"What you are about to witness is real," booms an announcer at the beginning of "The People's Court," the popular syndicated courtroom show. But what Washington viewers of "People's Court" see on WRC-TV here is not precisely the real "People's Court." It's the pre-shrunk "People's Court."
Before broadcast, WRC puts each day's edition of "People's Court" through an electronic device that shortens the program by about 40 seconds, without deleting any scenes, so the station can squeeze in an additional commercial and a promotional announcement for its early evening newscast.
But this isn't just "The Case of the Curtailed Court." It's also "The Case of the Muzzled Muppets" because WDCA-TV has a machine just like WRC's, which it uses to speed up, and thus shorten, the syndicated "Muppet Show" by a full minute each day. As the program content is shortened by a minute, the amount of available commercial time is expanded by a minute.
"It's a wonderful device, it really is," says WDCA program manager Farrell Meisel. The wonderful device, called a Lexicon 1200 Audio-Time Compressor, is about the size of a stereo tuner for the home and uses sophisticated computer circuitry to shorten a program by as much as 25 percent without causing visual or aural changes perceptible to the average viewer.Video "frames" are removed electronically, and a special device maintains the original pitch of the soundtrack so that human beings don't sound like Munchkins when they talk, or fall victim to -- as the president of the company that makes the machine calls it -- the dread "Donald Duck factor."
"I see nothing wrong with it," says John Rohrbeck, vice president and general manager of WRC, about shrinking "The People's Court." He does not consider it deceptive. "I've never thought about it that way," Rohrbeck said yesterday. "We're not changing the program in any fashion." Meisel, who boasted that WDCA bought the first Lexicon in this market a year ago, also was asked if he thought its use amounted to deception. "None whatsoever," he said. "It's the same as editing a movie. We are not misrepresenting the program in any way."
In fact, the Lexicon is in common use at TV stations and networks throughout the country. It frequently is used to shorten news stories that have to fit into specific time frames. Networks are beginning to use it to shorten movies without actually cutting them. Nevertheless, Stu Billett, producer of "The People's Court," was startled to hear his show is being electronically scrunched in Washington when told about it yesterday.
"This is a surprise to me," Billett said from Hollywood. "That's incredible! That's incredible! I'm sure there's nothing on the books that says they can't do it, but still..."
In fact, though, Billett said, Ralph Edwards Productions, which makes "The People's Court," had considered using a time compressor itself when the series began. "We looked into that thing, and from everything I heard, it just didn't do it well enough." So "People's Court" is edited for broadcast the old-fashioned way; lines and scenes are shortened or removed so each edition will come in at about 22 minutes and 30 seconds.
Then, of course, WRC-TV runs it through the wringer and it pops out even shorter.
Meisel says that about twice a week Channel 20 also uses the Lexicon to shorten the running times of feature-length films.He says squeezing them electronically is preferable to "butchering" them. "If a program runs long, we reduce the running time of the program without cutting it and without taking any content away," Meisel said.
"The People's Court" has been a smash hit for WRC, doubling the station's ratings at 5 p.m. daily since the program was introduced and making the station, according to a spokesman, No. 1 in this market in that time period. The bounties don't end there. "People's Court" and reruns of "Charlie's Angels," which precede it, have been keenly instrumental in boosting the ratings of the station's evening news programs, which begin at 5:30 and are generously promoted during "People's Court."
In one current promo now being shown on "People's Court" and elsewhere, the "Channel 4 News Team" is shown painting and furnishing its own new office. Television is nothing if not the illusion business.
Some of that extra commercial time goes to spots like that, or promos for the station's "Live at 5:30" news fluff show.
"People's Court" also airs in Baltimore, on WBAL-TV, and a station spokesman said yesterday that WBAL does not own a Lexicon 1200 or similar contraption. On Jan. 12, comparisons were made of the timing of the same edition of "The People's Court" as broadcast on WRC and WBAL. Each segment on WRC of that day's show ("The Case of the Undisciplined Doberman" and "The Case of the Live-In Lover That Left") was a few seconds shorter than it was on WBAL, for an overall time difference of about 30 seconds.
Time is money in television, to put it mildly. Rohrbeck says WRC collects about $40 per rating point for advertising time it sells on "People's Court." Since it gets a 10 rating, a 30-second spot costs about $400, Rohrbeck said.
In Waltham, Mass., Ron Noonan, president of Lexicon Inc., when asked about the ethics of using the time compressor to shorten programs and add commercials, said, "We're the guys who design and build these things -- we don't use them."
But Noonan also said he didn't think such use was deceptive. "If you see what goes into producing a program, a commercial, even a pop record, you see they use all kinds of sophisticated production technology. With a record, the people you hear on the album may not have ever been together in one place; the tracks are all assembled later. So in a way, the whole thing is sort of a deception.
"Also, I think it's less deceptive to not cut something out and to speed it up than to edit out entire scenes."
Noonan says the time compressor amounts to about 25 percent of his company's sales, and sales manager Phillip De Santis said more than 200 have been sold at about $8,000 each. Audio tapes can be compressed to run at half their original time and still be intelligible, De Santis said -- a boon to those whose job it is to review recordings made with wire taps, for instance.
The machine works by "sampling" the audio track 40,000 times per second and then making "splicing decisions" based on those readings, Noonan said. "Basically, it's a computerized interface to various kinds of playback devices." Videotapes can be run through it movies can be run through it -- but a live TV picture? No, no, no. "You can't change real time," Noonan said.
Somewhere, however, somebody probably is working on that.
A local electronics buff says he has stopped watching "People's Court" on WRC because the time compressor gives the picture a slight vertical flutter. You can see it if you look very closely into Judge Wapner's eyes (retired judge Joseph A. Wapner is the "star" of the show). Rohrbeck said he was unaware of any visual distortion. Noonan said the Lexicon would not cause any such flutter and that the problem might be in the time-base corrector used by the station. A time-base corrector is another electronic intercession between a broadcast signal and what one sees on one's television set.
Technology is making it increasingly possible for what one sees on one's television set to have little relationship to what is seen by that primitive old device known as the camera. Noonan said the Lexicon could shorten a two-hour movie by 15 minutes with no problem; even a one-hour program could be shortened by that much.
The machine also can be used to expand material, but that function doesn't appear to be particularly popular. "There is a limit to how far you can compress or expand," Noonan said. If you tried to shorten something beyond 20 percent, you would be in trouble.
Rohrbeck said there are no plans to speed "People's Court" up even more, to get in, say, yet another 30-second spot. "If you carried that to the extreme, if it had any noticeable effect on the quality of the program, then it would have another effect in terms of viewership," said Rohrbeck. "They're going to react by not watching."