Heather Courtney began shooting video of migrant day laborers in Texas as a graduate school thesis project, with few ideas about distribution. Los Trabajadores/The Workers eventually screened at over fifty different venues over the past year. As the film journeyed through the festival circuit and aired on PBS affiliates in Texas, Courtney never heard there was anything technically wrong with her film. But when the film was selected to air nationally on PBS, she was informed that her master tape did not fit PBS’s technical standards and that she would need to re-edit a portion of it before it could air. After the re-edit and two rounds of color correction, the film finally passed PBS’s technical screening and aired on Independent Lens on March 25.
Though not all producers will need to re-edit their projects as Courtney did, independent producers with plans for PBS should prepare to meet what are widely considered to be the strictest technical standards of any broadcast network in the country. According to Robby Fahey, production coordinator at ITVS, a producer is doing well if PBS finds only one or two problems with his or her master tape.
Among on-line editors and broadcast engineers, PBS is legendary for being the ultimate test of a master tape. Patrick Wickham, vice president of policy and digital initiatives at ITVS, says, “[PBS] cares deeply about their signal; they want to have the best looking, cleanest signal out there.” The result is that a program that has been accepted to air on local PBS affiliates, cable networks, and even other broadcast networks is often still rejected by PBS technical staff.
Some filmmakers have suggested that PBS’s tough technical standards are directly at odds with independent producers. While there is no evidence that PBS is targeting independents, they do pay a heavier price for these standards than producers working for stations within the public television system. “Stations have their editing suites standing by to make any changes,” Wickham says, “but independents have to book time and pay a post house to make their changes.”
There are practical reasons why independent filmmakers are affected by PBS’s high standards. An obvious yet important point is that PBS is a broadcast television network. PBS and its audience expect material that fits with the general aesthetic guidelines of most television. But most independent filmmakers produce their material with a more cinematic aesthetic in mind. “The whisper followed by a huge crash that you’ll hear in a theater won’t work on PBS. They expect a consistent audio level that will sound good through a TV speaker,” Fahey explains. Similarly, certain looks favored by some auteurs can put programs on the wrong side of the PBS standards. “The ‘crushed blacks’ and over-saturated colors that filmmakers like,” Fahey continues, “create the type of levels that PBS will reject.”
The most common reasons for a project being rejected are actually invisible to the naked eye and remain unseen without the aid of professional video scopes. “The number-one issue our programs have is that the blacks are too black,” Wickham says. This cryptic statement refers to the level of luminance signal of the picture. PBS requires that the black levels be no lower than 7.5 IRE—something that can only reliably be seen with a waveform monitor. Other common problems, such as luminance and chroma levels that are too high, can also only be seen with professional equipment.
Though many nonlinear editing programs now include waveform tools, they do not do as good of a job finding these details as the hardware scopes found in a post house on-line room. “Final Cut Pro is a great editing tool,” says Wickham, “but its built-in scopes [and Broadcast Safe filter] do not provide a level of quality that is suitable for PBS.”
One of the problems PBS had with Los Trabajadores/The Workers was signal dropout that could be directly attributed to a problem with a DV camera. The bad signal was traced all the way back to the original master tapes, and the only solution was to re-edit the portion of the show that used the affected shots. Camera-related problems like Courtney’s, that can’t be fixed in post, are rare, though.
Editing is the all-important time for making sure that a program will meet PBS standards. A producer who plans their post process to meet the guidelines will have a much easier time than a producer who doesn’t think about it until the project gets picked up by PBS. “Postproduction provides a number of opportunities to make or break the standards that PBS cares the most about,” Wickham says.
More than anything, a producer should plan and budget to do a professional on-line. Planning and budgeting means hiring somebody who knows what he or she is doing, and doing the research to make sure he or she is meeting PBS standards. Just calling up a local post house and scheduling an on-line is not enough. “If the on-line editor says they’ve done stuff for broadcast, even for PBS,” says Fahey, “you can’t just trust that they’ll get it right. Get a copy of the PBS technical specs and give it to them. Make sure they know what specs they need to meet.”
PBS Technical Services publishes their Technical Operating Specifications Manual (TOS) separately from the “Red Book” that most producers are familiar with. The Red Book may seem technical, but the TOS is what you need to give an editor. Though the Red Book is available online, the TOS is only available by calling PBS Technical Services ((703) 739-5201; this number is also in the Red Book). PBS does not offer the TOS on the web, but, according to PBS Technical Services staff, they have an electronic PDF version of it in the works. But the PDF will be so large that they will probably still mail it on CD-ROM instead of over the internet.
Striving to meet such strict technical standards may seem like a drag on the creative part of the filmmaking process, but people who regularly work with PBS begin to view them the same way they do rights, clearances, and insurance—a necessary evil that gets easier to handle with experience but is never completely painless. On the positive side, planning to meet the PBS specs will ensure that your project will meet the most rigorous broadcast standards around the world—technically speaking, of course.
Getting it Right
Independents can learn to lessen their chance of rejection on technical grounds by following some basic rules.
White balance your camera for every environment you shoot in. People may choose to leave fiddling with the color for postproduction, but white balancing your camera is still an important part of the production process because it ensures consistent color levels throughout your shots. More color adjustments made to the image in post open the door for aesthetic and technical issues.
Change the channel
Many filmmakers use a separate microphone in addition to the one built into the camera and record the sound on the second channel of the tape. Using a second mic is fine, but recording onto the second channel of the tape along with the camera’s audio on the first channel sometimes creates a problem stemming from the slightly different audio being together on the same tape. Instead, record your second audio source onto separate media—such as a Nagra, DAT, MiniDisk, or even another DV camera—and sync up the sound later during post.
Line up the on-line
Resign yourself to the fact that you are most likely going to require the services of an experienced on-line editor. An on-line edit (sometimes also called “finishing”) is a high-quality edit that ensures that the highest quality media is mastered to tape. Many on-lines are still done with linear editing equipment, but high-end “finishing” systems like Avid Symphony, Avid D|S, and Discreet Smoke are also common. Contact post-houses in your vicinity and find out their experience, facilities, and rates. There is no simple guideline for what equipment they should have, but calibrated professional equipment that can measure video levels well enough to meet the PBS specs is an important requirement. The on-line editor’s experience is also an important element. If you can hire somebody that has experience preparing content for PBS, that’s probably the best way to go, but someone without PBS experience who can understand and meet the PBS specs will probably work just as well. Also make sure that you log and organize your off-line edit to make it easily transferable to an on-line system—before you start cutting.
Fix the mix
Sound level is another area that PBS looks at. It’s important to mix your sound with the PBS specs in mind, too.
A Beta by any other name
The de facto videotape standard for most broadcast facilities, not just PBS, is Digital Beta. Virtually every professional on-line facility has Digital Beta decks, but some people may still choose to use Beta SP. Don’t. Beta SP tapes will most likely need to be dubbed to Digital Beta for broadcast, and there may be technical issues that result from that transfer. Instead, plan to master directly onto Digital Beta, which will be higher quality and will lower the chances of technical problems with your program.
Don’t forget the rest
In your rush to meet PBS’s stringent technical guidelines, don’t forget about the other guidelines you have to meet—PBS’s Red Book of deliverables that covers various rules on credit placement, captions, lower-thirds, and promo styles. Many people confuse the Red Book and the TOS, but they are not the same—make sure you get both. The Red Book is available to read on the web at: www.pbs.org/insidepbs/redbook and at AIVF’s resource library in New York.