What is the Soap Opera Effect on TVs?
Credit: Amazon.com

Have you ever noticed how daytime soap operas look like they were filmed on a home video camera? It feels like people are in the room with you. Why do these types programs look different from regular movies and prime time television? This is something that is referred to in the television and film industry as the “Soap Opera Effect’.

Soap operas are recorded at a higher frame rate per second than other types of programs. Daytime soap operas have to churn out five episodes a week so there is much less attention paid to lighting and visual effects. They use wide angle lenses to give larger views of rooms in a brightly lit studio environment, which decreases the field of depth. However, it makes everything appear sharper to the point that it is very noticeable when you come across this type of programming.

The reason you notice it is because everything else you watch is filmed at a frame rate of 24 fps.

So why are most television shows and movies still filmed in 24 fps if a higher frame rate provides more detail?

The short answer is because that is what we are used to watching television. The television industry has tried to move away from 24 fps, but it looks too strange to most audiences. Even newer digital cameras used for filming are intentionally set to 24 fps.  No one is ready to watch Law & Order SVU or Person of Interest with the soap opera effect.

Low Refresh Rates

If you are experiencing the soap opera  effect during movies, sporting events and prime time programming, chances are that you have intentionally, or accidentally, engaged a setting on the television that was designed by the manufacturer to smooth out blur created by trying to address another issue with earlier model LCDs, low refresh rates. Lower refresh rates do not capture enough detail during fast motion causing a blurring effect on some TVs.

The industry initially tried to address this issue by creating higher refresh rates above 60 Hz for LCDs. However, with 120 and 240 Hz rates, they created another problem that had to be addressed. There were not enough frames in the 24 fps to refresh that quickly, so they needed to copy and insert new frames around the original ones.[1]

There is a very technical description of how this process works which you probably do not care about. You just want to know why some of the movies and television shows that you are watching looks like a soap opera so I will be brief.

Basically, motion interpolation as it is referred to in the industry, converts 24 fps to 60 fps by inserting frames. The television is guessing at what is happening between each frame.

For instance, after a frame is shown, then it is repeated twice, then the second frame is repeated three times, then the third frame is repeated twice, then the fourth frame is repeated three times, and so on.

This processing reduces motion blur and creates more detail within the picture, however it has one noticeable side effect, particularly on LCD/LED TVs. Anything on screen that is moving will be less detailed in resolution compared to when it is stationary.[1]

The industry solution to the jittery effect on low refresh rates was supposed to smooth out the picture. It did, but it caused original 24 fps programming to look like a daytime soap opera.

Motion Interpolation

If you have noticed this effect showing up when you least expect it, you probably have motion interpolation processing activated. Here is what it is called for various manufacturers.

  • Vizio Smooth Motion
  • LG TruMotion
  • Sony MotionFlow
  • Samsung Auto Motion Plus
  • Sharp AquoMotion
  • Toshiba ClearFrame
  • Panasonic Cinema Smoother

If you own a plasma television, this may not be an issue for you since they have a higher refresh rate making it unnecessary to fill in the frame rate gaps. As technology advances, lower refresh rates are becoming less of an issue.

Final Thoughts

Soap Opera Effect on TVs
Credit: mjpyro

If you have a low refresh rate on an older LCD and you want to capture the added detail during sporting events, you can activate this feature just remember to switch it off when you go back to regular programming.

Most remote controls have the setting on a button so you can have quick access to it without stumbling through the on screen menu settings.

If you own a plasma, you probably do not need this feature activated at any time. Most plasmas refresh at 600 Hz so is does a much better job with fast moving action and sporting events without mixing in motion interpolation.

Eventually as technology advances and older flat screens die off, this will become less and less of an issue. In fact, the newer OLED televisions will provide much greater detail and produce much better action related content, even better than the best plasmas right now. 

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