How 'Live' is Live TV?

Our creation of the Seven Second Delay may be making TV even less live than we intended. (Photo: SashaW/Flickr)

Later this month, the Oscars will be airing "live" all across America. But not really, because there are delays—both intended and not—that stop us from really "being there."

From Periscope to Twitch, live video is just something we expect in this day and age. When it comes to live television, however, not only is there often an intentional broadcast delay between when an event is taped and when it hits screens, the unintentional lag may be getting worse.

The history of intentional broadcast delay, or what is more commonly known today as the “seven-second delay,” actually has its roots in the days of radio. A primitive method of broadcast delay was first implemented by radio stations that would send out their signals down a telephone wire to a receiver in a different city hundreds of miles away, that would then return the signal, providing only milliseconds of delay thanks to the journey. Given the tiny amounts of time such a trick created, this method was not used for censorship or control so much as to increase sound clarity and depth when it was layered over itself.

It was not until the introduction of magnetic tape that live delay as we know it came about, although it was still all about physical distance. The earliest invention of intentional delay as we understand it seems to date back to Pennsylvania radio station WKAP in 1952. The system was initially developed to allow “live” on-air broadcasts of listener phone calls. Up until that point, only one side of a phone conversation could be aired due to FCC privacy regulations. In order to create what we now know as the common radio call-in format, the engineers at the station set up a system in which the broadcast would be recorded to one reel and broadcast off another, just seconds later—skirting the regulations but making it so that the calls weren’t truly “live.” Once again, the delay time between when the show was recorded and broadcast was determined by how long it took for the recording to get from one reel to the next—in other words, the physical length of the path between.

Once this system of physical delay of live recordings was invented, it became the standard both in radio and on live television. Joe Snelson, former president of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, who has been working in the industry since 1970, breaks down the process for us: “[When I started,] stations would place two video tape recorders side by side,” he says. “The machine on the left would record the program on tape. The tape would exit the machine, go over a series of rollers and then go into the second machine on the right for playback. Since the tape ran at 15 inches per second you would need a distance of about about nine feet between the machine tape paths for a seven-second delay.” This allowed a crucial few seconds for editors, directors, or engineers to catch anything they deemed indecent before it hit the airwaves.

Even though we are getting past the days of relying on magnetic tape in television broadcasting, the method of creating delays in live TV is essentially the same. Today, there are two primary methods for intentional delays: "a file server that uses spinning disks or a box with large memory capacity,” says Snelson. “In either case, cutting out indecent material would occur by somebody hitting a button on the ‘dump box.’”

This is an actual dump box. (Photo: Wikipedia

Dump boxes, as they are affectionately known, were first introduced in the 1970s. In the beginning, they were just custom-built hard drives that would take in live recordings and hold them in memory for a short time before releasing them to broadcast, achieving what once took nine feet or more of tape to achieve. With the push of a button—the "dump" button—these boxes could instantaneously edit out questionable content, and even splice the footage somewhat seamlessly by automatically matching moments of silence between dialogue or sound.

Dump boxes have become much more advanced over the years. As Snelson notes, some broadcasters don’t even use the purpose-built hardware boxes, opting to run footage through their own servers, and process it using content-editing software. But no matter how advanced the tech gets, live broadcasts still need someone at the helm to look out for those morally questionable moments. “This might be a production person that is knowledgeable of station broadcast policies and is ‘quick on the switch,’” Snelson says.    

Though intentional delay has come to be known as the “seven-second delay,” the amount of time that the footage is held back is really up to the people at the controls. It "would most likely be based on the reaction time of the person in control over the edit,” says Snelson. However, even with all of these protections, many things still make it to air that many wish hadn't, from the devastating on-air suicide of Christine Chubbock in 1974 to Janet Jackson's heavily publicized wardrobe malfunction in 2005.

Maybe the most famous live television debacle in recent memory. (Video: Youtube)

As for unintentional delays, you might expect that advances in technology are making them shorter and more rare. But the opposite is true. “When I began in this industry a live telecast was displayed virtually instantaneously on a viewer’s home television from when it occurred,” Snelson says. “Nowadays, due to the digital processing required to provide the viewer with digital television, there is a delay of several seconds before the viewer sees what occurred live.”

The radio and “over-the-air” broadcasts of decades ago were, in a way, more live than current live television. Seconds are often lost as broadcast signals are transferred and processed between stations, satellites, and other relays, creating unintentional lost time between the material and live viewing of it. These various transactions can each add seconds of delay, cumulatively creating unintentional delays that are longer than the intentional ones.

While these lags are still only seconds in length, when you consider that it is similar slivers of time that broadcasters rely on (often unsuccessfully) to keep the viewing public safe from indecent exposure, the lost time doesn’t seem so insignificant.

When the Oscars air live later this month, spare a thought for the men and women with their fingers waiting on the dump buttons, protecting the country from Hollywood’s foul mouths and wild outbursts. And know that, no matter what happens, you're not truly seeing it live.

This story appeared as part of Atlas Obscura's Time Week, a week devoted to the perplexing particulars of keeping time throughout history. See more Time Week stories here.