Choosing a Broadcast Camera (Part One): Camera Tiers

Is your camera capable of broadcast quality? Everyone involved in television production will ask themselves this question at some point or another. Is the answer really cut-and-dried?

If not, how do you go about choosing a broadcast camera so a network won’t reject your project because of your camera?

Ikegami Broadcast Camera

Let’s start with the simple answer: There is no such thing as a broadcast quality camera.

Yeah, right. We’ve all heard the “You can shoot crap with your million-dollar camera, and you can shoot a masterpiece on a smartphone” argument. I feel it is a fundamental mistake to decide which cameras are worthy of broadcast quality by their specifications alone. Yet, this isn’t my argument. Then, what is?

Let me explain.

For the purposes of this article, I will use the EBU Rec. 118 document: Tiering of High Definition Cameras as reference. It’s not the last word in broadcast cameras, but it is respected worldwide as being a guideline more solid than most. To be honest, there are few other guidelines or guideline-makers.

First of all, a disclosure: I am not a fan of the Rec.118 document, nor of tiering cameras in general. I understand the EBU is trying to be helpful by ‘guiding’ producers to provide the best quality possible. But, if image quality was their ultimate goal, they should have guided producers towards film.

Till a few years ago, nothing could beat film. Many still believe there is no camera out there that can ‘beat film’. It is obvious, then, that the purpose of any guideline that allowed electronic cameras to be compared to film was a compromise at best. If compromise was the goal, then why restrict producers to broadcast quality cameras? You could try to argue that ‘broadcast quality cameras’ produce the best imagery. Is this really true?

In fact, as we shall see, the EBU itself has trouble grouping cameras. The lines have blurred beyond recognition. I feel the EBU should forego prejudging content on the basis of camera specifications and tests, and let the material speak for itself. This is my position.

The new Rec. 118 document breaks down cameras in this way:


It might be a good idea to quote the document, because it is as clear or unclear as you want it to be:

Although a camera can meet the requirements of a Tier (or standard) it may be let down (or even downgraded by an on-board codec. EBU R-132 recommends minimum acquisition codec.

  • 50 Mbit/s 4:2:2 minimum for MPEG-2 based inter-frame codecs.
  • 100 Mbit/s 4:2:2 minimum for intra-frame codecs.

Additionally, AVCHD above 35 Mbit/s 4:2:0 may be acceptable provided all post processing is carried out in the native camera codec. For Journalism/News these standards can be relaxed to allow the use of

  • 35 Mbit/s MPEG-2 based inter-frame codecs at 4:2:0.
  • 50 Mbit/s AVC intra-frame codecs at 4:2:0.

Additionally, AVCHD at a minimum of 24 Mbit/s 4:2:0 may be acceptable.

The use of External Recorders

Does the EBU support external recorders? E.g., if your camera cannot record 4:2:2 internally, can you use an external recorder via the HDMI or SDI feed (assuming they are at 4:2:2) to pass muster? Here’s the official position:

It is possible for a camera to be in two adjacent tiers if external accessories can be used to change the score e.g. an external recorder that meets the requirements of § 1.2* where the internal does not.

*1.2 being the earlier quote under Codecs.

In short, external recorders are acceptable.

The Tier System

Here is a brief overview of the tiering sytem used by the EBU (Click to enlarge):

EBU Tier System Summary

**Is it just me, or is this resolution present in only one (and only one) camera on this planet?

In general, this is what I’m reading:

  • Tier LS: Oh, they have large Super35 mm sensors with 4K resolution and above. Now what do we do?
  • Tier SP: But wait, cool high-speed stuff can’t be produced by traditional broadcast cameras or the Super35 mm cameras. We can’t forsake cool high-speed slo-mo butterflies and bullets, can we? Even if the imagery isn’t as good as our own guidelines?
  • Tier 1: These are the cameras we have always loved, but have to be shoulder mounted.
  • Tier 2L: These are cameras our ‘friends’ have produced, similar to Tier 1, but can’t be shoulder-mounted (Canon C300, anyone? But wait – can’t you rig any camera to make it shoulder-mountable?)
  • Tier 2J: J stands for journalism. Now that the economy is bad and most news guys are a news-guy-who-does-everything and can only afford palm-corders, we don’t want them to feel alienated. If you want to show real people and the most important events of the world, 35 Mbps AVCHD is peachy. 50 Mbps is for ‘unreal’ stuff.
  • Tier 3: Damn, there are cameras sub-$10,000 that can shoot video as good as $50,000 broadcast cameras. We can’t ignore them, and our ‘friends’ don’t love them (heck, our ‘friends’ make them!), so we’ll just invite them to the party and ignore them.
  • Tief 4: We reserve the right to put anything under Tier 4, under the pretext of ‘contingency’.

It’s no surprise that people can’t distinguish a broadcast camera from a hole in the wall. Nobody else can either.

Let me repeat, there is no such thing as a broadcast quality camera. Yet, we have to play this game by rules that are now called ‘guidelines’.

In Part Two we’ll look at some modern cameras and see if they pass the broadcast quality test. It’ll be fun, and totally unproductive.

3 replies on “Choosing a Broadcast Camera (Part One): Camera Tiers”

  1. I think that this standard is good. I understand your misgivings, but with the variety of formats: 1080, 2K, 4K and other format cameras in the world today, there needs to be certain technical criteria that must be met in order to be broadcast on TV and cable in the present time, January, 2017.

    Broadcasting standards for TV are in place so that when the footage you shot looks the way you shot it, is the correct color, plays at the correct speed, the audio is in sync with the video and sounds the way it is supposed to sound and all of that plays back correctly after it is digitized and beamed into a satellite and downloaded at your local affiliate for broadcast on the 6 O’clock news. That, my friend is a whole lot of math, physics, ones and zeros flying through the air and it all has to comply to Broadcast Standards. Otherwise you are shooting rubberbands into the air expecting that to playback on your TV.

    The Sony EX3 complies broadcast standards for the US and the new 2J Tier.

    Page 7 does note that this (standard) may not be able to be upheld across the board:
    “it is also unreasonable to expect some programme areas – primarily News – to be able to meet the HD standards under normal circumstances anywhere outside the News studio,”

    Page 11 also allows for the use of external recorders.

    They are providing loopholes. Besides, there are a number of news outlets that shoot on 1/3″ cameras, here in the US and probably around the world and they fall under Tier 2J.

    This is a way to differentiate cameras, simply based on their technical specifications. If broadcasters want to maintain a minimum level of quality, this makes sense. Cameras will now fall into a particular tier. Your camera may, or may not fall into your preferred tier, but it will likely meet one of the standards. You now have to look and see what tier does my gear fall into. Most likely, you camera will be acceptable. As I said before, a certain level of quality must be met and maintained.

    I do not think that this is the death knell of any particular camera, but rather, as stated before, quantification of gear. This does not mean that news outlets, or news magazines are suddenly going to demand that all of their news and magazine segments shall be shot in 4K, on an Red, in R3D, but rather, this is breaking down the vast number of cameras into a sensible technical list.

    Discounting the odd, spot news, or breaking news footage captured on a smartphone, or some other device, there needs to be a baseline of acceptable quality. We have gone from standard definition, to HD, with both 720 and 1080 and now to 4K. We may, or may not like these new rules, but they are in place to ensure quality. Just look at YouTube, there are a lot of videos that look like absolute crap, but there is also a significant portion that look good. That said, even some of the crap videos are actually good because of the content, or story. Conversely, some of the technically good videos are junk, because they are not interesting, or just boring, tech specs not withstanding.

    So, to avoid having our broadcast and cable shows looking like shite, there need to be standards.

    This makes sense given the fact that the photo and video industry seems to be changing and evolving, literally every day and 4K is more and more a reality. Moore’s law is running all of us down and his footprints are all over the damn place!

    So, with a constantly changing and evolving technical landscape, the imposition of standards makes sense.

    Your present camera probably falls into one of the listed tiers. It’s a matter of what standards will your local news clients adopt. Hopefully, you will be in spec, but you may also be able to transcode, or use an external recorder to get in spec.

    It is up to individual broadcasters, news outlets and channels, etc to determine what standards they want to follow. This is not necessarily getting rid of shooters, just quantifying cameras.

  2. This is just brilliant Sareesh!  Loving ALL your posts here, but this one is the best! Informative, real and extremely FUN!!  Well done man!  Best wishes from Brazil. Tony.

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