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A doldrums opportunity

In meteorological terms, it's not quite summer, but it's close enough to think about and plan for it. Summertime, around TV stations anyway, is the time of the year when engineering vacation calendars hit prime time, network and syndicated programs are in reruns, most products that debuted at NAB are starting to be delivered, and many engineering managers are beginning to prepare next year's capital expenditure requests.

While putting together large capex budgets may seem a bit more glamorous, now is also a good time to make valuable improvements that cost little if anything. It's also an ideal opportunity for engineers to learn.

Fill and learn

Engineers who fill in vacation relief schedules must learn the ins, outs and minutia of a shift they probably wouldn't otherwise work. Some stations use maintenance engineers to fill in for vacationing operators. They can be quite adept at critical identification and remedy of problems best observed from individual operating positions. Vacation relief engineers should be watchful for problems large and small that the regular engineer who works that shift may simply accept as the norm.

While things are a little more quiet than usual, summer is also a good time to address other minor but time-consuming problems that need fixing. And with the next significant ratings sweeps book months away (unless your station considers the July book significant), summer may be a good time for some thoughtful technical exploration. Of course, clear any on-air experimentation with your general manager before beginning.

Dialing for dollars

When digital servers first came online, many stations dialed in a somewhat arbitrary bit rate that seemed to work OK at the time and stuck with it. Now that we're all a few years into the digital transition, it may be worth investigating whether your station is operating at its optimum bit rate. One form of digital experimentation is to test different video server bit rates to determine the point where viewers, station news and salespeople begin to notice signal quality changes. Be sure your GM knows, but try to keep the experiment a secret so you can learn if viewers or anyone at the station comes forward with an observation or comment. The payoff can make the experiment worthwhile.

While it's probably not the best idea to dial back bit rates across the board in a commercial spot and program server, it may be relatively safe to ingest and playout a late-night movie at an incrementally lower bit rate to see what happens. The following week, ingest and playout a late-night movie at an incrementally higher than usual bit rate to see if anyone notices.

If, just for example, your station's server standard HD bit rate is 120Mb/s and dialing back to 100Mb/s seems to be relatively invisible on the air, the benefit will be more storage space. Lower bandwidth can also improve the efficiency of a server and system. Not all systems from server to antenna act the same. Your station may have a bottleneck that won't pass more than a certain bandwidth and anything more from the point of signal origination is lost in the bottleneck. At some point, the bottlenecks need to be fixed. But sometimes fixing bottlenecks can be become a capital expense. If a capital expenditure-level fix isn't in the cards anytime soon, then dialing back server bandwidth to conserve storage space and money may make sense.

A similar situation applies to newsroom video servers and systems. Again, many news servers went online with a bit rate that everyone agreed to at the time. Perhaps now would be a good time to review and experiment, with the news director's permission of course, in your quest for improved efficiency. At the end of the day, you will discover that you can either a) recover some bandwidth and storage space by dialing down your bit rates, or b) improve the visual quality of your video presentation by increasing bit rates, or c) prove that your station standard bit rate is right on the money. With a little on-air experimentation, you can answer the bit rate question once and for all. Any of these results will provide a win-win scenario for you and your station, and leave you with the necessary knowledge to help you plan for future capital expenditures.

On-air needs cold air

There are many other tasks that station engineers should mind while the weather is good and the pressure of daily operations is relaxed a notch or two. Now is a good time to inspect and verify the efficient and reliable operation of air conditioning and cooling systems throughout the station, studios, transmitter, remote trucks and vehicles. Sure, you'll find out soon enough when one of these systems fails, but a broadcast engineer's job is to identify and remedy potential problems to ensure catastrophic failures don't occur. Again, repairs may be above the threshold of a capital expenditure, so prior due diligence is necessary to identify the full cost of major repairs or wholesale replacement of cooling systems before a problem becomes a crisis.

Speaking of cooling, another item to watch for is cooling vents that may be intentionally obstructed. Some say that broadcasting can be a cold and cruel business, and they would be right about the cold part. Stations need to stay cool because virtually all scientific studies conclude that lower operating temperatures increase the mean time between failures (MBTF) of electronic equipment.

Some people who have to work in cool rooms, such as news editors for example, may decide their edit room is too cold for the summer clothes they are wearing and stuff the HVAC vents closed with paper towels from the rest room dispenser so they don't get too cold. Creature comfort may be important, but so is MTBF. Many stations give away sweatshirts to employees. MTBF is one reason why.

Transmitters and antennas

Maybe you're not the person who inspects your tower by climbing all over it and inspecting every member, but it's every engineer's responsibility to maintain a close watch on the physical and electrical condition of towers, antennas and grounding systems. Good weather is a great time to perform detailed inspections, whether at ground level or on the tower and antenna itself, using proper personal safety equipment, of course.

Check electrical and lightning ground wiring for corroded connections and verify overall condition. Check all electrical boxes for corrosion and connections for tightness. Inspect and clear all bird and wasp nests and other debris from HVAC and emergency generator air intakes and exhausts. Inspect all fans and filters and clean or replace when necessary. Inspect all building roofs, foundations, doors and windows for water leaks and fix what needs fixing while the weather is nice.

It's a whole lot easier to learn, experiment, inspect and repair facilities and equipment during the summer doldrums than it is to deal with an emergency during a blizzard in the middle of a sweeps month.