Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The X on Cheney

(Via Michelle Malkin)

The blogosphere has been in complete meltdown mode concerning the mysterious 'X' that was briefly superimposed over Vice President Dick Cheney's face during CNN's live coverage of his speech on Monday. I thought I would offer some non-expert analysis having operated video switchers during live productions both on the job and freelancing, so take it for whatever it's worth. I might also add that none of the work I've done rises to the level of complexity that is performed by the networks or any of the other cable news providers, however basic principles should still apply.

While it is possible that a technical glitch was responsible for what happened yesterday, I find it unlikely. Most major networks use Grass Valley switchers or something very comparable. In fact, CNN used the Grass Valley 4000 switcher during the 2004 Election Coverage, and I suspect they also use a similar, if not more elaborate model in their various studios worldwide. The reason: They are an industry standard and are extremely versatile and reliable. They are rock solid, for lack of a better term. They'd better be, considering the fact that you will drop the better part of a half million dollars to purchase the most sophisticated video switchers available in the market.

This is my long way of saying it would be extremely unlikely that the switcher was the culprit. It simply didn't do anything it was not asked or programmed to do. At some point, human interaction most likely caused what occurred yesterday.

Am I saying that what happened was intentional or deliberate? Not at all! I have no way of proving that one-way or the other. What I am saying, however, is this: The "technical malfunction" excuse given by CNN doesn't fly with me. I am fairly certain human error or "technician malfunction" came into play, whether intentional or not. At some point, the switcher would have to have been programmed or manually manipulated to perform the task. Period.

I did not see what happened as it was broadcast, so I have to conclude that if it occurred once, it was probably due to unintentional human error. If it was repetitive, it was probably done intentionally. Also, not knowing how obvious the ‘X’ was when broadcast or how long it was displayed, understand these are merely assumptions about what I think may have happened, not expert analysis or opinion.

The video you see on the screen actually has at least four layers: First, there is the live feed showing Vice President Cheney making his speech. On top of that you have the CNN graphic with the quote box that no doubt changes as the speech progresses. You then have a scroll bar on the bottom and a stock market indicator on the bottom right that changes at regular intervals. There is also the "Live" indicator in the upper left corner. The coverage is graphics intense to say the least, but not much different than any other major news broadcast.

The X that appears is nothing more than another layer added on top of the others, but something strikes me as odd about it in particular. It is a graphic that should never appear on screen regardless of circumstances. It is a marker that has been revealed to contain the text "Transition begins after 5 frames of black".

Put simply, this looks to me like a reminder to the operator to run 5 frames of black prior to transitioning to the next element, most likely a commercial. This is not something that should ever be seen by the viewer. If you consider that this was live coverage of a speech, the time for the transition to occur could not be pinpointed specifically, assuming the intent was to provide complete uninterrupted coverage of the speech. It just strikes me as odd that it appeared at all. That it appeared when it did seems a bit strange.

If you want to go the conspiracy theory route, then this would be a possible theory:

Video is broadcast at a rate of approximately 30 frames per second in NTSC. If you know that, then you would also know you can slip practically anything you want into a few frames each second and it will be practically invisible to the average viewer other than maybe a tiny flicker or unknown anomaly. This is how subliminal messages were supposed to work, if you buy into that sort of thing.

So if you broadcast the X over Dick Cheney's face a few times it goes practically unnoticed by the public, but you get a copy of the speech and play it back frame by frame for your friends at a Bush/Cheney bash and get a few cheap laughs.

You get caught by Drudge, who notices the anomaly and is much smarter than you think he is, and you go into cover mode and blame it on a glitch. Let's face it you are CNN! You've never been caught doing anything underhanded before, right?

The truth is, we'll probably never know exactly what caused it, but isn't it ironic that CNN has put themselves in a position in which their credibility is constantly challenged based on past behavior? If CNN were viewed as an unbiased news source, this probably would have gone unnoticed.

I would also like those who have second-guessed Ian, to get off his back. He provided the slow motion video at The Political Teen, but has been questioned as to its authenticity. I have never seen any indication that he would do anything deceiving and he provides a great service to all loggers. Keep in mind; the highest quality video you can hope to expect is no more than 15 frames per second without huge bandwidth requirements and unusually slow load times. The fact that his videos don't provide a full 30 frames per second proves absolutely no ill intent or underhandedness whatsoever. It's just the reality of video streaming.

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