from the mid 90’s as their primary recording equipment.
    --But aside from that—they often show repeat programs from a couple years ago that I KNOW were shot “normally,” and yet there is always a general “washed out” look to the shows, vaguely fuzzy, with frequent ‘macro-blocking.’ (I believe that’s the term.) Whenever someone moves their head quick, or tosses a sauté, or opening credit graphics come up, there’s that friggin’ macro-blocking. This isn’t a rare thing. Any given minute of Iron Chef America will have several instances of this. I KNOW these programs didn’t look this way a few years ago when they originally aired. I would’ve noticed it.

    --TBS: One of the few channels that consistently looks “normal.”

    --ABC: I don’t watch it much, but from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t have any major problems.

    --CBS: Shockingly, looks pretty bad. TONS of macro-blocking. I first noticed it a few weeks ago when I was channel surfing and caught some football. And then a few night’s ago I wanted to see Letterman’s return. I was shocked. To say that it looked barely better than a You Tube video would only be a slight exaggeration. Letterman came out on stage to much fanfare and a lot of ladies in spangled costumes (if memory serves). TONS of macro-blocking, tons of extra “noise.” You might ask, how did things look once Letterman was alone on stage? Surprisingly, things were still pretty bad. He had a new beard, which perhaps added to the broadcast’s inability to “keep up,” but basically whenever he moved his head during the monologue there was macro-blocking and noise.

    --NESN: I watched the New England Sports Network all of last year during the regular baseball season. I never consciously registered that there was a problem. (And there might not have been at the time.) However, I just tuned in randomly a couple weeks ago and was chagrinned to note that things looked generally washed out and fuzzy looking. (Sportsdesk with Hazel Mae and Globe 10.0 in particular.) Now granted, maybe NESN has just recently decided to start recording their shows with some kind of inferior digital cameras, which would confuse the issue.
    --(And that’s not totally implausible. I noticed that towards the end of the 2007 baseball season, all of a sudden all of the [pre-taped] on-field reports from Tina Cervasio during the pregame show were OBVIOUSLY being shot with inferior digital cameras—since everything looked fuzzy and washed out during those segments. [That was something new. Until then, all such on-field reports were indistinguishable from the rest of the live broadcast.] And I know it was the cameras they were using for those outdoor reports that was the cause of this, and not the broadcast, because things would look fine for the rest of the in-studio preshow with Tom Cuaran.)
    --However, the theory that NESN now looks bad simply because they’re shooting their shows with bad digital cameras doesn’t explain why even the non-NESN-produced commercials during the breaks also look fuzzy and washed out.
    --I suspect that sometime after the baseball season ended (after I stopped watching consistently), the NESN channel “went down” like one of the proverbial Ten Little Indians.

    --USA: While not as atrocious as some of the other stations, it just doesn’t look right. While I’ve never seen flat-out huge macro-blocking, like with CBS, the picture is frequently “distant” looking with a general “sense” of pixelization. Cold Mountain was on a few weeks ago, and the best words I can use to describe the problem would be “craggy” and “noisy.”
    --And just the other night, they were showing early episodes of Monk. I know you can expect some age with any older shows, but honestly, these shows aren’t THAT old! And yet, everything looked washed out and slightly “ghosty.” (The hint of trailing afterimages following every head movement.) I KNOW these episodes didn’t look that way when they aired. I also caught part of a more recent episode (where Monk went to work in a regular office environment, undercover, and made some friends) and that looked kind of ****** too—fuzzy, etc.
    --As I type this right now, L&O SVU is on, and definitely everything looks “ghosty,” especially noticeable with any onscreen movement. Even when people are just sitting and talking and moving their heads, I'm seeing hints of ghost trails. I’m looking at the TV now and it’s VERY blatant.

    --TNT Channel 27: Looks pretty mediocre. Whether it’s a movie that’s playing, or an episode of Law and Order, it just doesn’t look “right.” (Movies almost always look flat-out terrible.) They were showing Cast Away a couple weeks ago. It’s hard to describe exactly what was wrong, but there was a quality of artifacting to it that resulted in the movie, every once in a while, almost looking like videotape. The Two Towers was also on recently, and it looked “distant” and “off” and pixelized.
    --The Law and Order marathon last week also looked washed out and slightly fuzzy. There were also constant hints of what I call “ghosting.” By that I mean, every movement of Sam Waterston’s head produced an almost palpable after-image trail (except more subtle than that). Not so bad as to be overt, but bad enough that I noticed it (driving me crazy), and bad enough so that it resulted in the entire show looking “wrong.”

    --ABC FAMILY: Okay, I never watch this. However, they were showing the first three Harry Potter movies a few weeks ago, and I tuned in. Overall, they just looked “off” and “wrong.” Like the images weren’t entirely “there.” I know such vagaries would never hold up in court.
    --However this would: The overall “off” look would frequently culminate to something unmistakably overt whenever there was a fast-moving and small object on screen. In Prisoner of Azkaban this happened at least twice. In one shot, a swarm of bats appear on screen at a great distance, then gradually get closer to the viewer. In another shot, Harry breaks Sirius Black from his tower prison and in one unbroken shot, they fly together away from the tower toward the viewer.
    --In both cases, when the bats were far away, and before Harry/Black got too close to the viewer, the same bizarre phenomenon happened. It wasn’t macro-blocking but something more dramatic. Basically the entire movie momentarily turned into a primitive stop-motion performance. Like early California raisins. Or like one of those lenticular pictures you see. Like the movie is being broadcast at 2 frames per second.
    --Now, I know it probably isn’t worth complaining about a couple instances in a movie broadcast. However, as I said, that was only the most overt instance of something wrong. The whole broadcast was “off” even before those scenes.

    Through Google, I’ve found numerous pages talking about the idea of “compression” in relation how a cable company gets its programming to its customers. However, all those sites seem to mention the term (“compression”) in a positive way—sort of like it’s a given that all channels are “treated” this way—and that that’s a wonderful thing because humans are incapable of seeing any difference in the compressed outcome. (That’s what’s implied, anyway.) Also, I got the impression that compression refers to digital cable customers, and we have standard cable.

    Could compression be the culprit in my complaints? Is compression a new thing in recent years, or have cable companies been doing it all along? I know that macro-blocking is associated with compression, but what about some of my other complaints, like the general fuzzy, ghosty, trailing-effects and distant qualities I often see? (I realize that my alternate complaints of things being “dark and fuzzy” on one station, and things being “washed out and fuzzy” on another station seem to contradict each other.)

    I guess if I had to sum up this entire post in the form of one question, it would be: WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE? Personally, I can think of 3 possible explanations:

    1) The problem is me. And by that I mean, all these things I’m complaining about—fuzziness and bleached-out ghostly qualities and pixelization…. Well, perhaps everyone else considers these to be good things—hallmarks of the “superior” look of modern standards. And I’m some kind of antiquated fuddy duddy that I don’t like the look of those things.

    2) The individual stations/networks themselves, for whatever insane reason, are broadcasting a (REALLY) crappy product. And Cox cable is merely bringing that inferior product to me.

    3) The fault lies with Cox cable. They’re doing something to the broadcast of individual stations, resulting in a crappy look, the exact “symptoms” of which, vary from channel to channel.

    I’d be very appreciative if anyone here in the know could give their thoughts on this matter. (Your responses don’t have to be novel-length like this post is.) Would I be justified in complaining to my Cox cable service, or is this merely “the way things are” now and I’m just “out of step” with the times?
  2. bkdtv

    bkdtv New Member

    Jan 9, 2003
    DC Metro Area
    Do you have a TiVo? And if so, which one? That wasn't clear to me from your post.

    First, analog channels are not compressed. Most cable channels are initially distributed on satellite as digital, of course, but the compression there hasn't changed recently. With analog channels, your cable provider doesn't apply additional compression.

    Ghosting, snow, and fuzziness on analog channels almost always the result of a poor cable signal. Something has probably gone bad between you and the cable co (squirrel chewed a hole in your cable, connector came loose, etc). You should have Cox come out and check your signal levels.

    A poor analog cable signal will generally not exhibit pixelization or macroblocking.

    If you're new to TiVo, you may not be aware that the TiVo converts all analog channels into digital, as it must to save them to the hard drive. This involves digital compression. If you are using the lowest quality setting under Settings -> Recording (?), then your recordings will probably exhibit pixelization and macroblocking. I'm really not sure why TiVo even includes this setting; it looks unacceptably bad, in my opinion. I would recommend that you use the "Best Quality" setting for all analog recording on your TiVo.

    [With a HDTV Tivo, all digital channels are recorded as is, 100% identical to the original broadcast.]

    If you have a TivoHD, I would highly recommend that you get a CableCard. With most cable providers, installation and activation of a CableCard instantly maps higher-quality digital versions of all channels in place of the analog versions. Picture quality on these digital SD channels is generally a significant upgrade over analog channels on the TiVo; channel changing with digital channels is faster as well.

    The following applies to digital channels only.

    Loss of fine detail (softness) and pixelization (trailing effects) are also associated with excess digital compression. The first thing most encoders do to save bandwidth is filter out high-frequency picture information -- also known as shadow details. That only works to a point; beyond that, compression will cause varying degrees of pixelization and macroblocking.

    Some cable providers are really feeling the pressure from DirecTV's HD advertising campaign. Some cable divisions have responded by significantly increasing the level of compression on their HD to make room for new channels. Quality suffers as a result, with less perceived detail / resolution, pixelization, and macroblocking.
  3. Maxwell Horse

    Maxwell Horse New Member

    Dec 29, 2007
    Thanks for the reply bkdtv. (If for no other reason than you actually waded through my whole post.) I guess I have a mystery on my hands. As you've noted, I do not have digital cable. I take it from your post that that may rule out my Cox cable provider as the "culprit" of my dilemna.

    To answer your first question, I do not yet have a Tivo installed. (I actually ordered a TivoHD unit and have it sitting in my bedroom in the box. I'm waiting for the memory extender to arrive before I set it up.) As of now, I still have my standard cable hookup.

    I wonder, how likely is it that the actual networks/stations themselves (such as USA or TNT) are applying tons of digital compression--so that the product is already "tainted" before Cox has even gotten a hold of it. However, what kind of motivation would a station have for doing that to its own product? Also, wouldn't that just make people (like me) mad for no reason? That doesn't sound likely either.
  4. bkdtv

    bkdtv New Member

    Jan 9, 2003
    DC Metro Area
    I skimmed your post the first time and responded before I realized that you might not actually have a TiVo. I edited my post to reflect issues with analog channels.

    USA and TNT both distribute their channels on satellite at 704x480 resolution with acceptable bitrates. Quality of those feeds isn't bad, as far as SD goes. The satellite feed of SciFi is much worse than those two.

    If quality is poor to you on a smaller screen, then I suspect it is due to problems with analog transmission.
  5. Maxwell Horse

    Maxwell Horse New Member

    Dec 29, 2007


    Thanks for your expanded post, bk.

    Hm. I guess I will call a cable guy, if only to satisfy some of my curiosity and rule out some problems. However, it's already not sounding good. Wouldn't a poor cable signal like you describe (a chewing squirrel or something) result in all channels looking equally as bad? Also, the bit about how a poor analog signal shouldn't result in a lot of the visual problems I'm experiencing--that's also consternating.

    Thanks for your additional tips about setting up my Tivo. I was told that with standard cable, one didn't need to get cable cards. I guess you're not disputing that. But what you're saying is it would still benefit me to get cablecards--as that would automatically convert my cable signal to digital, and improve the quality of my Tivo recordings. (I might consider doing that now. Although I'm a bit leary what with some of the nightmare stories I read on this forum and others about what a hassle it is to get the cable cards to work.)

    Maybe I'll just try using the Tivo for a while with Standard cable, and then after I feel comfortable enough with the setup, then go with the cablecards. (I hope doing such a thing--suddenly switching to cablecards after already starting my Tivo usage--won't mess up my Tivo account.)
  6. bkdtv

    bkdtv New Member

    Jan 9, 2003
    DC Metro Area
    Signal problems do not necessarily affect all frequencies in the same way. For example, channels 2-7 might look awful while channels 30-40 are perfect.
  7. dwit

    dwit Active Member

    May 4, 2004
    Atlanta, GA
    Just a little note I will add from my recent experience.

    The Tivo HD does a wonderful job with analog cable, compared to the S2 models. I have my cable card installed now but was really impressed with the picture quality of the Tivo HD on analog cable. Much, much better than my 3 S2 models.

    I can barely stand to watch the S2s now.
  8. Maxwell Horse

    Maxwell Horse New Member

    Dec 29, 2007
    Thanks for that, dwit. I'm looking forward to setting up my HD Tivo now more than ever. I'm also feeling better about not buying a Series 2.

    Getting back to something I noticed bkdtv saying...

    I know that since I don't have digital cable, that all of my problems are sort of mysterious--and don't necessarily apply to many of the type of artifacts that bk has described. However, I just wanted to dwell on this last point about "shadow details" as it rang a bell with me.

    At the end of December, USA network was showing the Kurt Russell movie, Breakdown. And I caught a little of the ending. Since I've been obsessive-compulsively noting how crappy move presentations have looked recently, I was watching this one closely. For the most part, it exhibited lots of the things I described. Mild amounts of "noise." And a subtle feeling that things were just all around "fuzzy."

    While not great--and certainly not close to the memories I have from just a few years ago of watching cable TV, where it was pretty much a given that programs would look "normal"--at least it wasn't as atrociously bad as some programs look these days. However, all that changed when Kurt Russell entered the bad guy's trailer home in the end of the movie. In case you aren't familiar with the movie, the trailer interior scenes are dark and low lit. And here is where the movie picture went from mediocre to awful. Suddenly there was TONS of pixelization and artifacting, motion blur, etc.

    [BTW, that overt hideousness abated back to just mediocrity as soon as Kurt Russel left the trailer home and entered the sunlight again.]

    I don't know if any of that is exactly what bkdtv was talking about, but I thought it might be related.

    Anyway, I just wanted to add that bit of "evidence." Again, the fact that as an analog cable customer apparently none of these problems should be affecting me--only adds to my confusion and consternation.

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