Irish Digital TV: RTÉ Two’s stretching problem

Here in Ireland, we have a terrestrial digital television broadcasting service called SaorView. There are eight TV channels available:

  1. RTÉ One, which broadcasts in 576i
  2. RTÉ Two, which broadcasts in 1080i
  3. TV3, which broadcasts in 576i
  4. TG4, which broadcasts in 576i
  5. 3e, which broadcasts in 576i
  6. RTÉ News Now, which broadcasts in 576i
  7. RTÉ Jr, which broadcasts in 576i
  8. RTÉ One +1, which broadcasts in 576i

Channels 1 to 2 and 6 to 8 are owned by the state broadcaster, which also administers the SaorView service via its subsidiary RTÉ Networks Limited (RTÉ NL). Channels 3 and 5 are both owned by the TV3 Group. TG4 is a state-owned Irish-language channel separate from RTÉ. It is a DVB-T service, with all channels broadcasting H.264 streams.

Most of these channels are able to dynamically change the aspect ratio of their broadcasts, so 4:3 shows aren’t stretched to 16:9 (widescreen). Unfortunately, this is not the case for RTÉ Two, which happens to be the channel where I watch most of my 4:3 programming. I was eventually motivated to figure out how to manually override the ratio on my decoder. This is actually rather easy, but it’s annoying, and changing it back afterwards is even more bothersome. Anyway, I assumed that, being a HD broadcaster, RTÉ Two was locked to 1920×1080 and couldn’t do anything about it.

However, recently, I was using VLC to inspect the codec information of an MPEG file recorded from RTÉ Two by MythTV, and discovered that the broadcast is actually anamorphic. It broadcasts at 1440×1080, which is a perfect 4:3 picture, then instructs the decoder to stretch it! Even normal widescreen programmes are squashed at RTÉ, then stretched back on my end. At first, I was enraged that this quality compromise was being made at all, but after doing a little research, I discovered that this is common on terrestrial broadcasts because of limited bandwidth. In fact, a quick inspection of recordings from SD channels reveals that they broadcast at 544×576, which is 17:18, but instruct the decoder to stretch to 768 (4:3) or 1024 (16:9) as required. 17:18 does seem like a strange aspect ratio, but I found a long-winded (yet satisfactory) explanation for it here.

So, rage against anamorphicity (if I may make up a word) is basically unjustified, but RTÉ still have some explaining to do. If RTÉ Two actually broadcasts a 4:3 signal, why on Earth can’t they let the decoder show it in 4:3 on appropriate programmes? It doesn’t make sense to me! All the other channels, as stated above, can dynamically change the degree of stretching, but this supposedly high-quality channel can’t simply change it to “no stretching at all”. Am I missing something here? These broadcasts are all standard MPEG-4 streams, using standard H.264/MPEG-4 AVC compression, so shouldn’t they all have the same capabilities?

At any rate, I suppose little to none of it matters to me, as the end result is a paltry 576i composite analogue signal, usually containing letterboxed widescreen video, which gets overscanned on purpose by my bloody LCD television!

“Sausage factories”

It recently came to my attention that Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn likened the Junior Certificate to a “sausage squeezing machine”, “squeezing creativity and curiosity out of the classroom”. [Source: Limerick Leader] So, all of my friends and I have apparently been squeezed through this unmerciful sausage factory in recent years. I can’t really say that I agree with that assessment. Let’s look at some other things worthy of the title of “sausage factory”:

I found out in the last few weeks that the old MCA television production company, Revue (later Universal), was often derided as a “sausage factory”. In all of its television shows, thanks to the regimented formula-driven production management of Lew Wasserman, it basically churned out one hour of the same thing every week, over and over again. Indeed, this prompted an FCC investigation in the late ’50s, into the reasons for the overall poor quality of American television programming. [Source: When Hollywood Had a King]

The Revue Logo

Having watched many episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I can only agree with this assessment of the studio, even though this programme is from the ’80s! In every episode, Mrs. Fletcher gets introduced to a scenario and meets a few people, then after about half an hour someone’s body is found. After that, Mrs. Fletcher collaborates with whatever authorities are involved. She has a sudden stroke of genius towards the end, then confronts the murderer with some ridiculously elaborate story. In many episodes, the murderer finally admits culpability and draws a gun, only to have the sheriff, or whoever, run in and save Mrs. Fletcher. After that, everyone is happy, then some silly joke is made, and we get a freeze-frame of Mrs. Fletcher laughing, then the credits roll!

There’s also the matter of the Scooby-Doo sausage factory. They tried to do new things with the franchise over the last forty-odd years. I was very impressed with the most recent Mystery Incorporated series. Personally, I think they should leave it at that – any more could only go down the old sausage-factory route and ruin a good thing. Besides, there are still the formulaic direct-to-video animated feature-length films they’re doing.

So now, can we really place a fundamental part of our education system, which has existed for many years, on par with the forces behind the production of Murder, She Wrote, Scooby-Doo, and other mediocre television programmes? Somehow, as a student, I’m just not comfortable with that.