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Editorial: It’s not nice to fool Father Time

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

What were they thinking at KDKA? The CBS-owned Pittsburgh station recently got caught tinkering with time during a supposedly live broadcast of a Steelers game, when it compressed the action to squeeze in an extra 30-second commercial.
A local newspaper columnist happened to be listening to the game on the radio while watching the “live” TV picture on KDKA and noticed that the video was running behind the audio. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that something was amiss.
It turns out the station was using a high-tech device called the Time Machine to speed up the action imperceptibly after shoehorning in the extra spot.
The NFL was less than pleased to learn the station had tampered with its live feed. But it appeared willing to let it go this time. “We view it as an isolated incident and don’t believe it will happen again,” a league spokesman said.
CBS and KDKA can only hope other programming suppliers-not to mention advertisers and viewers-are as understanding. The NFL apparently is not the only programmer to be bitten by the station’s time-compression bug, and the incident may not be as isolated as the league’s spokesman wants to believe.
A glance at network logs revealed, for example, that KDKA may have conjured up an extra 30 seconds for a local spot during a broadcast of the network’s hit “CSI” drama last month. And data from Competitive Media Reporting suggests that KDKA has been selling commercial units at a pace that is way out of sync with its local competitors.
But it doesn’t stop there. Rumors have begun to circulate that other CBS O&Os may be guilty of similar time-compression offenses. One theory is that the pressure to sell ads has been so great at the CBS stations-some blame Viacom Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin-that the stations have been forced to find creative ways to inflate their numbers.
To state the obvious-since it apparently has eluded KDKA and others-playing with time in this manner is playing with fire. Pressure or no pressure, the practice is dishonest, unfair and unethical; it undermines the integrity of the television industry. It is also unwise: It was bound to backfire, which is exactly what appears to have happened.
The network and its O&Os should take fast, decisive action to minimize the impact of what could otherwise balloon into a damaging scandal. CBS must find a way to reassure programmers, advertisers and viewers that the network and its affiliates have seen the error of their ways and have ceased all time-compression activity.
The network should conduct a thorough internal investigation and should disclose any abuses it uncovers. And those parties who are guilty of tinkering with time should apologize and make it clear that they won’t do it again.