HDTV - content and compression

So in conjunction with a piece of exercise equipment I recently got, I got an LCD HDTV to go near it - mainly, though perhaps not exclusively, to watch while exercising.

For the time being, I am not going with my cable provider’s HD package, but rather, I’m using analog cable for cable channels, and an antenna to capture digital and HD channels over-the-air for local channels (including affiliates of the big networks). A Tivo box nicely integrates the two sources.

When I get a good HD show, I really like it. BUT…

  1. The network affiliates don’t seem to have a lot of HD programming. It seems maybe half the prime time lineup, plus some of the late night shows and perhaps the morning shows (I don’t generally watch morning shows) are in HD. Daytime shows seem to be all or nearly all SD. I was expecting that by now, pretty much all prime time and a lot of non-prime time would be SD. What gives?

  2. Under ideal circumstances, the HD picture looks good. But most of the channels I see in HD are showing signs of HEAVY compression. Relatively static images mostly look good, but when the camera moves or there’s serious action on the screen, there is a LOT of pixellation. I’m wondering how typical this is. Would likely make much difference if I paid for the cable HD signal, or are they just going to retransmit the heavily compressed local OTA signal? Will the transition to digital OTA early next year make a difference?

New episodes of most prime time shows are in HD. But it’s still a phasing process. A lot of people still don’t even have HD. A LOT. Still, it’s the wave of the future, so stations are converting.

Compression depends on many factors, but I’m not sure what you are asking about paying for the signal? Are you not getting the HD package from your cable company? If that’s correct, you should. Also, what cables are you using for the hookup?

I get my HD channels currently via antenna (over-the-air)

I could pay a higher rate for my cable and get them via cable. I am wondering if this is likely to impact signal quality.

I just got an HDMI cable, and I was able to hook up both HDMI and component from my Tivo to the TV. (From the antenna to the Tivo is co-ax). Switching back and forth between HDMI and component on the TV takes a few seconds, so it’s hard to do a really solid A/B test, but it appears they’re about the same. In fact, looking closely at the (not-so-hot) signal quality is what had me thinking about this issue just before I posted this thread.

Both cable and over-the-air compress HD, so far as I know. I don’t think this is going to change any time soon – the less bandwidth they use per station, the more stations they can offer and the more commercials they can air.

We mostly just watch DVDs (and play games) on ours.

Part of the problem with live broadcasts is that they are compressed in real time at a constant bit rate. That gives you quality far below what you can achieve if you have time to properly analyze the source.

But the fact is that the networks carried in HD over cable won’t be any better. In fact you could probably take a look at them if your TV has a ATSC/QAM digital tuner. The networks aren’t encrypted by law. Paying the upgrade to HD from your cable company would get you HD version of a bunch of basic cable channels like Discovery, ESPN 1 & 2, TNT, Sci-Fi, Food Network and others.

Supposedly Comcast over-compresses their Cable HD offerings to allow more channels. I’d be surprised if over-the-air (non-digital-satellite) broadcasts are similarly over-compressed, though, since there’s no reason to do it.

I guess HD just sucks.

Exactly right. That’s why I recommend it. The OTA signal is actually better for your local channels than you would get over the cable, in my experience. But getting those others is worth it. The amount of compression artifacts will vary by channel a bit too, again in my experience.

You also might be getting less than perfect reception with your antenna. I’ve never used Over the Air HD, but I thought there was some way to see your signal strength.

I watch the local networks via their unencrypted signal on my Comcast Cable, picture looks great (including live broadcasts) and I’ve never seen bad compression issues.

With OTA, it pretty much is either working or it isn’t. It’s always quite clear if you are getting poor reception, from what I’ve seen.

Tivo has an option to show me signal strength - usually it’s pretty good. There are times when the signal strength gets a bit weak, and the image breaks up really badly (and noticeably). But that’s not what I’m talking about.

The local OTA stations seem to have different approaches. Local PBS broadcasts 4 channels in digital - one of them is usually HD. Other channels seem to only have 1 digital. I would assume that more channels equals less bandwidth/channel and lower quality - it’s hard to tell with the PBS stuff, because there tend to be more static images. But even a channel which wasn’t subdividing seemed pretty heavily compressed.

So am I correct in thinking that the switchover next year means that the stations won’t be using more bandwidth for digital, but rather, giving back bandwidth that they’re currently using for analog?

OTA would be nice except nothing I watch comes OTA.

Yes, it’ll free up a bunch of frequency ranges that the government is then going to (or has already, I’m not sure) auction off for other purposes, cell phones being a big one.