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The True Story of Apple's "1984" Ad's First Broadcast...Before the Super Bowl

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Setting the Record Straight

Last Monday I ran a story on how Apple's "1984" Super Bowl ad was almost canceled. If you haven't read the article, take a look; it concerns one of the most famous Super Bowl commercials of all time.

Among other things, I mentioned that Apple's "1984" ad actually ran once before it "premiered" on 1984's Super Bowl -- it ran late at night in December 1983. But I got my facts wrong on the specific date and time of that first airing: I was two weeks off. I was working from two published sources which both had the date wrong. Amazingly, Tom Frank, the man who ran the ad in December 1983, wrote in to set the record straight. He commented:

I was the operator who aired it, and it was the last possible break before midnight on Saturday Dec. 31st 1983. I was under explicit orders to make sure it aired and aired correctly. It was the 60 sec version. After airing, the 2" videotape was expressed back to the agency.

I emailed Frank to request an interview, and here you have it: the never-before-published story of the first time Apple's "1984" Super Bowl ad aired...weeks before the Super Bowl. Frank also aired Apple's (very poorly received) "Lemmings" ad the year after, on a similar schedule to qualify for advertising awards.

Discussed: what TV work was like in the 1970s and 1980s; why and how the ads made their way to Frank's Idaho TV station (KMVT); and how the internet is a great place to propagate incorrect information.

About the Station

Chris Higgins: Tell me about the station, and what your job was around 1983-1985. ... And how that job has changed over the years.

Tom Frank: I was hired as a "director-operator" out of college. In those days, you pulled a board shift AND directed AND produced spots. It was run more like a radio station but it was my break into the business.

In the late 70's, I was transitioning out of directing and into full time commercial production but still pulled some sign-off shifts after I directed our late news at 10pm. During this time period. I was single and volunteered for the holiday shifts to give the married people time with their families. That is why I was working that "fateful" night.

Now everyone specializes. We run four stations out of here instead of one. Instead of running our programming delayed on film, 2" tape, (both delivered via Greyhound Bus--no UPS or FedEx in those days) or using an off-air signal microwaved in from a Utah TV station (longest microwave link in the U.S. at one time), everything is delivered via satellite (I can see 12 dishes outside of my window). Master control is basically automated. In the old days, everything was triggered and run by hand. Film, tape, slide chains. We took pride in running and switching tight breaks with little or no black between commercial elements. Now everyone specializes in one function or another. We did it all. Wrote copy, voiced, produced, directed, ran camera, ran audio, a little engineering, everything.

Higgins: Why did they pick your station to air these commercials?

Frank: Probably because of our remote location and small nighttime audience. Remember, they were trying to qualify for the next awards season. They really didn't want anyone to see it and comment on it. The Super Bowl was to be the official "premiere." We are also 70 miles south of the ski resort at Sun Valley Idaho. We covered that area via two translators [TV rebroadcast stations -CH] and cable. It is the part time home of many in the entertainment and advertising business. I've always wondered if someone was checking that night to make sure that the spot ran.

About the Ads

Higgins: Do you remember having any reaction to the commercials ("1984" and "Lemmings") at the time? Did you think they were a big deal?

Frank: The "1984" commercial was the better spot in my opinion. Yes, I knew it was something special. Special because of the production values (I have a B.S. in Film and Television), and special because of the instructions I had received about making sure the spot aired correctly and before midnight.

Danger in Master Control

Higgins: What was it like getting these and running them -- you mentioned 2" tapes; what kind of VTR/broadcast gear were you running at the time? (Part of my question here is pure nerd interest....)

Frank: There were three ways to air a spot. On 2" videotape that was sometimes referred to as "quad" because of the four recording heads that scanned the tape, 16mm film, or a slide/cart spot. In a slide/cart spot, you loaded the required 35mm slides in an RCA slide chain (hopefully right side up), then rolled an audio cart with the spot's audio. You then "pulsed" through or changed the slides at spots noted on the written copy that you were reading as the cart rolled.

Equipment wise, we had two RCA-TR61 Quads, an RCA-3 Quad low band deck, three 35mm carousels, two RCA-TP66 film projectors with optical and mag stripe audio and TK-27 cameras, an RCA-TK-610 camera on a film chain with a Bell & Howell 16mm projector. In the studio, we had two Ampex BCP-230 color camera and a B&W Visual Zoom for art cards. Note, NO Character Generator. "Graphics" were plastic letters and a black surface. In the late 70's we bought a simple CG and SONY came out with 3/4". Our world changed overnight!

The stories are numerous. Master control could be a dangerous place. I came on duty one Sunday afternoon and we were airing a one hour reel of Lawrence Welk on a 2" deck that was loaded and started by a previous operator. After the show's airing, I hit the rewind button. Now when those quads went into rewind, the speed up to several hundred revolutions. The aluminum reels were up to a foot and a half or larger in diameter and when fully loaded with tape, they weighed A LOT! The locks that held the tape on the drive motor had not been engaged. At some point after maximum velocity had been reached, the reel of tape came flying off at a high rate of speed, hit the floor, and headed towards me sitting at the master control position at a mach like speed. If it had hit me I would have been in a world of hurt. I jumped up on my chair to avoid the impending videotape reel of doom.

On Setting the Record Straight

Higgins: Has anyone ever asked you about this topic before?

Frank: No one has contacted the station before that I am aware of. Few here know the story, other than folks in my immediate circle. Some ex-employees that were here at the time comment on it from time to time when they see the wrong info online and email me. It's unusual in this business anymore, for anyone to stay at a TV station for as long as me. I am into my 35th year. I am an anomaly.

Higgins: Do you have any idea why people cite the incorrect December 15th/1am date and time?

Frank: I heard just recently that it may have started from a media buyer. That's the funny thing about the internet, things get repeated over and over very quickly without regard to the quality of info. We are overwhelmed with information, so no one really checks anymore. They "trust" what they read as the truth. If those "truths" are not challenged from time to time by people who know otherwise, then they become fact. I wonder how many things that people assume as the truth, are in reality false.

Higgins: Did you air other material like this?

Frank: Other than the "Lemmings" spot, nothing stands out. Idaho is a test market for many grocery products, so we would get a few spots that no one else got.

Higgins: How'd you seeing our story -- do you read Mental Floss?

Frank: There was another story online quoting a book about Apple that mentioned the wrong info. So I just typed in the wrong info and your site came up along with many others. So no, I am not a regular reader.

Higgins: Did you ever end up using a Mac?

Frank: Nope. Always a PC user, and now Android. Part of this issue is that everything built by man breaks. At one time, the closest place to have Mac stuff worked on was in Boise which is 110 miles away. The price point was an issue too. There is still no local place to take a Mac to that I am aware of. Our editing is all done on PCs with NewTek SpeedEdit software. All desktops are PC. We do have one company iPad that we are playing with and several employees have Macs and iPads.

Author's Note on the Internet and Facts

I really appreciate Frank writing in to set the record straight. While I do source (typically double-source) the material I write, it's very easy for an incorrect fact to appear in lots of places and suddenly seem like the truth. I'll be very glad if this article appears as a citation for future references of when the ad first ran. Here you go, future writers: Apple's "1984" ad was first broadcast by Tom Frank on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, on December 31, 1983, during the last commercial break before midnight. Apple's "Lemmings" ad was broadcast on the same schedule the following year.

About Tom Frank

Tom FrankTom Frank is a 35 year veteran of small market broadcasting and of all of the diversity, challenges, and rewards that can be found there. At an early moment in his career, he deciding that chasing the dollar was far less important than the quality of life in a small market and in a small town. Tom is married to Sherry, a CPA whom he fittingly met on a commercial shoot. They have one son who just returned from his 4th tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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