Who Won Last Night's Debate? Maybe PBS!

There’s nothing like a televised presidential debate  to bring out the best and worst in the candidates  - and the broadcast networks  bringing home the event.

Where and when else does a video geek get to compare/contrast the picture and sound quality of ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS? All carried the same signal “feed” of last night’s debate and theoretically should have produced identical results.

 Yet as delivered via DirecTV to a carefully tweaked, Panasonic Viera  GT50 series plasma TV and good quality surround system (Onkyo receiver, Bose home theater speakers)  there were clear winners and losers last night,  both in sheer tech performance and the subtle ways  viewers may have reacted to the candidates.

 Big Bird’s favorite PBS should also be President Obama’s.  Delivering  natural looking skin tones of African-Americans is difficult on many TVs, a critical barometer of  the set’s color accuracy. But the combo of the more subdued, naturalistic PBS broadcast signal and the 2012 model Panasonic television  gave the Prez a “black like me” presence that seemed honest and true,   that connected as well as his pontifications on foreign policy. By contrast,  Governor  Romney  looked  pale and wan on the public broadcasting channel. PBS’s revenge for his threat to eliminate their federal funding? Uh, doubt it.

By comparison, ABC. CBS  and NBC signals cranked up the color temperature, all putting  a warm glow on the proceedings  to make the pictures “pop.”  It’s a strategy likewise deployed by TV retailers -   adjusting   demo TVs to  the so-called “torch” mode.

 Governor Mitt Romney looked best on CBS and ABC  – healthy and vigorous, not too overly made up.  President Barack  Obama‘s skin tone  veered towards  pumpkin orange on CBS  – a pre-Halloween stunt? – and on ABC to a sallow, yellow-tinged complexion with  light-capturing “hot spots” that made his forehead and cheeks glow . Some might have taken that  as a subconscious cue Obama was  sweating -  the famous kiss of death for Nixon in his  debates with JFK.

  With the color red pushed hardest on  NBC 10, Obama's look veered to the pinky side of African-American skin tones (an unintentional underscoring of  his mixed parentage?) A rosied-up  Romney looked like he’d just stepped off a sailboat after a lovely afternoon cruise. Or maybe had tied a couple on before the debate. But he’s a Mormon and doesn’t drink, right?

 In sound reproduction, ironically, PBS showed dead last. Its’ audio processing “chain” (identified on my receiver as  Dolby Pro-Logic IIx) made the candidates sound like they were debating in a huge hall or spooky bell-tower inflicted with a heavy, nasty echo.

  ABC. CBS and NBC’s audio processing  all lit the “Dolby Digital” identifier on my Onkyo receiver.  CBS uniquely  extracted a quasi- surround  signal from what may have been  a single channel  source. Listening on  the  5.1 channel sound system  made for the liveliest, attention grabbing, you-are-there viewing experience.  And even with just the TV‘s speakers blasting, the CBS presentation offered a nice bit of  left/right channel separation to clarify the candidates’  interruptions and maybe their philosophical differences.

 ABC’s signal also suffered  - though not  quite as badly as PBS -  from too much  vocal echo. The hidden implication here:  both candidates were double talking.

  NBC ‘s minimalist monaural processing produced a  warm, natural presence that moved both candidates closer to our ears, suggested intimacy and confidence.