One problem is that many televisions can’t display those deepest shades of grey, leaving you with a black screen. A bigger problem is that there simply isn’t enough detail in the picture coming from Foxtel, whether you’re watching online or via a set-top box.
It’s not a question of “resolution” — measured pixels — as the HD picture still looks very sharp in brighter scenes. Instead it is a problem with the “bitrate”, measured in megabits per second.
It’s not just Foxtel; all pay TV, free-to-air and online broadcasters face the same challenge. They need to limit the bitrate and squish video so it’s easier to send to your lounge room via cable, satellite or broadband. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough room to transmit multiple channels side by side.
Take a look at this recent scene, from the end of episode one of the current season, with Beric Dondarrion and Tormund Giantsbane creeping through Last Hearth in almost pitch black.
On many televisions this scene would have appeared completely black. On a top shelf 65-inch OLED screen at night, you can see the action but it looks very blocky and murky, even though this is Foxtel’s Showtime HD channel on Foxtel’s iQ4 set-top box.
Ignore the colours and brightness, these images don’t do them justice, just pay attention to the blockiness.
The problem here is that the video skimps on the detail in the darkest scenes to save bandwidth. There are still the same number of pixels on the screen but there is less information in the signal about what colour each pixel should be. As a result, the finer shades of dark grey are lost and clumps of neighbouring pixels are the exact same colour, meaning you lose the fine detail.
The picture looks about the same if you watch it via live broadcast on Foxtel’s iQ4 set-top box, the iQ4’s built in catch-up streaming service or Foxtel Now on a streaming box.
Switch to a fast-moving night-time battle scene and Foxtel Now streaming from the internet, via a box like the Telstra TV 3, and it actually looks a bit better than watching it on Foxtel’s flagship iQ4. This is likely because cable broadcasts are in 1080i while the streaming service supports 1080p, which is better suited to fast-moving action.
It’s tempting to lay all the blame with Foxtel, but Game of Thrones broadcasters around the world have copped flak over this issue, including HBO in the US. Take a look at this shot from HBO’s own HD broadcasts and you can see that it looks better than Foxtel, but is still far from perfect.
Apart from the fact HBO converts Game of Thrones from 24 to 25 frames per second for broadcasting in Australia, Foxtel insists that it isn’t tinkering with the video it receives from the US.
Nor are Foxtel’s cable and satellite delivery services starving the Showtime HD channel of bandwidth. They’re dynamically providing the channel with up to 15 megabits per second, which would be more than enough to reveal the detail in the shadows, if only that detail was in the picture in the first place. The problem is that the picture has been squashed by HBO before it was broadcast in the US or sent to overseas partners like Foxtel.
Holding out until Game of Thrones is available via digital download from the likes of Apple’s iTunes store won’t help, as they’re also forced to limit the bitrate to keep down file sizes. The darkest scene in episode four of last season — with Daenerys and Missandei in the dragonglass cave — still looks murky from iTunes in HD.
For Game of Thrones to look its best you need to wait for it to come out on disc. On Blu-ray there’s room to store all that extra detail, so there’s much less need to limit the bitrate and squish the picture. If you’ve got a large television with a great picture you can see the subtle improvement when watching the same scene from last season on Blu-ray, not just in the detail of still shots like this but also the murky blur of fast-moving action like this week’s battle.
Even as Australians gain access to faster broadband, broadcasters will never be prepared to throw enough bandwidth at their video streams to allow them to look as good as on disc.
Instead, what will come to our rescue is when HBO embraces high dynamic range (HDR), which probably won’t happen until it makes the leap to UHD resolution. While UHD adds more pixels to the screen, HDR helps reveal more details in the brightest highlights and deepest shadows; you can already see its benefits on Netflix and UHD Blu-ray discs.
If HBO actually shot Game of Thrones in HDR, Foxtel broadcast it in HDR and your television supported HDR, then you’d be able to see much more of what lurks in the darkest shadows.
For now, TV and movie makers insist on shooting incredibly dark scenes even though broadcasters can’t deliver them and most TVs can’t handle them. So we’ll all just need to stumble around in the dark like Beric and Tormund, hoping that it all becomes clear in the end.
Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian technology journalist and co-host of weekly podcast Vertical Hold: Behind The Tech News.