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Old September 9th, 2004, 01:55 PM   #1
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Why do Local TV spots look so bad?

Ever notice that local tv adds are always fuzzy, sound distorted, looking like the've been analog copied a few dozen times?

Why is that ? I have just finished shooting two local TV commercails and they are supposed to go on air next week. I am worried the TV station will screw them up and they will play on air looking like crap.

They said they could only except Beta SP? Will a miniDV to Beta SP transfer result in a lot of quality loss? My orriginal footatge was shot beutiffuly on a DVX100 looking as good as SD gets.

How is it these stations handel national TV adds differently than local TV adds, cause the national ones allways look good everywhere? How do TV commercals get played anyway? How does the system work>?

Tyson X
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Old September 9th, 2004, 02:17 PM   #2
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For starters, there's beutifully shot, and then there's beutifully shot using thousands of watts of professionally configured lighting and a crew of 60. That's one big difference between national advertising campaigns and locally shot/broadcast ones. Also, many (perhaps most?) national campaigns are shot on 35mm film. (The live plates for most car ads are shot on film for sure.)

I would geuss that most local ads you see were not shot with something as good as your DVX100, though. In any case, there shouldn't be much (if any) real degredation going from miniDV to Beta SP if the cabling and decks are in good order. After that, it's pretty much out of your hands and you can only hope that the station has been maintaining all their gear well and keeping the playback heads clean.
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Old September 9th, 2004, 02:30 PM   #3
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Hey Tyson,

I used to work at a local TV station. I can tell you there are a number of reasons that local spots look so bad.

First of all the station I used to work at has an (old) Avid Air Play ( I think that's what it;s called) system. They'd regularly digitize local spots at a 10:1 ratio to save space. In fact, including the 4:1 DVcam compression on their cameras, by the time you see a spot here, the footage has about a 17:1 compression applied.

Secondly most national spots are shot on film or HD and microwaved directly through your local station. So they never enter the local "airplay" system where they might get compressed.

But most importantly, I've found the production values of many local TV station are just too low. If it's poorly shot and poorly edited it's not going to come across on air.

I wouldn't worry too much about how your DVX will look when broadcast. If you have a solid spot with good visuals it'll hold up just fine.

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Old September 9th, 2004, 03:11 PM   #4
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I used to work for a local NBC affiliate and they would dub to an old 2" tape machine, and that was from a first gen M2 (who knows what an M2 is?)....

Oh yeah and local TV stations give away the productions in exchange for the customer buying airtime...

Don't get me wrong now, there are some great local production houses that deliver a great, high quality spots..until the TV stations get a hold of them......
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Old September 9th, 2004, 03:18 PM   #5
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Dreaded "Tie Reel"

Usually, the crappiest deck is playing your spot....and it's probably a 3/4" deck! Also, the people making dubs of your spot on a "Tie Reel" are interns that weren't even shown the proper way to dub because the production assistant is afraid the intern will take his/her job. By the way, a "Tie Reel" is like a cattle call for commercials. They put every commercial that'll run that day (and/or night) onto one long "reel" (analog tape) with 1 second of black between each commmercial. It's usually an interns first job at a local television station to make a "Tie Reel" because it's boring, and it takes hours and hours.

Something kinda of funny...I did a "Tie Reel" once wrong and it had no audio through the whole reel. (or was it a broken control track every 5 seconds!) They needed it for the 3rd shift.....so, guess what? I had to work 6 extra non-paid hours to re-do the damn reel.

Needless to say, I learned my "check your audio" lesson early on. Now, I never move forward shooting or dubbing until I've checked levels and played it back.

Christopher C. Murphy
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Old September 9th, 2004, 07:02 PM   #6
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Tyson, I suffer from this problem as well. While not the most beautifully shot material, the commercials I shoot w/ my DVC80 end up looking like VHS copies when they air. There is definitely a "generation-type" loss between what's on miniDV (and even DVD) copies of the ads and what gets aired. Even the ads that are not shot with the DVC80 (animations, etc) show the same loss when aired. It annoys the heck out of me...

All of my ads air on cable, not broadcast stations, if that makes a difference. I turn in my ads on miniDV -- funny thing is, contrary to your question, I have been wondering if the ads would look better if turned in on Beta!

I've told myself I should just contact them and ask what causes that "degraded" look -- but I'm afraid it would just encourage me to spend more money on equipment! I'm inclined to think that the truth is close to Jesse and Chris' explanations, though.
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Old September 9th, 2004, 07:42 PM   #7
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John, Beta will look much better - the colors are more vivd than DV. Although if you turn in a Beta who knows how much they will degrade your footage?

As for minDV to Beta, there shouldn't be any loss in quality. When I interned at MTV News that was one of my biggest responsibilities - dubbing DV to Beta for logging and broadcast.
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Old September 10th, 2004, 07:17 AM   #8
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Simple: local ads look so bad because there's no budget allowed for proper lighting and color correction. Most are shot on location, with in-store fluorescent lights and one or two spots. Everything has to be done in an hour or so by the ENG staff who are used to put the tripod on the floor and press the REC button. Then they're edited in a rush and on the air before the end of the day...
Usually, in local markets, the production costs are free with the purchase of air-time packages.
Norm :)
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Old September 10th, 2004, 08:44 AM   #9
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Norm, while you are partially correct as to why local ads look different than national ads, as I mentioned above there is a visible difference in quality between the original master I turn in (and even the lower bitrate DVD proofs I give to clients) and what goes "on air." This is the "analog copied a few dozen times" look that Tyson mentions in his post. This loss in quality has nothing to do with my lighting and color correction and has eveything to do with what happens to my tape after I turn it in.

Matt -- while shooting to Beta may produce more vivid colors, I simply meant transferring the miniDV master to Beta when I submit it. That way I could control the transfer process. But from what the account execs are telling me, the cable company doesn't transfer to Beta anymore, they just log it straight into the system, a la Jesse's post I assume.

The company is slowly implementing the ability to upload MPEG-2 files straight to the main office in Atlanta; I wonder if that would improve the quality...
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Old September 10th, 2004, 02:35 PM   #10
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Cable Advertising Issues

John I totally agree with you. Are you dealing with Comcast Spotlight (fomerly CAMA)? Although what Norm says does have something to do with it, that's not necessarily the case in Tyson's situation or yours. You and many others including myself are taking the time to shoot it right and these knuckleheads that encode it are waiting to punch the clock and go home. I've also heard that the turnover rate for these positions is high as well so that doesn't help.

Chris and Jesse are both right too. Thank goodness decks are on their way out and better hard drive servers are in use and becoming the standard. Jesse is correct on the quality being determined by the bitrate in the encoding/loading of the content into the server.

One of the other biggest things I hate about local drop-ins is when you see the first or last second of the spot that was originally in your slot, usually a PSA, national or regional spot. It's just a flash, usually at the end of the local. This means that the producer of the spot either didn't make it exactly :30 or the provider cut your spot short on the load in the front or the rear. What's worse is if the latter is the case they usually don't even correct it! You can tell that local cable has gotten a hold of a national or high end spot when it is tagged with local information and/or the audio is so bad it sounds like they had the treble and bass turned all the way down. These people have no pride in their work. It's all about numbers.

I am located in a market where educational programming is aired on S-VHS. I just produced a presentation for a local private school and this was the very topic of discussion after its first airing on the educational channel this morning. All colors and sharpness were beautiful on the DV master but once transferred to S-VHS and then to air, yuck!! It doesn't help that the decks are at least 10 years old and then that is being sent through miles of cable. I know the person that runs it tries their best with what they have to work with though. But this channel is free for educational use versus paying on local access with Comcast. Any other local progamming is aired from Atlanta via fiber from a hard drive system with much better results. You get what you pay for.

I would say that the best way to get these problems fixed is for the paying clients to say we're not advertising anymore until you get your act together and improve the quality of the way content is aired. It's not fair to the client and it's not fair to us, the producers. It ultimately makes us look bad to those who don't know where the problem is, on the backend. That's another key reason why national spots look so good other than being shot on film and being aired from a big high end server. I bet you those advertisers have something to say when their million dollar :30 looks like crap going over the air. The bottom line is, it's not going to stop until the money is cut off until it's fixed. Take money from an AE's pocket and they'll make sure it's done the right way!
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Old September 12th, 2004, 11:41 AM   #11
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James -- well, first I have to confess that I don't necessarily fall under the category of people "taking the time to shoot it right" -- my ads look pretty low budget even before the cable company gets their hands on 'em :)

But yes, I do deal primarily with Comcast Spotlight/CAMA. I don't really have any problems with most of the people there, though -- my biggest complaint is that the few (2 or 3) times they've had a problem with one of my tapes, they complain to the local AE and not to me. My phone number and e-mail address are on those tapes for a reason -- instead the people in Encoding leave the AE (and the local AEs are really great people, but they don't know the technical side) to tell me the problem, but the AEs obviously can't answer any of my questions about it. I think that side of it could be run more efficiently, but I'm not on the inside, so who knows...

As for the cut-away at the end of a spot (where it jumps to the last half-second of another ad) -- that happens to 99% of my ads when they air. All of my ads are exactly :30 seconds and every time it happens it cuts off the last 1/2 second (sometimes the first 1/2 sec). I even make sure the VO is finished by 29;15 to compensate for the cut-away. I don't know if this is a technical limitation with how local ads are loaded into rotation, or if it is user error. I'd like to call them and find out what I can do on my end to make sure the ad looks its best on air, but part of me gets the feeling that those folks are somewhat bitter that so much production work is going to freelancers and independents instead of staying in-house (they charge for production services), so I'll just keep to myself (especially since they can't be bothered to contact a producer when they have a problem with a tape).

Everyone I've met on the sales side of CS has been great, from the local office manager to the AEs to upper management. I met one guy from Encoding once, and he seemed like a good fellow (and the above-mentioned complaints never came from him, I believe). But there is obviously some sort of problem somewhere. CS should want to make sure the local ads look their best so that they can attract more clients -- some businesses really have complained that they won't advertise b/c local ads look like ass. To that end, CS should take a more active role in what's going on -- why does it look like a VHS bootleg? Is it our encoding, or the producer's fault? If it's the producer's fault, get him on the phone and tell him there's a problem -- spend that 5 minutes on the phone finding out how to get the best looking material on air. If there's something I'm doing wrong, let me know. If it's on your end, then fix it. Either way, a little bit of communication would go a long way...
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Old September 12th, 2004, 12:35 PM   #12
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John, I'm sure that your work looks alot better than what CS is producing these days. Your very reputation relies on it. What exactly was the problem that they were having with your tape(s)? It's good to hear that you do make sure that your spots are at max :30 even with a little compensation with the audio as you described.

I really think it's the encoder (person) that's at fault for bad loads because the networks have very precisely timed slots, :30/:60, for their spots and all CS is doing is overlaying/inserting their national/regional ones. I have an idea that you may want to try. Simply place a white (flash frame) about 2 frames before your spot actually begins and two frames afterward and that will be a reference to the encoder (person) to start the encode exactly two frames after the flash and end it exactly two frames before the second flash. That will make your spot :30 and four frames long and all the encoder will have to do is take away those four frames on the front and rear to get your exact :30 that is in between these white flashes. That is two black frames between the white frame and the first actual fade in frame and the two black frames between the last actual fade out frame and the white frame (see illustration below). It's fool proof! If you try this and see the flashes on the air that will tell you for sure that they are just loading them and not taking the time to load exactly :30. I think part of the problem has been that you can't really tell within a fade where the exact first and last frames of the spot are. The only way you will know is while your spot is still in the timeline with graphical frame representation and that's where you can precisely place these white frames as a visual reference on the tape to know exactly where the first fade frame is which is exactly two frames past the white frame.

Now, I don't think CS has much against independent production because the guys that shoot for them are hourly or salary. In fact, they probably wish their production would go away because those guys make the same no matter what. So, as hourly or salary, I think it's safe to say that these CS production guys aren't making near what you or I would make as independents. It's CS that's making that 800.00 production charge (shoot & edit). And, the client gets what they pay for! CS's main interest and revenue source is cable advertising, not production. Production is in place to ensure that there is content (spots) to charge for if people like us are booked or aren't going to work for free or next to free and their production is in fact more revenue no matter how small. Believe me, if production was a major revenue source, they wouldn't be hiring us. In my area, Comcast used to give production away for free just to get those advertising contracts which were far more valuable. They absolutely ruined the market and conditioned the clients. Myself and others can't compete with free, but again, you get what you pay for. For the last few years, CS has been contracting independents, at least in my area, to produce spots. Now get this, they will charge that 800.00 or so to produce a spot in my area but they want independents to do it for around 300.00 or more if you can negotiate it with the client. They also want you to collect directly from the client. You heard me right. If you produce a spot and the client doesn't pay and it went to air, Comcast got their money, in part or in whole, and you are left empty handed unless you want to persue it which is not worth it. They have the best of both worlds, production and cable advertising. At any time they can cut us all out of the market by offering free production and still make a profit through the advertising. Scary isn't it?! That's why it's vitally important to have alternative skills and clients for different types of production in this industry in case this happens so you can adapt.

As far as AEs. The main issues I've ever had with them is that a few would promise the client things that just couldn't be done either technically or by the delivery time. This was back in my cable days when I worked for Comcast as a commercial shooter. I learned alot about how it all works. The only great thing about AEs is that they do all of the selling!

White reference frame-black frame-black frame-30 second spot-black frame-black frame-white reference frame
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Old September 14th, 2004, 02:36 PM   #13
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James -- well, I'd say that my stuff is more likely on-par w/ what CS/CAMA is doing (you can see for yourself if you click on the www button below). Keep in mind that there is some really atrocious stuff done sometimes by the lowest of the low-budget freelancers -- that is to say, just because it looks bad doesn't mean it's a Comcast Spotlight ad.

Let me also clarify that I might fall under the category of producers-who-annoy-you. I have a full-time (non-video related) job and do ads on the side, freelance. I only charge $400 (just recently raised from $300) and I wouldn't call my work "stellar." Of course, I also make all of this clear up front and have even recommended other producers at times (the guys at Radar, for example, are some of the best around, and I'll recommend them in a heartbeat -- if the client has that kind of money!). I am in a very, very privileged position -- I don't rely on my video work to pay the bills or put food on the table. (not to mention that my wife is a former CAMA AE, which definitely got my foot in the door) Just wanted to make that clear...

As for the tapes, there were very simple problems that came up -- these were changes in how I've been turning in tapes for over a year (some of which I had previously cleared with CS as being OK to do) -- I was just more annoyed with how it was handled. For example, when someone in encoding decided they had a problem with one of my tapes, they called the AE (at home and after work, from what I understand) to complain about it. Why not call the producer instead? Considering that the AE may have little contact with the producer (some clients will just drop off a tape one day and say, "Here's my new ad"), why bother the AE with something that isn't his concern or even his field? Like I said, it's mostly just little problems with communication.

But I do think they might be threatened by outside producers -- for the very fact that you mentioned: they get paid regardless of whether or not they shoot any ads. They know that at some point, if the majority of ads are going to independents, they are going to get fired. I think that could cause some of those people to be less than interested in talking with freelancers and independents. I could just be paranoid, though...

As for the cut-aways -- it always seems to be that they air only 29;15 of the ad. I don't use fades at the beginning or ends of my ads, so that's not causing a problem for them. Basically, the ad begins normally but ends about half a second too early (less frequently, it is sometimes the opening 15 frames that are cut out) -- so, using your example, I wouldn't see any of the white frames even if there were an error: the ad begins normally and ends before the end (besides, I typically miss the beginnings of my ads, anyway!)

And about CS contracting independents: do you mean that when a client pays for Comcast Spotlight's in-house production, they charge their full in-house price, but then pay an independent $300 to go shoot the ad instead? But they don't really pay the producer, and he has to go get the money himself? Why would you even bother? $300 is certainly less than the going rate for production in Atlanta, and if you have to collect the money yourself anyway, then what's the bright side? At least when I do the ad myself, I don't give Comcast the final copy until I'm paid in full.

But, like I've said, I've liked all the Comcast people I've met; they've always been good to me. In fact, my recent rise in price (coupled with a severe reduction of the number of ads I will even consider) was the result of some very annoying clients who broke the camel's back, so to speak. The Comcast folks have been OK, though...
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Old September 14th, 2004, 05:02 PM   #14
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John. I don't think that I produce super high end commercials but they all have good lighting, sound and interesting content and camera angles/moves. I have had clients say to me, it's never taken this long to do this before, when they were used to cable production doing it so fast. With cable it was all about in and out and next, volume. Now, it could almost make us look like we don't know what were doing because it takes us longer to get what we need for better shots. Remember, I used to shoot spots for Comcast and it was sometimes 3 shoots a day. I was actually told to keep it simple. It may not be this way everywhere. When I was talking about quality of CS production, I was mostly meaning content and simplicity. They are shot cookie cutter to keep it simple. It's what I call pan and scan the location, add graphics, music/vo and there's a spot. One thing I really don't like is alot of PIP and flipping and flying graphics.

When CS produces a spot, they get their rate for production. If an independent is used, then that independent gets their rate. It is one or the other. Of course it ultimately depends on whether the client has a budget for either at all.
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