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Peer Review: Wine Library TV

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This article appears in the June/July issue of Streaming Media magazine, which mails to subscribers next week. Not a subscriber? Click here for your free subscription.

Wine Library TV is an amusing, highly popular internet TV show that’s a must-watch for wine enthusiasts. How popular? When I wrote this review, the latest episode number was 657, and scrolling through past episodes revealed an average of about 200 comments per show. This is an avid, vocal viewing audience.

As you’ve read in Troy Dreier's feature, the show’s producer and star, Gary Vaynerchuk, is vocal about not stressing over production values and streaming quality, which is a shame because the producers at Wine Library are definitely leaving some quality on the table——though several options may relate to the technology decisions made by the site’s service providers, not Wine Library. Though the overall score is high, the critical mistakes——in choosing a background, codec selection, and encoding techniques——are so fundamental that they unnecessarily degrade the quality of the entire production. I get Vaynerchuk’s aversion to overproducing the show, but this is like serving a red wine without letting it breathe or a white wine at room temperature. Pay attention to a couple of key details, and quality should improve considerably.

Wine Library distributes several feeds, including a relatively low-bitrate VP6 file via Viddler.com——the primary feed distributed from the Wine Library website——and a much higher bitrate QuickTime file via blip.tv. I reviewed episode No. 657 and did not interview Wine Library for this analysis.

Background/Set Design: 1/5
The show runs using a variety of backgrounds, though the most common is the beige wall shown in Figure 1. The wall appears to have a fine grain to it, which looks OK in the high-bitrate video that blip.tv distributes but grainy and blocky in the lower bitrate FLV file that Wine Library distributes from its website.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The background has a fine grain to it, which drives the low-bitrate FLV feed crazy.

The artifacts are immediately obvious when you watch the show in real time but somewhat less so in a still image. To bring out the issues, I adjusted a captured frame’s color values as shown in Figure 2, where you can see artifacts in the back wall and mosquito-type artifacts around both subjects’ profiles. This manifests as shifting artifacts during real-time playback, a problem exacerbated by having too many keyframes in the FLV stream.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Making the midtones darker brings out the artifacts that you see as motion in real time. This is the FLV file, not the MOV file.

The best on-location backgrounds have low detail but are nonreflective. The producers here could experiment with a brick background, or, perhaps, wood paneling, to preserve the on-location feel and to remove the noise from the background. At the very least, I would turn off the bright light above the guest’s head and let the background darken naturally, a very popular approach for on-location shooters.

Clothing: 4/5
I don’t suspect the producer coaches his guests about what to wear, but their wardrobe usually includes dark, solid shirts, which contrast well against the light background and are easy to compress. The show misses a perfect score because, given the backlighting that exists, the dark shirts often lack contrast, and lighter shirts would likely show more detail.

Lighting/Exposure: 3/5
Lighting is just OK. The backlight above the guest’s head is a bad idea as it injects unnecessary brightness into the frame, stressing the contrast ratio for both the camera and codec. That’s why there’s somewhat limited detail visible in the subjects’ shirts, especially in the shadow regions, and the frame itself seems to lack a bit of contrast (Figure 3).

Figure 3
Figure 3. The waveform monitor shows that facial values are in the 70–80 range, which is where you want them. This is from the high-bitrate QuickTime file, and you can see the grain in the back wall.

To be fair, by the numbers, the results are good. Facial exposure peaks in the mid-70s, which is where you want it, while whites approach 100 IRE, and the darker pixels, which are not black but rather dark brown, approach but don’t touch 0 IRE. That said, I would lose the backlight, as this would make it easier to achieve good contrast in the middle ranges, such as the shirts and faces. I’d also reduce lighting against the back wall and lower the lights to reduce the shadows and illuminate the shirts a little better.

Camera: 4/5
In terms of camera gear, it looks like Wine Library either shoots in progressive mode or has the best deinterlacer that I’ve ever seen (Figure 4). As a result, even with shots that show sharp, diagonal edges, you don’t see any aliasing.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Either the show is shot in progressive mode or the producer uses the best deinterlacer that I’ve ever seen.

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