IT@NAB Part II: Turning TV Engineers Into IT Engineers

After some false starts, it really looks as though the face of television broadcast is about to undergo a serious makeover. And when it’s done, some say, it will look quite a lot like the IT industry. Last month we looked at how that affects some manufacturers, with traditional IT companies courting television while making the familiar names in television equipment re-think their strategies. This month we wanted to touch on this convergence from the broadcasters’ standpoint. How does it affect infrastructure? And even more importantly, how might a paradigm shift affect the people who work in the industry?
ESPN’s new digital center, which came online this month, exemplifies the new, data-centric work environment everybody’s talking about. The 120,000 square-foot facility in Bristol, CT, has three new studios, seven rooms dedicated to production control, and ten to master control. And you won’t see a lot of tape there. “I have 500 videotape machines in my older facility,” said senior vice president of technology, Chuck Pagano. “In the new one I have about 35. And the new one is a lot larger than the old one.”
Instead, ESPN did a bulk buy with Quantel and based the infrastructure on that company’s sQServer technology. Servers are not new in the business, but this level of adaptation is. In many ways, broadcast facilities are increasingly being set up like an IT enterprise, moving files and data around over networks. “It’s still primarily a television production facility, not an IT application,” said Pagano. But as far as the actual movement and manipulation of media is concerned, “it’s really the same basic technology as an IT application, only using higher bit rates.”
It makes logical sense, Pagano added, for ESPN to be an early adopter. “ESPN,” he said, “is a big tonnage user of video highlights in the sporting world. We record about 220 hours of it every day, from the outside world and from among our 30 satellite antennas here on campus and the eight fiber circuits we get from a variety of carriers.”
Even slightly increasing the speed with which these clips can be ingested and re-purposed is a huge deal to the network, which is why ESPN was looking to move toward an IT model early on. “We kept an eye on other [broadcasting and cable networks] and decided to hold off a bit,” said Pagano. “But as soon as we were confident with the quality and reliability of [the] hardware, we decided to get started.”
Now to some, especially Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1981) and Yers (born between 1982 and 1999), it may not be that big a deal to think of audio or video and data interchangeably—to transpose concepts like “dubbing a tape” and “copying a file”—but to many people who’ve had successful careers in the broadcast industry, that new mindset and its ramifications can be difficult to fully grasp.
“I think for a lot of people who have been in the broadcast space for many years,” said Preston Davis, president of broadcast operation and engineering at ABC, “making the leap from something that you can see and hear to something that’s ones and zeros is a major hurdle.”
“If you analyze most production models in television, they’re all predicated on tape,” said Jim DeFilippis, vice president, television engineering of Fox’s Technology Group. “Even if they’ve gotten rid of tape. Not long ago, I tried to re-do the workflow on some of our shows and I saw instances where digital tape had to be re-processed to analog tape to be re-digitized into an Avid! And I’m like, ‘Why?! You’re starting with digits!’ Then you have to go back to analog to get to digits again. Avid has dealt with that now, but it took a long time. Even when people are working with digital information in this industry, there is still a tendency to think in the old ways.”
Transition In Three...Two...One...
So what of the successful broadcast engineer schooled in the audio/video world? Over half a century, videotape got smaller and better, TV added color and even went digital. Editing and some broadcast functions went nonlinear. But some basic principles haven’t changed. Today, as broadcast centers move closer to being IT centers, as some of the paradigms shift, what does it mean to the people in the trenches? “It’s a difficult challenge,” said DeFilippis. “The traditional broadcast operator/technician has been trained in the toolset of the trade—vectorscopes, waveform monitors, tape machines—they may have some computer skills but you can assume they don’t have the high-level IT skills we’re starting to need.”
“One of the things that keeps me up at night is trying to understand how many of our traditional broadcast engineering people are going to be able to make the transition to this IT world,” said Davis. ABC, he pointed out, set up an in-house training department a decade ago in anticipation of this sort of change. The idea was simply to get more personnel comfortable with computers. “We began requiring our engineers [to] be conversant in Windows systems and we have tried to get as many people as possible certified in Cisco routers and security and so forth. But it’s a challenge. I predict that a fair number of our current engineering employees won’t be able to make the transition.”
But he stressed that the changes, at least at ABC, will not happen overnight. Davis admitted that if he were charged with building a new network from the ground up, he’d base everything on an IT infrastructure. But that’s not his situation and his network intends to adapt to change at a more deliberate pace. “For ABC it will be an evolution. We’re not going to force our way out of the traditional analog/broadcast world in rapid fashion, because we don’t see the wisdom of that. There are systems in place that still have a lot of life in them. I think that people five years or even 10 years away from retirement needn’t be terribly worried about becoming obsolete, assuming they’re already skilled and doing a good job today.
“There are some broadcasters,” he cautioned, “who are approaching this differently. They’re spending a ton of money and making the conversion very rapidly and I would say in those environments the reverse might be true.”
Robert Seidel, vice president of engineering and technology for CBS, also pointed out that a lot of video engineers are already expanding their skill sets in gradual stages out of necessity. “At a lot of the CBS stations,” he said, “they originate all commercials off disc-based servers so [the engineering staff] had to learn about RAID technology and disc repair and disc recovery and all the things you have to do with computer systems.”
Successful engineers, he said, have to learn new things all the time. As staffs diminish, “a lot of TV station engineers also have to learn about their high-power transmitters.” The future is not that dire, he said. “I think that in the future, a lot of the people who maintained tape machines will be able to move into maintaining disc drives and backing up databases and things like that.”
Seidel is also cautious about comparisons between broadcast and IT in general. “When you talk about high definition you begin to challenge some of the ideas about IT infrastructure,” he said. “When you’re talking about passing uncompressed HD around a plant, you’re talking about 1.5 gigabits per second. That’s a lot of information even by today’s standards. Gigabit Ethernet is bumping up against its limitations. With IT networks that link devices together you begin to have to operate in a compressed domain. I think you’re going to see the kind of high bandwidth routers that exist right now for a long time.”
24/7/365 In Realtime
Finally, there are still facets of the broadcast industry that nobody understands better than people with broadcast backgrounds. Someone with a background in IT is not necessarily going to be able to simply migrate into the type of positions once occupied by video engineers. The broadcast industry has its own demands that may not come reflexively to people schooled in IT. “You have to understand what it means to be 24/7,” said DeFilippis. “You have to think in terms of backup and redundancy. The challenge for someone from an IT background is for them to get their head around the environment of ‘I need it now! I don’t care that it takes the machine two minutes to boot up.’”
“We’re in a second-by-second business,” said Davis. “Every second represents a revenue opportunity. In our business you can’t say, ‘the email might take up to a second to leave your outbox’ or ‘we can reboot the network and be up in 20 seconds.’ Those are not acceptable scenarios in the broadcast space.”
Pagano believes that the most successful engineers of the future will combine the skills and thought processes of the video engineer with that of the computer engineer. Or, to put it another way, he said, “The job that used to be a maintenance engineer will become the new media engineer. The person will be a combined expert in broadcast and in application programming and large-capacity network design for computerized systems.”
But, Davis reiterated, the infrastructure at most established companies will change gradually. “It’s an evolution that will take place over a number of years,” he said. “My hope is through retirement and attrition the workforce can gradually evolve to be more IT-oriented.
“Those who can cross over will find themselves doing very well,” he predicted. “Those who are more limited will do less well.”