Quality and Sustainability

A retrospective look at the consumers’ take on media quality

Have you ever wondered how much funnier an episode of Blackadder or Fawlty Towers would be if it had been shot in high definition? No? Neither has anyone else and it’s not hard to understand why. These shows are all about the script, the delivery, the timing, the acting, body language and facial expressions, none of which depends on screen resolution. Picture quality is important, of course, but can we justify technical improvement beyond the point where the residual picture impairments have ceased to impact viewing pleasure?

I think the answer is no, and to explain why we need only consider the parallel progress of audio technology.

Consider this – a mere one hundred years ago, if you could hear music, you could probably see the musicians playing it. A few rich folk owned ‘wind-up’ gramophones but movies were silent and radio was still an experimental science. There was no public service or commercial broadcasting. In fact, the single device that was to make possible the entire electronic revolution, the triode valve, had only recently been invented and refined to the point of being commercially viable.

Inevitably, for the first few decades of the electronic revolution, the technical emphasis was on improving the sound quality that could be delivered to the home consumer, the main media being radio and vinyl, with TV entering the field around 1950. Broadly speaking, available sound quality steadily improved for the first 50 years, from 1920 to 1970. Then something interesting happened – the public lost interest in quality for its own sake. They decided it was already good enough.

A shrinking number of dedicated audiophiles remained faithful to the cause but the direction of commercial development moved from quality to convenience. The compact disc (CD) can be seen as the final audio enhancement, but it won through more because of its convenience than because of its moderate improvement over vinyl.

A younger generation soon stopped buying large hi-fi rigs. The second 50 years, from 1970 to 2020 has seen a steady move away from hi-fi and ultimately towards the convenience of streaming services and, for listening, the portable Bluetooth speaker. To be fair, by employing modern materials and design, these mini speakers are impressive for their size, but they are not hi-fi and their owners don’t care. What they want is their choice of content, any time, anywhere, at acceptable quality.

What about video? My contention is that video is now at a similar crossroads to where audio was in 1980. Just as we, the public, decided 40 years ago that ‘CD Quality’ was good enough, I think we should now be saying something similar about the video standard called ‘High Definition – High Dynamic Range’ or HD-HDR. Many of us own TVs capable of displaying this, though very little of what we watch even comes close to meeting the standard, for technical reasons that I won’t go into here. However, these technical reasons also mean that if you traded in your HD TV for a new Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV, you wouldn’t notice any improvement. So, don’t do it!

Of all the content we watch, sport benefits most from high picture quality. But, having achieved true HD quality, what the viewer really wants on top is high quality production techniques, such as instant slo-mo replay and the very best of sport-specific graphics, all of which look perfectly good in HD. In other words, as happened with audio many years ago, consumers want great content and production values delivered reliably through an adequate technical channel. They are not clamouring for UHD TV.

Some would still argue that we might as well keep pushing for higher and higher technical quality because we can. But just because we can doesn’t mean that we should, especially if there are good reasons to call a halt. And there are. Here are some:

  • A younger generation favours YouTube over scheduled TV services.
  • They also favour smartphones and tablets over large screen TVs.
  • Most who can afford High Definition TVs have got Standard Definition eyesight! 

But there is another reason, less well understood, and that is sustainability or environmental responsibility. In simplest terms, a doubling of resolution requires a four-fold increase in storage and a quadrupling of network bandwidth if delivery times are not to increase. This translates to great demands on power and rare natural resources, and all for what? For virtually imperceptible picture enhancements for the privileged few who can afford ‘state of the art’ home theatres. 

In fact, this is an area where we can all do our bit to help the planet. Delete, delete, delete! Most of the media that we all gaily back up to ‘The Cloud’ is never accessed and is effectively forgotten. This wouldn’t matter if the cloud really was some infinite ethereal sinkhole as the sales people like to pretend. But it’s not. It’s an exponentially burgeoning conglomerate of power hungry, resource gobbling server farms, straining at the seams to accommodate ever more cute kittens strutting their stuff in Ultra High Definition.