Why Your Cable TV Resolution Looks Like Crap (and What You Can Do About It)
If you’re used to crisp, colorful content on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, watching something “live” on cable will likely disappoint you. The image probably won’t be as sharp, colors may not stand out as you’re used to, and sometimes the image may legitimately start to fall apart. Live streaming costs a penny, so why isn’t the quality getting better?
Streaming services and cable television are very different
Most streaming services offer content up to 4K resolution, and some extend it to 4K HDR. This means that not only are you seeing a higher pixel resolution image, you are seeing a much higher contrast ratio between the bright and dark areas of that image. Streaming services have also made great strides in video compression, meaning your movies and shows don’t have to be so degraded for your internet connection to be able to handle the stream (more on that later).
For some reason, the cable just doesn’t keep up. You might think ISPs would want to poach blacksmiths with upgraded tech to justify cable costs, but as far as I can tell, not much has changed in the visual department over the past few years.
Live TV has a maximum resolution of 1080p (or less, depending on the channel). It’s not necessarily bad. Some of the content you watch on streaming services is also 1080p, especially if your particular subscription doesn’t include 4K (Netflix’s lower and mid plans don’t). Even if you have access to 4K content, things won’t be as clear-cut: for example, many third-party movies that Netflix purchases are shown in 1080p.
And resolution, while important, is far from the only consideration when it comes to quality. Increasing the pixel count is always welcome, but if the image quality is good enough, a lower resolution might work. Bitrate – the amount of video data transmitted through the stream – is a much more important factor. While not a hard and fast rule, in general, the higher the bitrate, the better video quality you can achieve. However, the higher the bitrate, the more demanding the video is on the delivery service, which in turn makes it more expensive to deliver that video. This is where compression comes into play: at best, compression reduces the quality of the video as inconspicuously as possible, balancing the “size” of the video with its quality.
Streaming services tend to do a great job of this; many TV channels do not. It is this poor bitrate balance that often results in poor image quality, especially when compared to today’s standard.
How low bitrate and poor compression affect live streaming
You may not notice this at first; in bright scenes everything seems tolerable. However, once the lighting gets dim, things start to deteriorate rapidly. Poor compression quickly makes itself felt with darker images. You will see color bars and artifacts on the screen; the faces of the characters will turn into a mess. In general, you may end up with a blocky, pixelated mess. Many streaming options used to be like this, but in 2022, many can handle dark scenes much better. Unfortunately, some cable TV channels cannot.
I hate to berate my favorite, but AMC suffers from terrible compression. Yesterday’s Better Call Saul premiere was fantastic in terms of storytelling, but also a great reminder of why I don’t pay to live. The transition from watching Season 5 on Netflix in high quality 4K to the compression depression of Season 6 on cable was instructive. (In this case, I was watching through YouTube TV rather than a traditional cable service, but apparently AMC doesn’t mind that type of video output, and the sheer amount of content on YouTube certainly looks a lot better.)
All of this assumes that your TV setup is optimized. Your cable box or live TV application should be set to full quality (1080p), there should be a solid connection between the equipment and your TV using a good HDMI cable (unless you’re using a smart TV), and you should have a good connection. with your Internet if you use a service like YouTube TV. If all of this is true and you’re experiencing poor video quality on one of your TV channels, it’s most likely the channel’s fault.
What can you do to watch live streaming in the best quality?
While this type of video delivery shouldn’t be in 2022 because it’s 2022, you have other options. Returning to Better Call Saul as an example, you can watch the first episode of the two-episode premiere for free on the AMC website, and don’t you know, the compression there is pretty solid. It’s not a 4K experience, but it’s a lot better than what I watched last night. To watch the second episode, you need to sign in with your cable login or subscribe to AMC+, which gives you on-demand access to Better Call Saul , as well as other content licensed by AMC and AMC.
However, you don’t need to subscribe to AMC+ if you already have Netflix. While the latter does not receive Better Call Saul on the platform for a year or more after the season aired, other regions receive new episodes the next day. You can use a VPN to switch the region that Netflix thinks it’s in to access new Better Call Saul episodes as Netflix.
While this article is starting to get heavy “Better Call Saul ” (I’m a big fan, sorry!), the principle applies to other shows that air live on cable as well. If you’d rather watch new episodes in better quality than the channel offers, you’d be better off waiting a day and taking one of the alternative routes. Some channels offer higher quality versions of their shows for free online, while others require you to subscribe to their streaming service. Depending on the show, Hulu might pick it up the next day, just like Netflix if it’s in a different region.
The point is, you have options. Too bad you can’t more easily get the quality you pay for (a lot).