HD and region-specific encodings

Difficulties in getting NTSC versions of a British comedy series led to an investigation of region-specific incompatibilities in the HD world. Though the situation is considerably improved in HD, there are still region-specific pitfalls that one needs to avoid when buying hardware for the home.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

Work has yet again been devouring me whole for the past few days, as I have been working almost continuously for several weeks (with a long-ish break on Saturdays so as not to go insane). That doesn't mean I didn't have blog ideas Monday morning. It just means that I didn't have time to write them into proper posts.

Well, the clouds have lifted and the XMPP gods are letting me step away from my computer for long enough to talk about...Peep Show.

"Peep Show" is a TV series produced by "Channel 4" in the United Kingdom that I discovered by accident in the final hour before landing in Los Angeles on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London. Virgin Atlantic's competitive differentiator, as it were - besides a color scheme that I like to call "hangover red," is that every seat has a Video on Demand console embedded into the facing seat back (it has games, too, though I use that less frequently). It makes a long international flight a heck of a lot more entertaining.

There is no shortage of movies on these things, but as I knew I didn't have enough time to watch another full-length feature, I opted to take a tour through the TV section of the system. I'd already watched all the "My Name is Earl" and "Futurama" episodes, and started and stopped some unnamed pub-themed British comedy that might have appealed to me if I knew what in the hell they were talking about (there are plenty of those kinds of Brit-comedies that don't make their way across the pond for just that reason) before settling on Peep Show.

For that last hour, I was the American with a window seat attacked by fits of uncontrollable laughter. "Peep Show" follows Mark and Jeremy as they wander through their dysfunctional lives -- which you view from the perspective of their own eyes. This means that everyone for the most part speaks directly to the camera, and from this perspective, you get to hear what Mark and Jeremy are thinking in response to the day's events.

Sounds like a simple concept, but most good concepts are (and impossible to describe in a technology blog post)...

...which brings me back to my vaguely technology-oriented point. I managed to pick up Series One of the series at a local Barnes & Noble this past weekend, again by accident (in fact, I had to walk around searching my mental database for the series name). I've heard the series gets better with age, but this first series still caused fits of laughter at Chez Carroll this past weekend.

I was motivated to buy more of the series, and was happy to discover that it has run through five seasons (and is still ongoing). Unfortunately, the only one released for us Yanks living in our NTSC-based universe was the first season.

Damn you, lack of global standards for television signals. To be fair, this is not a massive issue, though it does make me wish I had kept my region-free (and NTSC / PAL compatible) DVD player I had in Switzerland. I just have to buy a new region-free player, one that has a PAL <-> NTSC converter built-in. From what I've been reading, those aren't terribly expensive - around $120. For comedy nirvana, it seems a small price to pay (and I do still have a few PAL videos lying around).

On the other hand, it did make me more aware of the issue of frame refresh rates in HD TVs. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that HD signals get around the NTSC / PAL issue. Unfortunately, they don't, as digital broadcasting standards (and the HD TVs that understand them) are still oriented around the the legacy PAL / NTSC broadcasting standards. Granted, they've managed to do away with pixel row differences (525 lines in NTSC vs. 625 lines in PAL, which is replaced by a universal 720 and 1080 pixel lines in the HD world), but the refresh rate differences still persist. In countries that use NTSC, the refresh rate is 30 frames per second (60 if interlaced), and 25fps  in PAL regions (50 if interlaced).

To make matters worse, from what I've gleaned on the Internet, lots of TVs will only accept signals that have a region-specific refresh rate. This can even be a problem for some who try to play back an HD disc recorded in 1080p/24 (24 frames per second, which is the frame rate at which most movies are recorded). Most players will upconvert to the required refresh rate, but it's one thing to support conversion from 24 frames a second (the standard in movies) to a local frame rate, and another thing to convert from the European frame rate to the American one.  Technically, its not a problem, but it's something I bet a lot of cost-conscious player manufacturers will leave out.  This will be more of a problem as more TV shows are released in HD disc format, as TV shows are more likely to bear the mark of legacy region-specific frame refresh rates.

Anyway, that's just something to keep in mind as you hunt around for consumer electronics. Make sure your new HD TV (and playback hardware) supports the range of refresh rates likely to exist in the world. If it doesn't, you might find that you have bought into the same region-balkanized world we have today.

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