Wednesday, November 07, 2001

Next You'll Be Telling Us Wrestling is Fixed

For years I've been telling everybody I know not to believe everything you see on television. In some contexts I've insisted that you shouldn't believe anything you see. But I have to admit that even I, skeptical as I am, am taken aback by this story from Electronic Media Online, in which we learn that you can't even believe the word "live".

This could have been a trivial story, but that the implications are so dramatic. It seems many television stations own a gadget they call a Time Machine (manufactured by Prime Image). The Time Machine allows them to perform time-compression on a live program, on the fly. Given that our homes are being invaded by TiVo technology (which allows consumers to "pause" live television and record multiple programs simultaneously), the existence of such a machine really shouldn't be much of a surprise. The article doesn't explain what this gadget's intended, legitimate use might be.

But it seems that KDKA Pittsburgh was using the machine to "create" additional local commercial time in the Steelers / Chiefs game on Oct. 25. This might have gone unnoticed if a reporter (Dimitri Vassilaros of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) hadn't been watching the game on TV and listening to the radio play-by-play -- and noticing that "live" television was running about 30 seconds behind the "live" radio.

Even so, the only thing CBS seems to be worried about is that KDKA is contracturally forbidden from altering the programming the network offers them. The machine's existence itself isn't challenged, just the legal obligations inherent in the network / affiliate relationship. There are deeper issues here, unaddressed. Does CBS use a similar machine to regulate the length of commercial breaks in live events? The temptation must be strong: How else can you be sure that a time-out will last long enough to use two 30-second spots?

Is it used for programs other than football games? If Ellen DeGeneres sounds more like a chipmunk than usual, it is because a 24-minute "The Ellen Show" has been compressed into a 22-minute hole? Timing is everything in comedy: How can a producer be sure the network isn't fnorking the show itself to make room for another "Survivor" promo?

The same article reports that a 64-second break in the Oct 26 "King of Queens" repeat actually ran 94 seconds on KDKA. And a similar 64-second break in "Becker" stretched to 154 seconds on WJZ Baltimore. The local stations are being hung out to dry over this, but is CBS doing the same thing on a network level? How can we know?

What is "live"?

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