27 February 2011

It's Academy Awards Time - The Technical Aspects, That Is

Time for a little break from the happenings going on in the great State of Florida and our increasingly unpopular governor, Rick Scott, who recently threw 25,000 potential jobs down the drain by rejecting high speed rail which we desperately need. Not only that, Rick Scott wants to do away with the unions that represent state employees.

Well, the 83rd version of the Academy Awards telecast is just around the corner! If you are a movie buff or just want to get a piece of the Oscars action on TV, the action starts when the announcer intones: Live from Los Angeles! The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents the 83rd Annual Academy Awards!

Over the past several years the Academy Awards telecast had some great announcers over the years: Don LaFontaine (aka the voice of God), Les Marshak, Gina Tuttle and Randi Thomas. From what I understand another voice over superstar who did the announcing duties for the Oscars telecast in 2006 and 2008, Tom Kane, is going to be the announcer for Oscar telecast No. 83.

OK. Now how does the announcer’s voice such as Tom Kane travel from the announcer’s booth at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles to your television set here in St. Petersburg connected to Bright House Networks? After all, as the voice over announcer from 10 News (WTSP-TV) says, Bright House is the home of free HD – and I got to agree many more. So, let’s step through the process from Point A to Point B.

I think of the typical Academy Awards telecast as an Amtrak Silver Star train going out of Tampa. The telecast announcer is like the engineer driving the train (with the Oscar telecast’s script supervisor sitting right next to the announcer), while the telecast producer is the conductor and the host is the chief of on board services. The presenters are the on board personnel that take care of you, the celebrity that is either there for the ceremony or a nominee anxiously waiting to see if you get to go on stage to claim your Oscar statuette. Attending an actual Academy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre is strictly invitation only; your ticket is the invitation.

All right. Let’s get on with the technical aspects of getting the announcer’s voice – let’s say Tom Kane from the 83rd Academy Awards telecast – speaking this line when the telecast cuts to a local commercial break: The 83rd Annual Academy Awards will return in a moment here on ABC.

Let’s start from the moment Tom utters this line into the microphone in the announcer booth over at the Kodak Theatre. From that moment the pathway from Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles to my townhome in St. Petersburg is analogous to an Amtrak Silver Star train going through a series of switches to get to a main line to the destination, then another series of switches just before your destination. And you know what, I think I threw you a curve when I compared the typical Academy Awards telecast as an Amtrak Silver Star train as far as the technical aspect is involved. And I like to, for very good reason.

The microphone picks up Tom’s voice and it is converted into a digital audio signal, as is the case with microphones of the professional broadcast type. From this point forward Tom’s voice – now a digitized audio signal – is sent from the announcer’s booth to a central master control located somewhere in the Theatre. Tom’s digitized audio signal is multiplexed with the associated video (usually a view of the Oscar statuette when cutting to a commercial break) and is steered by the telecast’s engineers onto a live feed that connects the raw audio and video to ABC Television Network’s master control in Los Angeles. Now Tom’s voice has begun the long trip from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg.

At ABC Master Control in Los Angeles, Tom’s digitized audio signal goes from the raw feed from the Kodak Theatre for a 44,000 mile ride to ABC Master Control in New York City. The audio and video signal is transmitted from a satellite dish for the 22,000 mile ride to the satellite hovering high over the Equator somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. At the satellite Tom’s voice is bounced back for another 22,000 mile trip to ABC Master Control in New York City.

By the way, the fun just got started. The feed from Los Angeles to New York City is commonly known as a raw east coast feed, and the east coast means cities in the Eastern and Central Time Zones. At ABC Master Control in New York this is the point where the national commercials for the Academy Awards telecast are inserted.

(By the way, ABC Master Control in Los Angeles does the same thing as ABC Master Control in New York, except this is the west coast feed which includes cities in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones. If it’s 5 PM at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, it’s 8 PM in St. Petersburg!)

At ABC Master Control in New York, Tom Kane’s digitized audio voice is passed through again through a set of switching equipment, much like Amtrak’s Silver Star when it passes through the Neve Wye for the reverse move into Tampa’s Union Station. Now we’re ready for another 44,000 mile trip – this time, on the ABC Television Network’s east coast distribution feed, which distributes the ready to broadcast Academy Awards telecast to ABC affiliates on the east coast of the United States.

Leaving New York, Tom’s digitized audio signal is placed on the transmit – or uplink – feed for the 22,000 mile trip to the satellite hovering high over the Pacific Ocean on the Equator. Tom’s digitized voice is relayed by the satellite and is bounced back - or downlinked - to the ABC affiliate in Tampa (which is part of the Tampa/St. Petersburg Television Market, No. 14 in the USA), WFTS-TV Channel 28, known to us Tampa Bay television viewers as ABC Action News.

WFTS’ studio is located on 4045 North Himes Avenue in Tampa just across from Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The composite ABC east coast feed containing the Academy Awards telecast – which contains Tom Kane’s digitized voice – is picked up by WFTS’ receiving satellite dish and immediately sent to WFTS master control.

At any typical network television affiliate, master control consists of three items: The network feed, the live feed from the news studio, and another internal feed for programs that may be originated from the television station itself. As WFTS is an ABC affiliate (since 1994 when the great Tampa Bay affiliate switch took place), its master control processes the Academy Awards telecast containing Tom Kane’s voice and is sent out for transmission to the Tampa Bay area.

Traditionally, the signal is routed from master control to the studio to transmitter microwave link which beams the Academy Awards telecast from WFTS’ studio on Himes Avenue to the transmitter tower in Riverview. Once in Riverview the Academy Awards telecast is pulled off the microwave signal and is placed on WFTS’ regular broadcast signal for distribution to everyone in the Tampa Bay area receiving the Academy Awards telecast by traditional means.

However, I am listening to Tom Kane’s voice on a HDTV set in St. Petersburg connected to Bright House Networks. More and more network affiliates, especially in the major cities, relay their signal directly to cable companies for distribution to their customers, which helps preserve the signal as much as possible. So, at WFTS master control the Academy Awards telecast that has Tom’s voice is steered onto a special cable feed which connects WFTS with the nearest Bright House Networks signal gathering facility somewhere in Tampa, known as a cable television headend.

Once the Academy Awards telecast is at the Bright House Networks headend, it will be switched over to a series of trunk cables which will take the Academy Awards telecast – and Tom Kane’s voice – across Tampa Bay on Interstate 275 over the Howard Frankland Bridge through a dedicated utility conduit over to Bright House Networks’ St. Petersburg headend.

Once at the St. Petersburg headend the telecast is switched over for its final time to the local Bright House Networks distribution grid which will take it underground and overhead (not to mention the power boosters the signal goes through) to my place. The signal is received by the digital converter box and it translates Tom Kane’s voice from a broadcast signal to a signal that my HDTV set can understand.

Once at my HDTV set electronic brains located deep within the set itself finally convert the Academy Awards telecast – and Tom Kane’s voice – to what went into the microphone at the announcer’s booth over at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The end result: You hear Tom Kane’s voice just like if you were there at the Academy Awards ceremony.

Total distance traveled from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg: 88,000 miles, give or take a few extra when the signal arrives at WFTS’ studios in Tampa.

Time delay of Tom Kane’s voice from the Academy Awards telecast to my HDTV set here in St. Petersburg: About 11 seconds, give or take.

And one more thing I forgot to mention is the mandatory delay imposed by the ABC Television Network. This is needed so that if in the event a curse word was ever uttered at the Academy Awards, ABC would catch it just in time before it is allowed to be distributed to its affiliates. After all, one curse word on a major awards telecast such as the Academy Awards that is actually aired can cause ABC’s many affiliates to be hit with substantial FCC fines for broadcast of obscene or indecent material.

So, I gave you a rundown on the technical aspects of how the Academy Awards announcer’s voice travels from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg. Depending on where you live and how you receive your local ABC affiliate, the path is practically the same.

Now if you have watched the 83rd Annual Academy Awards telecast, if you got a rant about the telecast please feel free to leave a comment. Just keep the comments clean.

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