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In radio and television, broadcast delay is an intentional delay when broadcasting live material. Such a delay may be short (often seven seconds) to prevent mistakes or unacceptable content from being broadcast. Longer delays lasting several hours can also be introduced so that the material is aired at a later scheduled time (such as the prime time hours) to maximize viewership.
A short delay is often used to prevent profanity, bloopers, nudity, or other undesirable material from making it to air, including more mundane problems such as technical malfunctions (i.e. an anchor's lapel microphone goes dead). In this instance, it is often referred to as a 'seven-second delay' or 'profanity delay'. Longer delays, however, can also be introduced, often to allow a show to air at the same time for the local market as is sometimes done with nationally broadcast programs in countries with multiple time zones. Considered as time shifting, this is often achieved through a 'tape delay', using a video tape recorder, modern digital video recorders or other similar technology.
Tape delay also refers to the process of broadcasting an event at a later scheduled time. This is because either a scheduling conflict prevents a live telecast, or a broadcaster seeks to maximize ratings by airing an event in a certain timeslot. This can also be done due to time constraints where certain portions (usually those that do not affect the outcome of the show) are edited out, or availability of hosts or other key production staff only at certain times of the day, and is generally applicable for cable television programs.
Broadcasters in the United States regularly utilize a 'west-coast delay', where special events (including some award shows and several reality competition programs) broadcast live in the Eastern or Central time zones are then tape-delayed on the western half of the country, including California. This is done despite the fact that Southern California is where many live televised events (like American Idol, America's Got Talent, The Voice and Dancing With The Stars) take place. Due of the three-hour time difference, for example, a live event scheduled at 8:00 pm in New York would also be at 5:00 pm in Los Angeles, when many people there are just getting off of work instead of at home and watching TV. American morning news shows are typically aired live only in the Eastern time zone, while on tape delay in the remaining time zones, except for special editions requiring live coast-to-coast U.S. telecasts. This allows post-production staff to edit out any glitches that occurred during the live broadcast.
International tape delays of live global events, intended by major television networks, dominated world television up until the early 2010s. For example, during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, daytime events were occurring at early morning hours in the Americas, Africa, and Europe, while being aired live entirely in Asia, Australia and Oceania, so some broadcasters showed high-profile events twice (live, then rebroadcast during prime time), while others withheld the same event to be broadcast solely during prime time. Often, tape-delaying of these events would mean editing them down for time considerations, highlighting what the broadcaster feels are the most interesting portions of the event, or advertising.
With the advent of social media's widespread reach to television viewers by the late 2000s, however, tape delays for several television programs have steadily declined due to live television's resurgence as a broadcast format. Beginning the mid-2010s, several high-profile entertainment programs like the Academy Awards, Primetime Emmy Awards and Grammy Awards, as well as Olympic Games, the World Cup and other major international sports telecasts have been aired to totality live on both television and the internet in virtually all of the world's time zones in and out of their countries of origin, with mandated prime time rebroadcasts (inclusive of edits as desired by broadcasters) for regions which have previously and solely relied on delayed telecasts on prime time among these otherwise live events.
The radio station WKAP in Allentown, Pennsylvania, introduced a tape delay system consisting of an external playback head, which was spaced far enough away from the record head to allow for a six-second delay. A system of rollers guided the tape over the playback head before it wound up on the take up reel. This system was introduced in 1952 when WKAP started a talk show called Open Mic. It is believed that this was the first time a telephone call-in show was broadcast with the telephone conversation "live" on the air. The FCC rules at the time prohibited the broadcasting of a live phone conversation. However, there was no rule prohibiting a taped playback of a phone call, provided that a "beep" tone was heard by the caller every 15 seconds so that the caller knew he was being recorded. The six-second delay constituted a "taped" phone conversation, thus complying with FCC regulations, that being a legal fiction.
The broadcast profanity delay was invented by C. Frank Cordaro (July 13, 1919 - February 20, 1997) who was Chief Engineer of WKAP, originally on AM 1320, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, during the 1950s and early 1960s. Ogden Davies, then General Manager of WKAP, assigned Cordaro the task to develop a device whereby profanity during a "live" conversation could be deleted by the radio talk show host before it was broadcast. This new device was to be used on the Open Mic radio talk show. The device Cordaro developed was the first tape delay system. WKAP was one of several stations owned by the Rahal brothers of West Virginia (later Rahal Communications). First tested and used at WKAP, this tape system for broadcast profanity delay was then installed at the other Rahal-owned radio stations. From the Rahal brothers' stations, the broadcast profanity delay went into common usage throughout the US.
John Nebel, who began a pioneering radio talk show in New York City in 1954, was one of the early users of a tape delay system as was talk show pioneer Jerry Williams at WMEX in Boston in the late 1950s.
In 1977, the capacity of RAM (random-access memory) had reached 16 kb (kilobits) per chip, enough to think about using computerized digital audio means to create a sufficient delay for content deletion. By storing audio digitally, it was possible to move a "virtual tape head" along recorded audio. Eventide, Inc. created the first digital broadcast delay for this purpose. The device (known colloquially as a "dump box") had a large "DUMP"/"DELAY DUMP" button that would bring the delay to zero, thus removing unwanted segments. In addition to this convenience, it would also "rebuild" the delay time by unnoticeably lengthening the normal pauses in spoken material. Thus, a minute or so later, the broadcaster would again have full delay, often leaving the listener unaware that material had been deleted.
In modern systems, a profanity delay can be a software module manually operated by a broadcast technician that puts a short delay (usually thirty seconds) into the broadcast of live content. This gives the broadcaster time to censor the audio (and video) feed. This can be accomplished by cutting directly to a non-delayed feed, essentially jumping past the undesired moment (something that can be quite jarring to a viewer or listener). In other cases, dedicated hardware units similar to the original digital unit but with improved quality and editing capability can be used. These products can even "build up" delay with difficult program material such as music. Alternatively, a bleep noise or other substitute sound can be inserted. This is more difficult to do with live content, however, and more often appears on recorded material.
- Elly, Wally (2006-09-20). "In local radio, change is common - with one exception". The Morning Call. Retrieved 2016-08-16.