Commercial insertion in nationally broadcast television
December 28, 2004 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I am curious as to how an hour-long nationally televised program in the U.S., like say E.R., is actually broadcast. Does one person in New York or L.A. push a play button to start the show and all the commercials, or is there coordination between NBC and local affiliate technicians? For that matter, how is the entire programming day coordinated? What goes wrong to create “technical difficulties”? (Ignore the feed into satellite and/or cable TV for my purposes).
posted by punkfloyd to Technology (10 answers total)
I'm not sure if this is still the case, but here is my experience. Growing up, we lived in an area without cable and had one of those giant ten foot satellite dishes (insert requisite West Virginia state flower jokes). During the week, the networks would send out "wild feeds" of their programs to be played later in the week. Thus, you could watch the episode of E.R. that was to be aired several days early. The times and locations of these wild feeds were tracked in Orbit Magazine. The national commercials were already in place and there were blank spots during the time that local commercials were to be inserted.
posted by trey at 10:59 AM on December 28, 2004

A lot of local stations get their shows a day or so before it actually airs via a wildfeed. It includes timed blanks for insertion of local commercials and things like that. There's a large group of C-Band satellite users who hunt down these things. Orbit Magazine publishes a big list of upcoming wild feeds every month.
posted by PantsOfSCIENCE at 11:00 AM on December 28, 2004

Relevant anecdote: The local TV station (13WMAZ) accidentally broadcast the wrong episode of Jeopardy at the start of the week. We got to see Ken Jennings lose Final Jeopardy a good week before the rest of the nation, only to pop back up the next day.

It was confusing until they admitted what they'd done wrong, and mentioned that they were reprimanded my NBC. So I'm pretty confident that most of the programming is transmitted to the local TV companies well in advance.

On preview: Well, damn.
posted by SemiSophos at 11:03 AM on December 28, 2004

I'm not an expert on this stuff, but I'm fairly certain that the major networks (NBC etc.) all have their own satellite feeds. The local affiliates just patch into the feed during primetime and put their own ads into the appropriate spots.

Syndicated shows (like Jeopardy) are transmitted beforehand, so the stations can air them whenever they want.
posted by neckro23 at 11:36 AM on December 28, 2004

The other aspect of this answer is that nowadays local stations and networks have moderately sophisticated computer systems that drive the actual transmissions. Can't remember the name of the company but back in '96 I interviewed with a company in Menlo Park that made such software and were rewriting the front end in Delphi.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:59 PM on December 28, 2004

It depends on the show. Most syndicated shows, as neckro23 points out, are distributed by wildfeed or even by FedExing a tape -- it tends to be cheaper than prime-time satellite time. (I used to work at an ABC owned-and-operated station, where my job partially consisted of downlinking these satellite wild feeds and making sure they got recorded.) Lots of commercials get distributed this way, too, either by feeds or by sending a tape -- depends on the campaign in question.

However, if you're talking about shows that are fed from the network (pretty much all non-syndicated shows), they are fed from NY or LA, where, yes, someone pushes a button to play the show. (Or, more likely, they push a button which tells a computer to play the show at the exact correct time, cues up the next show and the forthcoming commercial block, et cetera.)

Commercial breaks in network-fed shows tend to be a mix of national spots and local spots. Nationally-run TV spots are inserted in the satellite feed by the network at their end. Local spots are holes in the national feed, so the local stations can sell time on network shows to their local advertisers. The local stations then cut away from the network feed at the right time and air the local spots, then cut back to the network.

A typical network break consists of a few national spots, holes for local spots, time for a local promo, a network promo, perhaps time for a legally-required station ID if it's the top of the hour, and then it's back to the show. (This is why you sometimes see public service announcements thrown in -- if a local station hasn't sold all the spots at its disposal, they'll put in a PSA to fill the space.)

The network will, every day, make up a log of the broadcast day and distribute it via e-mail and fax to its stations. It chronicles, down to the second, when every element will happen, when all the spots will air, and who will air them. They constantly update this list, and then it's up to the master control operator at your local station to follow it, along with their own station's log of what commercials, local news, promos, et cetera will be aired and when.

A local station's log looks something like this example from 1983, although it's pretty much exclusively computer-based. Some places use hardcopy backup, too. On the far left column, you see the time that each element hits the air. The big column in the middle shows the title of the element or the advertiser's name and spot title. On the far right is what seems to be cassette numbers and other internal info regarding where each element is located.

It's all coordinated down to the second and works surprisingly well, considered there are so many moving parts to the system. Of course, it's increasingly automated, and many master control ops only have to push a button about five times an hour. Most stations now have robotic machines that load tapes into decks, cue them, and play several items in succession...though these are getting phased out in favor of server-based systems.

(On preview, what everyone else said in much shorter-winded fashion.)
posted by Vidiot at 1:17 PM on December 28, 2004 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Brilliant Vidiot (and everybody else). Thanks!
posted by punkfloyd at 2:22 PM on December 28, 2004

To follow on what Vidiot said, the commercial breaks have long been automated by what are called "cue tones". We (the network headend) feed the program with an extra channel of audio containing only bleep and bloops (like telephone DTMF tones, exactly like it in fact) that tell the machines at the affiliate (your home station) to A) get ready for a local commercial break, then B) play NOW, then C) get ready to come back out of break, then D) come back NOW. Lately a lot of work is being done on a new cue tone standard that uses (gasp!) digital data instead of DTMF tones (DVS-253 is the new standard, BTW).

Backing up from the commercial playout minutia, we typically start working out the second-by-second plan 3 to 6 weeks ahead of time (not sure, not my dept), and by 3 days ahead of time we have it totally nailed down. Then technicians spend a couple days running around and feeding tapes into a machine that loads all the material onto hard drive to be ready to play out live later on. That machine is called a playout server, and companies like Leitch and Snell+Wilcox and HP make ungodly amounts of money building them to Just Work.

Oh, and take all the equipment costs and double them. Everything is redundant -- you have an A server and B server, both playing out exactly the same material. Further down the chain, you have two fiber paths to the satellite facility, two RF chains in the satellite facility, and the affiliate is usually smart to have two receiving chains. If something fails you just switch to the other chain and then start fixing the bad chain as fast as you can.

I do this for a living. 40+ cable television networks are being uplinked within 100 feet of where I sit.

For you satellite / wildfeed / Big Ugly Dish nerds out there, here's a hot tip: you better enjoy your analog Turner Classic Movies while you can, because it's dropping off AMC-3 on Dec. 31st at 2359 (the digital version that ends up on your cable TV at home will continue of course).
posted by intermod at 2:22 PM on December 28, 2004

Yeah, intermod, you're right -- I meant to mention cuetone breaks, but forgot. (Are you over at Techwood?)
posted by Vidiot at 4:43 PM on December 28, 2004

posted by intermod at 7:10 PM on December 28, 2004

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