Who’s Watching The Store?

Years ago, I had a vision of where television broadcast engineering might be headed. This occurred around the time fiber optics and computers were invading the industry. It was also around the time when self-diagnostics were introduced.
Ah, self-diagnostics! Since circuits were being dominated by large-scale integrated circuits (LSIC), manufacturers were concerned that chief engineers might not understand how to troubleshoot new technologies using these devices.
In my vision, I could see a day in the distant future where a visit to a station’s equipment racks might go something like this:
A synthesized voice says, “Attention, please! Module 5 in unit 17, rack 4 has malfunctioned. It has been shut down and backup module 5A is now powered up. Be sure to remove module 5 and replace from drawer 23 in the parts stock room.”
Instead of a vision, it now seems more like a nightmare!
What actually replaced my vision was diagnostics combined with remote control and monitoring. This was joined later by centralcasting.
It’s never really been true that chief engineers weren’t capable of understanding the equipment in their plant. It’s more like the industry has been bombarded by so many technologies that the chief engineer doesn’t have time to learn all of it. And even if he could invent 48-hour days to master rampant technologies for a while, when he took a breather, things would have continued to morph and change in new and strange ways.

In The Real World
Today, station management is under pressure to deal with DTV/HDTV, and the demands the transition makes on their capital budgets. Forced by the FCC to make the conversion, they’re wrestling with business plans that are open-ended because of the FCC’s lack of definitive transition deadlines.
Meanwhile, they are buying new, NTSC/DTV transmitters, which now crowd the transmitter site, putting a further burden on the chief engineer to stay on top of plant operations.
Station owners and managers are much more involved today in the procurement of transmitters and the necessary ancillary equipment. Many see remote monitoring and remote control as offering some relief, because hiring more engineers (even if they could find them) is out of the question. And, keeping a signal on the air is still the way they make money.
Building business models today is a lot like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. Station management is aware of the potential for remote control and monitoring, but it always comes back to where this technology fits, or doesn’t fit, in the business plan.

The Pool Is Empty
RF manufacturers agree that the talent pool of RF engineers has been drying up gradually for the last several years. Manned transmitter sites are no longer required, and you don’t need to have an FCC license to be a chief engineer. That and ownership bean counters led to the squeezing off of the pipeline of college EE-degree graduates seeking a future in broadcast engineering.
Instead, EE graduates looked at the computer industry, partly because it was the future and also because the dollars were right. In fact, even television RF manufacturers are finding it difficult to find qualified candidates to fill their own needs.
Remote monitoring solved the transmitter site problem. But it didn’t change the fact that engineering staffs were diminishing at an alarming rate.
Most transmitter manufacturers are willing to negotiate on the level of remote service as part of a transmitter sale. And most also will offer some monitoring as a customer service. Control is another matter.
In fact, some manufacturers speculate that the day may not be too far away when they have several engineers at the factory dedicated to remote monitoring and control services.
While RF manufacturing engineers have always seen themselves as partners of the chief engineer, in the near future they may also be considered a vital part of a station’s engineering team.
Meanwhile, station owners and managers will want to quiz manufacturers about the myths and realities of how remote monitoring and control can have a positive effect on the bottom line now and in the future. And they should prepare to greet their new extended (remote) staff engineers with open arms (and pocketbooks).
Editor’s Note: Thanks are due to Acrodyne (Ai), Axcera, Harris, Itelco (recently purchased by DMT USA), Larcan, Rohde & Schwarz and Thales for their input on this subject.