SD television formats in Panda

The edge of video transmission is moving quickly, just to mention HD television being mainstream for some time and 4K getting traction; H264 being ubiquitous, and HEVC entering the stage. Yet most people still remember VHS. It’s good to be up with the latest tech, but unfortunately the world is lagging behind most of the time.

Television is a different universe than Internet transmission. The rules are made by big (usually government) bodies and rarely change. Although most countries have switched to digital transmission, standard definition isn’t gone yet – SD channels are still very popular, which forces content providers to support SD formats too.

Recently, we’ve helped a few clients to craft transcoding pipelines that support all these retiring-yet-still-popular formats. We’ve noticed that it’s a huge nuisance for content makers to invest in learning old technology and that they would love to shed the duty on someone else; so we made sure that Panda (both the platform and the team) can deal with these flawlessly.

There’s a huge variability among requirements pertaining SD: for example, you have to decide how the image should be fitted into the screen. High-quality downsampling is always used, but you have to decide what to do when the dimensions are off: should you use letterboxing, or maybe stretch the image?

Fiordland National Park, New Zealand (Nathan Kaso)
Fiordland National Park, New Zealand (Nathan Kaso)

Another decision (which usually is not up to you) is what exact format should be used. This almost always depends on the country the video is for. Although the terms NTSC, PAL and SECAM come from the analog era (digital TV uses standards like ATSC and DVB-T), they are still used to describe parameters of encoding in digital transmission (e.g. image dimensions, display aspect ratio and pixel aspect ratio). Another thing the country affects is the compression format, the most popular are MPEG-2 and H.264, though they are not the only ones.

Standard television formats also have specific requirements on frame rate. It’s a bit different than with Internet transmission, where the video is effectively a stream of images. In SD TV, transmission is interlaced, and instead of frames it uses fields (which contain only half the information that frames do, but allow to save up bandwidth).

Frame rate is therefore not a very accurate term here, but the problem is still the same – we have exact number of frames/fields to display per unit of time, and the input video might not necessarily match that number. In such case the most popular solution is to drop and duplicate frames/fields according to the needs, but quality of videos produced this way is not great.

There is a solution, though, but it’s so complicated that we’ll just mention it here – it’s motion compensation. It’s a technique originally used for video compression, but it also gives great results in frame rate conversions. It’s not only useful for SD conversions, we use it for different things at Panda, but it helps here too.

Well, it’s definitely not the end of the story. These are the basics, but the number of details that have to be considered is unfortunately much bigger. Anyway, if you ever happen to have to support SD television, we’re here to help! Supporting SD can be as easy as creating a profile in Panda:

Adding SD profile in Panda
Adding SD profile in Panda

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