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Looking For a Technical Solution

Super Bowl halftime offense sends broadcasters scurrying for options

SEATTLE

Advertisers have long used the Super Bowl to launch new products like the Apple Macintosh because of its huge audience, much to the financial gain of the game's broadcast rights holders.

Anyone who didn't believe in broadcast's ability to attract an audience got a lesson in spades this year when a "costume failure," resulting in less than two seconds of semi-nudity, set off a firestorm of indignation that could cost the industry millions.

As this was being written, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that increased the previous $27,500 per-violation fine to a hefty $500,000, with a maximum of $3 million. Once the legislation gets past the Senate, it goes to President Bush, who promised to sign it.

A half-a-million a pop is getting to be real money, so when network and local station officials vowed to clean up their airwaves, it sent technical-types scurrying for solutions.

RUSH ON DELAY GEAR

Prime Image has made its Pipeline audio and video delay product for some time, with one model to handle serial digital content and another for analog material.

"We generally sell about four or five per month," said Rodney Hampton, the San Jose, Calif.-based company's vice president of sales and marketing. "But after the Super Bowl incident we shipped about 50 of them."

The Pipeline allows users to configure it for a delay, from one video frame up to 30 seconds.

"If there's an incident that you do not want the public to see, you can push a button and it will go to an aux mode, a predetermined video or still frame, like a 'Please Stand By'" said Hampton. "And when the activity is over, you release the button and it goes back to live."

Another broadcast equipment company found it had a product that could quickly be adapted to the censorship delay task.

"We already have the delay application (Nexio Delay) that we've been selling for years," said Chris Chesley, manager of applications engineering for Leitch servers. "What we're doing now is re-purposing that to make an application specifically for censorship applications."

This led Leitch to add the "Safe Feed" option to its Nexio server.

"Nexio Safe Feed will allow you to set a definable delay, which can be five, 10, 15 seconds, whatever that might be," said Chesley.

When the operator hits the censor button, it will do an automatic switch to a safe clip, like a station logo, or in the case of a football game, a blimp shot or something else applicable.

The Safe Feed will stay with the alternative video source for the length of the delay, then cut back to the live program feed. If the offensive activity isn't finished (or if the director has not been able to cut away from it), the Safe Feed operator can hit the button again to continue the diversion.

One challenge for the Leitch engineers was developing internal switching between the censored feed and the safe clip.

"We're doing some internal tricks to do that switch so we don't have to use any external hardware, like a router or something," said Chesley. "[Instead, we] switch to another feed doing something internal, taking advantage of the video disk protocol for random access and switching."

When FOR-A began developing its LDR-120 Live Digital Recorder, introduced at this year's NAB, it was targeted for the sports telecasting market.

"In a fast sport, such as basketball, this product was developed for replay because of its ability to do simultaneous recording and playback," said Hiro Tanoue, FOR-A America sales manager.

Then the Super Bowl happened, and FOR-A found it had a flexible product.

"This very same product can be applied to the time-delay application," Tanoue said.

The LDR-120 sports one audio/video input and two outputs, all of which can function simultaneously. It can be configured to introduce the amount of delay a broadcaster desires, along with an appropriate source to switch to.

Broadcasters anticipated looking for more than just censoring hardware at NAB2004. They also said they expected to pepper FCC Chairman Michael Powell at the annual Chairman's Breakfast, seeking guidance as to what kind of on-air audio and video can result in fines.

A group of legislators faced their own set of questions at a Congressional Breakfast at the convention. And news directors added an additional panel to their RTNDA Conference line-up to deal with offensive material in newscasts.

"The vagueness of the FCC's attitude about what is and isn't presentable on the air, I think gives news people some pause," said Bob Priddy, news director of Missourinet and incoming chairman of RTNDA. "What happens if a television station is broadcasting a live event and somebody streaks through the scene? Is that going to be offensive to the FCC?