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KDKA made time stand still in Steelers game

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Two weeks ago, Steelers fans who follow the tradition of turning off the game's TV sound and listening to Myron Cope on the radio found their world out of sync.

Television coverage on KDKA was at least 30 seconds behind what was on WDVE-FM.

Credit a "time machine," television equipment that can take a 30-minute block of time and reduce it by 30 seconds in duration. That 30 seconds then can be used to sell an additional commercial, generating more revenue for the television station.

Dana McClintock, vice president of communications for KDKA parent company CBS, acknowledged the technology was used.

"It happened on an unauthorized basis several weeks back," McClintock said. "Once we were made aware of it, it stopped happening and has been rectified and has not happened since and, more importantly, will not happen again."

Mike Gerst, KDKA-TV director of marketing, said the station was using compression technology to squeeze an extra 30 seconds of commercial time into half-time of the Oct. 14 Steelers telecast.

"It was only supposed to be used during half-time," Gerst said. "It accidentally went into the next period. It was a mistake. It shouldn't have happened." He emphasized that viewers missed no game coverage.

"It won't be used for half-time ever again," he said, adding that KDKA received "no calls, no complaints" about the discrepancy between the TV and radio broadcasts.

Asked if WTAE planned anything similar Monday when the Steelers get their first "Monday Night Football" showcase in their new home, Jim Hefner, general manager of Pittsburgh's ABC affiliate, said, "Absolutely not."

Hefner vehemently added: "We don't do this with any programming. We have no intention of doing this, much less with the Steelers, for God's sake." He also said it would be a "patent violation of our network agreement" to be crunching programming from the network.

Steelers and Penguins games are broadcast on the radio in real time, according to John Rohm, regional vice president for Clear Channel Communications, corporate owner of WDVE.

"There is about a three-quarters of a second delay from the instant something leaves Myron's or Bill's mouth to the time you hear it," which creates minor sync problems even when both TV and radio are in real time.

In addition, Rohm said, it takes more time to push video than audio signals, which is also a factor. A typical TV broadcast may be a couple seconds behind a radio broadcast due to the time it takes the TV signal to bounce up to a satellite and back down again.

Complaints about KDKA's performance involved longer delays, according to comments from viewers on the Post-Gazette's TV Forum Web site. One Steelers watcher wrote, "What's the deal? Why is the TV coverage so far behind? It really ruins the game when the two aren't together. ... We sometimes notice Bill Hillgrove call a spot a split-second ahead of TV, but 40 seconds? Come on now!"

WTAE's Hefner said the larger issue for TV stations is the addition of commercial inventory.

"If a CBS O&O [owned and operated station] is allowed to do this, why can't every affiliate?" Hefner asked. It has been common for some syndicated programs to be "speeded up" so local stations can insert more commercials -- and earn more money -- but network programs are generally considered sacrosanct.

John Howell, general manager of Cox-owned WPXI, said CBS confirmed to a sister station that "KDKA did this and they have been told to stop."

Saying this is "not the kind of thing you could do by accident," Howell added, "It's a gross violation of the network contract, at least the ones I'm aware of. What they don't allow you to do is interfere, change or alter the programs they deliver. ... And this compression clearly alters the programming, if indeed that's what they were doing."

CBS's McClintock would not comment on his network's affiliation agreements.

Gerst said KDKA acquired the device because its nightly live telecast of the Pennsylvania Lottery drawing puts the station 20 seconds behind the live 7 p.m. network feed of "The CBS Evening News." The station records the feed and then airs the newscast on a 20-second delay, Gerst said.

"We take the 20 seconds out of a commercial break. We do not ever eliminate news content."

For competitive reasons, Gerst would not say whether KDKA uses the device in other parts of the broadcast day.

Howell said a preliminary report from CMR, a company that tracks commercial time on local stations, indicates Channel 2 "seems to have 25 percent more spots than we do in prime time. That's a lot of spots," Howell said. But he emphasized he is just beginning to examine the disparity and the reason for it.

If KDKA squeezed the game to sell more Steelers spots, it could have reaped anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 or even $10,000 per 30-second spot. "It's been a while since we sold Steelers, but it was easily $10,000 a spot. In this day and age, maybe they're less," Howell said. "I haven't any idea what they're getting for them."

If WPXI's early research proves that KDKA has been running more ads, "We will be sure advertisers and viewers know they're in a much more cluttered environment," Howell said.

Jim Aldrich, vice president of operations for Prime Image Inc. of San Jose, Calif., said time compression technology has been around for 15 years but has become more advanced in the past five years with his company's introduction of the time machine and its successor, the digital time machine.

The time machine has some similarities to the consumer recording device TiVo. Both use memory and time manipulation to record and play back programs, but the time machine is much more sophisticated. It begins with a 30-second delay and then uses motion detection circuitry to analyze the program's video.

"If it detects two sequential frames, it can throw away one of those frames," Aldrich said. To create 30 seconds of extra time, 900 frames must be discarded over a half-hour period.

Aldrich said about 40 percent of American TV stations use some type of time reduction device. Pittsburgh's KDKA is one. WPGH/WCWB has also used time compression equipment.

The time machine was created at the urging of a Prime Image client in Switzerland for televising soccer games, which are difficult to broadcast because of few breaks in the action.

"It's just a continuous sport, and we developed this so it allowed a broadcaster to show the soccer game in its entirety and still be able to break away for commercials. Viewers would never miss a single kick," Aldrich said.

A digital time machine that will insert a 30-second commercial in a half-hour of programming costs about $90,000. But a broadcaster charging $250 for 30-second spots, using the time machine in four half-hour periods each day, can cover the cost of the machine in about 90 days.

Aldrich said he advises clients to use the technology wisely.

"You could use it every day, 24 hours a day, but at some point the audience is going to say there are too many commercials," he said. "I always advocate using it intelligently and selectively to generate the desired revenue without creating an issue with so many commercials that you drive away the audience."

Staff writers Adrian McCoy and Ron Weiskind contributed to this report.

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