The Soap Opera Effect: When your TV tries to be smarter than you

Can your TV think too much on your behalf? If you've gotten Soap Opera Effect, perhaps so.

"Why does everything on the new TV look like video out of a bad soap opera," my wife asked me, about a day after our new set arrived. "You're crazy," was my response. I figured the move from a 40-inch set to a 55-inch one was taking some time to get used to.

As it turned out, she was right. After a few more days, even I conceded that unless "Game of Thrones" was now being shot in the same studio as "The Young and the Restless," something was wrong.

It was annoying. In the store, the television -- a Samsung 7000 Series -- had a picture that looked great. There was George Clooney playing over and over again in a clip from "The Descendants," looking as handsome as ever. Had I gotten a bad set? Maybe it was just me. The set was so nice that I kind of wanted to just blame myself.

Eventually, I started hunting through the menu options. One of the set's features is a 240Hz refresh rate. Maybe this was to blame?

I never found an option that specifically said it controlled the refresh rate. But buried two menus deep, I found one called Auto Motion Plus. Guessing this was related to the problem, I turned it off. Voila! The bad soap opera look was gone.

I figured maybe this was just a strange thing that had happened to me alone, until I was at lunch with someone recently who was talking about his new TV and how the picture seemed to have a strange soap opera feel to it that was bothering him.

I didn't quite jump out of my seat, but I excitedly told him that I knew exactly what the problem was and how to solve it. It also got me thinking that maybe this issue was more widespread than I initially thought. Indeed, it was.

A search for "soap opera effect" brings up plenty of articles about the problem on Google. The search engine even suggests the term, which is a sign that a significant number of people are searching for information about it (and probably solutions to it):

If you're really interested in why the effect happens, it's because soap operas (and some other television shows) are shot on video, which is cheaper than film. But shooting on video increases the number of frames displayed per second, giving them that particular look.

Many modern televisions seem to automatically create additional frames, even for filmed content. This "motion interpolation" is meant to smooth motion, which might be useful if you're watching a fast-action sporting event. But it also effectively makes content that was shot on expensive film appear to have been recorded on cheap video.

TelevisionInfo.com had a nice, recent article explaining this in more detail. This CNET article also explains it briefly, though it doesn't name it as the Soap Opera Effect.

What I found remarkable is that people have been complaining about this for several years. Complaints are all over the Internet. How did I end up with a new set configured by default to show images in a way that you'd think manufacturers know plenty of people dislike. Why do I even need it at all?

My TV, I'd argue, is trying to be smarter than I am. It's trying to smooth out "blur" and "judder" and remake the picture in a way it assumes will be better. But instead, it transforms the picture into something that feels unnatural.

Really, I just want a dumb TV that shows me a great picture. I didn't care that this set could do 240Hz processing. I really didn't need the fairly useless Web browser that's built in. I absolutely did not want 3D. I wanted the set for the nice HD picture it could display plus the incredibly thin bezel that surrounds it.

Drilling into the menu, I find there's no end to the smart things the TV can do for me. Film Mode? Sure:

The on-screen menu explains Film Mode thus: "Optimize picture quality for video or film-based programs." But what does that mean? Does the TV magically know what's really filmed, and so will override the Auto Motion Plus feature if I leave it on? Also, which of the two remarkably clear options should I use, Auto1 or Auto2?

It would be nice if you got better guidance about this right within the menu. Of course, there is a manual -- one even built into the set and available through the remote's E-Manual button. What's it tell me about this feature?

"Sets the TV so that it senses and then processes film signals from all sources automatically and adjusts the picture for optimum quality."

That was helpful. I still have no idea what the difference is between Auto1 and Auto2, nor whether I can really trust Film Mode to figure out if it's getting content from a film source or not. For all the smarts my set wants to provide with this feature, I feel better just leaving it off.

There are even more options with which my TV wants to exhibit its brainpower. I can set the MPEG Noise Filter to Off, Low, Medium, High, or Auto. I'm told by the on-screen menu that this feature "Reduces MPEG noise to provide improved picture quality."

But what is MPEG noise? It's like saying your car has a "Kajumpy Reduction" setting, with "kajumpy" being an auto industry technical term for bumps. Oh, you mean my car has bump smoothing technology? Yeah, turn that on.

You know when you're watching TV, and the image might get all blocky or blurry in parts of the picture? That's MPEG noise. Why not call it "Clearer Picture Filter" or "Block Reducer" or something like that? Why not explain it with some examples. Why not especially explain why I would want to go with Auto, Low, Medium, or High?

In my case, I'm trusting that Auto is probably OK. I'm letting the TV be smart for me, and hoping for the best. But what I really want is, if my TV is going to be smart on my behalf, at the very least it shouldn't talk down to me about what it's doing, so I can figure out how to tell it to stop doing things I don't like.

My TV manual says this about Auto Motion Plus: "Removes blur and translate from scenes with larger amounts of rapid movement to provide a clearer picture."

Nothing in that explains "this feature will make your shows look like bad soap operas in some cases." That's what I need to know, along with some guidance about what exactly the Clear, Standard, and Smooth options will do, if I choose to trust any of them. That's not explained, either.

If you're so smart, TV, then teach me to use you better. You never know, I might even teach you a few things about how I really want you to work.

 

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