Wait. Dancing with the Stars looks better on Hulu than DIRECTV?

Folks, one of my early blogging assignments was writing recaps of Dancing with the Stars. I developed an affection for the show even though it’s gotten measurably worse every season for years. It was two years ago that I first railed about the show on this blog and yet, I’ve continued to watch it. Without a doubt this season was the worst ever, unless you count its newly minted sister show, Dancing with the Stars Juniors. In its last moments of the season, it delivered a sucker punch to anyone who couldn’t stay up until 11 to see the finale (meaning most of its geriatric audience.) Or so I’d heard. It took me until last night to watch it.

After two hours of excruciating recaps of so-called stars who I still didn’t remember from week to week, the show stopped dead to feature a musical number from someone I’d never heard of. That number dragged on so long that the show went almost four minutes past its 11pm cutoff time. (In fairness it also started late.) That was so long that even DIRECTV’s legendary autopad feature still couldn’t preserve the announcement of the winner.

That’s right, after suffering with this cast all season I was deprived of that moment when I could see one of them showered in confetti, moments before I forgot their name.

Hulu to the rescue

I cued up the show on Hulu and forwarded to the last two minutes, where I had the honor of watching the least talented finalist win the trophy. But it’s not my intention to rail on “Bobby Bones” (if that is his real name) because he went out there and tried. He even won by popular vote. So good for him. But the last thing I really needed after a long finale episode was to go to a streaming service to see him win.

And then, as I was watching, something occurred to me.

Wait, does this look better?

The almost legendary amount of pixelation I’ve come to associate with the show was gone. Details looked crisper, the normally blown-out colors were made just subtle enough that I could watch without shielding my eyes. While this didn’t soften my opinion of the winner or of the talent in general, it did make me wonder. Why was the broadcast feed of the show so bad, and why was the hulu version better?

Dancing with the Stars, along with all ABC content, is broadcast in 720p, the lowest quality level for high-definition. In contrast, CBS and NBC, along with most cable networks not owned by Disney, use 1080i, a format with about 30% better quality. Without any sort of tool to confirm it, I’m pretty sure that the hulu feed was 1080i as well.

I checked The Conners on hulu compared to the ABC satellite feed and the over-the-air feed. The satellite feed and over-the-air feed were slightly different. The satellite feed was a bit brighter while the over-the-air feed seemed a bit sharper. The recompression required for broadcast probably causes this. The hulu feed looked better than both, although without the fast action it was harder to tell.

Are all ABC and Disney shows actually produced in 1080i?

It makes me wonder if all ABC programming actually looks better when produced than it looks on your TV. I guess it would make sense. It costs practically the same to produce a show in 1080i compared to 720p. There’s probably a difference in the amount of hard drive space used, but hard drives are cheap.

A lot of times outside studios produce these shows who retain the rights after ABC has had them for a fixed period. This is how shows end up on Netflix or other streaming services. There’s a benefit to doing the higher quality versions for posterity, and I’m betting hulu gets those high quality versions straight from the network. It’s just a shame that the local broadcasters are actually cutting the quality for broadcast.

Is there any hope for stopping ” the shame of 720p?”

Many broadcasters are changing channel locations in the next several years, but they’re not planning on changing broadcast technologies. There may be a possibility coming up. ATSC 3.0, the next-generation broadcast system that wants to be our national standard, could actually go live. If stations started actually broadcasting a 4K signal using ATSC 3.0, it’s likely that everyone would go to the same 4K signal. Finally our time with 720p would be at an end. There’s a lot of “ifs” and uncertainty about that though, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to happen.

In the meantime though, as much as it pains me to say it, the streaming version of some shows is going to look better than the broadcast version.

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 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.