[… or so I’ve heard …]
I am fortunate to be able to work on a lot of live-live broadcast entertainment specials. Some recent ones include The Global Citizen Festival (MSNBC & web), Bill Maher’s special from Tulsa Oklahoma (HBO), the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (NBC), the Disney Christmas Parade (ABC), Garth Brooks at Notre Dame (CBS) and various parts of the Grammy Awards (CBS).
Like clockwork both during and after these tentpole live broadcast events, more than a few armchair-quarterback church-techs take to social media.
I’ve seen comments like:
While some (even accurately) complain about issues they hear in the home, the assumption others make is that the problem is not in the home, or with the viewers content provider, but rather it is the fault of the person mixing the show … and heads will roll !!!
But anyone reading the threads on social media can see the experiences are not consistent …
Despite these facts assumptions are often made the fat-cat audio guy is to blame, at times even by people who didn’t see the show!
Some complain about losing a channel, others complain about balance issues ..
Others seem as frustrated as I regarding the internet comments …
While others not so much…
You get the idea…
Putting aside for a moment the presumption that broadcast television technicians get paid millions (what??? I’ve been underpaid all these years); and while yes, admittedly, at times I want to hit my head repeatedly on the corner of my desk when I read comments like these from social media, I do think it’s fair to ask, “why such divergent responses from people watching the same show?” That’s fair.
Most church-techs are inculcated with a “buck stops here with me” ethic (as that is exactly what happens in most churches), the guy in the booth feels responsible. However the size and scope of a broadcast entertainment special is a completely different animal. Broadcast technicians feel the same (or greater) degree of personal responsibility for their end-product, but they do not have nearly the control over the final deliverable as their church-based brethren do.
In this article I am going to take you behind the scenes on a typical live broadcast entertainment special and explain the typical signal flow, who the parties involved are, why things are done they way they are done and (most importantly) why if you have a less than optimal experience watching a live show at home the conclusion should never be, “the broadcast audio guy should be fired!”
AT THE VENUE
Typically there are a number of audio-related vendors at the venue all who have somewhat over-lapping responsibilities. A backline vendor may be responsible for all of the instrumentation on-stage. A sound reinforcement company may be responsible for the FOH and Monitor mix position gear, a snake, speakers and hardwired microphones on-stage. A third company may be responsible for all things wireless audio and comms. A fourth company will be responsible for providing an audio-only music mix truck (or trucks in the case of Grammy Awards). This vendor mixes all the live bands but is not responsible for the final production audio viewers hear at home. A fifth company provides a broadcast video/audio truck which receives the music sub-mix and stems and then adds all production elements (dialog from hosts & guests, lectern/podium mics, audience mics, VT/AT playback, possible live-remotes, camera mics, audience mics, etc.). A sixth vendor (or more) is then responsible for providing transmission solutions.
Since these shows are live-live (performed live, transmitted live, aired live) back-ups are of paramount importance. Thought is given to, “what happens if the FOH console goes down?” In response, signal flow planning is put in place so that the music mix truck, or the broadcast truck, or the monitor mix console, or all can feed the PA if needed.
“What happens if the music mix truck dies?” “Or if the broadcast truck’s audio console locks?”
So while each vendor and audio sub-department have their own siloed area of responsibility, each sub-department also backs-up other sub-departments so the show can go on with minor disruption should a major component fail.
However with each fail-safe layer complexity is added as well. If a band’s mix can be created by the music mix truck, or the broadcast truck (in an emergency), or at FOH, or at Monitor world, and each can back-up each other – technical planning needs to be crystal clear regarding which is the primary path and which is the second, third, or fourth back-up.
It is impossible to give equal attention to all mixes and back-ups. In many cases back-ups are built from stems (not each individual audio source) and are therefore limited. Planned redundancy also opens the door for someone to accidentally air a back-up instead of a primary feed. And since the primary receives the most attention there is the possibility a viewer may not receive the optimal product.
Another complication is that there are typically multiple audio deliverables all occurring simultaneously.
While most churches create only a Left/Right which is printed everywhere, to all recordings and livestreams; a live broadcast entertainment special may create simultaneous 5.1 surround mixes, stereo, multiple stereo or mono mix-minuses, international feeds (have no English host mics), nat-sound only feeds and dialog isos which are sent to transmission and/or recordings in various iterations. Here again, due to the availability of multiple audio deliverables it is possible a viewer at home may not receive the audio deliverable which was intended for them, and therefore have a less than optimal experience.
As there are multiple vendors all who need to get audio signals back and forth from the stage and the house, vendors need to coordinate their planning sharing various audio signal resources based on common technical denominators.
While audio splits and signal transport between vendors often see MADI as the ubiquitous solution, some vendors prefer AES or Dante in some situations. Yes, even analog audio versions are needed. As the same content may appear in more than one form, from more than one vendor or technician, here again an opportunity exists for the wrong signal be sent to the wrong place.
Another distinctive of live-live broadcast entertainment specials is the preferred mode of transmission.
Where a church may utilize internet bandwidth at their venue, encode on-site and then send that encoded signal via the internet to their CDN, broadcast entertainment specials rarely entrust their signal to localized internet encoding and upload via venue internet bandwidth.
Instead, traditional robust broadcast transmission methods are preferred; 1.5gbps broadcast fiber, satellite and microwave, and even then multiple transmission paths (via different transmission methods and suppliers) are preferred insuring complete redundancy and fail-safes.
C-Band satellite transmission is well supported with on-site trucks and at various teleports however C-Band facilities are more expensive than other satellite options. C-Band satellite transmission also requires an FAA clearance as it can interfere with air traffic operations.
Ku-Band satellite transmission is also well supported and does not require FAA clearance however Ku-band’s higher frequency makes it susceptible to weather related signal degradation. Snow or rain can adversely impact a Ku-band satellite transmission.
Broadcast fiber is relatively impervious to weather events but is not impervious to disruptions in the electrical grid. Broadcast fiber is also susceptible to other local human-related mishaps. Fiber-modems can be inadvertently unplugged. Vehicles can run over and break fiber cables as can unskilled labor. Even if fiber cables are protected underground, if all fiber connectivity is accessible by a man-hole, then all fiber transmission can be disrupted by any mishap related to that man-hole.
For these reasons and others most live-live televised entertainment specials are transmitted by multiple transmission methods which do not share similar vulnerabilities. But since the same signal is being sent by multiple methods, vehicles and vendors; inconsistencies can exist from primary to back-up path to 2nd back-up, etc.
Once our content is uplinked to a satellite or sent via fiber it needs to be received somewhere. Thus we come to the teleport.
In the case of satellite (both C & Ku band) somewhere in the signal chain is typically a downlink at a teleport (our seventh vendor). TV networks tend to house their technical operations (where live programming is technically evaluated, where standards and practices make determinations regarding allowable content and where advertisements are integrated into the network distribution feed) in urban city areas where skilled technicians are available in the labor pool and where upper management can conveniently supervise. Teleports however require large open areas to facilitate the largest and multiple satellite dishes and as a result tend to be located in more rural or industrial areas. Therefore, where the satellite signal is received is typically not the same location to where it ultimately needs to go. A teleport (owned by a third party or the network itself) provides connectivity to pass the satellite signal eventually to the network’s NOC (network operations center).
At the origination venue, if broadcast fiber exists at all, the fiber POP (point of presence) is likely owned and managed by the local telco company who manages communication services for that geographic area. The local telco company typically does not have the ability to connect directly to the TV network. To accomplish that connection a fiber switch company (an eighth vendor) is employed. Fiber switch companies interconnect brick and mortar studios, edit houses, teleports and TV networks together regardless of their geographic locations. Thus, a syndicated show shot at a studio owned by one network can in theory be transferred easily to a post production facility for color correction and editorial elsewhere and then forwarded on to distribution at another TV network’s NOC.
Once the live content is downlinked at a teleport it is then sent on to the fiber switch company via the teleport’s local telco POP (a ninth vendor), and then the fiber switch company sends the content on to the network’s NOC via the NOC’s local telco POP (a tenth vendor).
NETWORK OPERATIONS CENTER
At this point ten vendors/entities, all with their own team of employees which have the ability to view, modify and then pass on the signals have been involved.
Once the signal arrives at the Network Operation’s Center it is typically put in the router by the network’s Broadcast Operations (the eleventh entity). BO evaluates the signal from a technical perspective and then sends it on to Standards and Practices.
Standards and Practices (the twelfth entity) is staffed by the network’s lawyers. S&P is tasked with making sure that the content which will go out over the network meets the network’s programming standards and is in compliance with the Federal Communications Commission. S&P has the ability to blank out or replace offending content in both picture and sound independently. If someone drops the F-bomb or has a wardrobe malfunction S&P is supposed to catch it, prevent it, replace it.
The content then goes on to the network’s commercial integration department (the thirteenth entity) where advertisements are inserted. Once complete, the signal then returns to the network’s router, and is sent back out of the plant via a fiber POP to a fiber switch company and then back to a teleport.
Once back at the teleport and fiber switch company various licensees will receive the signal. They include various network owned and operated (O&O) TV stations (various fourteenth + entities), various affiliate TV stations (3rd party owned terrestrial broadcasters who license a network’s content, various fiftieth + entities), various cable TV content aggregators (various sixteenth + entities), consumer satellite aggregators (various seventeenth + entities), and web delivery live-streaming platforms (various eighteenth + entities).
Thus for example a live program originating from Miami Florida airing on a network based in New York City, viewed in the home of someone in Cincinnati Ohio via a terrestrial over-the-air broadcast from a network owned & operated station may have a signal-custody chain that looks something like:
If the viewer is instead a subscriber to a cable, consumer satellite, or web delivery aggregator; in addition to everything above are steps to get the signal from the network, or O&O, or affiliate, onto the cable head-end and distribution system, or consumer satellite system, or streaming company; each with their own equipment and employees who have the ability to manipulate or adversely impact the signal.
A) It’s a miracle viewers at home can hear anything (none the less the correct thing) at all!
B) If the viewer does not have an optimal experience, the chances of it being the fault of the poor slob who is pushing faders on-site is very, very low. There are so many layers after he/she is done, suggesting the audio person on-site (who is not making millions) is going to lose their job because the sound was not perfect at your TV receiver suggests a lack of understanding that all techs should share, whether they work in broadcast television doing entertainment specials, or in the church streaming sermons to Facebook.
C) Please be kind … my head hurts.
Title photo attribution: Russell Mondy