Thursday, December 1, 2011

Silent Doom

In my last post, I made a point of how important moments of silence can be in a dramatic performance. Trying to fill every second of air time with something quickly becomes noise. There are times, however, when too much silence can set off panic in master control.

It was back in the days when one of your local TV stations would air classic cartoons from the 40's and 50's... before Oprah and Dr. Phil, and Dr. Oz, and omnipresent reruns of "Everybody Loves Raymond" took over the afternoon schedules. Local stations bought entire collections of cartoons from distributors, originally on 16mm prints struck back in the 50's. Running a "Bugs Bunny Playhouse" kinda thing required master control operators to work more like DJ's: switching sources every six or seven minutes and threading film projectors during a two-minute commercial break.

The cartoon in question is a Tom and Jerry outing titled "Sorry Safari," originally released in 1962, and directed by Gene Deitch. At one point in the cartoon, Tom's owner, now a cranky white guy instead of Mammy Two-Shoes (Deitch despised the racism in the Hanna-Barbara directed shorts), takes his anger out on Tom by wrapping a rifle around Tom's head and pulling the trigger. (Deitch also despised the violence, but not enough to turn away a job.) The gun blast temporarily deafens Tom. The soundtrack goes silent so that we, the cartoon viewer, can get the joke.

Now, here's the problem: in a movie theater, where this cartoon was originally intended to screened, a point-of-view sound gag can be quite effective... and back in the projectionist booth the reel can would contain a note to the projectionist that there will be silence for 20 seconds during the cartoon. But, in a TV station, things are quite different.

Dead air, as we call it, is the bane of broadcasting. Extended silence on the air quite literally sets off alarms in the control room - silence detectors are set to warn operators there's something wrong - and invariably the phone rings with someone at the other end asking, "Do you know you're off the air?"

So here's this clever silence gag in the middle of what would ordinarily be a frantic soundtrack. Now you should know that master control operators can't always watch every second of every program they have to air. There are feeds to record, transmitters to watch, and the cute little number from the sales department who stopped by to ask a question. So when the audio suddenly goes quiet, after about five seconds, master control goes into Scramble Mode. Is it the playback? Did we lose the feed? Is it a transmitter issue? Check the link to the transmitter. Call the on-call engineer. Where's his number? Somebody get the phone! Where in the Chyron did they file the "audio difficulties" crawl? Oh crap, I'm gonna get fired. Not again.

And, of course, twenty seconds later the sound comes back, and watching Tom's reaction to being able to hear again, you realize you've been the victim of a sound gag perpetrated by some clever scoundrel. (That would be you, Gene.)

We put up with a lot of annoying sound effects in master control: an incessantly ringing phone, a crying baby, or somebody giving birth - again - on "Grey's Anatomy." But nothing livened things up quite the same as that twenty seconds of sheer panic we got during a Tom and Jerry cartoon...

Except for maybe the ending on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

Yes, yes, Tom, we know there's a problem. We're working on it.

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