Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

What Time is it Really?

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WWV

We have all been conditioned to believe that when a TV or radio program begins at the “top” or “bottom” of the hour, it means the program is starting at exactly 1 p.m. or 5:30 a.m. or whenever.

But it’s not that simple.

First, understand that official United States civilian time is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado.  Those are the people who are responsible for ensuring the official weights and measures for the US, including time.  And precision is important to these folks. Time, i.e. the length of a second, is determined based on the vibrations of Cesium 133 atoms.  This was represented by a clock NIST called the “F1”.  But in 2014, they supplemented the “F1” clock with the “F2”, which unlike the previous clock, will not lose one second in 300 million years, making it three times more accurate than the F1.

Meanwhile, US time is synchronized with the rest of the world via something called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), although it used to be commonly referred to as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Greenwich, by the way, is a real place. It is the location of the Royal Observatory in a municipality of London. GMT was the international civil time standard until recent years when there has been a hot debate about what GMT is and whether it deserves to be the standard it has historically been.

These two may not seem to have much in common; the measurement within time versus coordination of the World’s clocks. But they are intimately connected. To demonstrate this, imagine hearing a band playing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Then imagine another band starts playing it, but is one beat off from the first band. The beat within both songs is the same length but the starting point of the song is different. Which beat should each group of musicians keep time to, their own or that of the other band?

That can be a problem for time keepers and, coincidentally, broadcasters. For decades, FCC regulations required holders of broadcast licenses to announce who and where their stations are before beginning a program. If you are watching KOIN in Portland, Oregon, when the previous program ends but within a minute of so of a new program, you see promos for upcoming local and network shows. Then, there will be a graphic somewhere on the screen that says you are watching KOIN 6 in Portland, Oregon. Or, if you’re listening to KOPB, you’ll hear promos, then the list of affiliate stations of Oregon Public Broadcasting and their individual locations. By law, you must see and hear these very close to “top” of the hour.

Then the next program begins, supposedly, “straight up”. But if you open the NIST’s time widget before the stations identify themselves, you notice that neither the radio or the TV program starts at the NIST’s official “top” of the hour. In the accompanying video, the CBS and NPR networks the locals go to are about 12 seconds behind the NIST. Twelve seconds might not seem like a big deal. But since billions of dollars are invested in advertising, technology and legislation for time to be both accurate and consistent, why isn’t it a big deal? Otherwise, why have a standard at all?

From simply an economic standpoint, how can stations afford to be off by up to 12 seconds an hour considering how important every moment is for generating revenue from commercials. I blogged about that a few years ago.

Anyway, I’ve had the larger question since my amateur radio days when I used to “DX” WWV, an NIST radio service that used to broadcast official time. If the NIST is the “official” US civilian timekeeper, why don’t broadcasters follow it?

*Accompanying audio and video are used under the Fair Use doctrine for the purposes of criticism, comment and news reporting.

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Written by Interviewer

June 5, 2015 at 05:53

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