www.lup.nl
The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol03/nr01/a03


Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 3, nr. 1 (October 2012)

THE LEGACY OF BROADCAST STEREO SOUND: THE SHORT LIFE OF MTS, 1984-2009

David Sedman

Abstract


Multichannel Television Sound (MTS) is an innovation that brought new dimensions in sound to American television from the 1980s to the 2000s. This article explores the brief history of MTS and its rise to prominence, with a particular focus on both the early “experimental” years of MTS sound and its short-lived “golden era.” The article concludes with an evaluation of the lasting impact of the technological shift from monaural to multichannel sound design. Although there were numerous technical and industrial challenges to MTS sound, its introduction was essential to the development of television sound design prior to the introduction of Digital and Dolby surround sound in the early 2000s.

Introduction


Following its introduction in 1984, stereo television was a revelation in the United States. Stereo technology was a critical success and resulted in production studios updating their audio production and post-production techniques to incorporate the new system. The creative enhancements brought about by stereo to television production were so important that just two years after regular stereo broadcasts began, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded five Technical and Engineering Emmy Awards both to the inventors of the technology and to the two networks – NBC and ABC – that had aggressively utilized stereo sound in their broadcasts (Rivlin 1986: 1). TV stereo’s co-inventor, Carl Eilers (Zenith), was inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame for his work on stereo television sound and his earlier work on stereo FM radio broadcasting (CEA 2000: 1). In the wake of its introduction, electronics companies actively marketed stereo television receivers and broadcast programs proudly displayed words and/or logos in show openings, which alerted audiences that the program was being presented with stereo sound. The influence of stereo television still resonates in contemporary broadcasting even though the entire broadcast sound era known as multichannel television sound (MTS) lasted for just over a decade. In this article, I will argue for the enduring impact of MTS, despite the fact that many viewers had never been aware of hearing it. In other cases, viewers may have thought they heard stereo sound when they never actually received MTS audio. Regardless of how many viewers received this format, the MTS standard transformed audio practices in television sound from a single channel of audio emanating from a tiny speaker to a more cinematic aesthetic with multiple channels. In response, this article examines the impact that the audio dynamic known as MTS had on television production during the multichannel television sound era.

In John Ellis’s account of television in the early 1980s, he emphasized that television had remained a sound-based medium with a “stripped-down image” (Ellis 1982: 131). Indeed, television began as a medium with a monochromatic picture and a single channel of audio. Transforming television from black-and-white to color was an imperative even in the early period of television broadcasting. A standard for color broadcasting was formalized in the 1950s, but an equivalent standard for stereo sound lagged far behind. In the United States, radio broadcasting didn’t incorporate stereo sound until the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formalized it for FM radio in 1961. More than two decades later, in 1984, stereo sound was finally approved for television (Sunier 1960; VanCour 2011: 60-63).

Given that television was established as a monaural medium and it had a widespread adoption rate in the United States, the technical challenge that arose concerned how to overlay a new stereo standard without making existing television sets obsolete. The resultant MTS system is not a true stereo left channel and right channel. The American television stereo system utilized the normal mono television information, which consisted of left plus right (L+R) information that was compatible with all receivers, and then added a second signal consisting of left minus right (L-R), which was the signal received by any MTS device including television sets, video cassette recorders (VCRs), set-top boxes, and amplifiers with loudspeakers. When the two audio channels were added together, the second signal would provide the left channel and the first signal would provide the right channel through the process of phase reversal. Technically, this standard is known as multichannel television sound (MTS), but it generated an equivalent stereo experience for consumers. The two terms are used somewhat interchangeably throughout the paper, as “MTS” refers to the transmission standard while “stereo” refers to the audio experience.[1]

Few academic studies exist on the subject of MTS.[2] The era of standard definition or NTSC was nearing its conclusion when stereo sound made its entrance into the television arena, and research on the impact of high-definition television was prevalent; however, as Mark Kerins notes, scholarly work on audio design – already rare – has usually made little distinction between Dolby stereo and Dolby surround (Kerins 2010). In the field of film studies, Gianluca Sergi has examined four decades of Dolby sound usage. Sergi describes how Dolby stereo enjoyed a novelty era followed by a period of maturity in which sound aesthetics and technology developed fairly rapidly (Sergi 2004). During this time, audience interest generated by Dolby contributed to the development of a healthy consumer market for home stereo and multichannel sound equipment. Though writing about cinema sound, it is clear that Sergi’s comments could easily apply to the widespread interest in television stereo during the 1980s and 1990s. Previous scholarship on television stereo sound has generally focused on the technical aspects of sound production, ranging from the historical development of particular stereo systems (Prentiss 1985; Talbot-Smith 1995; Eilers 1984) to practical manuals and guides (Lenk 1987; Holman 2002).

In 1985, Stan Prentiss predicted some potential problems with the introduction of broadcast stereo television sound when the implementation of MTS was not made mandatory for the cable television industry. In response, the leading industry lobby group, National Cable Television Association, expressed hope that the public’s interest in stereo would push the marketplace into bringing MTS into general usage without government intervention calling for mandatory carriage of a stereo signal. Cable providers, as Prentiss suggested, would “likely provide multichannel sound where it is technologically feasible but that the decision should be left up to the cable operators” (Prentis 1985: 119). Trade press articles at the time focused more on adoption patterns and marketing within the consumer electronics industry, rather than reflecting on the fragile position of the nascent technology within the U.S. television landscape.

In other scholarship, we can observe the tendency to give scientific explanations for how the system works and how it is incorporated into the broadcast transmission (Eilers 1984). Shelley Craig’s 1987 thesis, for instance, discusses the specific post-production differences between visual formats including film, ¾” U-matic videotape, 1” tape and D-1 tape. Audio, as Craig concludes, “is no longer the poor cousin of the video industry” (Craig 1987: 31). She also points to changes in the production process, since the changes ushered in by MTS meant that sound editors could no longer work until the morning of a final mix. However, MTS is not only discussed in terms of industrial and production contexts. A report authored by sound engineer Josiah Gluck, for instance, emphasized the importance of stereo VCRs in generating consumer awareness of stereo broadcasting and stereo television equipment. Multichannel audio in television, as Gluck argues, was popularized not only as a technological project but also for providing an aesthetic experience for electronics consumers (Gluck 2009). The existing scholarship provides a departure point for the present article, which will establish a critical-historical perspective on broadcast stereo’s rise to prominence with a particular focus on both the early “experimental” years of MTS sound and its short-lived “golden era.” The article will consider the role of technology, program production and audience reception for evaluating MTS’s influence in the transition from monaural to multichannel mixes in American television.

Stereo Sound in U.S. Television History


There is more than three decades separating the FCC’s establishment of a color television technical standard and their action on stereo television sound. For this reason, one might assume that there was simply no demand for stereo telecasts in the intervening years. However, a number of television producers and performers explored the creative possibilities of stereo sound for the public prior to its official introduction. Band leader Lawrence Welk, for instance, expressed disappointment in 1958 that audiences were not getting the full impact of his series, which aired on ABC. Following the release of several stereo record albums, Welk’s series became the first program to transmit in stereo sound on October 1, 1958 (see Figure One). Welk reported that ABC had anticipated that television audiences would want to switch to stereo fairly quickly, with Welk’s popularity providing a catalyst for this transition (Welk 1958: 13). In 75 regions the series was offered in association with a local radio broadcaster in order to provide multiple audio sources. Newspapers like The Oregonian also gave instructions to television consumers: “You can receive the three dimensional sound by placing your radio set 7 to 10 feet to the right of your TV” (“A TV first” 1958). Such examples attest to the cross-platform promotion of stereo sound in late 1950s consumer culture.[3]

FIG2

Figure One: Lawrence Welk experimented with stereo TV to better showcase stereo LPs

ABC was the lowest-rated network in this period and the last of the major networks to convert its full programming schedule to color in the 1960s. However, when examining this period, it is apparent that the network showed a marked interest in the potential of stereo television sound. This interest is evident in ABC’s decision to launch its own record label, ABC-Paramount, in 1955 and a deal formed with Disney, itself a producer of soundtrack and licensed-character records. On January 30, 1959, Walt Disney himself introduced an episode of Walt Disney Presents using simulcast stereo. In his introduction, Disney explained in great detail how viewers could view the “Peter Tchaikovsky Story” in stereo using both an AM and an FM receiver. Citing previous innovations, such as Steamboat Willie (the first sound cartoon) and Fantasia (the first stereophonic film), Disney observed “we’re the first to bring stereo and widescreen to television” (Disney 1959). The combined impact of stereo and widescreen was termed the “Magic Mural Screen”:

Some of the most ardent support for stereo television can be identified amongst hi-fi enthusiasts with their home stereo systems. The adoption of stereo speakers and stereo-capable consumer electronics, such as turntables and reel-to-reel tape recorders, led to an increase in stereo recordings throughout the 1960s.[4] As a result of this existing development, the potential transition to stereo television appears to have been a related project. In the United States, the introduction of FM radio broadcasting was an important catalyst in popularizing stereo sound. By the late 1950s, a number of companies proposed an FM standard to the FCC that could transition from monaural to stereophonic. In April 1961, the FCC standardized the systems proposed by General Electric (GE) and Zenith, arguing for “a single set of national standards” to help speed up the adoption of FM stereo (FCC 1961: 1615). A 1962 article suggested that listeners were immediately impressed by the stereo medium’s sound “presence” and adopted the technology because they liked the sensation of being surrounded with music (Loehwing 1962: 42). During the 1960s and 1970s, hi-fi audiences could listen to FM stereo radio, while a number of television stations catered to the needs of audiophiles by simulcasting recurring music series and events. Television continued as a monaural medium until the 1980s. The only opportunity in most cases to experience a stereo television broadcast was with simulcasts like those conducted by Welk and Disney in the 1950s. In such cases, a radio station broadcasting in FM could allow a synchronized live feed of a simultaneous televised broadcast. Until satellite broadcasts were commonly used in radio broadcasting, the synchronization of reel-to-reel tapes remained a persistent problem for live simulcasts. Such simulcasts, though technically difficult, reveal an ongoing interest amongst producers and audiences for the provision of a stereo television experience:[5]

The Introduction of MTS


During the 1970s, feature films were increasingly mixed in stereo sound, which raised consumer expectations for better audio quality.[6] The release of Apocalypse Now (1979) also ushered in the split surround format similar to the 5.1 format that has a center channel, main left and right, surround left and right and effects channel that often is assigned to a sub-woofer.[7] During this period, theatrical film advertisements often promoted their theater’s ability to handle stereo or multichannel audio when screening films with multichannel audio. Television rights to modern films with stereo and multichannel mixes were also being sold to the broadcast networks. When such films were given broadcast dates, audiences may have had the expectation that they would experience stereo with their television receivers. Even when Star Wars debuted on television for the first time in the 1980s, simulcasting was the only way to experience the film in stereophonic sound, and promotions alerted viewers to which station was carrying the stereo audio signal:

The consumer electronics industry took advantage of this growing awareness of stereo and multichannel sound, as terms like “cable-ready” and “stereo-compatible” began to appear on consumer electronics devices aimed at the growing home theater consumer marketplace. The aspiration towards a “home cinema” experience was thus promoted by the consumer electronic industry, which emphasized audio-centric video hardware.

Even though television and AM radio continued to broadcast in mono, consumers began to adopt VCRs and cable television at a very fast pace. By the mid-1980s, nearly forty percent of U.S. consumers had cable television and more than fifteen percent owned a VCR. By the decade’s end, cable had surged to more than 50% of the nation and VCRs above 60% (Television Set Ownership 2001). As a result of such developments, consumer expectations of television sound were being dictated less by broadcast transmissions themselves. Instead, the domestic experience of television sound was determined more by the provisions of videocassette audio recording, cable system audio services, and the television set purchased. As Stan Prentiss had predicted in the mid 1980s, many cable systems did not carry stereo sound or they made it difficult for their subscribers to receive stereo sound. Instead, subscribers often had to pay a premium to receive stereo programming and, in some cases, could only receive the sound through a radio or receiver that was separate from the television set.[8]

Among the stations interested in stereo telecasts was Chicago’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) station and program producer WTTW, which produced the live music program Soundstage into the 1980s. However, producers still used the process of providing radio stations across the continent with four-track audio tape for the purpose of simulcasting. WTTW installed a prototype broadcast stereo modulator using a standard created by the Broadcast Television Systems Committee (BTSC) combined with a noise reduction system promulgated by dbx Inc. This ultimately helped the FCC move toward approving the Zenith system, as the BTSC standard was considered robust enough to warrant authorization of its use in 1984. The BTSC standard was referred to as Multichannel Television Sound (MTS) and effectively opened the stereo television broadcast era in the United States (FCC 1986). “The addition of stereo to television broadcasts,” as Zenith’s Gerald McCarthy enthused, “could be as significant to the consumer as color TV was years ago in enhancing the enjoyment of TV” (Zenith 1984: 1).

The launch of commercial stereo broadcasts was planned by ABC for the 1984 Summer Olympics telecast of the opening ceremonies. An article in May 1984 said that ABC was the “odds-on favorite” to be the first network to commence stereo broadcasting with NBC following in 1985 and CBS thereafter (Stereo TV 1984). NBC, however, pressed Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show into broadcast stereo production in order to beat ABC, even though its own affiliates were unprepared (Stereo TV 1984). One of the pioneers of MTS, Ron Estes, helped to establish stereo sound for The Tonight Show. As Audio Director, Estes noted that for one episode he had to add more than thirty microphones to properly bring out the sounds of the band (Joy 1986: A2). NBC’s President of Operations and Technical Services asserted that experimentation with MTS would eventually result in a complete introduction: “It’s one thing to bring it here and another to do it right. It’s going to be expensive getting stations ready for stereo - $100,000 to $200,000 per station. But once we do, we’ll be broadcasting” (Kaplan 1984: 46). Despite network assertions about improved sound quality for music and sports programming, some commentators were skeptical about the merits of MTS. A journalist for the New York Times, for instance, posed the question, “If The Tonight Show is transmitted in stereo and nobody hears it, did it really happen?” (Kaplan 1984: 46).

FIG2

Figure Two: The RCA Dimensia TV set with TV stereo and a feature-rich remote

Adoption Patterns for MTS Stereo


Broadcast hardware is usually adopted by the general public only after the television industry has provided software in the form of programming. In turn, the industry is hesitant to provide the hardware necessary to provide an enhancement to their broadcast transmissions until it proves profitable and until consumer electronics makers commit to producing well-priced electronics (see Hilmes 1990). The early involvement of both NBC and RCA in MTS established their respective roles as innovators in producing multichannel programming and manufacturing new television models. RCA mounted an aggressive marketing campaign with print and television advertisements for its new “Dimensia” line of TV sets that emulated an early home theater (see Figure Two). These systems were complete with large screen stereo televisions, receiver, turntable and additional electronics that updated the consumer’s living room. They also added computer technology to the system and a remote that would be a multi-function remote controlling all components.[9] Such marketing campaigns may have popularized the notion of stereo broadcasting for consumers unfamiliar with this innovation. However, the large size of the command center remote control also indicates that it allowed early adopters to show off their new purchase. Zenith, too, marketed their own System 3 model stereo televisions with a set of commercials appealing to consumers on the basis of stereo sound quality:

NBC emerged as the most innovative and aggressive of the networks to provide software for its audiences and RCA set buyers. Though The Tonight Show was the first series to have a stereo telecast, its rather staid interview format would not be the most compelling to sell consumers on the benefits of stereo sound. As a cable provider, MTV was not eligible for multichannel sound, but its representatives were keen to convert to stereo sound since its music videos were provided on stereo videotape. MTV’s marketing and stereo goals also inspired NBC’s Miami Vice, a stylistic drama series that was heavily influenced by the success of music television (see Figure Three).

FIG2

Figure Three: Miami Vice was stereo TV’s killer app, here with the NBC stereo logo

The program was pitched as “MTV Cops,” as it was understood from the beginning that contemporary music would be an important component (Rodman 2010: 248-249). Show creator Michael Mann observed that “[t]he intention of Miami Vice was to achieve the organic interaction of music and content” (Newcomb 2004: 1577). Episodes were built around songs by popular artists of the time, such as Glen Frey and Phil Collins. Recording engineer Steve Sykes, who mixed the music for three seasons, observed “that as much care and attention to detail was put into the most dramatic stereo imaging possible” (Sykes 2011). As for the mono mix, Sykes added that “no concessions at all were made for mono other than the fact that I would check the mixes every now and then on one single speaker to make sure it still worked on a mono TV” (Sykes 2011). This attention to detail was not lost on audiences. Contemporary writers said that if there was one single program that could be said to have been the “killer application” in the selling of stereo televisions it was Miami Vice. David Marc and Robert J. Thompson added that “it almost singlehandedly created the consumer market for stereo television” (Lyons 2010: 24). Sales of television sets with stereo when the series premiered in 1984 were slow at 240,000 (1.5% of all sets sold), increasing to 1.5 million (8.8%) in 1985, and 3.0 million (17%) by 1986 (Altaner 1986: F94). By 1990, when Miami Vice was discontinued, television sets with stereo sound were the predominate market for color sets 19” and above and 490 stations were equipped to transmit stereo sound.

Another series that was significant in the transition to stereo was NBC’s Friday Night Videos. Stations not broadcasting the series in stereo were required to look for simulcast stations in their market region so that viewers could get the program through NBC. Just as MTV’s audience grew in the 1980s with the rallying cry “I Want My MTV” aimed at persuading audiences to call cable operators failing to carry MTV, viewers of Friday Night Videos were instructed to call their NBC station hoping to convince them to transmit in stereo.

During 1986, NBC clearly emerged as the leader in MTS, broadcasting 24.5 hours of stereo programs each week compared to ABC, which had one prime-time half hour in MTS with the sitcom parody Sledge Hammer! (Hoban 1986: 28). Both CBS and ABC turned their attention to sporting events, which were a significant driver of change in the MTS market. Producing stereo broadcasts was integral to productions of the Masters Golf Tournament (for CBS) and the Olympic Games and car racing (for ABC). Large events were used at the point of purchase to sell stereo’s benefits to the consumer, a development that was consistent with sporting events and television sales from the late 1940s onwards (Neal-Lunsford 1992). In what follows, I will pay attention to the shift from isolated uses of MTS to its more widespread adoption for television series and sports programming.

With television stereo being a standard feature on every large screen set sold by the early 1990s, ABC and CBS finally transitioned their schedules to stereo. The early 1990s also brought about a period of heavy experimentation in MTS. The series which may best exemplify the experimentation taking place in MTS was Rick Dees’ Into the Night. Dees, known mostly as a popular Los Angeles radio disc jockey, was given a nationally broadcast late night talk show on ABC. When watching the series’ opening credits, the use of sound effects is striking, with the movement of sounds from left channel to right channel coinciding with graphic movements on the screen. The opening credits also featured ABC’s logo “In Stereo (where available)” in order to alert listeners to their consumption of stereo sound:

In order to understand the mixing practices of this period, it is instructive to draw on a recent interview with Josiah Gluck, who was an audio mixer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live and Last Call with Carson Daly and for the late night music program Night Music (Gluck 2011). During this interview, Gluck noted that there was a period of experimenting and upmixing taking place that was “trial and error” (Gluck 2011). He made the observation that there was a “Blue Light Special” mentality at broadcast stations to ensure that they were passing stereo telecasts to the public. This reference simply meant that the audience member saw an LED light that said the stereo sound was being transmitted but it made no difference in the experimental period to certain producers if the quality of the stereo mix was perfect or even accurate. Some of the local programs, such as newscasts, would perform tricks to make it appear as if they were broadcasting properly mixed stereo sounds. Broadcast consultant John F. X. Browne similarly said that when consumers saw a stereo light turn on, they felt that the stereo television station was superior to those stations that failed to light the light (Browne 1989). The experimental stereo broadcasts thus served a marketing purpose if not a sonic advantage. While these experimental uses may represent a dated approach to sound design, they indicate that producers were paying close attention to the audio presentation for a stereo-ready audience, particularly when they were not involved in spectaculars, music video based or sports events.

By the end of the 1980s, experimental MTS had given way to a more established aesthetic. Fox’s Late Night, which won the 1990 Emmy for sound mixing, is indicative of this development. The program’s spatial separation of sounds was established in the studio and demonstrated the maturing of MTS in live and live-to-tape program production: the “Dog Pound” calls of “Wuff! Wuff!” emanated from one side of the set, while the host Arsenio Hall was present at the center, welcoming the audience and performing the opening monologue. The various contemporary musical acts appearing on the talk show ranged from heavy metal to hip hop, which required challenging mixes that would be delivered to audiences with high expectations. Audience awareness of stereo sound was recognized by the networks, which each had a visible logo (or “bug”) on the series broadcast in stereo.

MTS mixing in the period around 1990 can also be examined in relation to Cop Rock, the short-lived musical police series produced by Steven Bochco. Indeed, Tonight Show MTS sound professional Ron Estes was highly involved in this series’ creative sound design concept. Although failing to become a critical or a commercial success, Estes and colleagues Mark Server and Gary D. Rogers earned an Emmy nomination for their audio mixing on Cop Rock. In an article reflecting on the program, George Plasketes praised the various efforts to solve complicated post-production issues, including musical direction and mixing (Plasketes 2004). Even though the series ultimately failed to gain widespread appeal, Plasketes emphasized that it should be remembered for its “cross-genre formula and aesthetic advances” (Plasketes 2004: 65). Further, the audio mixers who collaborated on series like Cop Rock, which pushed the boundaries of sound mixing within MTS, went on to work on other series and play a role in the multichannel audio mixing era of the early 1990s. Server, for example, received Emmy nominations for his later audio design for NYPD Blue and Law & Order, while Rogers received eight Emmy nominations and three Emmy awards for NYPD Blue, The West Wing and Mad About You.

Another major program contributing to the development of MTS mixing was Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). The sound mixer, Alan Bernard, had previously completed his Emmy-Award winning work on the stereo series Crime Story, and from 1987 to 2001 he became one of the most prolific MTS mixers by mixing more than 300 combined episodes of Star Trek: TNG and Star Trek: Voyager.[10] As Bernard noted, “Star Trek shows are a lot harder to do than street shows or any other kind of shows. Camera and sound are equal so far as making what goes on the screen seem believable. The technology is amazing, and it will only continue to improve” (qtd. in Spelling 1996: B6). In other words, even though the series had memorable visuals ranging from costume and set design to special effects, Bernard stressed the importance of the sound design concept, since the technology of the MTS era was markedly better than what was available just a decade prior.

Enhanced technology and advancement in microphone placement techniques were very important to television series, but they were perhaps even more prevalent in the coverage of live sports. In the mid 1980s the operations vice-president for NBC Sports predicted that “audio advancements are the next frontier” and that “eventually stereo could be as important an innovation as color video” (Television Sound 1985: 15). At the time this statement was made in 1985, approximately 70 out of more than 1,200 U.S. stations were equipped with MTS. Within five years, microphones were being placed all over the sporting venues as surround sports was promoted as the best way to watch sports at home. Even though the Olympics of 1984, 1988 and 1992 had featured some aspects of stereo sound, sound designer Dennis Baxter argues that during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta stereo audio design entered “the golden age of teleproduction” (Baxter 2000: S10). As Baxter points out, mixing techniques had been refined and novelty techniques had given way to a more natural, organic sound with a “continuity that had never been heard before” on broadcast television (Baxter 2000: S11).

The sound techniques of the stereo era that were used for television coverage of professional American football, baseball, basketball and other sports became the framework for 5.1 audio that would be used in high-definition television (HDTV) in the late 1990s and into the post-MTS era. The period also provided a great deal of competition between networks, which encouraged further creativity in audio production. When Fox Sports became involved in professional football and baseball, one of the more noticeable advances they made was in the mixing of sports telecasts. Fox Senior Vice President Andrew Setos said the network’s goal was not to make audiences feel like they were in the stands but to make them feel like they were on the field. Commenting on the network’s football coverage in 1994, Sato said: “We’re doing some super secret stuff to bring this experience to people’s homes. I don’t want to go into details now. We do have competition, after all” (Krebhil 1994: G24). In this period, we can thus identify an emphasis on microphone techniques, microphone selection for talent, separation of audio, and a combination of sound effects and sounders, all of which have continued to be important in sports audio mixing up to the present.

As the above examples have demonstrated, MTS mixing was established and refined in the context of 1990s television production. However, it no longer represented a selling point for consumers buying television sets, nor provided additional motivation for audiences to watch a particular program. We can observe this shift in audience expectation, since the “In Stereo” bugs that had been ubiquitous in the past started to disappear as stereo sound mixing became the norm rather than the exception. Almost as soon as stereo mixes became the norm, however, a series of consumer electronic innovations were established. Movie theatres began adopting 5.1 channel audio in 1992 with the advent of Dolby Digital sound, while the DVD was introduced in 1997 (Sergi 2004; Sobchack 2005). With its 5.1 channel audio delivery and 16x9 format, which was similar to what audiences were seeing in movie theaters, studios such as Warner Brothers began converting their television series production to widescreen format and 5.1 audio (Bennett and Brown 2009). As a result, the stereo mixdown became secondary in the post-production process in much the same way that the mono mixdown had become secondary in the first ten years of stereo television.

Conclusion


The transition from analog to digital television transmission in the United States in 2009 also meant the end of the NTSC video system. With NTSC gone, it would also ultimately spell the end of MTS as well, which was supplanted by the digital 5.1 mix. The impact of MTS, though rarely discussed much past the 1980s in the trade press and not marketed much past that period, was profound. As I have argued in this essay, audiences had experienced television with very poor mono sound for more than three decades. By making audiences aware of the benefits of stereo television, audiences gained an awareness that aided the introduction of MTS, but also later facilitated the notion of a “home theater” with multichannel sound. Furthermore, the 8-channel mix pioneered by Miami Vice after its first season would actually serve the industry well as it made its transition to 5.1 sound. Series creator Michael Mann realized this when he said that “because the negatives to Miami Vice are all [multichannel mixes], they will be far more valuable” when the show is repurposed for syndication and home video. From a mixing standpoint, the move from mono to stereo gave audio professionals a chance to attach placement of actors onscreen to an audio space. This sonic, aesthetic difference, which had been possible in recorded music and film, had finally become a possibility for sound designers in television.[11] By the end of the MTS standard era, the mixing of television series became more similar to films as both were commonly mixed in 5.1 audio or greater numbers of channels along with the broadcast stereo version for MTS delivery. Andre Perreault, Technicolor’s senior mixing engineer, confirmed this: “The key to a good HDTV mix is to use film-style techniques with no compromise” (qtd. in Lambert 2005: 30). In 2004, five years prior to the end of MTS broadcasts, programs with Dolby Digital 5.1 mixed television were awarded five Emmy Awards including HBO’s Deadwood for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series.

One salient point concerning MTS is that most audiences listening on cable systems, satellite, or even some VCRs may have never actually heard MTS. While logos made them aware of stereo sound and lights may have illuminated on receivers or VCRs, MTS was only available over the air on stations broadcasting in stereo. The technology was introduced in 1984 at a time when cable penetration in the United States was just 34%, but cable grew to 60% by the end of the MTS period, along with further competition from satellite and telephone services that did not actually offer MTS (NCTA 2012). Further, the introduction of MTS was potentially compromised by syndicators and television stations unable to maintain the proper MTS requirements throughout the entire broadcast cycle. Some stations simply multiplexed their audio signal on left and right creating “pseudo stereo” or “faux stereo” that was not MTS. This article has argued, however, that the audio practices dictated by the industry were ultimately instrumental in transforming American television sound from a single channel to a complex multichannel design.

A final caveat is instructive in confirming the significance of MTS for both audiences and audio professionals. In a recent interview with Ronald Smith, formerly involved in Paramount’s preservation and restoration, he confirmed the importance of stereo mixes for 5.1 remasters of feature films and television series like Star Trek: Voyager (Smith 2012). Smith noted that in the remastering of television series of the stereo period, there may not be enough of a return on investment to have personnel from the show participate in discussions about “upconverting” stereo mixes to multichannel mixes (Smith 2012). As a result, the integrity of the original mix is guided by the mix designed for MTS delivery in the hands of professionals who either grew up during the MTS era or already functioned as practitioners. An example given by Smith was ABC’s only 1986 series in stereo, Sledge Hammer!

Since the series was produced in the stereo era, everything from the memorable Danny Elfman theme to the closing credits were available with separation. In other words, the creation of the DVD set and mix to 5.1 audio in the 2000s was achieved thanks to the production techniques established during the formative years of MTS. Though the MTS service was terminated in 2009, its impact on the audio post-production of entertainment series, sports, and live music for the medium of television cannot be underestimated.

Notes


1. Also included in the MTS standard was one channel used as a second audio program side-channel for stations wishing to run content in a different language or some other alternate programming. In Los Angeles, for example, KTLA ran the ABC series The Love Boat audio track in Spanish on its SAP channel.

2. One exception that deals with technological standards in television sound is a recent essay by Shawn VanCour on television music (VanCour 2011: 57-79), although only passing reference is made to MTS.

3. For an extensive discussion of the ties between the film, television, radio and recording industries in the 1950s, see Michele Hilmes’ Hollywood and Broadcasting (Hilmes 1990). On the broader introduction of multi-track sound recording, see Michael Chanan’s Repeated Takes (Chanan 1995).

4. For a discussion of the cultural prestige associated with stereo and high fidelity sound in the domestic home in the period 1948-1959, see the work of Keir Keightley (Keightley 1996).

5. For more on this, see Shawn VanCour’s recent account of television sound (VanCour 2011: 57-79).

6. For a similar discussion of the role of advertisements in promoting Dolby digital sound in the early 2000s, see Vivian Sobchack’s “When the Ear Dreams: Dolby Digital and the Imagination of Sound” (Sobchack 2005: 2-15).

7. For a discussion of Apocalypse Now in relation to its innovation in surround sound design in the cinema, see Thomas Elsaesser and Michael Wedel’s “The Hollow Heart of Hollywood: Apocalypse Now and the New Sound Space” (Elsaesser and Wedel 1997: 151-175).

8. Group W cable television in Chicago, for instance, was one of many cable systems that allowed users to pay a monthly fee to receive stereo simulcast signals being offered as part of the FM radio service (Ripco 1988).

9. For more on the use of remote controls in relation to both radio and television set design, see Julian Thomas’ “When Digital was New: The Advanced Television Technologies of the 1970s and the Control of Content” (Thomas 2011: 52-72).

10. Alan Bernard’s work, combined with the original scores, were among the most dynamic MTS mixes of the period and earned Bernard eight Emmy nominations, three Emmy wins, five Cinema Audio Society nominations and one CAS award.

11. A more cinematic style of sound design can be seen in programs like The Sopranos, which had an expanded music and sound budget (see Creeber 2004).

References


Altaner, D. (1986). “Stereo sound TV is not a new universe, just a rising star.” Chicago Tribune, November 14: F-94.

Baxter, Dennis (2000). “The Olympics and Stereo Sound.” Videography, August: S10-13.

Bennett, James, and Tom Brown, eds. (2009). Film and Television after DVD. London: Routledge.

Browne, John F.X. (1989). Personal interview, July 18.

CEA [Consumer Electronics Association] (2000). CEA honors Hall of Fame inductees at 2000 CES, January 6.

Chanan, Michael (1995). Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music. London: Verso.

Craig, Shelley (1987). “Stereo Audio for Television: Practical Problems in Audio Post-Production Techniques” (Doctoral Dissertation). Montreal: McGill University.

Creeber, Glen (2004). Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen. London: BFI.

Disney, Walt (Director). (1959, January 20). “Peter Tchaikovsky Story.” Walt Disney Presents. New York: ABC Television Network.

Eilers, Carl (1984). “TV multichannel sound—The BTSC system.” IEEE Transactions on Consumer Electronics, August: 236-241.

Ellis, John (1982). Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge.

Elsaesser, Thomas, and Michael Wedel (1997). “The Hollow Heart of Hollywood: Apocalypse Now and the New Sound Space.” In Gene Moore (ed.), Conrad on Film (pp. 151-175). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Federal Communications Commission (1961). In the matter of amendment of part three of the Commission’s rules and regulations to permit FM broadcast stations to transmit stereophonic programs on a multiplex basis. 21 Rad. Regs. (P&F) 1605. http://transition.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/Documents/bulletins/oet60/oet60a.pdf.

Federal Communications Commission (1986). Multichannel Television Sound Transmission and Audio Processing Requirements for the BTSC System.

Gluck, Josiah (2009). What You Hear is Changing the TV Viewing Experience. Southfield, MI: Enco. http://www.enco.com/WhitePaper/ENCO SNL Article.pdf.

Gluck, Josiah (2011). Personal interview, September 2.

Hilmes, Michele (1990). Hollywood and Broadcasting: From Radio to Cable. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hoban P. (1986). “Sound Effects: Video goes Stereo.” New York Magazine, November 10: 28.

Holman, Tomlinson (2002). Sound for Film and Television. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Joy, Ken (1986). “Stereo TV Turns ‘Two’ and Steps Closer to going Nationwide.” Billboard, April 19: A2.

Kaplan, Peter W. (1984). “TV notes: Competing with ABC during the Olympics.” New York Times, July 28: 46.

Keightley, Keir (1996). “‘Turn it down!’ she shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948-59.” Popular Music 15/2: 149-177.

Kerins, Mark (2010). Beyond Dolby (Stereo): Cinema in the Digital Sound Age. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Krehbiel, Tom (1994). “Surrounded: Fox is Bringing More than Picture from NFL Games.” Buffalo News, August 26: G24.

Lambert, Mel (2005). “Multichannel mixing for HD television.” Mix, April: 20.

Lawrence Welk leads in stereo (1958). Billboard, October 13: 13.

Lenk, John (1987). Complete Guide to Stereo Television. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Loehwing, David (1962). “New Sound of Music: FM Stereo May Give Mellower Tone to the Radio Industry.” Barron’s Weekly, January 8: 42.

Lyons, James (2010). Miami Vice. Madlen, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

NCTA [National Cable Television Association] (2012). “Cable Video Customers: 1975-2011.” http://www.ncta.com/Stats/BasicCableSubscribers.aspx.

Neal-Lunsford, Jeff (1992). “Sport in the Land of Television: The Use of Sport in Network Prime-Time Schedules, 1946-50.” Journal of Sport History 19/1: 56-76.

Newcomb, Horace. (2004). Encyclopedia of television. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Plasketes, George (2004). “Cop Rock Revisited: Unsung Series and Musical Hinge in Cross-Genre Evolution.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 32/2: 64-73.

Prentiss, Stan (1985). Audio Modulation Stereo and Television Stereo: New Sound Dimensions. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books.

Ripco, Dr. (1988). A Guide to the Chicago Cable System. http://freaky.staticusers.net/textfiles/cable/ChicagoCableGuide.txt.

Rivlin, Robert (1986). “Sixteen Engineering Emmys Awarded; Ampex, Sony, RCA and Quantel Each Win Two.” Backstage, September 19: 1

Rodman, Ron (2010). Tuning In: American Narrative Television Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sergi, Gianluca (2004). The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Smith, Ronald (2012). Personal interview, June 2.

Spelling, Ian (1996). “Sound Mixer on ‘Voyager’ Proud of Craft.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 16: B6.

Sobchack, Vivian (2005). “When the Ear Dreams: Dolby Digital and the Imagination of Sound.” Film Quarterly 58/4: 2-15.

“Stereo Television” (1984). The Globe and Mail, May 30: n. p.

Sunier, John (1960). The Story of Stereo. New York: Gernsback Library.

Sykes, Steve (2011). Personal interview, June 16.

Talbot-Smith, M. (1995). Broadcast Sound Technology. Oxford: Focal Press.

“Television Set Ownership” (2001). Television History: The First 75 Years. http://www.tvhistory.tv/TV-VCR-Remote-Cable_Ownership.JPG.

“Television Sound in Stereo is Coming at Today’s Viewers Left and Right” (1985). Houston Chronicle, July 10: 15.

Thomas, Julian (2011). “When Digital was New: The Advanced Television Technologies of the 1970s and the Control of Content.” In James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds.), Television as Digital Media (pp. 52-72). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

“A TV First: Welk Goes Stereo” (1958). The Oregonian, October 1: n. p.

VanCour, Shawn (2011). “Television Music and the History of Television Sound.” In James Deaville (ed.), Music In Television: Channels of Listening (pp. 57-79). New York and Abingdon: Routledge.

“Zenith Introduces New Stereo Color Television Products” (1984). Business Wire, May 10: n. p.


David Sedman is Associate Professor of Film and Media Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He also serves as Director of Technology for the Meadows School of the Arts. He has published articles related to new technology in such publications as the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media, Standards Engineering and the Journal of Media Economics. He has also published book chapters on such topics as media programming and scheduling, video production, telecommunications regulations, and the publicity machine behind the comedy team of Abbott and Costello.