Written by David Mowbray
Get your rundown cooking. Back-timing is the key.
Here is a situation faced by cooks the world over and believe it or not it is relevant to television production too. Say for dinner you or your parents want to prepare a roast and some boiled potatoes. You want to serve dinner at 7:00pm. It takes 4 hours to cook the roast. It takes 30 minutes for the oven to heat to 375 degrees before you put the roast in. The potatoes take 20 minutes to cook and it takes 10 minutes to bring the water to a boil. At what times do you start each cooking process so everything will be ready and hot for the family to eat at 7:00pm?
The answers are pretty straight forward. Turn on the oven at 2:30pm. Put in the roast at 3:00pm and it will be ready at 7:00pm. Start to boil the water for the potatoes at 6:30pm and put the potatoes in the water at 6:40pm so they will be ready at 7:00 on the nose. We get to those starting times by subtracting each one from the end of the one that follows. 7:00pm - 4 hours is 3:00pm. 3:00pm - 30 minutes is 2:30pm and so on.
Cooks do this kind of calculation every day. In broadcasting we call it back-timing. It is the time we need to start a task or set of tasks to be sure we come out at the right time in the end.
With the exception of live events like football games, TV shows run by the clock and the most important times on the clock are the exact start time for a show and the exact end time. Planning a TV news show is just like planning a complex meal. Except all the times have to be accurate to the second and no one can be sure exactly how much time each ingredient or news story will take until almost the last minute.
This can be a nightmare for a TV news team. Say, for example, the show starts at 6:00 pm on the nose and ends at 6:29:30 on the nose. But at the beginning of the day no one knows exactly which stories, how many stories and how long the stories will be that can be fit into the space. Too much and your anchor is cut off in mid-word. Too little and you can have an embarrassing, long blank screen and silence at the end of the show.
Lineup or rundown programs like LineupNX can help the news producer cope with this problem. First as stories are added to the show and timed that information is added to the rundown, which keeps track of the total amount of material. The producer knows when there should be enough material for a show. But lots of things can go wrong when you are on the air. A story can be late, or not even ready for air and has to be dropped. A new story is substituted but it is a different length.
How does anyone know if the show will end on time now? That is where the lineup back-time comes in. The software calculates for every story in the show exactly when it should start so the last element in the show will end at exactly the time the show goes off the air. If it looks like you will end early by a few seconds, the director can give a stretch signal to the anchors so they will slow down their reading. If the show is light by a minute she/he might add an extra copy story to take up the time. But unless there are back-times to compare with the time on the studio clock the producer will never know.
Here is an example of a rundown in LineupNX for a show that starts at 6:00pm (18:00:00 in the 24 hour clock) and ends at 6:29:30 (18:29:30). It currently shows the rundown is 1 second light. Usually when the show goes on the air that will not be a problem. The right hand column shows the back-times the column to its left shows the accumulated time or front-time. Can you see how each is computed from the copy and tape times of each item?
Does this affect your program? Maybe school announcements are "approximately 5 minutes" each day and you don't need the back time information. But wouldn't it be fun to try and bring your show out to time?
Next month I will discuss some of the strategies for building a rundown that will come out on time.
David Mowbray is a Radio and TV producer and trainer and CEO of Baobab Productions, creators of LineupNX