The Long Night: Why Game of Thrones’ great war looked so bad on your TV

game of thrones season 8 episode 3 preview s8e3 02

The Long Night, the third episode of Game of Thrones eighth and final season, had the internet in an uproar, but not for the usual reasons. This time around, the buzz has less to do with the spectacle of the episode’s epic Battle of Winterfell than the fact that few could actually see any spectacle on their screens at all.

Did HBO make a poor artistic call by filming the episode in extremely low light? Was the show overly compressed to fit down clogged-up internet pipelines during peak-use hours? Or is there something going on with your TV or the room you are watching it in?

It’s a little bit of all three.

Compression artifacts

Whether you watch HBO through your cable/satellite box, stream Game of Thrones through HBO’s streaming apps HBO Go or HBO Now, or stream HBO through a Hulu, Sling TV, or Apple TV subscription, the video signal you get is highly compressed. Video compression has been employed by cable and satellite operators for decades now — there are simply too many channels to try to cram through a very limited space, and the hefty bandwidth needs of high-definition video compound that problem. The same issue exists for video streamed over the internet, with high-resolution 4K video increasingly taxing internet pathways.

To get you the TV you want to watch, compression is applied to video so it uses less data and is easier to deliver reliably. In many ways, this process is similar to the compression of music and thus has a similar effect. Information is actually removed from a digital music file, ideally in a way that has the lowest possible impact. With music, you may hear raspiness in the treble — the higher frequency sounds made by brass instruments and cymbals — as a result of this missing information. With video compression, these artifacts show up as pixelation or as an effect known in TV circles as macroblocking.

Macroblocking looks a lot like the word sounds. In scenes where there are large areas of one color, you may notice large squares — or blocks — of slightly different shades. Clouds, for example, may look less like puffy white and gray pillows and more like something out of a Lego movie. Then there is an effect called banding, which comes into play where there is a high contrast between a bright area in one part of the screen and a much darker one in another, with subtle shades in between. Rather than appear as a smooth transition, you will see bands of different colors. The TV shows you watch all exhibit some level of macroblocking and banding — it’s always been there — it’s just that these effects are more noticeable in dark scenes with a lot of dark grays and black patches on the screen interrupted periodically by, say, flames spewing from a dragon’s mouth. And in the case of this GoT episode, which took place entirely at night, there was a lot of darkness going on.

Some may also have noticed that when the action in the episode was particularly fierce and fast, it began to get blurry. This also traces back to compression. Fast-moving scenes require huge amounts of data, and when that data is removed, you miss it. Objects may appear blurry or blocky, almost as if there was a signal dropout. The problem is there isn’t enough data getting through — be it due to compression, throttled bitrate, or a slow internet connection — and you get messy images as a result.

HBO’s cinematic vision

HBO, understandably, approaches its most-watched show with the type of artistic vision shared by the world’s greatest movie directors. Cinematography and high-quality digital graphics are blended with the expertise of Hollywood’s finest. That approach, apparently, extends to making the show look as “naturalistic as possible,” according to Insider. Rather than add lighting to the battle-by-night scene, HBO shot with extremely high-end cameras and with just enough light to give the scene the feel the directors wanted. The Night King casts a wintry fog for a reason: You aren’t supposed to see what’s coming until it is right on top of you.

The problem is, not everyone’s TV or viewing environment can support this style of art.

Your TV and your room

Ask anyone who owns a traditional projector and they’ll tell you the enemy of a high-quality picture is any light not coming from the projector itself. Projectors and projection screens rely on the absence of light to create contrast on screen, so where there is light leaking into the room, it brightens up the screen and competes with the light coming from the projector, which has limited power to transmit light and is doing so from a relatively long distance.

Today’s TVs can get so bright that, outside of sunlight beaming straight onto the screen, it’s rare to see them wash out. Bottom line: You don’t have to watch TV in a pitch-black room to enjoy a nice picture … most of the time. If the image on the screen is extremely dark, glare from surrounding light might make the dark objects virtually indiscernible. Still, most TV programming is produced in such a way that we can all just sit down and watch without missing much. With movies, where dark scenes are used much more liberally, it’s a different story. But those dark scenes usually pass by quickly. Such was not the case with this episode of Game of Thrones. The show exposed in a glaring way a struggle many TVs suffer.

It’s a little-known fact to almost everyone other than TV industry pros that TVs have a hard time reproducing low-luminance video content. When an object on a screen gets very dim, the TV must apply just the right amount of voltage to make it show up — too much and the object is too bright and blows out everything around it, too little and the object might not even be visible. And when the entire screen is dim, an LED/LCD TV is actively working not to turn black stuff gray by lighting it up too much. On a technical level, an LED/LCD TV is being asked to defy the laws of physics in a big way. Widely dark content is less of a problem for OLED TVs because the technology is naturally good at doing black levels, so it has an easier time lighting up just what it wants, but handling low levels of light is still a challenge from an electrical perspective.

All of this is to say that, while there are some very advanced (and expensive) TVs out there designed to handle extremely dark TV and movie scenes well, most of us don’t own them. I watched the episode in question on an LG C9 OLED by streaming HBO through a Hulu app on the TV and when the low, low bitrate wasn’t showing its ugly face, it looked glorious. And the room wasn’t totally dark, either. Most people simply don’t have such a nice TV, though, which begs the question: If HBO is making art, but most people literally can’t see it, does it matter?

Change your settings and try again

If you’re rocking a less-than-stellar TV and want to see the episode, there are a couple of compromises you can make.

You can make some basic TV settings adjustments, like changing the contrast or brightness of your TV, to help make this dark episode more visible, but know that the picture will look gray and you may not see as much detail as you like.

The best thing you can do is get your room as dark as possible. Watch at night, turn off all the lights, draw the blinds, and start watching. If it looks good enough, excellent. If not, select Movie, Cinema, or Calibrated as a picture mode preset, then bump up the backlight setting on your LED/LCD just until things look good enough.

Finally, try to find a high-quality stream. HBO GO and HBO Now tend to stream at lower bit rates than HBO delivered through Hulu, Amazon Prime, or Sling TV (if HBO ever makes a return to Sling). Just for this one episode, it may be worth going the extra mile to watch through a better streaming service.

Movies & TV

These are the best movies on Hulu right now (May 2019)

From dramas to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Movies & TV

Relive the horror and the glory of the 10 best Game of Thrones episodes

Some episodes are worth watching twice, especially when you're talking about a show as exciting, tense, and complicated as Game of Thrones. Here are our 10 favorite episodes of HBO's epic fantasy series.
Home Theater

PlayStation Vue vs. Sling TV: Which is the better live TV streaming service?

PlayStation Vue and Sling TV are two of the most popular live TV streaming services, but whether you're looking to save some cash or watch as much TV as possible, deciding between the two isn't easy. Let our in-depth guide help you decide.
Mobile

Don't listen to the guy at the mall. How to pick the best smartphone data plan

Sorting through carriers’ plans to find the best service for you and your family can be tough. We name the best family plan, individual plan, unlimited plan, and more in this battle between T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon.
Deals

Take a gander at the best 4K smart TV deals for May 2019

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.
Home Theater

Sonos Beam vs. Sonos Playbar: Which home theater soundbar should you buy?

The Sonos Playbar and Sonos Beam: United by all of the features that make Sonos superb, they're two soundbars intended for very different situations. Which one is right for you? We put them head-to-head to find out.
Home Theater

Why you can’t buy Car Thing, Spotify’s first hardware device

Spotify created a voice-activated, in-car device that lets you listen to music and podcasts. But Car Thing, as it is known, is not for sale. Instead, it will be used to gather data from a limited set of customers.
Home Theater

Netflix vs. Amazon Prime Video: A battle of streaming giants

It might seem like Netflix should be your default choice as a streaming video service, but Amazon Prime Video's price and many extra perks make it a compelling alternative. Which one is best for you? Our comparison can help.
Movies & TV

ESPN Plus is a great sports companion. Here's everything you need to know

ESPN's streaming service, ESPN Plus, arrived in 2018, but it isn't a replacement for your ESPN cable channels and it differs from other streaming apps in a few key ways. We answer all of your questions in this guide.
Movies & TV

Tired of Netflix? Here's where to find free movies online, legally

We've spent countless hours digging around the web to find the best sites for streaming free movies online. Not only are all of these sites completely free to use, they're also completely legal and trustworthy.
Deals

Don’t miss your chance to save $700 on a 65-inch Vizio P-Series 4K TV

Walmart has launched a corker of a sale on a 65-inch Vizio 4K TV that's perfect for aspiring cord cutters and satellite fans alike. This deal sends the price plummeting from $1,700 to $1,000.
Deals

This 50-inch Samsung 4K TV is an absolute steal at $420

Need a 4K TV, but on a strict budget? Walmart has the answer: A 50-inch Samsung 4K TV for $330 off. You'll need to act fast to avoid disappointment though, as we've learned that the retailer is running low on stock.
Deals

The best wireless noise-canceling headphones are now on sale

In need of a reliable set of noise-canceling wireless headphones? You've come to the right place — Drop has knocked a cool $70 off the Sony WH-1000XM3, dropping (pun intended) the price of the cans down to a healthier $280.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (May 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.