"What's wrong with the picture?"
L A Wood, Berkeley Voice, January 18, 1996
"What's wrong with the picture?" is perhaps
the most frequently asked question concerning the city of Berkeley's
fledgling public access cable station, Channel 25. Well over a year
ago, Berkeley Community Media was awarded the city
contract to operate the Berkeley's public access facility. BTV, as it
has become known, has been responsible for broadcasting educational
and community-generated programming as well as the station's own governmental
The quality of community programming varies greatly as
one might expect and the promised educational access has not, as yet,
been plugged in. However, it is BTV's governmental broadcasts and rebroadcasts
which have been unexpectedly fuzzy and which require closer inspection.
Since November 1994 a select number of city government
meetings have been augmented by a video broadcast. The public record,
which historically has included both written and oral testimony, now
also includes a visual record as well. Unfortunately, there's something
seriously wrong with this Berkeley picture.
Those who are unfamiliar with video production may not
realize the importance placed by the film industry on broadcast quality.
This is critical to every facet of film and television. In fact, broadcast
quality is something that today's audience has come to take for granted.
These increasingly sophisticated viewers now demand a high level of
image clarity, or resolution, to just hold their attention.
Image resolution can sometimes be enhanced or seriously
degraded in the many steps of video production depending on choices
in the equipment used for broadcasting and recording. However, nothing
is more basic to achieving a high-resolution image than the choice of
the recording format.
Resolution is primarily measured by horizontal scan lines.
Each line provides little bits of image. When condensed, these dots
go to form the overall picture. The more image scan lines, the clearer
and more defined the final transmission.
A professional cable transmission tape format is at the
least Super VHS, which has a capacity of 400 scan lines or more. Currently,
Berkeley's format for governmental broadcasts and re-broadcast is only
VHS, which is limited to about 240 lines of resolution. This is where
BCM begins to lose the picture.
The recording equipment in Berkeley's City Council Chambers
is known in the video trades as c.c.t.'s or closed circuit television
cameras. These VHS security type cameras are barely comparable to most
home video recording systems. This means that before the City Council
cameras are even turned on, the image has already been compromised.
The problem, however, does not stop there.
As with all video transfer, there is a generational loss
in the resolution. In other words, when a governmental meeting is taped
and a dub or replay copy is rendered from the original, the resolution
loss is about 20 percent. At this point the color and picture start
to become unstable. A look at BTV rebroadcasts clearly reveals this
generational loss and more.
It should also be noted that Hi-8 tape formats can produce
up to 400 lines of resolution, but are severely impacted by generational
loss. In addition, Hi-8 is plagued by higher costs for transfer to other
formats as well as tape instability. It is no wonder that the industry's
baseline standard is Super-VHS.
Now at the City Clerk's office, Berkeley citizens can
request a video copy of recorded government meetings. Since the clerk's
"dub" copy is only in a VHS format, subsequent third generation
copies are critically impacted. Citizens requesting a video record from
the clerk are subjected to tape copies that suffer nearly a 50 percent
reduction in resolution. At this point, the public record is a blur.
Since the city of Berkeley's first experiments with public
access in the early 1970s, many of its citizens have become rightfully
suspicious about public access television. Why it has taken so long
for Berkeley to regain public access TV? Why was so little allocated
for set up costs for Berkeley's governmental broadcasts? It does seem
somewhat ironic that governmental access has become the centerpiece
To some, Berkeley's public access television history
reads like a mystery novel. This "who done it" has left many
Berkeleyans wondering where the money has been hidden. Our governmental
sub-standard broadcasts only begs the idea of public participation while
hedging on a real commitment to invest effectively, now, and for the
future. Who's surprised?