NFL in HD – It’s all good! Or is it?

NFL football in HD. Like most young-to-middle-aged American males, I love NFL football. And it has to be in HD. On a big screen. With big sound. But not all HD NFL is created equal. Most of you are aware of the two high definition television broadcast formats – 720p and 1080i. Read more about the differences between the two formats in the Digital Media Services January 2009 Newsletter. ESPN and Fox broadcast in 720p. NBC, CBS and NFL Network broadcast in 1080i. Is one format better than the other for football? You bet your jockstrap one is, and it’s the 720p format! I’ll tell you why.

The 720p format delivers viewers sixty 1280 x 720 progressive video frames per second. The 1080i format delivers viewers 1920 x 1080 interlaced video frames 30 times per second. While a 1280 x 720 image has less resolution than a 1920 x 1080 image frame, the other two broadcast format factors – scanning method and frame rate – give 720p an advantage when it comes to sports. The progressive scanning method handles fast motion imagery much better as the images doesn’t suffer from artifacts that appear as jittery motion, jagged lines or blurry edges as interlaced scanning formats do. Also, most of us have 720p or 1080p televisions so the progressive broadcast doesn’t have to be de-interlaced to show on our screens as 1080i broadcasts do; the de-interlacing can create a loss of detail, among other problems. The faster frame rate (60 fps vs. 30 fps) allows fast moving objects or scenes of a fast moving camera following the action appear clearer on our screens and deliver smoother, less stuttery motion. The faster frame rate also allows the digital encoders compressing the broadcast into an MPEG-2 video stream better manage the motion because there are less changes from frame-to-frame. What these technical details really mean is that the 720p format provides for a more efficient use of the limited bandwidth available to each broadcast network and therefore provides a better picture when it comes to sports.

NFL HDTV Formats

But forget all the technical mumbo-jumbo for a moment; perform a test yourself. This Sunday, watch a 720p broadcast on Fox and compare it to a 1080i broadcast on CBS. If you can’t catch the games on Sunday afternoon, NBC (1080i) has Sunday night games, ESPN (720p) has Monday night games and NFL Network (1080i) has Thursday night games. What I think you’ll find is that the 1080i broadcasts are not quite as clear as the 720p broadcasts and you’ll see much more artifacting such as macro-blocking and picture breakup – especially during scenes with fast motion or fast-moving full-screen graphics – with the 1080i broadcasts. These artifacts appear as small, square-shaped distortions of the picture image, almost like a pixelized digital photo. Additional factors playing a role in the quality of an image include whether or not your cable or satellite provider re-compresses the incoming broadcast signal and how well your HDTV’s internal de-interlacer performs. I subscribe to Verizon FiOS, a fiber optic data delivery system, which does not re-compress any of their incoming broadcast signals, so I’m seeing exactly what the networks are sending out. Dish Network, DirecTV and Comcast, among others, re-compress at least some of their transmissions.

Knowing full well the strengths and weaknesses of the two different broadcast formats, you’d think the networks would adapt their style of production to deliver the best picture quality. But I see no evidence of that. NBC continues to use full-screen, fast-moving transition graphics that create macroblocking every time they’re displayed. And the 1080i networks’ use of fast camera moves during close-up shots can create really poor-looking visuals. The 720p broadcasts from ESPN, ABC and Fox don’t have near the quality issues the 1080i broadcasters experience.

I’m interested in hearing feedback from readers about experiences with 720p vs. 1080i NFL broadcasts as well as what the various cable and satellite providers are sending out.


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7 Responses to “NFL in HD – It’s all good! Or is it?”

  1. Cliff Says:

    Great article. Just got a new HD TV (1080) and I have an issue with the FOX NFL vs. CBS NFL broadcasts–the stuttering image is giving me a headache vs. the smoother flow of action from CBS. My TV is an LG with high-refresh rate; don’t know if I can adjust some setting to improve flow/get rid of the stuttering yet.

    • digitalmediaservices Says:

      Cliff – thanks for your comments. As 720p broadcasts actually provide 60 progressive frames per second as opposed to the 30 interlaced frames per second with 1080i, you should be seeing smoother motion (and less macroblocking) with the Fox broadcasts. If this is not the case, perhaps you should try turning OFF any artificially fast refresh rates your TV is using and see if that improves the situation.

      60 frames per second is plenty fast enough to provide very fluid motion (most feature films are shot at only 24 frames per second); many times the “enhanced” refresh rate features of TVs end up diminishing the picture quality as opposed to improving it. I’m generally not a fan of processing a video image (or audio signal) in order to alter it from its original format; that is called distortion. TVs that don’t process well end up making matters all the worse. Let us know what results you find after turning off the faster refresh processing.

  2. Chaz Says:

    I just came across this site while watching some of the preseason NFL games for 2013. I can’t believe what a big difference 720 vs. 1080 is. 720 looks so much better, smoother. Strange how 1080 looks so bad, almost flicker like watching video on youtube at 20FPS.

  3. Daniel Cohen Says:

    I think it comes down to personal preference. As I did a google search to see why the Saints game wasn’t being broadcast in 1080i.

    I do see the macro-blockng and jitter you are speaking of with 1080i, especially when advancing the image frame by frame. It is also noticeable whenever there is a still image on screen.

    However, to me it is not too much of an issue and I’d prefer the massively increased resolution of 1080i w/ some artifacting.

    People often think 720p vs 1080i is only a 50% difference in pixel count, but, due to the multiplication of the resolution value 1080i has over twice as many pixels in each image compared to 720p.

    I should note that I sit about 2.5 feet away from a 24 inch monitor when watching the games. So that is likely a big factor in my preference of 1080i.

    Also, you don’t lose any motion information with 720p vs 1080i. While 720p is 60 progressive frames, 1080i consists of 60 interlaced fields. The end result is the image updating 60 times per second with each format. However, as you mentioned you do get artifacts relating to interlacing with the 1080i format.

    I think the reason the broadcasters can’t agree on which format is best is due to the fact that personal preference comes into play.

    I think one thing we can all agree on, is that hopefully all football games are broadcast at 1080p at some point in the future. That would give is the best of both worlds.

    Unfortunately, there are currently no broadcasts in 1080p that I am aware of. Blu-Ray uses 1080p as do some DirecTV PPV movies. Although DirecTV PPV movies use the 1080p/24 format which is only 24 fps. For movies 24 fps is all you need though as film is also 24 fps.

    Hopefully we have 1080p NFL broadcasts within the next decade.

  4. Daniel Cohen Says:

    921,600 = The number of pixels comprising 1280×720 resolution.

    2,073,600 = The number of pixels comprising 1920×1080 resolution.

    So as you can see, the difference in resolution is massive. Thus, some prefer the interlaced trade off for much higher resolution.

    Depending on how close you sit to the television and how big your screen may be, the difference between 720p and 1080i can be negligible for some.

    Some of this also has to do with the quality of your vision or how recently you purchased eyeglasses or contact lenses.

    Sadly, I don’t think this issue will be resolved prior to 1080p sports broadcast which are almost certainly a very long way off due to the enormous bandwidth required.

  5. Jim M. Says:

    Hi. Great article. In the middle of watching Thursday night football on NFL network…and appalled by the terrible picture quality. Macroblocking was a new term for me, but describes exactly what I am seeing. My Samsung plasma runs (supposedly) 600hz. I found a picture quality setting for MPEG noise filter, and digital noise filter. Both can be set to auto, low, Med, high, or off. They were on auto and I bumped them to high. Seems like it helps…or am I imagining things?

  6. Reginald Farnsworth Says:

    why don’t these broadcasters shoot at a frame-rate which gives a pleasing picture? most of the game is just plain blurry. don’t they even get it? are they stupid? they should shoot football at 100 fps, then i wouldn’t get a headache from looking at blur every time the ball is hiked.

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