"Texture" differences between TV network film/video

Saw a zombie come back to life today, but don’t want to add to that thread:

I believe I may have even asked this question myself here before, but if I did, I don’t recall getting a satisfactory answer: what accounts for the obvious image differences between each network’s TV recordings?

Meaning, I don’t even need to know what show I’m watching, I can generally tell just from a random scene whether it’s an NBC sitcom, an ABC sitcom, a CBS drama, etc. The effect was even more pronounced with their daytime shows-- you could tell at a glance whether it was an NBC soap or a CBS soap.

For example, there’s the classic NBC sitcom look from Friends-- not as common as it used to be, but you still see it today in shows like Whitney. Ditto the dramas: Law & Order looks like Prime Suspect, etc.

Then there’s the CBS shows-- King of Queens looks like How I Met Your Mother looks like Two and a Half Men, etc. CSI looks like Hawaii 5.0 looks like The Mentalist, etc.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think that all these shows are filmed in the same studios with the same cameras/lighting setups-- certainly the dramas aren’t.

I acknowledge that this effect isn’t as big as it used to be-- every network seems to have their own visual outliers (The Office comes to mind), but this still holds up surprising well.

So, what accounts for this? Is this a conscious branding decision? Is there a network edict that says “Sitcoms will be filmed using this technology so as to look similar?”

I’ve wondered the same thing for years and have been monitoring this thread hoping some expert would chime in. I don’t have an answer but my guesses have always been in line with yours:

  1. All shows coincidentally produced in the same studio - Unlikely for logistical reasons, as you’ve stated.

  2. All shows produced with same or similar equipment - Given how many different production companies make these shows, it seems unlikely.

  3. Some edict from the network - Possible. Most of the similarity seems to come from nuances of lighting, camerawork, editing, etc. I can see how the networks might employ staff to ensure consistency across all their productions for the branding purpose you mentioned. Lighting seems to be the main differentiator to my eyes, and would probably be simple to coordinate for all facilities.

By process of elimination I guess I’ll go with #3 until someone has a better idea.

As an aside, I used to wonder whether it was a local phenomenon introduced by the affiliates. That is, maybe the programs all look different enough on the master tapes, but playback or transmission equipment at the individual TV stations adds a distinctive “look”. Back when I only saw TV shows in my hometown this was reasonable to assume, but seeing shows later in different cities, on DVD, online etc. proved it wrong.

There are a handful of shows that changed networks during their run. I never watched any on that list aside from MST3K and MNF so I don’t know what happened in these cases. Did they retain their original “look” after the move, or suddenly adopt that of the new network?