Keep It Level, The Future of Video Depends on it: Broadcast Standards for the Aspiring Videographer

Remember that time when your sister whipped out her cell phone and started recording her cat trying to reach something on the countertop? She held her phone upright as if she was placing a call, but she was actually documenting the moment and laughing gleefully along as Mr. Whiskers stretched his paw skyward. Ah, yes, cashing in on those good ol’ vertically composed videos — that’ll make the rounds with viral video lovers and bring her surefire fame and fortune, right?

Remember that time you drove by a car accident and saw a gaggle of onlookers standing around the scene, watching everything unfurl through their smart phones propped up by just three fingers, whipping around from side to side to try and set the scene worthy of sharing on social media. Ah, yes, living the dream of being an action news correspondent while shooting the scene through a portrait perspective…that’ll catch the eye of the local news station, right?

These two examples are just a small sample size of what’s happening in the consumer-created content media world, and sadly, the broadcast media has to accept it because, well, that’s just the way people are shooting video these days. Until the world switches to vertically hung TVs and monitors, it’s on us — the banner carriers of broadcast standards — to bring the world back to the basics.

By understanding the basics of what makes a video “broadcast worthy,” we can all do our part to bring the power back to the producer, and secure a better visual future for generations to come.

If you, or someone you know, is suffering from Portrait Videoitis, Vertical Video Syndrome, or any other condition that requires them to hold their phones or cameras vertically, please share this article with them and, together, we can all enjoy a better viewing experience when we watch their content.

Portrait style video isn’t the only epidemic that’s undermining the integrity of broadcast television. Too many consumers are content with watching shaky, grainy video, just so long as it catches the boom, the blast, or the bang of the “moment” that can be shown over and over again during the nightly news. By understanding the basics of what makes a video “broadcast worthy,” we can all do our part to bring the power back to the producer, and secure a better visual future for generations to come.

The Basics of All Basics

Before cell phone cameras or body-mounted action cameras could shoot a scene, camcorders with cards, discs, or – GASP! – a tape captured each moment with finite possibilities. The viewer at home with even the most minimally discerning eye could tell that most video content was certainly not created equal. From grainy analog to stunning HD digital, the range of video quality is like comparing preschool finger painting to a Picasso – it’s just not at all close.

World map of NTSC; PAL, and SECAM regions
World map of NTSC; PAL, and SECAM regions

All of that said, there are a few things that can be adjusted and controlled that might increase the quality of your finished product. For starters, the way your video is encoded goes a long way in ensuring its ability to play back to your intended audience. NTSC and PAL are the two most common types of video technology available to consumers. NTSC – or the National Television System Committee – is the standard for North American video content. If you’re goal is to get a video of a tornado shot in Texas, shoot it on NTSC; PAL, or Phase Alternation by Line, is the standard in England, Australia, and several European nations. A third, lesser known – but perhaps just as important – format is called SECAM, or Sequential Couleur Avec Memoire (translated to Sequential Color with Memory in English), can be found in broadcast outlets across a wide swath of Eastern European countries.

Size Matters

The most notable differences between NTSC and PAL are frame rate and aspect ratio. NTSC delivers a standard frame rate (the number of frames strung together in sequence, per second) of 30 frames per second (fps); PAL offers a slightly slower frame rate of 25 fps.

Regarding aspect ratio, the basic analog NTSC standard for years was a square 4:3 pixel aspect ratio, which meant the video player produced four horizontal pixels — or small squares of video information that link together to form a line of video on the screen — for every three vertical pixels, roughly 720 lines of horizontal information, by 480 vertical, better known as 720 x 480, that come together through the magic of television to create a video signal as we know it. PAL uses a slightly bulkier pixel aspect ratio of 720 x 576.

With the global rise of HD video, which uses a widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9, bigger screens have delivered arguably better results. 

Most HD video cameras and DSLRs offer producers a variety of additional frame rates. 24 fps allows for a dramatic, cinematic quality of frame rate, while users can increase frame rates starting around 60 fps, and going all the way up to several thousand frames per second, which allow users to shoot very high speed action and play it back at very slow speeds for impressive slow motion effects. The more frames you capture in a second, the slower your video will roll during play back.

Interlaced vs. Progressive

We’ve all likely seen the following titles next to a camera, TV or DVD player: “Now in 1080i” or “Best viewed in 720p” The “i” and “p” are two distinct and very different ways in which your content will be played back, and which you use needs to be considered when capturing your content.

When we string together all those aforementioned lines of pixels in our preferred frame rates, we have two popular playback formats with which to work — interlaced and progressive scan. To best understand both types, we need to use our imagination a bit.

Interlaced scan is like opening and closing window blinds. Pull the string once, you open the blinds, pull the string again, you close the blinds. Do this enough time, at your desired frame rate, and you piece together your video picture. The flickering effect caused by this output can create the illusion of lines across video content that is shot in frame rates higher than the video player.

Images showing interlaced and progressive scan lines.

Progressive scan can be compared to drawing an image in the corner of your notebook as a kid, and for each page, the image changes ever so slightly. Flip the images along your finger tip quickly, and you can see the image move. Progressive scan is the process of showing frame after frame, with each frame being produced sequentially line by line at your desired frame rate, delivering a smoother, cleaner end result.

Interlaced scanning has, not surprisingly, conceded market share to progressive scan camcorders, TVs, and monitors, as consumers and media outlets have adopted products that are easier on the eyes. Progressive scan video also allows for better quality playback of higher frame rates, larges aspect ratios, and is – for now – best suited to adapt to the changing tides of video technology.

Safety First

Now that we understand what makes up the technical specifications of how your video works, let’s explore why it will work when you deliver your content to a producer — and we’re not talking about them simply pushing play. Just as we talked about with your sister’s cat videos, or the gaggle of onlookers at an accident, vertical video limits our ability to truly see what’s happening.

When was the last time you saw a scene in a movie shot in portrait mode? How often is your favorite series on Netflix produced in a way that let’s you hold your phone vertically and watch it full screen? The answer? Never. Because that type of video is considered wrong in the professional sphere. The only acceptable form of professional, share-worthy video a broadcast producer will want from you is traditional, landscape style content.

When you’re capturing a scene, keep the action framed in a way that makes it the center of attention. Refrain from large gaps of open space in the screen when possible. By capturing the action in the middle of the screen you can be ready in the event the subject moves in either direction.

Action, title and center cut safety margins

Additionally, if you’re shooting an interview with someone — say, who was a witness to that accident you drove past — make sure you’re capturing the interview in landscape mode and provide ample talking room, which is space on either side of the screen from where they’re talking, as well as room to add graphics in the lower third portion of the screen. Shooting interviews like this will increase the likelihood a broadcast producer will consider using a portion of your interview — and giving you the airtime you deserve for being the only credible videographer on the scene!

Color Your World Correctly

Video alignment, frame rate and scan rates are all important, but if your subject looks like a Smurf — yet is actually a human — that’s the quickest way to have your content hit the edit room floor. Capturing your content in the proper color sounds easy, but depending on your camera, it may be harder that it looks.

The most important element when shooting video in true color is to set the white balance, which essentially sets the colors inside your camera based off the most basic color — white. If your white is actually yellow, your video isn’t going to look very good. Find a white card, a bank receipt, even a white car, then find the white balance function in your camera (some cell phones simply auto adjust if you hover the camera lens over the white object), and make the adjustment.

From there, functions like luma safe and chroma safe are important as they help balance out the other colors of the camera. If a surface is unusually bright or reflective, that can adversely impact the overall integrity of your colors. Keep an eye on your primary colors – red, green, blue – as these represent the chroma safe levels of your video, while the luma safe levels balance out the black and whites inside your scene. Too much or too little of each, and your video might as well be shot by sister as she chases Mr. Whiskers.

You Hold the Keys in Your Hand

John F. Kennedy famously implored “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” My fellow video professionals, aspiring producers and tenured TV talent, ask not what this industry can do for you and your video content, do your part to quell this poor video quality epidemic that’s taking over our viewing landscape. Get back to the basics of broadcast standards, and encourage those around you to follow your lead.

Great video leaders aren’t those that shoot video with their phones pointed up, rather, great video leaders are those use their phones to capture footage that will live on forever the right way, the landscape way, the way video was intended.

SIDEBAR: To Protect the Code, Think Like a Pro

What’s the easiest way to learn how to produce news-worthy video content? Sure, you can watch the nightly news. You can scroll through and click on the video content on news organization websites. You can even tune into weekly news programs like 60 Minutes, Dateline or 20/20. Better yet, you can research and embrace the thought process of those that create the content you see on all of the programs.

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)  is an organization that aims to protect and serve the average TV viewer by documenting and delivering amazing stories. Through the use of creative shot composition, seamless audio editing and high journalistic ethics, members of the NPPA aim to protect the integrity of TV and network news. No vertical video here, folks.

If you want to really be inspired by some rock star photojournalists, check out the annual winners from the organization’s TV Quarterly/Solo Video competition. You’ll be glad you did:

Dave Sniadak serves as Communications Manager for a Minneapolis-based airline, while also working as a sideline videographer for an NFL franchise.

Susan Schmierer
Susan Schmierer
Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and Creator Handbook Magazines.

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