SUBSCRIBE NOW

Motion smoothing or the "soap opera effect" is real: Fix your TV now

David Kender
USA TODAY
The "soap opera effect" is real—Fix your TV now.

Know Your Stuff is a new column that unlocks the hidden secrets about the everyday products you own. 

Across millions of living rooms each night, a tiny tragedy is taking place. People are settling down in front of the TVs they acquired through the Black Friday and holiday sales rush and subjecting themselves to a garish and unnatural-looking picture quality brought on by the dreaded "soap opera effect."

Motion smoothing – the TV setting that can make Hollywood films look like cheap camcorder footage – is frequently defaulted to the "on" position when a new TV comes out of the box. Thankfully, it's easily correctable.

Here's what causes the "soap opera effect" and how to fix it on your TV.

What is the "soap opera effect"?

Like atomic energy or Frankenstein's monster, motion smoothing was created with the best of intentions, only to go awry once unleashed on the world.

Until recently, most TVs displayed a picture at 60 frames per second (60Hz), just slow enough to create a slight blur in objects that move quickly across the screen. To reduce that blur, TV makers engineered an ingenious method of interpolation, i.e., taking two of the original frames and then making up a new, middle frame to insert between them.

But what must have sounded like a great idea to engineers turned out to rub a lot of consumers the wrong way. The result is a picture that looks much smoother – far too smooth – some say – than what was originally intended by content creators.

While sports content is largely unaffected by motion smoothing (and some might say improved), films and scripted television shows are altered substantially. Most people describe it as looking "too real" or appearing as though it was shot on a home video camera.

Because TVs are frequently defaulted to a "retail" or "store" mode that includes motion smoothing straight out of the box, consumers are often unwittingly subject to image quality that they don't like. They don't know about, or don't want to be bothered with, changing the settings – and who can blame them, really?

Once you know the tell-tale signs, however, it becomes impossible to not spot motion smoothing in the wild. It's with a heavy heart now that I cannot walk into a bar without scowling up at their uncalibrated television screens.

What Hollywood says about motion smoothing

It's not just TV owners (and critics) that have a problem with motion smoothing. Hollywood producers have railed against what they perceive as a misrepresentation of their product. Tom Cruise, Rian Johnson, James Gunn, and others have been vocal about their dislike.

The anti-motion smoothing moving movement went as far as a Change.org petition that netted over 13,000 signatures.

What if you like motion smoothing?

Not everyone is so quick to break out the pitchforks when it comes to motion smoothing. Dig around online and you will find a few people who actually prefer it.

That opinion is, of course, just fine. This is TV we're talking about, not world hunger. And some sports programming may actually benefit a little from motion smoothing. So go ahead and watch that TV however you like.

How to get rid of motion smoothing on your TV

The simple version: If you hate digging into the TV menu and you want the simplest fix, try this: Hit the Menu button on your remote and go to Settings (or Picture Settings) – it's usually the first item on the menu. Here you should find a submenu called Mode (or Picture Mode or something similar). Choose Movie (or Cinema) mode. Then exit the menu and go live your best life.

The slightly more advanced version: TVs have a lot of fidgety little settings in the menu, and it doesn't help that brands vary in their terminology to make boring technical features sound more interesting. In reality, a baseline understanding of, and patience to fiddle with, the most common settings – brightness, contrast, sharpness, etc. – should be enough to have your TV looking picture-perfect. 

David Kender is the editor-in-chief of Reviewed, a product review website and part of the USA TODAY Network. If you have a question about how your stuff works, or just want to know what to buy, email him at request@reviewed.com.