The decent engineer, bullied

One of the plain, unvarnished truths about engineers in the broadcast industry is that they are decent folks. They don't go around killing people, stealing from their employers or talking about others behind their backs — they just don't. They are generally very calm and collected: trying to keep everyone safe in environments that are really quite hazardous, hoping not to have an emergency to deal with today, but tackling it head on when it does arise. But why is it that we, as a profession, allow ourselves to be bullied?

The recent report on the disaster of the orbiter Columbia throws the art of bullying by management into sharp focus. Management got what it wanted, made their deadlines and cashed the check for the shuttle's commercial ventures. The engineers knew all along that further studies were absolutely needed but couldn't get that message across the bullying barrier. The price was tragic.

When I was in the BBC there was a fairly traumatic period at a large transmitting station when we were visited by a time-and-motion inspector. He spent two weeks following us around through the daily routine of recording meter readings, monitoring, essential (scheduled) maintenance, and the adrenaline-punching moments when something went down and the complete shift was focused on getting it back up. (If something was off air for more than one minute we had to go through the routine of passing a “service” message back through the network to report it.) This guy was amazed that with only six different types of VHF/UHF TV and FM radio transmitters on site, we still needed to consult circuit diagrams! His his expert opinion was that our non-office-hour shift size could be reduced by about half without any ill effects.

Engineering management was bullied into going along with this, not at the station I was at but at a similar, slightly smaller installation a few hundred miles away. About two weeks later, there was a fire at that station that caused considerable damage to a combining unit, a really vulnerable spot, with the result that a program service was off-air for nearly a week. Management thought that maybe the fire was deliberate, a way for the staff to get back at the shift reduction. But it was clear after the logs were examined that something had been degrading in the unit over several months, and that due to the decrease in meter eyeballing, they had missed the moment when a component moved from decay into complete breakdown.

Shifts were quickly restored.

Another example: An accountant bullied engineering management into centralizing spares for a studio complex. During a live transmission of an opera a camera went down — one of five on the floor — and it was clearly the Image Orthicon tube. We were practiced enough to be able to change a 4½-inch IO in about three minutes, including the removal and replacement of the lens turret (plus about two minutes for power-up and rough calibration), but with the centralization of spares it took another 10 minutes to fetch a replacement. I didn't see how the director coped with the 15 minutes of downtime of 20 percent of his cameras. I was told he did pretty well, but I'm sure every extra minute was sheer torture. Engineering again was bullied away from doing things the way they should have been done.

Another example: A few years ago I was visiting a station that cable companies describe as one of the “superstations.” As always, the chief engineer, similar to many who are very proud of what they have built up, was happy to show me around his empire: from studios to recording/editing suites, central control, his remote vehicles and his workshop space. But when we got to the news area he was decidedly less happy with what he was showing. The equipment being used for editing was several generations out of date. He showed me how he and his two technicians (yes, just two) were keeping the stuff working with mechanical fixes that would remind you of the belief by a toddler that Scotch tape can hold anything in the universe together.

He clearly wanted to share his feelings with me and said that management just wouldn't replace the equipment in an area they didn't think of as a profit center until it could no longer be fixed. While he and his technicians kept things going, the decision makers were happy to sit back and watch. “I know what I need to do,” whispered the chief engineer to me. “I need to sabotage the equipment so they're forced to buy new stuff. But I just cannot do it!” No, like the majority of engineers in our business, he is decent.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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