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.
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.