How Do Networks Censor Live Television?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 1 2012 3:03 PM

How Does Live Television Censorship Work?

A mini-Explainer on bleeps, pixels, and the seven-second delay.

MIA performs during the Bridgestone Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show.
M.I.A. performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl.

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images.

Fox News broadcast a suicide on live television on Friday, after a man in a car chase emerged from his car and shot himself in the head. The network was broadcasting on a five-second delay, but “severe human error” allowed the incident to reach viewers’ screens. How exactly do networks censor live television?

With a dump button. Censorship is a relatively simple process in modern control rooms. A censor views two separate video streams: the live action and the feed that is going out to viewers on a delay, typically of between 5 and 10 seconds. If the producer sees or hears something objectionable in the live feed, he or she calls out “dump” or a similar command. (Other personnel in the control room may play this role if the producer misses the incident, or a censor might be completely autonomous.) The censor then switches attention to the delayed feed. When the expletive, nudity, or moment of violence is about to occur, he or she presses the so-called “dump” button, which can suppress the audio, pixellate the video, or black out the entire feed. In live news broadcasts, the producer sometimes bypasses the dump button, switching the broadcast away from the incident and back to the anchor in the studio with an urgent command like “get off this.”

Censors typically err on the side of caution, blanking out extra time on either side of the offending moment. See for example this censored clip, in which ESPN muted several words before Brent Musburger accidentally used the word “piss” during a college football broadcast. Although the dump button requires little training, censorship failures are relatively common. When British rapper M.I.A. showed her middle finger to the cameras at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, for example, NBC’s engineers were too slow with the dump and obscured the video feed a second too late. In severe cases, such as a death in the live feed, the producer or engineer often suppresses the video immediately, because there’s no value in running the broadcast to the moment before the offending incident occurred.

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Explainer thanks Bob Pondillo of Middle Tennessee State University.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.