Could AI-based sampling bring new life to old TV shows?

These days, we’re all watching a lot of comfort-food TV. Some of it, like Friends and Cheers, looks just as fresh as the day it was shot. Some, like Frasier, doesn’t. And some, like classic Jeopardy episodes, never will. Or will they?

Why some shows from the past look great and some don’t

A lot of shows from the 1970s forward were shot on video tape instead of film. Video tape was cheaper and faster to work with. It only made sense. However, shows shot originally on film are much easier to transfer to high definition.

I go into much more detail here, but here’s the bottom line if you’re too rushed to read that article. Shows made before the 1990s tended to be shot and edited on film. This makes it pretty quick to transfer everything, you just need good scans of the film. In the 1990s, it became common to shoot on film because it looked better, but edit on video because it was cheaper. This means shows like Friends could be remade in HD, but you had to scan all the original film again and completely re-edit. Other shows, like Will and Grace, were shot on video using filters designed to look like film. Stuff shot like this is almost unwatchable today.

Friends vs. Frasier

Friends and Frasier aired at the same time period on the same network on the same day. Yet, episodes of Friends are so clear you can see the dew in Jennifer Aniston’s eyes. Watching Frasier gives you the feeling of picking up an old VHS cassette and trying to ignore that it’s a blurry, muddy mess. Both were shot on film and edited on video. While Frasier got more accolades in its day, it’s Friends that we remember when we’re in the mood for nostalgia.

Because Friends is a more saleable and desirable show, its creators took the time to remaster it in high definition years ago. Frasier’s creators didn’t have the budget to do so. The episodes you’ll find on streaming sites are just digitized standard definition and boy do they look like it.

Is there any hope?

It looks like there could be some hope for shows like Frasier where the owners don’t want to invest time and money to remaster it. I’ve recently been reading about AI-based upscaling. Traditional upscaling, like what you find in your TV, uses math to blur the hard lines that come when you take a low-quality image and show it on a high-quality display. It’s better than nothing but no one is going to confuse an upscaled standard definition image for a high definition one.

AI-based upscaling looks at an image and actually adds details based on what the object is. If the AI realizes it’s looking at a face, it interprets things like eyelashes and hair, adding details that make sense. If it’s looking at a background that’s blurred out, it keeps that background blurry instead of magnifying little details that are just part of the digitizing process.

Right now, most people are talking about AI upscaling of single photos. It’s still a pretty time-consuming process for the computer. And keep in mind if it takes 5 seconds for a single image, that would equate to three minutes of computer time for every second of video. That equates to 66 hours of computer time for a 22-minute episode. Frasier aired 263 episodes, although some at the end were actually mastered in high definition. Still, it’s got to be cheaper than hiring a person to do all the re-editing.

AI is perfect for this task

When it comes to watching old TV shows, I don’t really care if the details are accurate. AI makes mistakes, and sometimes they’re funny. But most of the time they’re fleeting and you hardly notice them. When it comes to using AI to make old shows more watchable though, I think it’s perfect. The whole goal is to eliminate the distraction caused by a bad SD master. If the show is overall more watchable, that’s all I care about.

This kind of processing could give new life to a whole range of sitcoms from the 1980s-2000s that were originally mastered on video tape. With video, there’s no extra detail that you can get later. So, shows produced that way tend to look pretty bad. You don’t see a lot of sitcoms from the era on TV these days, because they were all shot on video and look horrendous on a 60″ 4K TV.  I’m not sure AI can create a thing of beauty for an episode of Night Court but it might at least stop you from cringing at the quality. And there are a lot of shows from that era that are very watchable. They would be a good addition to a streaming library, once you get them looking a little better.

I hope we see something like this in the near future. I’m running out of old sitcoms to watch. Sure would be nice to see a nicely remastered episode of Herman’s Head, don’t you think?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.