How US TV is Broadcast in the UK – A Technical Explanation.

You’re in the UK and you’ve sat down to watch scrubs, trying to decide whether you want to watch the NOW TV version, which has retained the broadcast rights for the music, or the Amazon Prime Video version, which has the DVD music rights. But you’ve noticed Something else; the NOW TV version seems slightly higher pitched, whereas the Prime version sounds deeper and slower. This adds another factor to your decision and the question arrises; how can the same show can sound so different?

If you’re not in the TV, Film or Video industry (or a nerd), you’ve probably never really given a thought to what frame rate your visual content is being shot in. You may not have even heard of frame rates in the first place. There are two main standards when it comes to broadcast TV. Many parts of Europe use the PAL broadcasting system, which means that TV is displayed at 25 frames per second (FPS) in these territories. The US and parts of Asia uses NTSC which demands content to be shown in 30fps (it’s more like 29.97 fps), and films are mostly presented in 24fps. There are many practical reasons for this. 24fps was chosen back when sound was becoming popular in films and is the most economical way of giving the audience the the illusion of smooth motion and allowing for high fidelity sound to be reordered. PAL and NTSC are tied to the frequencies of the electricity grid, this allowed the broadcast and the consumers TVs to be easily synced up, allowing the images to be shown. There are also aesthetic reasons to use each frame rate with many people citing that 24fps looks more cinematic with increased motion blur, with 30fps which giving a smoother, more video like image. A good rule of thumb is; the UK/Europe will show TV in 25fps, the US/Asia will show TV in 30fps and cinema is both acquired (shot) and displayed in 24fps.

Except, it’s not that simple. Many narrative series in the US shoot at 23.976fps. Narrative series will often cite the filmic look as another reason to shoot in this format and it’s also easier to convert your footage to many different formats for delivery all over the world. Scrubs was shot on 16mm film, something that was unusual for a sitcom at the time. This effectively forced the production to shoot in 23.976fps.

So, what does this have to do with the differences in the Now TV and Prime Video versions of scrubs? It has to do with the conversion from the 23.976fps capture and the different broadcast formats. When coverting from 23.97fps to 29.97fps for broadcast in the US, the show will go through a process called 3:2 pull down. Essentially, this stretches the 24 frames in a second over 30 frames per second with no or little perceptible change in the pitch or speed of playback. (For a more detailed explanation, I encourage you to read this wikipedia article.) However, the process which converting 23.97fps to 25fps speeds up playback by 4.27%. Some, but not all distributors will compensate this speed up by pitch shifting the audio, making it sounds closer to the original version. It seems that NOW TV has taken the original 24fps version and converted straight to 25fps. This makes sense when you factor in the inclusion of the broadcast music. However, Now TV has opted not to pitch shift the audio. Prime video seems to have taken the already converted 30fps DVD version and converted down to 25fps. This will slow down the show by 16.58% and is the reason why everyone sounds so deep and the show seems slower. They have also not chosen not to pitch shift.

So, there’s your choice, watch the slightly sped up, but with original music, NOW TV version, or the slower DVD version on Prime video. It will come down to which service you already have, with people more readily having access to Amazon Prime.

You might not even care and that’s fine, but it’s important to note that if you’re watching  US TV in the UK, whether that’s on a streaming service, on DVD, or through a broadcaster, you may not be watching the version that the directors, editors, and showrunners intended.

I want to thank toolstud.io’s framerate conversion tool for helping me work out what was going on between the two versions.

 

 

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