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The Signifying Function of Low Definition

by Jeremy Butler

Television news and shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos (abbreviated as AFV; 1989-) may make use of low-definition formats. Home-video and camera-phone formats appear when “amateur” recordings of news events (tornadoes, earthquakes, police brutality) or surveillance recordings of crimes are broadcast. The poorer resolution of these tapes—their difference from SD or HD formats—becomes significant in these instances. It marks the tapes as “authentic,” as unposed and spontaneous and supposedly a pure piece of the historical world. In an AFV clip where a man is run over by a small motorbike we can see how style guarantees its authenticity—something the AFV producers are constantly concerned about. (Obviously, they don’t want to run faked or posed clips.) In the clip, the camera is shaking and the image is not “properly” framed. After the motorbike hits the man, the person holding the camera swings it around wildly and the motion of the image makes the low definition more obvious.

Of course, we can’t know for sure that this clip wasn’t faked, that it wasn’t professionally shot with a high-definition camera and then digitally manipulated. But regardless of how that clip was obtained, it appears to be an authentic part of reality because we consciously or unconsciously link it with other amateur video we have seen. Thus, the technology (in this case, video from a smartphone) creates a visual style (low-definition images) that carries certain significations based on our association with other video-recorded images.

America's Funniest Home Videos: Low-Definition Video

A home movie in America's Funniest Home Videos illustrates how low-definition video is used in TV today.

from America's Funniest Home Videos (2010)
Creator: Vin Di Bona
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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