As you may or may not know, our episode scheduled for broadcast on 12/21/98
never got on the air that day. What follows is a reprint of a letter I
composed (but haven't mailed--I planned on it and then wanted to wait and
see what happened after a while) to Manhattan Neighborhood Network outlining
the events that
followed. Try not to laugh . . . too hard, that is.
January 8, 1999
Manhattan Neighborhood Network
537 West 59th St.
New York, NY 10019
Dear Ms. Woody,
Iím writing in regards to an incident involving a single episode of my program, Free New York, which was not broadcast as scheduled on Channel 16 at 2:00 AM on Monday, December 21, 1998. However, due to what appears to be a sudden eruption of confusion and miscommunication at Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the incident has grown to encompass not just that one episode, but the entire series since its inception. Not only do I think this generalization is unwarranted, but I think the episode which initiated this entire debacle is fit for broadcast--despite your co-workersí opinions to the contrary.
As I said, the episode myself and my co-producer, Kim Pratt, submitted to be broadcast during our timeslot on 12/21/98 (Episode #103, a Christmas-themed episode) was not shown when it should have been. Our episode was submitted at 3:40 PM on December 19, 1998, and it has been shown twice before on MNN since 1996. However, when I tuned in at 2:00 AM that Monday to view the broadcast, I saw another program ("Filmmakers") being shown instead. I checked the 3 other public access channels to see if my program was being shown on one of them instead (it wasnít), and I waited a few minutes to see if the problem would be corrected (it wasnít). I then called MNN at 2:10 AM and dialed the extension for "playback" (extension 306). A man answered and I told him I was the producer of Free New York and that the episode I submitted on Saturday was not being broadcast as scheduled. I then asked him what the problem was. His only response was: "I canít go into that right now." He said this at least 3 times and when I asked him why he couldnít "go into it," he answered: "Because Iím about to leave and I have a lot of work to do in the morning." (I have a day-job too, but I suppose thatís beside the point.) I asked him for his name, which he said was "Vivaldi," and I asked him if he could transfer me to the voicemail of someone who could go into the problem. He then transferred me to your extension, where I heard your message that you would be on vacation until the beginning of January. Not wanting to wait until January to resolve the problem, I called MNNís main number again, got no answer at the number where Vivaldi had picked up before, and I ended up leaving a message in "Master Controlís" mailbox, asking for someone to call me back later. As of 3:30 PM Monday, no one had returned my call.
At 3:30 on Monday afternoon, I called MNN and dialed extension 306, where I spoke to "James" at Master Control and described the problem to him. He told me that the engineer on duty wrote "Dirty Tape," on their log sheet. He gave a brief explanation of the problems dirty tape can cause and mentioned "these machines run 24 hours a day and that could make the heads very dirty." So, I asked a natural question: "Is it really the tape or the heads that are dirty?" He didnít know and said he didnít have access to the tape right then and there. He asked me to call him back in an hour and said by then he would have had a chance to examine the tape for himself and check whether it was the tape or the heads. I called back extension 306 at 4:40 PM and--after no live person answered--reached Master Controlís voicemail. I tried to switch to Scheduling at extension 320 but I got disconnected instead. I called MNN again and dialed extension 320 where I heard Paul Berraraís voice message, part of which said "Dial 0 to talk to someone immediately," which I did. No one picked up that line either. Instead, I reached yet another voice mailbox where I left another message describing all that I knew about the problem with my broadcast and my problems reaching people at MNN, asking someone to call me back as soon as they could to straighten this out. I stamped the message "priority." No one returned my call that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.
On Thursday, December 24th--the day before Christmas--my co-producer, Kim, called up MNN to find out what was going on and if we could somehow get our episode broadcast before Christmas, since it was a Christmas-themed show after all. She dialed extension 306 around 11 AM and spoke to James, the same person I spoke to on Monday afternoon. She described the problem to him and he also told her that a message had been written in the engineering log--only this time James said it was "Dirty Heads" written in the log, instead of the "Dirty Tape" which he told me. So Kim asked him the same question: Which is it? The heads or the tape? James couldnít answer her right away, but said she could call back around 12 noon and he would have an answer for her then. At 12 noon Kim called back and spoke to "Paul" in Programming. Paul told her that our episode was "upstairs," where "problem" tapes are kept to be "verified." He also told her that:
What exactly was the problem? Paul said there was "dust on the outside." Whether he meant the outside of the tapeís jacket or its shell, Kim wasnít sure.
- He spoke to the technician who didnít air our episode;
- The technician told him that he tried to play our tape in "3 different machines," and that the technician "was completely unable to play it";
- "Randy" was in charge of the "problem" tapes;
- He didnít know if Randy had actually checked this episode or not;
- Randy was on vacation;
- MNN would not run the episode until they had an OK from Randy, and no one else could give an OK in his absence.
Since running our Christmas-themed episode before Christmas was no longer an option, Kim submitted another tape (Episode #106) later on Thursday afternoon to be broadcast on 12/28/98. It aired on schedule without incident.
On Monday, December 28, 1998, I received a letter dated "10/23/98" (I assume that was a typo) from Randy Redroad of "Policy Compliance." In it, he wrote:
Tapes that have multiple control track breaks, noticeable video drop out, extremely low audio and/or are dirty do not meet these standards and will not be aired.
Your tapes for Free New York, are too dirty to air on our network. Unless the quality of your tapes improves immediately, your program will be pre-empted until such time as you have discussed the matter with our Programming Department.
I couldnít then, and still cannot understand why I received this letter, because up to that point (Week #260 of our showís run):
So, I was upset. The next day, December 29, 1998, I called the extension which Mr. Redroad left in his letter (326), and I reached his voicemail. I left a message basically asking how all our tapes could be so dirty if theyíve been airing all this time for 5 years. Later that day, Mr. Redroad returned my call and left a message on my answering machine in which he said the following:
- Only 13 out of 167 episodes had problems the first time they were broadcast. Thatís a 92.21% first-time success rate.
- Out of those 13 problem episodes, only one was due to our tape being in bad shape. Of 8 others which we asked MNN to repeat, MNN acknowledged the problem was on their end for all 8 of them--all 8 of which were fine when they were repeated (except for one which was started late by MNN, cutting off the end credits). Of the 4 episodes left over, we decided not to take action with 3 of them because we didnít think it was worth the effort; the last one is the episode in question (#103), which has been repeated once before in 1997.
- Out of the 260 weeks our show had been on the air, there had only been problems with 13 first-run episodes and 5 repeats. Thatís a 93.07% total success rate.
- Out of the 93 repeat broadcasts Free New York had in 260 weeks (many of them being episodes which have repeated more than once), there have only been problems with 5 of them. Thatís a 94.62% repeat success rate. Our reruns have a better track record than our first-runs!
- Out of the 5 problems with our repeats, only one was due to a faulty tape of ours (and even that may be in doubt). Of the remaining 4, one is the episode in question (#103); one had the end credits cut off during broadcast; one was rewound and re-started during broadcast; and one was an episode which was fine the first time it was run, but which had a crease put in it by MNN when we attempted to repeat it.
- I had only been in contact with MNN about one episode (#103), since I assumed that all the past problems I had with MNN were resolved. But now MNN was saying in this letter that all my tapes were in bad shape, even though I had never received any notice prior to now that any other tapes have been dirty in the whole 5 years Free New York has been on the air.
- Myself and Kim have always been the first ones to contact MNN about problems when our episodes air; it has never been the other way around. And yet this letter made it sound as if we never contact MNN, since the show was now being threatened with cancellation if I didnít make contact.
- If our tapes have been too dirty to air, why have they been airing over 93% of the time?
Once more, I was mystified. The man whoís reviewing the tape which didnít air, and who then sent me a letter telling me all my tapes were too dirty to air, was now telling me the show did air, the show was not his problem, it wasnít a big deal, and that I should speak to someone else because it wasnít his department! Around 3 oíclock that afternoon, I called your voicemail and received the same message I received before: that you were on vacation until January. I left another message at extension 320 (Paul Berraraís voicemail) trying to summarize the whole problem.
- Episode #103 was indeed the episode he was reviewing,
- Episode #103 had "already aired," (False. It didnít air on 12/21/98, which is what started this whole mess.)
- The fate of that episode was "not his department," because "we donít deal with shows that do not air." (Even though he was the one who sent me a letter asking me to contact him about it, or else the show would be taken off the air; and even though we had been told that our episode wouldnít air without Randyís approval.)
- "According to Master Control, youíve had a lot of dirty tapes." (This seems to contradict my own track records above, and--as I said--we had never received a notice that our tapes had been dirty in the past.)
- "Itís not that big of a deal from my end . . . Itís not that big of a violation." (Even though, according to his own letter, it could result in our show being taken off the air.)
- "I would suggest calling Donna Woody . . . She should be in today." (Even though your voicemail greeting said you would be on vacation until January.)
The next day, December 30, 1998, Mr. Redroad called me around 11 AM and told me the following:
That last one was the kicker. If a new episode is aired, then ipso facto itís good enough to be on the air. Now, if I need to repeat an episode someday, and if I take an episode which has already aired (ipso facto a repeat and an episode which has been judged to be good enough to be on the air), and I submit it to be repeated, and it airs--then what is the problem? I went in circles with Mr. Redroad about this until he told me he would contact the engineer (Vivaldi) who originally rejected Episode 103, and he (Mr. Redroad) would review Episode #106 as well--the program (which is also a repeat) which aired on 12/28/98 without incident. As of today, I have not received any further word from either Mr. Redroad or Vivaldi, nor have I received the results of this latest "review."
- Episode #103 indeed did not air,
- You (Donna Woody) were on vacation,
- He hadnít actually looked at the program itself, just the outside of the cassette, (Even though this was a question of whether or not the episode was OK to air, and he had said just the day before that he was "reviewing" the tape.)
- The letter he sent was a form letter, based on an engineerís complaint that "this was not an isolated incident," (Even though, according to our own records, this problem does seem to be an isolated incident; and if there is a pattern, it seems to be more on MNNís part than our own. When I asked Mr. Redroad for other episode numbers or airdates where there were "dirty tape" problems, he couldnít name any, so weíre still left with only this one episode which started this recent adventure.)
- "There are very few instances when a Master Control operator is empowered to remove something from the air," (And according to our records, this is the first time an episode of Free New York has been removed from the air for being "too dirty," again contradicting his assertion that weíve had "a lot of dirty tapes.")
- MNN now has a new stricter policy regarding technical standards for programs which the engineer was enforcing by not broadcasting a show which has already aired twice, (A policy which I, as a producer, have still not been made aware of formally, either personally or via the latest Program Guide, which mentions nothing about this policy--if it does exist.)
- "Some of your older tapes will have a hard time airing," (Which contradicts our own repeat success rate--which is higher than our total success rate. He also couldnít say which of our previous broadcasts would not be able to air again.)
- Perhaps I could contact MNN in advance the next time I plan to repeat an episode, (A step which seems unneccesary for 2 reasons: One, according to our track records, the vast majority of our repeats are fit to air; Two, if we donít need to contact MNN in advance when we run a brand-new "unreviewed" episode, why should we contact MNN if we want to repeat an episode which has already been deemed fit for broadcast?
- Episode #103ís case had dust on the outside, and the cassetteís shell had a "filthy exterior," (First of all, dust on the case is irrelevant. The case is there to prevent dust from getting on the cassette, so the case was doing its job. As for the cassette itself being "filthy," I must disagree. The shell has the remnants of a torn-off label on it. If you touch it, your hand does not come away with dirt on it, and it is certainly no danger to play it in a VTR--which we were able to do when we edited it, which MNN has already done twice on the air, and which I did 4 days ago when I checked this episode again myself. This, to me, does not constitute filth.)
- "I doubt seriously if there will be a violation with your new tapes," i.e., the 8 new episodes Free New York has to submit for each new quarter in the future.
The next day, on December 31, 1998, Kim collected Episode #103 from MNN (apparently Episode #106 was still being "reviewed") and I examined it firsthand. Despite the post-it attached to the case which read "PLEASE SEND THE PRODUCER A LETTER FOR CLEANINESS" [sic], that tape is not "filthy." Yes, the shell has the remains of a torn label on its top side, but that is hardly "filth," and--as I said above--it certainly is not enough to interfere with the proper playing-back of the program. In fact, if you lift up the flap and look at the tape itself, it looks fine; it looks the way videotape should look in a Umatic cassette: no tape creases and no dirt on the tape within sight.
On January 4, 1999, I watched the entire episode (and despite the assertion that it did not play in "3 different machines,' I was able to play it from start to finish) and I gave it a Quality Control check. This is my evaluation:
Overall, this isnít the most pristine Umatic recording in the world, but it certainly can be played without it doing any harm to anyoneís equipment.
- There is one control track break right between the end of our countdown and the beginning of our opening animation. There is a second control track break at the very end of the episode as soon as the last end credit finishes. Neither I nor Kim remember those breaks being in the episode when it was first edited in 1996.
- There are scattered dropouts in some shots with high video levels, but closer examination shows that they are recorded in the program, i.e., there are no actual dropouts in the Umatic tape itself. (The giveaway is that the dropouts appear on a shot-by-shot basis--they donít continue across shots; they are on every other frame in the shots where they appear--indicating dirty heads during the recording of either the master or the source tapes for this episode; and they appear to be part of the picture--as opposed to moving when the heads move, which is what actual surface damage to the tape would look like.)
- There are no audio tones (except those inserted by MNN) on the tape, but audio can be adjusted to peak between -3db and 0db without difficulty. There is some hiss, but the tape was not recorded with Dolby, so some hiss should be expected. Audio is also in phase.
- When set to the color bars at the head of the tape, Video during program does not peak above 100 IRE. Black level during program is closer to 0 IRE than to 7.5 IRE, but this can be adjusted with a TBC. Chroma stays within limits and Hue appears accurate.
- Horizontal blanking is 11.08. Vertical blanking is 20 lines.
As for the larger matter of MNN saying Free New York has had "a lot of dirty tapes" which could threaten future broadcasts of the program, I say this:
In short, if an episode has aired once, I will assume it is fit to air again in the future unless I have reason to think otherwise, which is what Iíve been doing for five (going on six) years without any problems.
- My records contradict MNNís assertions. The overwhelming majority of our episodes have been judged by MNN to be good enough to air and to repeat (and to repeat more than once in several cases).
- If there are new technical standards for broadcast, MNN should make these standards known to all producers and the public immediately, and make them clear, instead of what seems to be amorphous guidelines on a case-by-case basis.
- If there are any episodes of Free New York which, even though they already aired, do not meet these new broadcast standards, I should be made aware of which ones they are, or at least their past air dates (and likewise should be done with other producers who have aired programs prior to these new standards being in place), so that I do not risk submitting a future repeat which might be below standards.
- If an episode of a program is judged to be unfit to air, the producer of that program should be notified ASAP about what the problem is and why that specific episode is not being run, as opposed to sending a form letter indicting all episodes of that program. Likewise, if an episode does not air due to a fault on MNNís part, MNN should still notify the programís producer of the situation ASAP, in the interests of resolving these problems as soon as they occur as opposed to weeks later.
I believe that is the maximum extent of this particular problem, which is centered around just one episode as far as Iím concerned. I donít believe the problem is nearly as big as some people at MNN have made it out to be, and that it is a molehill which MNN has transformed into a mountain. I hope that this synopsis has reduced it back to molehill status.
Producer, Free New York