Getting our broadcast commercials to look better
This one is for the broadcast pros out there, either over-the-air or cable...
We are a small production company in Huntsville, Alabama. Most of our clients are advertising agencies, and we mostly produce broadcast commercials, probably several hundred a year for the last ten years.
I would LOVE to find a way to get spots that looked consistently good on the air, but I just don't know how.
It's a little frustrating to create productions that look great here in house, but can look so crappy when I watch them on my TV at home.
Again, they leave here looking perfect. They aren't high-end $100,000 budget commercials (maybe only a tenth of that, or less), but nonetheless they still look clean as a whistle, generally with either DVcam or 35mm film as the aquisition format. Broadcast masters are delivered to the television stations and cable outlets on BetaSP (that's what they all request). All three of our editing suites and all of our monitors are calibrated within an inch of their lives. Every dub that goes out includes bars and tone on the head of the tape.
So... we produce something that looks really great, then I'll go home, watch TV, and see one of our spots air. Sometimes they look great. But just as often, they look terrible. Sometimes soft, sometimes grainy, VERY frequently the chroma is ALL blown out and way over-saturated, somtimes the hue is skewed. Other producers' adjacent spots can look bad or good as well. National spots usually seem to look pretty good. My employees all view home television in different ways: one over-the-air, another with a different cable system than mine, and yet another via satellite. They all have the same result as me.
I don't exactly have a calibrated monitor at home viewing this stuff (via cable), but it's a pretty darn good TV (50" HD plasma). Programming on it looks fantastic, so I think it's a pretty good judge. I have noticed that I can be watching one of my spots on the "regular" channel, then flip over to the HD version of the same channel and it looks much much better... more or less perfect.
We regularly send spots out to about five broadcast stations and three cable systems... get pretty much the same result with all of them (although some are a bit better than others). We also send spots all over the country, but sadly I have no way to monitor the results on those out-of-market.
I don't know how to fix this. I will say that before we founded this company I worked in broadcast television for 12 years (6 years as a newscaster, 6 years as Creative Services Manager). In those 12 years I walked through master control countless times as commercials were being dubbed... never ONCE did I see an operator referencing the bars. It was always just "pop the tape in and push the button." And although we are not a big market, we are certainly not tiny either.
We are very blessed to be very very busy and are pretty prolific... so it's not unusual to settle in for an evening's TV viewing and end up seeing a half dozen or so of our spots. Only to be disappointed. At least our clients haven't complained... yet.
Anyone have any suggestions?
The main programming and national commercials look good because they come down from the satellite, from a large, well-funded and staffed master control someplace that has real engineers and knows what its doing.
Your local spots are inserted at the local level, at the head-end of the local cable system. You have no way to know, unless you visit each such facility, how they ingest your masters. If they have a server-based spot system, it could be what is happening to your analog tapes is, they are being played out of a beat-up old deck in analog composite, with levels not carefully set, thru a composite video feed and indeterminate chain of beat-up proc amps and TBC's, into some kind of converter before it hits the server. That server probably has numerous capture settings for compression that are a balance between storage capacity and quality. Guess which side of that trade-off the local cable place is going to select. Yep, they'll re-master it into their server at the lowest possible quality level because they are hurting for drive space. Any wonder then, that your baby comes out the other end looking beat up?
Probably the thing I would do is to go to each site and see what their ingest process is. If it is digital, bring the master to them in a digital format that doesn't need re-compression or translation steps before it can be directly used in their system. That's probably the biggest improvement you can make, is my guess.
Thanks for you thoughts...
Oh yeah, I know exactly WHY it is happening... beat-up or overused equipment and a-few-dollars-an-hour employees that dont really care how it looks... it's just how to WIN that battle that has left me clueless.
And yeah, I know the national spots should look great when they are part of the network feed. I didn't describe that clearly enough... I meant a national spot which is inserted into a local break (say, Coca-Cola or Chevy buying time, but it is a local insertion into a station's break time within a primetime show, or within a show of local origination, like a newscast). Those spots typically look pretty good (and can confirm that many of those come in on BetaSP just like the ones we deliver them).
It just chaps me that these are all multi-MULTI-million dollar companies whose main job is to broadcast, and whose main revenue comes from broadcasting COMMERCIALS, yet they look like crap because the bottom rungs of the employee ladder don't care, and it apparently doesn't seem to bother anyone higher up.
Heck... actually spots on the cable systems look better than some of the broadcast stations. In fact, the spots look the very WORST on the CBS affiliate here, which is a very up-to-date and well-funded station (is a NY Times station, although the Times is in the process of selling all their TV stations). They are actually a client of ours and occassionaly we do news promos/opens etc for them when they need something beyond their in-house capability... and even THAT sometimes looks bad... their own stuff!!
Sadly, none of us have time to visit all these stations and have a sit-down with them. There are only five of us and we are in a constant firefight all day producing what is for this market at least relatively high-end stuff, so it's just logistically not practical. I might fire off some letters or emails though.
"whose main revenue comes from broadcasting COMMERCIALS"
I think you hit on the answer right there. If you as a producer come and ask them to change the way the tapes are handled you will probably get a run around.
If the people who are BUYING the commercial time complain, then some results may happen. Make sure the clients know it looks great when it leaves your facility and the problems are on the stations/cable co.'s end and let them bring the pressure for change. (TV sales people DON'T like losing commission on spots).
This is, of course, assuming that the clients aren't any happier than you are with the on air quality of the spots.
[Doug] "If the people who are BUYING the commercial time complain, then some results may happen."
Yup. Money talks!
I'd talk to the agency folks, who presumably make the time buys. I bet you see agency producers all the time; it's a good starting point. They'll be pleased to know that you have their best interests in mind.
Sr. Promotion Producer
In my 10 years at a broadcast station, it always amazed me that the one person with the responsibility of making sure that commercials air and the signal was on the air was generally the lowest paid person there.
DT Motion Pictures
Here in the upper Midwest we send spots to many stations and cable outfits. Recently Time-Warner Cable started to request that we send all of our spots to them via files sent to their FTP site. They had moved their head-end operations to another city in the southern part of the state and they no longer whated to deal with anyone sending them actual tapes anymore.
This comes under the heading of "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
We normally work at 2 to 1 compression on the Avids or at either 8-bit uncompressed or DVC-50 on the Final Cut systems. Sending Time-Warner these files is a major pain in the butt for us. It takes anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour to send a spot to their FCP site due to the large file size. Ironically, our internet pipeline is Time Warner's own Roadrunner system. Our upload speeds are pretty dismal right now...unless we want to pay them much more $$$ for a higher speed option. Did I mention that it would cost MANY MORE $$$$$$! Anyhow, this potentially ties up an edit system for the duration of the transfer. Plus, since their system is PC based, I cannot send a DV-50 encoded spot to them at all. The alternative is to drop our quality down to DV25 when we send the spots. An idea that I don't like. I edit a spot for a major client in HD and then send it to them as a DV25 file? Hmmm, what's wrong with this picture? I can name about 8 things.
When I finally got their tech on the phone and inquired about their workflow on just how a spot gets into their system I was told that the files are retrieved from their FCP site, transferred into an Avid Express, converted to an Avid codec and played out to a BetacamSP archive tape. That tape is then physically walked into another area where it is used to ingest the spot into their server, which utilizes a very nasty looking encoder/converter that digitizes the spot into an Mpeg format for playout into their system. Man, no wonder it looks like crap when it hits the air! (Hits the cable?)
Very soon we will be sending them Beta SP dubs again for their use. I don't care if it's more convienent for them to get the spots via FTP. Too bad. It looks better coming off of a tape made right from our original editing system.
Sadly, THIS is the price we pay for progress. Sheesh!
Tom, I believe this is exactly what I predicted was going on, only your description is if anthing even more chilling and depressing.
Cheer up that your solution of mailing them betas one-way will at least bump up your quality some. I suppose you could save to data DVD in the format their Avid can read and mail those disks too.
There is also usendit.com, a service that transacts uploads and downloads for you, using emailed links to the FTP site. I tried it twice and liked it. There's a free version and a paid one that gives you mroe capacity and features. We also have played with using V-Brick over fiber for sending approvals back and forth in real time. Generaly good and glitch-free. But that's over a dedicated private network, with SD footage.
When we surveyed stations in our state this year, only a small percentage said they would accept digital files of any sort for our PSA distributions, amnd most did not accept HD, or said they'd just downconvert it if they got around to it. Most still wanted a DVcam,DVCPro, betaSP or SVHS or regular (gulp!) VHS tape.
None polled had any clue about FTP for distribution. None, and we tried to make sure we talked to someone in Engineering, not just a front-desk reception flunky. What we're all gonna do in 2 years beats me.
Mom and pop stations or local cable head-ends were the worst, all having some variation of your description of the sneakernet/one or more dubs to trans-code scenario. This comes from the bean counters not wanting to pay for timely upgrades to the physical plant unless federally mandated. The old technology that's fully amortized will be kept in use as long as it is running and repairable, over a more modern and higher-quality but costly solution. Deliberately wearing out or breaking the old gear may be the only way for the most desperate station engineer to force an upgrade. I think I'm kidding about that last one!
"Och, me wee bairns!"-Scotty.
[Mark Suszko] "Mom and pop stations or local cable head-ends were the worst, all having some variation of your description of the sneakernet/one or more dubs to trans-code scenario. This comes from the bean counters not wanting to pay for timely upgrades to the physical plant unless federally mandated."
I know what you're talking about. Believe me, I understand. But let's not just look at the server, which is but a small piece of the puzzle. TV stations in particular will also need a couple-three other items in the very near future.
For a TV station to go all-digital, you also need a new digital production switcher. You need a new digital routing switcher. You may need to purchase new STL equipment. You'll probably have to get new edit gear, new field cameras and new studio cameras.
Oh, yeah, then there's also the trifling matter of a new digital transmitter, which will run concurrently with the analog transmitter for a few years. And with this new digital transmitter comes a five-fold increase in the light bill. In the frequencies and power ranges required in the digital portion of the spectrum, power consumption goes up by a factor of five.
That's a darned big chunk of change for a small-market station to cough up all at once. So yeah, in many cases, the bean counters are indeed waiting for federally-mandated deadlines. My guess is that they're trying to space out some pretty monumental capital expenditures just to stay in business. A couple of these capital expenditures are incurred by no other part of the TV industry.
And since this whole conversion to digital was not due to market changes but by forced on broadcasters by a spectrum-greedy government, can you blame them?
Oh, and have you heard? Broadcast TV revenues are going down due to competition from new media outlets... but the expenses just to keep the license sure as heck aren't.
Nope, small market stations aren't dragging their feet, they're more than likely just trying to stay afloat.
Sr. Promotion Producer
All very true. The digital changeover is taking it's toll to say the least. And we all know that we can charge more for those Hi-Def spots too? Ahem...well anyway...
That said however, in the commercial broadcasting world revenues are made in one way...viewers watching commercials. That's it in a nutshell. Times are tough for broadcast venues these days but there are places where it doesn't pay to count pennies. You make money by running COMMERCIALS! Why take the chance with cheap, obsolete or jerry-rigged equipment to air that which brings in the money? Cut back on the expensive anchor or run that old live truck for one more year before replacing it with that shiny new one you'd like. Don't cut corners on your cash-box. I worked in broascasting for many years so I know very well the problems involved but there are places to cut corners and there are places not to get cheap. Oh, and one more thing; please, TRAIN your guys to do it right-always. And train them to train others to do it right. It will pay for itself in the long run.
Your clients and advertisers deserve that. They pay the bills afterall.
Just a couple notes from a moderately experienced Master Control guy after reading the thread...
Locally originated national spots come in on tape less and less...most of that stuff comes in on FastChannel or PathFire now, and when it does, your typical apathetic MC Op can just build his dublist and hit play without touching any of the audio or video level controls and have it look fine because the engineers (or the one MC Op that cares) already calibrated the box and the spot was setup and distributed with that system in mind.
Send them a tape and yeah, they usually leave all the levels in unity or leave them where they were from the last tape. What's worse is when using those decks that have input gain controls for audio, but nothing for output, and feeding that into a server using ingest software that doesn't even have audio gain controls (Crispin Dubber for example). Most of your operators won't bother loading up a different ingest program with gain controls if one is even available, or do anything else to work around the problem. It doesn't help when MC gets consolidated to somewhere other than where you're sending your tape, and the spot ends up being microwaved or captured and networked to MC, having gone through yet another set of careless hands.
Unfortunately even the guys that know what they're doing get jaded by the endless stream of poorly dubbed tapes that come in. If you're sending tapes that are perfect or near perfect technically, you're about the only one. Most of the time when I would set up a deck's output by the bars on someone's tape the spot would end up with blacks at -2 or 20, and have peak video around 108, so I'd have to ignore the bars and go through the spot just adjusting for broadcast legality. Then, as if to mock the MC Op, their would be 9 seconds of black between the 2 second mark on the countdown and the actual start of the spot. Of course that's not much of an excuse...I'd still set for bars even though I knew it was often futile, and every once in a while someone who probably was using a real live hardware WFM would do things right and make life easier.
As far as spots looking good on the HD feed while looking bad on the SD, my only guess there is that spots are being captured outside of broadcast legal levels and they're using a processor upstream of the analog transmitter to clamp/clip everything to broadcast legal, but that processing isn't happening on the HD. I'm not sure if ATSC has headroom for superwhites though.
I don't think there's really much you can do from your position though. As long as their clients keep making buys these guys don't have much incentive to improve their house infrastructure or crack down on careless spot ingestion. Just keep doing what you're doing, and on a personal note, thanks for being one of the good guys.