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Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues

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Chris BlairStation & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 3:33:09 am

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed a surge in their TV spots being encoded improperly for playback to air since the switch to digital in June?

I've cringed for 25 years almost every time I see a spot I've worked on run on a local station or cable system, since they often look as if they're 20th generation VHS copies.

But the cringing has turned into horror the last month as we've seen our spots run repeatedly with:

1. Field order reversed.
2. Up-rezzed incorrectly for HD, with 4:3 spots streted to fill the 16:9 frame, or squeezed improperly so that people look like "the thin man."
3. Compression that looks like something from 1999 instead of 2009, with big, blocky artifacts and dancing pixels around the edge of every graphic.
4. Color so far off that people are I'm serious, as red as a stop sign and almost glowing because the chroma is off the charts.

We work really hard to produce high quality spots. When they leave our facility, I'd put them up against ANY other company's quality when it comes to SD video. Yet when they air, technically, they look like something a high school intern created.

We've complained, cajoled, even had meetings with the engineering departments at TV stations, and STILL, the spots get to air looking like crap.

Has anyone else seen it getting worse since the digital switch? Or am I just happening to notice it more lately since a lot of stations and facilities are moving to digital playout servers?

Interested to hear others thoughts as I'm to the point of giving up. Except it makes us look bad when these boneheads can't encode video correctly for air on broadcast television.

As an aside, NONE of the network affiliates or cable systems in our area accept HD spots. Even if you produce it in HD, you have to provide them an SD tape or digital file. When it airs on their HD channel, they UPREZ it. have to downsize your HD so they can uprez it back to HD!! Scary but true!

Chris Blair
Magnetic Image, Inc.
Evansville, IN

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Michael HancockRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 4:41:22 am

A lot of it, I believe, has to do with what they do to the file they're deliver. Some of the stations are using FlipFactory, others are using ProCoder. One station requires Mpeg1 layer audio while the rest require Mpeg2, but nobody has very detailed specs to get spots to air right. Instead they all request mpeg2 files but give no specs on field order, audio encoding, and so far I haven't been able to provide a spot they can play directly from their servers--they all go through another encode regardless of what you send.

One cable provider is terrible about it. We had a spot that had the last second and a half cut off--it was tracked back to an error on their end. I talked to another guy in town and his spots were cut off if they faded to black--remove the fade and it fixed it (again, it was a problem on the cable side, not the file they were given). I've seen 4:3 non-anamorphic spots gets squeezed as though they are anamorphic, and I've also seen the 4:3 stretched to fill 16:9 too. Field orders are a mess--if I submit a file lower field first it sometimes gets reversed on air, other times it doesn't. Submit upper field first and the same thing happens--sometimes it's great, other times it's not. Not sure what's going on with the color levels but they're all over the place too. I've seen my spots go out looking gorgeous and on air they're almost stripped of color, or grossly oversaturated.

I'm not sure what to tell you, because I've talked to the engineering folks too and it gets fixed for a bit then something changes and it's a mess again. If you submit Beta they run it through an converted into their encode system and it flips it from there, but I wouldn't be surprised if their Betas are all feeding composite.

If you ever figure out what's going on, let us all know. We've seen the same issues and are also trying to solve them. As far as HD--I was told WEVV accepts HD file delivery now, but they center cut for playout on their SD channel. Just a heads up on that to keep graphics and framing in mind. I haven't submitted HD to them so I don't know how well it works, but I wouldn't expect anyone else to accept HD for at least another year, if that soon. Although every station has HD capable cameras, their playout servers and the rest of their infrastructures are primarily SD. The economy has killed the HD transitions big time.


I'll be working late.

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Todd TerryRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 5:09:07 am

We have struggled with this same problem for years and years... commercial spots leaving our facility looking pristine... yet look like absolute crap on the air.

We've begged. Bargained. Pleaded. Yelled. Met with engineers at television stations and cable outlets. All no no avail. Zero.

UNTIL... we learned the secret.

DON'T complain about how the spots look. Have your client do it (their advertiser). You'll be surprised in the different reaction, when it's the one paying for those spots who is doing the complaining.

It might help... it might not. But I've found those stations much more receptive to even admitting there's a problem on their end when the money is doing the talking, rather than "that production company that complains all the time."


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Christopher WrightRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 5:16:23 am

We have been delivering our HD work converted to SD via either on Beta or DVCAM tape, as specified by the local NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS) broadcast stations. They are requesting those formats now. When they air, they look okay (as far as color trueness and detail), but are letterboxed, so there is black on the sides and top when they play back on air. I find it astounding that they don't/can't even accept Quicktime HD files for ingest into their systems, as even the local Regal theaters do that for the commercials that play before the movies here, and they look absolutely gorgeous. I too get tired of having an excellent looking HD spot first have to undergo the SD downconversion and then get further squashed by the station's poor encoding process before the spot makes it over the airwaves to the public's new HDTVs.

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Mark SuszkoRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 2:16:36 pm

Todd nailed it: the complaints need to come from the department that has management's ear, and that's the sales dept. If you the advertiser catch the station screwing up your airplay, they contractually have to give you a "make-good" on the spot, airing that again for free to make up for the bad airing. This is money out of the station's pocket and specifically it brings down the numbers in the sales department. So an angry call from Sales down to the bat cave gets something done.

Advertisers sometimes hire services to monitor stations, just to see if the ads are playing on time and in good quality. The service pays people to sit home with a stack of VCRs looking for boo-boos.

We survey our stations regularly to keep up with whatever standards they are using. It should not be a shock that so many stations in any state still take betaSP dubs or even 1-inch or umatic, and have no clue what to do with a digital file. The fact is, stations are run by bean counters. Those guys will make you keep running a piece of equipment long as possible, since it is already paid for. If you want to buy something new, you have to essentially destroy what you have before they consider a replacement, but more likely their first question will be not about replacing it but can you patch something around it and soldier on.

Station infrastructures are usually a patchwork of old and new because of this. The stations with really bad finances took the minimal compliance route to HD: running a standard def analog shop and cramming the SD signal into a new upconverter just ahead of the transmitter. So they don't have anything on hand to deal with FTP delivery or digital video files.

You also have to deal with the tiny staffs the stations try to get along on. There will be one gray-beared old shaman who knows his stuff, works part-time and is semi-retired, but they can't fire him because all the wiring diagrams and schematics for the station are in his head. Nobody else can decipher it. Serving the shaman are a motly assortment of interns, part-timers, ex-miltary who can rebuild an APG65 in their sleep, but never got any training in video gear, and guys that went to DeVry on a football scholarship looking to install alarm systems and changed majors. None of them see each other day to day because they are kept on short shifts to save money. They spend their days at the bench stripping one piece of gear for parts to fix another piece of gear.

Those guys who are least senior get put on the low-paying entry-level overnight shift, which, since it is mostly automated, is also the dead time when spots are dubbed and loaded into the system for playback the next day or week. So the guy with the least experience and oversight and least motivation due to time shift and pay, is in charge of your QC.

Frankly, it is a miracle you can even recognize your spot once it is delivered.

Now, that is not EVERY station. But of the ones that give the most trouble, I think you can recognize one or two of those features at play.

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Todd TerryRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 2:58:11 pm

I worked at one particular NBC affiliate (and considered a very good one) for 12 years.... six on-air as a new guy and then six more as the Creative Services manager. Because of the funky way our building was laid out I had the opportunity to walk through master control a few zillion times, seeing countless spots being entered into the systems.

Never, not even once did I see a control op even look at the bars and tone at the front of a spot. They were always always always just blindly zipped right past until the spot started.

Now in more modern times I'm suspecting the digital equivalent of that is still happening pretty often.

And yes, it's always the lowerst-paid lackeys that are charged with this work.

We have another station that we serve a lot (also actually considered a very good one) where we've seen tons of quality issues... and furthermore they can't even take our SD stuff on BetaSP anymore. They actually require us to send them spots on MiniDV. Yes, MiniDV. Why? Because their last Beta machine finally bit the dust and they refuse to buy a new one since it's "dead technology." Never mind the fact that they still get scads of Betas in every day that they have to deal with. One of their engineers told me "You can't even buy those machines anymore." (I politely pointed him to the B&H website which had several models of new ones for sale.)

That particular station has several engineers on staff, that all seem knowlegable. And if you need one, they are easy to find. Not in their offices, of course... you just drive over to the station where they are all lounging out back of the stage door smoking and yammering on their cell phones. They've even brought out folding chairs.

I'm with Mark, it's a wonder anything ever airs.


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Mark SuszkoRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 3:17:09 pm

Yeah, we still use betaSP here for some things, but are trying to wean ourselves off since we can't afford to keep repairing the decks. We mostly migrated to DVCPro25 and we have some DvcproHD capability, but the plant isn't really wired for HD, there's no money for something so costly as a re-build that extensive.

Since 90 percent or more of our customers are and will remain SD for quite a while yet, we're good for now, making SD DVD dubs and DVC pro dubs. But I've been pushing to aim us for BluRay as the eventual goal, for those customers that can't take files by FTP or have some need for a "hard copy" of HD programming.

I like BluRay because it is cheap, certainly no more expensive than betaSp was, easiy to mass-dub and mail, it is it's own self-standing shelf archive, has lots of room on it, and I like that it can play on set top players, in computer drives, and in some game systems, so you have a LOT of playback options for every budget and type of customer, as I say, "From rec room to news room to break room to boardroom".

Now If I could just convince the rest of the world to move in this direction:-)

BD disks might help the QC problem by becoming a reference standard like beta Sp once was. I am hard put to imagine any other format that has half a chance to do that now or in the future, as the market has fragmented so deeply.

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Chris BlairRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 5, 2009 at 8:19:28 pm

Glad it's not just me! And since we place media as an agency as well as produce it, you'd think we'd get a little more response from stations and cable outlets. But we don't. They'll eventually fix the problems, but it takes dozens of emails and phone calls. The local cable system uses a playout server that's not even located in their city. So the folks that manage it have literally thousands of spots coming thru their Telestream Encoding setup. All automated, all using what they call "factories" (encoding setups) for the spots that are dumped onto the FTP.

The IT guy that manages it admitted to me in an email that they don't visually check the spots that are encoded and pushed to their servers (which again are physically in another state).

I actually had some dialogue with Telestream on this matter (who I was VERY impressed with). I sent an email late last night to them detailing the problems we're having (mainly field order and bad compression). Before I arrived at work this morning, I had an email response asking me to FTP one of the problem spots to look at (remember, we're not even their customer!). Within 20 minutes of sending it, their support guy emailed back that it was a simple matter of adding two common filters to the "factory" setting. He said it was a VERY common issue and a VERY common fix. He said setting it up literally involved hitting a couple of mouseclicks and saving the setting for the files that are dropped into the FTP folder used for our spots.

He also gave me detailed specs (which none of the local affiliates or cable has ever provided) on what to deliver to eliminate even needing these filters.

Like another poster on here...most stations and cable outlets tell us "to send a quicktime," or send an "MPG2 file" without any specific specs. We even send them multiple tests and they claim they "look good." Then we see the spot run and are horrified.

I had a local cable IT guy tell me this morning that the problem with our spots stuttering on-air was that we were delivering VBR bit-rate files instead of CBR which they require. Well anyone with any knowledge of digital files knows that's a load of crap. This guy literally didn't know what I was talking about when it came to field order.

I guess we're all doing what we can to get it corrected. But man it's frustrating to spend my time dealing with something that should be an absolute non-issue.

Chris Blair
Magnetic Image, Inc.
Evansville, IN

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grinner hesterRe: Station & Cable System TV Spot Issues
by on Aug 6, 2009 at 3:47:42 pm

Many are submitting lonine now so there are interlace issues galore. I see it as people just don't care much about how their tv ads look because they know people go pee, hit the fridge or tvo through em as they run. These same folks do take the time to correct this for their web advertising.

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