Friday, March 11, 2011

Double Hop

I just watched a TV news anchor (New York) and a reporter (Hawaii) make themselves look positively idiotic while attempting a simple report on very real tsunami worries in the former monarchy.

The reason was simple enough and the fix for it is simpler still; why it happened at all, though, I can only speculate but even speculation makes me giggle.

See, it's a long way from the Big Island to the Big Apple and it's even farther if you're a TV picture..and farther still if you're a digital TV picture. Two satellite hops (Hawaii to the bird to probably LA, LA to a different geosync and back down to NYC, and the likely the same trip back, which is gonna be important). Plus the delay effects caused by gizmos and gadgets all along the way, digital signal processors having significant throughput lag if you're doing anything tricksy with them like resynchronizing on the fly, which is probably happening at both ends and in the middle, plus whatever delay (half a second or more) is in the Fedgov-mandated digital link from the Field Reporter back to his station.

The result of all this is that Anchorlady says, "Hello..." and it's at least four seconds before Field Reporter hears her; he answers back, "Good Morning..." and commences to blather. But back in New York, it's another four seconds before that arrives.

Eight seconds of well-dressed, attractive TV meat puppets looking brightly and blankly into the camera is Too Long; at about the six-second mark, Anchorlady looked panicked and offers, "They seem to be having some problem hearing us in--"

...And at that point, finally, Field Reporter's "Good Morning" comes blaring out the speakers. Anchorlady jumps and tries to recover and when she is halfway through that, Field Reporter realizes that Something Is Wrong and tries to recover. By starting over.

They went back and forth in that manner for nearly a minute until (I'd guess) some harried producer hissed into Field Reporter's earpiece, "When I say 'go,' just start talking and don't stop!" They put him up on the screen all by himself, none of that fancy splitscreen stuff, and got the job done.

See, everybody at each end is accustomed to nearly instant communications, or at least the appearance of it; and since earthquakes don't happen on any kind of schedule nor (often) in places as wired-in at Japan and Hawaii, nobody remembered what an Amanpour lag (named for the awkward pauses in the then-CNN reporter's two-hop sat links out of Afghanistan) was, let alone the various workarounds (smiling, nodding* and shutting up being the quickest).

The appearance of no lag is easy to fake: prior to going on the air, some Assistant to the second Assistant Producer gets on the talkback and says to the field guy, "I'm gonna say 'now' and as soon as you hear it, say 'now" back to me." She says "now" and starts her stopwatch; when he replies, she notes how long it took, divides the number by two, looks at the script and guesses how early to tell him to start talking. When the report goes on the air, Anchorlady has to stick to her script and Field Reporter never actually hears her, just the Producer telling him, "go!" and us at home, why, we never notice a thing. We don't even think about it. When we call Uncle Joe across town, it's a nearly-instant link, even if we used Skype and had pictures at each end. So surely everything like that works just that way, right?

Yeah, that's what Anchorlady and Field Reporter were thinking this morning, too. Ooops.

It was made even better by eight seconds of the field guy staring into space and muttering through his reports when they first went to him. Why, those people sound downright human when they think they're not being watched!

(Update: Another tricky workaround is to semi-script the Q&A and then use absolutely firm times. With GPS, synchronized clocks are are easy; talking to fit the allotted time slots is hard but it's a basic skill of their trade. At least in theory. Newsies who are very, very good can be caught in an advanced version of this trick; listen for a question being asked at the beginning of a paragraph, with a few seconds of pretty drivel following: "JimBob, are the aftershocks continuing? Tell our viewers how things are going in Distant Foreign City. JimBob?" Meanwhile, he started yakking after the first question, while the blather filled the lag. He then does something similar, tagging out early with "For Bigtime Bighair Smileyface News, I'm JimBob Marx in Distant Foreign City, where they're still digging out from under the terrible aftermath of a predawn earthquake followed by a huge cotton-candy explosion (etc.)..." This time, his opposite number started in when he said "Name...Location," the obvious outcue. This requires prearrangement and a degree of mother-wit to read the early cues but it can be done. That it fails to happen in coverage from a major network is...well...unfortunate.)
* Known as an "Amanpour nod" throughout the business. Such is fame.


Mark Alger said...

As Mama Carlson put it, nice hair and teeth. And that magnificent head of hair requires a LOT of root space.


Larry said...

The lag from Afghanistan can be anywhere from almost nothing to really difficult to adjust to, cell phone, VoIP, whatever. It varies a LOT< and most folks back home have a much harder time figuring it out. I end up usually having to just keep talking over them til they shut up long enough for me to say"there's a lot of delay, slow down before starting a sentence."

Turk Turon said...

Live satellite feeds are just as you describe; we're lucky if we have lip-sync. If the story is going to be broadcast a few minutes later, we'll put it on an Avid and do "satellite pull-ups". The double-hops are particularly annoying.

Jeff said...

It was funny to watch!
Can you comment at all on a similar problem in the Tee-vees in that new retractable roof building we have downtown? I've only been there once ter see those monster truks. All the little screens were noticeably behind the Huge Screen, all in the same building. Would suk to have to watch a football game that way.

Old Grouch said...

"When we call Uncle Joe across town, it's a nearly-instant link..."

Unless we're using AT&T's 3G network... I've experienced delays as much as 3 seconds on that one!

Roberta X said...

Jeff, at a guess, probably conversion/compression delay; that building uses fiber for most of the comms infrastructure. Huge Screen (very probably) has a fat dedicated feed; the little ones are on the same glass as everything else. Even half a second is a noticeable delay.

Roberta X said...

Larry, phone circuits have a lot of choices and for most civilian apps, less choice over what gets used thus highly variable lag. TV sat paths have fewer options.

Ian Argent said...

Cell phones have a more complicated path to/from the PSTN and additional transcoding applied besides (that last is subject to change).

Lag is variable, but as I have noticed when on conference calls and wander over to a hard-lined coworker, the lag through the cell network is noticeably longer than than through the hard line

Stretch said...

Back when I worked at a Three Letter Agency I did on-line instruction with students up to 18 time zones apart. E-mailed instructions outlining basic requirements of headsets, minimum computer memory and speed and a note on "time delay."
Months of teaching and scores of students and I NEVER encountered the "Can you hear me now" problem. The difference between professionals and the media.

Anonymous said...

Back in the Mesozoic (or maybe the Cenozoic -- time flies when you're havin' fun) engineers were very conscious of delays. International cables can have enough to really mess with your mind. "Resync" was handled (if at all) by stretching or relaxing a screen-door spring, and getting it too tight or too loose resulted in Uncle Walter lip-synching very badly. That's why they leaped on the first VTRs like a pack of rats. At least you could get it all on the same hack, and tweak the heads to get the sync in.


Old NFO said...

Good post, and dead on! the lag, especially on streaming HD video can get ugly with the buffering, error correction and conversions in the "cloud". We do a lot of VTCs via satellite, and see at least a 3-4 second lag, even at 384kb.

Re cell phones, it's 64kb down sampled to 8kb, and pushed via towers to PSTN.

Ian Argent said...

There's a lot of boxes between the towers and the PSTN. Incuding ANOTHER transcoder at the border, a home switch, a visiting switch, and the Signaling System 7 junk that I never had to learn about.

Cellular to landline is like the proverbial dancing bear, I swear. And it does a damn fine tango, too.

Roberta X said...

Yep, telephony, as you and Larry point out, is uphill both ways and rarely the same path twice.

Matt G said...

Hooray for this post.