Sizzling coverage.

Thursday, February 16th, 2006

The first couple of days of the 2006 Winter Olympics, we watched scenes of Torino come in to our standard-definition analog-cable-connected Sony in dismay. Instead of pristine HDTV pictures smoothly downsampled for our old-fashioned TV pleasure, Atlanta affiliate WXIA seemed to be providing some of the worst digital images I’ve seen in some time…overenhanced, “sharp” or “sizzly” to the point of being painful to watch. The graphics were mushy, barely readable. Snowy scenes had…well, take a bright image into Photoshop and apply the ‘sharpen’ filter about 230 times…they looked like that.

Closeups of Bob Costas or, worse yet, the attending US first lady Laura Bush were uh…grotesque.

Clearly, something was messed up, and the only information I could get from a somewhat distracted master control guy at WXIA was “oh yeah, for the first day or two the weather was really bad in New York.”

So what was he saying, snow fade had caused a loss of data between NBC New York and Atlanta? Well, that is possible, and in the age of digital everything, if you lose some of the bits, the black boxes make up for it with fake, interpolated bits that can pretty much have the effect I described. And there was a large snowfall in New York, a nor’easter that blew through and paralyzed air traffic. I suppose that might well have meant the uplinks were hammered too.

But the past couple of days, things have looked pristine. In some ways, it’s amazing the pipeline works at all. And for the curious, one of NBC’s engineers is blogging from Torino [update: that blog has disappeared!] about the whole operation, and he’s doing a good job of discussing the elaborate steps behind the scenes. This same engineer points to a thread elsewhere that discusses, among other things, the amazing (to a more visual guy like me) lengths they have to go through to create and preserve the Dolby 5.1 sound tracks (along with good old stereo like we listen to) that really enhances the HD experience.

I’ve also watched some of the coverage of curling, not because I’m much of a fan…not that I even understand what the heck they’re doing, but because NBC is trying an experiment there much like CNN tried with the last political conventions. They’re backhauling all of the camera and audio feeds from the curling venue (this is in standard-definition) to CNBC/MSNBC’s operation in Fort Lee, N.J. and directing the show from there. Then, of course, they have to send their output back to Torino so that the announcers know what they’re seeing. Sounds complicated (it is!) but apparently there’s big cost savings in not having to have that many more people over there eating fine Italian cuisine.

And there’s plenty of good Italian food in New Jersey, anyway.