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Don't Fall Asleep at the (Master) Control!

Craig Norris is the Technology Editor for TV Technology Europe. Craig argues that in an increasingly automated world, playout operators need stimulation and a break from routine. Let us know what you think at

There was a story on the news the other day about two airline pilots who were fired because they fell asleep in the cockpit during a commercial passenger flight. They overshot their destination on one of the Hawaiian Islands by about 15 miles.

It was around nine o'clock in the morning, and it was a relatively short flight of only 30 minutes, so it really makes one wonder how such a thing could happen?

The answer lies in the fact that we humans need stimulation, and modern working life involving the supervision of automated repetitive routine work procedures is far from stimulating.

"Just another day at the office" is a cliché to describe a day where nothing new or exciting happened. For a pilot, that means the take-offs and landings were easy and without incident. The traversal of the route at cruising altitude was uneventful.

The following adjectives: "automated"; "routine" and "uneventful" carry with them a dangerous implication, and that danger is boredom. Boredom dulls the senses and slows the reactions. Boredom leads to a feeling of "not-there" – a daydream where others would see us as though we "were a million miles away", figuratively speaking.

In other words, when we are bored, we aren't concentrating on the job at hand. When we are bored, we physically go through all the motions of the task, but spiritually, we are "elsewhere."

Three weeks prior to the above-mentioned news item about the pilots I participated in a discussion about the job nature of the operators in a large multi-channel TV station. In that discussion, I heard a complaint from the master control and playout operators that they were bored and lonely in their work.

There's a great similarity between airline pilots and television playout and MCR operators. They both manage fully automated systems. Most of the time they have nothing to do but watch the automation do its job and check its progress. When all is running well, they have very little or nothing to do. They aren't challenged. It's mostly boring. And it can be lonely. There just isn't enough stimulation to keep a person continuously interested and alert.

It's a perfect recipe to make a person drowsy. But when, out-of-the-blue something goes wrong, it means instant high stress levels, and severe accountability for the prolonged duration of any outage of the service until the fault is rectified.

Commercial pilots and TV playout operators have something else in common: their jobs are about 99 per cent boredom and 1 per cent terror. There are very few thanks when everything goes right. But there's a crushingly heavy penalty when things go seriously wrong.

The job of a television playout operator wasn't always boring. It used to be quite interesting and stimulating because it was quite a hands-on, manual operation. The operator could feel a genuine sense of satisfaction at the end of a shift, because in a manual playout environment, the operator can take full credit for the good end result.

The operators in a news studio control room have a much better life. They work as a team. They do most things manually, with perhaps some "automation assist".

But have a look at the playout operators in a large multi-channel automated pay TV station. They usually sit there alone for an entire shift, staring at a monitor wall, waiting for something to go wrong. But most of the time nothing goes wrong. Especially during the night shift, it's almost like being a security guard on a door that no one tries to enter.

It might not be so bad if some of the channels being monitored were comprised of very interesting and enjoyable programmes. The operator could kill some time by enjoying the TV shows. But unfortunately, the majority of TV programmes in a large multi-channel TV station are junk.

What we need is a total revamp in the job design of television playout operations. Three things are needed to make the playout operator's job more satisfying and enjoyable. Firstly: teamwork. Don't let the operators sit there alone. Put them in a group and somehow arrange the tasks so that it requires a team effort, rather than a one-man show.

Secondly: stimulation. Give the person direct responsibility for actively doing something. Even with an automated playout system, some tasks should be left manual so that the operator has something to do. Give the operator a good reason to stay awake.

Finally: variety. No one likes doing the same thing day in and day out. We need job rotation. We need fresh scenery. We need to be thrown into challenges. Some of a pilot's most exciting times are in the simulator. In the simulator, the instructor throws all sorts of emergency situations at the pilot, and the pilot has to learn how to handle each problem perfectly. It's really quite enjoyable in the simulator. They could even call it "the stimulator".

Why not set up a playout simulator for TV operators? Simulate all kinds of fault conditions and teach the operator how to handle each one perfectly. Make it like a game. And when the operator becomes really expert, and masters the whole game? Transfer them to another job that they haven't done before, because once you master the game, it starts to become boring.