Happy New Year: Sydney Fireworks Broadcast Side-by-Side Comparison

Happy New Year! Lets start this year off by taking a look at the new year’s eve fireworks broadcast.

This year, just like last year, the televised transmission of the Sydney Harbour new year’s eve fireworks was done by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Unlike previous years though, the ABC just recently launched their ABC HD station and thus will be bringing it to homes in high definition. This is in contrast with previous years and efforts by our other broadcasters including Seven, Nine and Ten who have all had their go (if I recall correctly) with varying levels of quality.

As with every year I’ve looked, this year there was a contribution feed of the fireworks in the clear (i.e. unencrypted). This year, I believe there was two feeds on Optus D2 – I tuned into 12670Mhz Vertical @ 7200kS/s DVB-S2/8PSK FEC: 3/4. Interestingly, the transmission was with Pilots ON, which improves reception stability for consumer-grade LNBs and tuners. The signal was received with 9-10dB SNR, which I consider barely adequate, but the link was very solid with no TEIs or CRC errors detected throughout the night. The uplink was provided by Telstra Broadcast Services. Adjacent, there was a feed that appeared to be related and at standard definition – potentially a path-diversity back-up or for syndicated stations without high definition capable gear.

ABC HD DVB-T Transmission

I recorded the TS throughout the event and demultiplexed just the ABC HD channel. The resulting MediaInfo stats showed a payload bitrate of 4648kbit/s for the video in H.264 [email protected] 1920x1080i 4:2:0 and 384kbit/s for the audio in AC3 2.0-channel. This is a bit more than the 3283kbit/s seen at launch, although I did note that it could increase by about 1Mbit/s just using up more null packets alone.

Video
Format/Info                 : Advanced Video Codec
Format profile              : [email protected]
Format settings, CABAC      : Yes
Format settings, ReFrames   : 3 frames
Bit rate                    : 4 648 Kbps
Width                       : 1 920 pixels
Height                      : 1 080 pixels
Display aspect ratio        : 16:9
Frame rate                  : 25.000 fps
Color space                 : YUV
Chroma subsampling          : 4:2:0
Bit depth                   : 8 bits
Scan type                   : MBAFF
Scan type, store method     : Interleaved fields
Scan order                  : Top Field First
Bits/(Pixel*Frame)          : 0.090

Audio
ID                          : 2321 (0x911)
Format                      : AC-3
Format/Info                 : Audio Coding 3
Mode extension              : CM (complete main)
Format settings, Endianness : Big
Bit rate mode               : Constant
Bit rate                    : 384 Kbps
Channel(s)                  : 2 channels
Channel positions           : Front: L R
Sampling rate               : 48.0 KHz
Compression mode            : Lossy

The transmission was not without a few flaws to the observant viewers. Just prior to the program beginning, the HD station faded into an SD feed, then swapped over to some internal promo card before then starting the actual program. Seems like a little timing issue to me.

Then, when the program started, for the first 3-4 minutes, there was an @ symbol generated by some video overlay device in the top left corner. It might not have been visible to all viewers as it might have been cut-off in the overscan, but it wasn’t supposed to be there. Luckily this was still early in the night before the family fireworks.

The televised DVB-T broadcast carried two watermarks – one in the top right with the ABC logo and one in the bottom left with the “Welcome to SYD NYE 2016”.

Telstra Broadcast Services DVB-S2 Feed

The feed was open, and featured vision throughout most of the night. When not running live camera footage, it would either run this test card above, or a highlight reel for the syndicating stations to record and later play-out. No local talent featured on the feed, and very few ad breaks black-screens featured throughout most of the night.

According to the test-cards and based on listening to the feed, the audio of the two streams were different – and likely because of rights issues with the music used with the fireworks. Hence there’s an “international” sound and “domestic” sound channel. The third sound channel was only ambient background sounds, so that it could be “mixed in” if necessary by syndicated channels in their edits.

While the feed was open, it was unlikely to be watched by many with a set top box because they chose to use a higher quality H.264 [email protected] 4:2:2 chroma subsampling at 10-bits video encoding. This ensures better colour definition in the output video. The data from MediaInfo and TSReader shows the bitrate was about 14Mbit/s, with multiple MPEG-1 audio streams at 256kbit/s.

Network Name: Telstra Broadcast Services
Network ID: 0 (0x0000)
Transport Stream ID: 0 (0x0000)
Original Network ID: 0 (0x0000) Version: 0

Program Number: 1
PCR on PID 1165 (0x048d)
PMT Version: 0
Service name: TBS SNG

Stream Type: 0x03 MPEG-1 Audio
 Elementary Stream PID 1125 (0x0465)

Stream Type: 0x03 MPEG-1 Audio
 Elementary Stream PID 1126 (0x0466)

Stream Type: 0x03 MPEG-1 Audio
 Elementary Stream PID 4144 (0x1030)

Stream Type: 0x1b H.264 Video
 Elementary Stream PID 1165 (0x048d)

Video
Format/Info                 : Advanced Video Codec
Format profile              : High 4:2:[email protected]
Format settings, CABAC      : Yes
Format settings, ReFrames   : 3 frames
Format settings, GOP        : M=4, N=12
Bit rate mode               : Constant
Bit rate                    : 14.0 Mbps
Width                       : 1 920 pixels
Height                      : 1 080 pixels
Display aspect ratio        : 16:9
Frame rate                  : 25.000 fps
Color space                 : YUV
Chroma subsampling          : 4:2:2
Bit depth                   : 10 bits
Scan type                   : MBAFF
Scan type, store method     : Interleaved fields
Scan order                  : Top Field First
Bits/(Pixel*Frame)          : 0.270
Color range                 : Limited
Color primaries             : BT.709
Transfer characteristics    : BT.709
Matrix coefficients         : BT.709

Audio #1
ID                          : 1125 (0x465)
Format                      : MPEG Audio
Format version              : Version 1
Format profile              : Layer 2
Bit rate mode               : Constant
Bit rate                    : 256 Kbps
Channel(s)                  : 2 channels
Sampling rate               : 48.0 KHz
Language                    : English

Audio #2
ID                          : 1126 (0x466)
Format                      : MPEG Audio
Format version              : Version 1
Format profile              : Layer 2
Bit rate mode               : Constant
Bit rate                    : 256 Kbps
Channel(s)                  : 2 channels
Sampling rate               : 48.0 KHz
Language                    : French

Audio #3
ID                          : 4144 (0x1030)
Format                      : MPEG Audio
Format version              : Version 1
Format profile              : Layer 2
Bit rate mode               : Constant
Bit rate                    : 256 Kbps
Channel(s)                  : 2 channels
Sampling rate               : 48.0 KHz

The transmission features a slightly different watermark in the bottom left only – without the “Welcome to” words.

Comparison and Observations

I decided it would be some fun to compare the two transmissions by converting them both to lossless FFV1 AVIs with ffmpeg, determining their offsets, then creating a “side-by-side” FFV1 AVI with the satellite feed video on the left and the DVB-T video on the right. This would allow for a rough side by side comparison of the quality throughout the transmission chain. As we know there are generational losses with lossy encoding, I was interested to know just how much “made it” to the end viewer, and how much might be lost along the way.

As a result, I first needed to know where my respective sources fit within the chain. Without working for ABC, I couldn’t know for sure, but based on the observations above and some which follow, I’d have to assume the chain looked something like this:

The source footage would be collected by cameras and fed into an on-site mixing/editing desk. As I didn’t see multiple angle feeds on the air, I’d assume they’ve done it this way so they wouldn’t need massive bandwidth to haul it back to their main studios. The links from the cameras have been drawn as wireless, as in previous years when I did attend the NYE event, wireless links were most commonly used although for the on-shore cameras, cables could also serve equally well. For wireless links, which the helicopter/drone footage definitely would be, one compression/decompression cycle would have likely occurred. I presume the editing desk on site produces two versions of the program – one copy for international syndication which has the overlay without the “Welcome to” and ABC logos on it and has no local talent shown, and the other for local consumption. The international syndication link would be passed off to a Telstra Broadcast Services van on site with its own encoder, modulator, dish, TWTA/BUC and sends it up to Optus D2 for all to receive. The other version of the program is likely to be passed to the main ABC studios not too far away – possibly by microwave link (possible compression in here) for the overlay to be added and various file clips/ads to be inserted. From there, it will pass through the studio transmitter link (maybe fibre, or something else) to the head-end DVB-T encoder and modulator for broadcast to the wider Sydney area.

So the satellite feed footage is not truly “raw” – it cannot be. It has its own compression, and the links from the camera to the desk may also have another leg of compression. But it does potentially avoid compression from the site-to-studio link (if it is used) and is a higher bit-rate and higher quality encoding. It’s also likely the 10-bit encoding may not be fully taken advantage of, as the input may have been already the decompressed output of an 8-bit depth device.

After synchronization of the two sources, at the time the ratings logo came up on the DVB-T transmission, the count-down on the satellite feed was at 44 seconds to midnight.

Early on in the fireworks program, the image froze for about half a second, and three corrupted frames were emitted. Both feed and DVB-T transmissions contained this error, suggesting the use of a wireless camera link from the shore side camera to the mixing desk which had uncorrectable errors within an MPEG GOP (suggesting the use of compression on this wireless link). Interestingly, already, picture quality differences can be seen in the full size images (click for full size) where the blockiness is more faithfully rendered by the satellite link – the DVB-T link gives a softer block edge. Note that no full size images have been deinterlaced, all of them are raw frame captures.

The drone/helicopter in use to shoot aerial shots had an unusual characteristic in that either it has an aspect ratio not exactly 16:9 or it somehow “robs” lines top and bottom for other purposes, and so they are blanked out. There is also some judder in the footage, and most frames captured do not have interlace – so maybe the camera was working at half the frame rate for better sensitivity, and the link used on the chopper had a different format/compression/aspect ratio which required the use of a media converter and possibly a second wireless link resulting in the less appealing images.

In some cases, side by side did not show too much visual difference at least when watching it in real-time. However, looking more closely, it can be seen that the DVB-T broadcast was more soft than the contribution feed – this is expected due to the bitrate constraint, re-encoding losses, etc. There is a slight colour difference at the seam as well.

There were a few frames where dark areas showed the limitations in the ABC DVB-T encoder, showing some obvious blocking where it had clipped to black almost suddenly and smoothed out details.

On very high detail fireworks, we can see that the satellite feed is crisp around the fireworks, whereas the DVB-T appears smoothed. The same detail loss is clear in the lower row of lights. This is where “high definition” and “1080” get thrown around by various online streamers and broadcasters, but depending on the bitrate, it can look completely different.

The same observation can be made about the detail in the smoke trails of the fireworks in this image. Another observation seems to be that ABC’s DVB-T signal chain has a two-line delay in it somewhere – the top line is black and compared to the satellite feed, it’s two pixels lower. Maybe this is due to some equipment chain requirements (e.g. overlay generators) without full frame stores, instead working on a line by line basis.

In the case of this frame though, the difference at full size is obvious. It’s as if I’m watching two different broadcasts – the closer firework should be even more detailed and resolved, but is less detailed than the satellite feed’s fireworks in the background. The bridge is clear on the satellite link, and murky on the DVB-T.

Ultimately, that shows you what is “lost” in the process of bringing it to DVB-T – I’m sure the quality at the camera and mixing desk would be even better than the satellite feed itself, so it’s a bit of a shame that so much effort goes into making quality footage only for it to be crammed down and lost before it gets to the end viewer, and sometimes due to the needs of “ensuring variety” on the DVB-T multiplexes.

Conclusion

On the whole, with the resources available, I think the ABC did a great job of covering the fireworks. It came through in HD, it was definitely a step up over past years, and it was free to air. It wasn’t without minor glitches, but who really cares about those. Live programs often have them anyway.

I suppose the biggest surprise was the half-second video freeze in both outputs, but things happen. Maybe a seagull flew by the line-of-sight of the antennas. The black bars on the helicopter/drone imagery was an unexpected find.

Having the feed was an interesting chance to see a little more of the fireworks by receiving the signal “further up” the chain in a less compressed form. The lower subsampling in the chroma keeps the colour better, and the higher bitrate resulted in a sharper picture. That’s nothing new or unexpected. The 10-bit encoding was probably unnecessary, but used anyway. Fireworks are a challenging thing for video compression to handle gracefully – sharp contrasty lines and lots of dark areas make quilting and ringing much more visible. However, the satellite feed handled it well – and it has to, because the syndicated stations themselves will edit and re-encode that again as they broadcast. The DVB-T feed handled it acceptably, but noticeably worse.

As for the fireworks themselves, they were claimed to be the best ever. But to me, I don’t know. It just seems pretty much like every year to me … but the TV transmissions weren’t.

About lui_gough

I’m a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!

This entry was posted in Computing, Satellite, Telecommunications and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Error: Comment is Missing!