Thursday, June 1, 2017

Look what they've done to my shows, ma.

A number of things happen to old television programs when they are run in syndication: they are manipulated in several ways to the point that they have more in common with chopped liver than the show as originally aired.

TV shows now have more commercials than they did in the past. Because of this, TV stations need to find a way to cram more commercials into the same amount of time as the original program. 

One advance in technology that makes program syndication better than it was until 35-40 years ago is videotape. Programs used to be syndicated on 16-millimeter prints that were inherently of lower quality than the original 35-millimeter prints. Now programs are distributed on videotapes made from 35-millimeter prints, providing a much better image quality.

However, modern technology has brought about time compression. What is time compression?
Imagine there is a musical number, and the instruments are holding a concert A note of 440 hertz (cycles per second). Previously if a station wanted the program to take less time while not cutting any of the program, the only option was to speed up the playback. If the desired speed was 5% faster, then that concert A was no longer at 440 hertz, but rather at 462 hertz. That is just shy of a B flat. Many people would notice it, and it would drive musicians up a wall.

Digital technology allows playback to be sped up, but there is a cost. Time compression allows a program to be sped up but to keep the original musical keys and audio frequencies.

Here is a sine wave, or what a pure tone looks like graphically.

Simple sine wave

One cycle is from one point in the wave until the next similar point, such as from where the wave starts to go up above the horizontal line to the next time the wave starts to go up above the horizontal line. The above graphic shows 1-1/2 cycles. In the case of a concert A 440 tone, there are 440 of these cycles in one second.

If you wanted to play the program back at a faster speed while leaving the frequency the same, then something has to be cut.  Notice the circled areas in my quick and dirty drawing here:

Sine wave with time compression

If the time compression is held to a minimum then it will be hard to hear the artefacts of the compression. The more time compression, the more artefacts.

(As a side note, about 30 years ago I was playing around with a unit that did time compression. First I played a Beatles album at 45 RPM. It did not sound too bad. I then played it back at 78 RPM. It sounded rather nasty, dropping out a couple of words at a time.)

Often the artefacts sound like little clicks. If you know what they are, you probably will notice them more. I tend to hear them when a musical note is held. Complicated audio tends to mask the glitches.

The other way programs can be shortened is the good old-fashioned way: take a butcher knife to it.

Several years ago I posted a portion of Coronation Street that was a lovely way to say goodbye to a character.

In the second to last paragraph I observed:
The bad news is that the CBC who is more concerned with showing the 472nd promo for the Rick Mercer Report than keeping a program intact, butchered the scene. I had to show this scene on YouTube to Fay for her to appreciate the beauty of it. 
I mentioned this incident to someone recently and he assured me that television stations were contractually prohibited from cutting anything from a program. Some things are worth arguing over, but this was not one of them. I just wondered if he had ever really watched TV.

Perhaps you are familiar with the METV network. When I first started watching them, most programs seems to be intact – although I could hear the artefacts of time compression. I have noticed over the past few months, though, they are cutting the programs up more and more. If fact, they seem to cut more out of a show each time it is repeated.

Several clues tipped me off. First of all, I don’t think Perry Mason ever faded to black (except for commercial breaks and at the end). I have long noted that on METV, and those breaks usually look awkward. I have also noticed actors in the credits who I did not see in the show (bit parts in the particular episode, not regulars who just happened to be absent for that episode).

Another show with which I am very familiar is Hogan’s Heroes. In one episode I saw a reprise, if you will, of a joke – but the original joke had been cut – making no sense. The next time I saw that episode, the scene from which the joke came was completely cut, as was the reprise.

Knowing that a number of episodes of Hogan’s Heroes  are on YouTube, I thought I would do a comparison. One of the episodes shown last night on METV, The Reluctant Target, is on YouTube.

Since the opening credits are not complete online, I started comparing from the opening scene. I started out playing the episode on line roughly in sync with the episode on my DVR. I noticed almost right away that the DVR was playing faster (although in key) with YouTube. I calculated that the DVR was about 7.9% fast. I kept resyncing the two, and they kept drifting apart rather quickly. However, the closing credits stayed in sync. Obviously they use time compression during the body of the show. It occurred to me that this might explain why some dialog is difficult to understand.

The other thing I was watching for was how much was cut from the DVR version. Using the times from YouTube as reference, the DVR cut from roughly 6:40 to 6:55, 13:23 to 13:45, and 17:43 to 18:13. In total, about one minute seven seconds, or 4% of the show – coupled with speeding up the show by almost 8%.

Frankly, I think I would prefer scheduling a half-hour program in a forty-five minute slot and leave the show alone. With movie channels and their weird times I think people could get used to that.

Or would that let the cat out of the bag of how many commercials they are running?


  1. Nerd.

    /not that there's anything wrong with that ;)

  2. Matt, I might be confabulating, but I think that there might be some shows on cable like that - Star Trek, who has a rabid enough following, for example. But maybe not.

    I would post your writeup on Hacker News because it is eminently geek worthy, as Fay said. However posting a link to a conservative website on Hacker News is one of those "hilarity ensued" prospects, i.e., not a good one. Such is our culture these days.

    1. LOL Lewy. If someone had a Star Trek on DVD I could compare it. Somehow I doubt that the popularity of Start Trek would save it from the scalpel. If anything, it would probably make it more susceptible. It would be interesting to find out.

      Wow. I am used to looking at old posts and seeing that a video is no longer available. This one didn't even last a week! I wonder if my linking to it sounded an alarm. It was removed by the user. I wonder if he objected to the link to a conservative site, just as you said would happen on Hacker News.

    2. I learned allot from this post Matt, thanks!

      I'm laughing that a vid was removed because it was linked to here. I consider that "winning". And no, I'm not tired of winning. Not by a long shot. :)