Recently, I wrote about the beginnings of NBC’s historic lot in Burbank as the Peacock network completed its move to nearby Universal Studios. The look back on NBC Burbank’s sixty-two year history wouldn’t be complete without exploring some of the technical history NBC engineers made over the years.
NBC continued to build on the Burbank lot into the eighties. The last major studio expansion was Studio 11, built for the July, 1984, premiere of the soap opera “Santa Barbara.” Decades later, it became home to “The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno.” It was from Studio 11 that the final “Tonight” show closed out over four decades in California.
Outside the last major production studio, Studio 11, built on the NBC Burbank lot as the audience lines up for the “Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno.”.
Ampex demonstrated their first prototype video tape recorder to the broadcasting industry at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in April of 1956. Ampex was overwhelmed at the reaction to their invention. As the 1956-1957 television season got underway, the company was still filling initial orders for the machines. As late as November of 1957 there were only 13 videotape recorders in the United States. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, CBS had five of them and NBC had two, all on the west coast. A third one was sent to Camden, NJ, for RCA engineers to reverse engineer so RCA could enter the videotape marketplace. ABC had three machines but they were based in Chicago.
At the beginning, tape was considered a transmission device. Unless a show was originated on film, all programming continued to be live to the eastern and central time zones. When the networks finally received their full complement of tape machines, the immediate planned use was as a tool for Time Zone Delay (TZD) with much improved video quality over kinescopes for the western states. It allowed huge savings for the networks that would no longer be burdened by the expense of film stock and processing fees the kinescope process demanded. Live was still the way the public would see their favorite shows if they lived in the east or the midwest. No matter from which coast the programs originated, tape machines now rolled for the western time zones with kinescopes initially relegated to backup and eventually phased out altogether.
However, even before all the orders for machines earmarked for TZD were filled, the purpose of tape began to expand. NBC received its first videotape machine on December 13th, 1956. According to Broadcasting magazine issues 12/10/56, 12/17/56 and 12/24/56, it was installed – not in Burbank – but in NBC’s Hollywood headquarters. A second one soon followed. Even before NBC started running TZD’s from tape (officially when Daylight Savings Time started in April, 1957), the technology was put to work in a new way.
NBC had an audience participation show called “Truth or Consequences” that originally aired live from Burbank. The show was a television adaptation of a popular radio program of the same name. It relied on audience members to be the foils as they were asked unanswerable questions (Truth) and then put through some outrageous stunt (Consequences).
The evening primetime television version never set the ratings world on fire. So after two seasons it was removed from NBC’s evening schedule. But the radio version was still quite popular. So four months after leaving the nighttime schedule, NBC tried again with a televised version, this time in daytime. The show would make a young Bob Barker a household name and continue into the mid 1970’s.
The daytime “T or C” began its daytime run on December 31st, 1956, originating live from Hollywood alternating from two locations. Sometimes its home base was the El Capitan theater on Vine Street (years later it would become ABC’s Hollywood Palace). Other times it was Studio D, a radio studio converted to television in NBC’s Radio City West at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street. Quickly, it became obvious there was a problem to be solved. The show aired live in the east at 11:30am. However in Hollywood, that’s 8:30 in the morning – hardly a conducive time to have a pie thrown in your face! The New York Times reported, “Rounding up an audience of Hollywood tourists at [8:30am in the morning] has been a problem.”
On January 22, 1957, less than a month after the New Years Eve debut of the daytime version, “Truth or Consequences” became the first entertainment show to be recorded on tape not for time zone delay, but to assure the show had the studio audience it needed. Even though the big tape buildup would take place in the new Burbank facility, the first prerecorded program made ahead of time to air both in the east and the west from tape was made at the old Hollywood Radio City.
When the next daylight savings time rolled around on May 4th, 1958, NBC opened “Video Tape Central” as part of the Burbank technical operation. Initially, it contained one RCA prototype color machine and two Ampex machines converted to color by NBC engineers. More machines from both manufacturers were added as quickly as they could be delivered. By 1959, Tape Central had grown to eight (8) Ampex machines and four (4) RCA machines. A control system was also designed to automate the entire TZD process.
NBC Tape Central. These are the four RCA TRT-1A color prototypes. Primary use for these and the Ampex machines below were for Time Zone Delay. From “RCA Broadcast News,” March, 1959
The Ampex room. Eight VR1000’s, modified by NBC/RCA to record and play color. From “Automatic Control of Video Tape Equipment at NBC, Burbank” by Robert W. Byloff
Machines were poised to record and play through a system of timers. One hour programs were treated the same as half hour programs. Even though the machines would accept an hour of tape, it would take them too long to rewind and cue up for playback during the short break between programs at the top of any given hour. Instead, the decision was made to break all programs at the half hour point. In the case of one hour programs, a commercial break about a half hour into the show would be used to switch to another record machine. The first half hour was rewound and cued to standby for playback at the top of the hour while the other machine recorded the second half hour of the show.
Except for the live eastern time zone feeds either originated from or funneled through 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, the NBC network originated from Burbank.
As the 50’s wore on, more shows began to record in advance. But they had to be done as live – recorded in their entirety in one pass. There was no way to stop and fix mistakes. It didn’t take engineers long to begin experimenting with ways to edit the unwieldy and unforgiving two-inch wide quadruplex recordings. Audiotape had been physically edited for years using a metal guide, a razor blade and some special adhesive tape. But television signals were more complicated, particularly in the way they were recorded on the tape.
All the machines were two inch quadruplex (quad for short) because it took large reels of two inch wide tape unspooling at 15 inces per second past four magnetic heads revolving at a high rate of speed (14400 times per minute) to reproduce the quality of a live signal. Four rotations equaled one frame. If a cut was made anywhere but between a complete frame, the picture would jump and roll until it found its control pulse again and stabilized.
In addition, this doesn’t account for the fact the audio heads were not in line with the video. Even if the video edit was acceptable, the audio would be subject to momentarily losing audio sync. Referred to as “lip flap,” it would manifest itself as the audio for shot A would continue after the video for shot A had cut to shot B, a noticeable number of frames later.
Fifteen inches of tape equaled one second of video or thirty frames. The distance between the video heads and the audio heads was about 6 inches or a third of a second, enough to cause “lip-flap.”
The editor couldn’t use a picture to indicate the cut as they could in film. Engineers couldn’t rock the tape back and forth to listen for a cue as they could to in audio tape as pictures on the tape weren’t visible unless the tape was running at speed. If the tape was paused or moved slowly in front of the spinning video heads, they made confetti out of the tape. It seemed videotape would just be a record/rewind/playback medium.
But cut it they did. Very carefully. First, pioneer tape editors would find an approximate location of the cut, usually by either rocking the tape and listening to the audio track without the heads spinning. Or failing that, they would play it with video and hit the stop button over and over again, watching and listening for the cut, marking the tape with black felt tip pen to refine the edit point. When they felt they had the proper location for the cut the editor would pull the tape away from the heads and insert it into a metal guide, similar to ones used in audio editing only much larger.
Beginning with an application of a liquid solution of fine iron powder they would reveal the magnetic pulses recorded on the tape so they could identify where the frames ended or began. Editors would then would make cuts that had to be accurate to less than a thousandth of an inch – less than the size of a human hair. This had to be done twice for each edit – once for the outgoing shot and then for the incoming shot. The two cuts then would be joined with a special adhesive tape, re-threaded and played. They wouldn’t know if they were successful or not until they saw the cut AFTER they had made it.
Early video tape editors were dealing with tolerances in the thousandths of an inch to make cuts exactly between frames on the correct sync pulse. If they didn’t, the picture would lose sync and roll until it re-locked to its control track.
NBC Burbank engineers and editors decided they had to come up with a better way than this trial and error method of editing. Eventually, they invented a way to make the edits more accurate. Kinescope equipment was still in use and available so they developed a system of editing using 16mm kinescope films. After a master videotape was recorded, a 16mm film “work print” would be made of it along with 16mm magnetic sound recordings. On the cue track of the master videotape, the sound area of the kinescoped film and the cue track of the 16mm sound recording engineers would record the Editor Sync Guide (ESG), a forerunner to what we know now as Time Code.
ESG consisted of a male voice calling out the minutes and a female voice calling out the seconds. Every 24 frames, there would be a one frame “beep” tone. Art Schneider, an NBC editor involved with the system’s creation, says in his book “Jump Cut” it took three people and a week to create the seventy-three minute master recording.
The Smith 2 inch quad videotape splicer. Courtesy Early Television Foundation and Museum and Steve McVoy
Because of the twenty frame difference between the location of the video heads and the audio heads on the videotape machines, the 16mm sound track was used for all subsequent sound mixing and sweetening to maintain sync. After final mixing, it was laid back to the videotape in one pass.
Schneider states in his book, the first official broadcast use of the system aired on October 17th, 1958, on the special “An Evening with Fred Astaire.” It was also one of the first programs to be recorded on color videotape. The show went on to win 9 Emmy Awards in 1959 including “Most Outstanding Single Program of the Year.” An unprecedented 10th award was given thirty years later when in 1988 a technical award went to Don Kent, Ed Reitan and Dan Einstein for restoration of the program for the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
“An Evening with Fred Astaire” in its entirely. One of the first uses of color videotape for time zone delay. Also one of the first primetime uses of Chroma Key, seen in the St. James Infirmary number that begins at 40:14.
Schneider further wrote that the word of mouth from Astaire program “literally opened up the flood gates to producers and directors who wanted their shows edited at NBC.” Word of its accuracy spread quickly and for about 10 years after, NBC Color City was place to go to edit your videotaped program! The editing on the Astaire program was minimal by comparison to some of the later efforts using the ESG system.
UPDATE: Additional investigation has called Schneider’s account into question. The Astaire program was live with the dance numbers and commercials rolled in from prerecorded videotape. According to Don Kent, one of the three individuals to receive the Emmy Award in 1988 for the restoration of the program, the recording of the live feed used for the west coast time zone delay obviously had no edits. In addition, the only edit he found in the roll-in’s of the dance numbers was a splice from a previous use of the tape stock. It was also one of the first programs to be recorded on color videotape.
Schneider eventually used the system on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” The “Laugh-In” program was the first program use very quick cutting, sometimes just a few frames. For some segments, every camera take was a physical cut in the tape. It was said when the “Laugh-In” master tapes were played, they had so many physical cuts they sounded like a machine gun firing as the tape passed the spinning video heads!
Another electronic trick we accept as routine today is Chroma-key. Some may know it as compositing and there’s hardly a show we see today that doesn’t use it in some form. Motion picture production had been using compositing for years prior to the invention of television, but it was an involved process requiring optical printers and intermediate film mattes, hardly suitable for the immediacy of live television.
In July of 1957, Chroma-key had its first on-air test on one of NBC Burbank’s more ambitious projects, “Matinee Theater” that ran from 1955 to 1958. Every weekday afternoon, a one-hour live dramatic production was presented. The source material varied, but often it was an adaptation of some famous literary work.
A television version of the H.G. Wells classic “The Invisible Man,” lent itself perfectly for the first live use of Chroma Key. When the title character’s hands and head were wrapped in blue and he stood in front of a blue screen, the Chroma Key amplifier would replace the blue parts of the video with an image from another camera. All that would be seen in the composite shot was the man’s clothing in front of scenery being shot by the background camera, thus making him appear to be invisible.
Chroma-key was developed by Frank Gaskins, NBC Burbank’s technical operations supervisor and Milt Altman, graphics arts supervisor. Together, they pooled their talent to develop what has become standard equipment on live video switchers throughout the world and now can be launched on any home computer. Today, blue has been largely replaced by the use of green, but is the same process. The key color change became necessary when video started to be compressed and primary colors began to be sampled at the ratio of 4:2:2, with luminance and green being the only fully sampled channel in most cases.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Kris Trexler, Bill Connor, Russ Stacey, David Crosthwait and Dick Martin for their contribution, guidance and assistance in researching these articles to say goodbye to an icon of the television industry – NBC’s Beautiful Downtown Burbank.