RIP, ‘The Good Preston’

MORRISTOWN, N.J. – The world of television technology is reeling today on the news that one of its giants, former president of ABC Broadcast Operations & Engineering, Preston Davis, passed away Monday. He was 63.

“He was a good friend, a good soul and one hell of a gentleman, one hell of a mentor and one hell of a partner,” said Chuck Pagano, chief technology officer at ESPN who knew Davis for 30 years and worked closely him. “He was a wonderful collaborator and a wonderful human being. One hell of a person’s been taken away from us.”

Davis joined ABC in 1976 as an engineer in Washington, D.C., a year after Peter Doherty, who’s now senior operations producer. Doherty, who started the year before, said Davis was “one of the good guys in our business.”

Andy Setos on Working With Preston Davis In the late ’90s, there was much controversy about which scanning format to use for “advanced television” in the United States. Over a decade-and-a-half later, the subject still arouses the hormones of those in the struggle to move television forward into the 21st century. It is sad to think of this as a struggle since engineering, when practiced well, should be about truth and reality. Nevertheless there were two camps; on one side were the technology innovators, like MIT, Bell Labs and the Silicon Valley crowd. On the other were the NHK and their followers in the United States. Few would argue that the NHK did not start us on this great journey, having felt we needed something better than a ’30s technology to inform and entertain in the home using pictures and sound. Indeed, they got everything right in concept—wider aspect ratio, multichannel sound, component color and more resolution. Problem was, there was so much information to be transmitted that they knew they needed a compression technique to make HDTV more practical and found that the only one available was interlace.

So started the 1080i versus 720p competition.

This controversy was so intense that the FCC ultimately could not bring itself to resolve the issue, and if one looks carefully, while they adopted the entire ATSC Standard, the infamous “Table 3” was left out of the Rules and Regulations. Table 3 of the ATSC Standard defined the scanning formats that were “allowed” and included both 1080i and 720p. Technically, a broadcaster can transmit any scanning format, like say 960i or 960p and not be in violation of any law or regulation.

While the science and engineering community was strongly in favor of progressive scanning, it was very lonely within the broadcasting community for those of us interested in the future.

Preston and I had come to realize the fundamental benefits of progressive scanning, such as bandwidth efficiency and better rendering for sports action but the rest of our colleagues thought of us as way out of the mainstream, and we were the targets of withering criticism. We had a few chats about it. We were both worried that what we felt was the right decision would be a career-defining moment, and not of the good type.

Ultimately we both concluded and agreed that the we had no choice to but to act to give meaning to our roles as stewards of network broadcast engineering. If not, what were we doing in those roles? Preston showed characteristic strength during this episode, without histrionics, but with steely resolve.

ABC lit up with 720p, and a few years later Fox did as well. Today, 80 percent of professional and college sports in the United States is captured in and transmitted to homes in 720p. That is one of Preston’s legacies. ~ Andy Setos Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger promoted Davis to president of BO&E in 1993, making him the first African American president of any ABC division in the history of the company.

“Preston and I started at ABC around the same time,” Iger said in an email sent out Monday by ABC TV President Anne Sweeney. “He was a talented and tenacious leader who earned wide respect for his abilities and was revered for his impeccable integrity. When I had to choose someone to lead BO&E into the future, there was no question Preston was the right person, and he led that team to great achievements for the better part of two decades. Preston was a class act and a great guy who had a tremendous impact on everyone who knew him.”

Preston Padden, now an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, worked with Davis in the late ’90s, when Padden was named president of the network.

“Everyone referred to him as ‘the good Preston,’” Padden said.

“Preston is the person who guided the ABC network and its affiliates through the digital transition. He was invaluable in helping us all understand the difficult engineering concepts. And in addition, he was just about the nicest guy in the building,” Padden said.

“When I first was named president, we had an affiliate meeting at Walt Disney World, and we were all wearing badges that had our first names in big print,” he said. “He came up laughing, and said how many affiliates had come up and congratulated him on his appointment to president of the network.”

Andy Setos, former chief of Fox engineering, said Davis was a close friend.

“I had tremendous respect for him because he had it tougher than me yet achieved levels of accomplishment that were so very high,” Setos said.“And he was tough, too, but liked to laugh at good jokes.”

Metropolitan Opera Engineer-in-Charge Mark Schubin said Davis was “a real gentleman and a pleasure to deal with. If he said he would do something, he did it.”

Bill Miller, a former colleague at ABC, said Davis was “well-liked and respected by the people who worked for him. His integrity was beyond question. I don't know how many people could have risen as quickly as he did and have learned the job a well as he did in as short a time.”

Even those in the industry who did not know Davis well referred to him as a “gentleman.”

ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer echoed the sentiment in a brief segment on ABC News last night.

“…if you’ll allow us tonight, there is a member of our ABC family who has died; a man who’s been absolutely critical to the kind of reporting we’ve done today, this week, and so many times before. Preston Davis 35 years ago began as an engineer here and rose to president of Broadcast Operations & Engineering. The first African American president of any division at ABC, known respected, loved, by every single person at every level of ABC.”

On “Good Morning America,” Anchor Josh Elliot said, “During his 35-year career, Preston Davis supervised the technical side of virtually every major live event, from presidential elections to Monday Night Football. Before retiring, he launched the networks transition to high definition. A true role model and pioneer, he will be missed.”

Davis came to the broadcast industry by way of the Army, where he was a specialist in communications technology. He was a Vietnam War veteran and a native of Norfolk, Va. He retired from ABC in 2011, but continued to consult for the network in its negotiations with the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. Randy Hoffner Remembers I had the pleasure of working in Preston’s division for a number of years, including that period when ABC was planning and subsequently implementing DTV and HDTV. The role I filled resulted in my working directly with Preston on this momentous set of projects. The most memorable aspect was, of course, the decision to implement 720p scanning. It wasn’t easy, because ABC had to convince a number of manufacturers to actually produce 720p hardware: Something many of them had no interest in doing. Preston and his staff held fast to this decision, and turned the industry.

ABC further had to help producers and post-production companies to deliver native 720p programming, with 5.1 channel sound as well. ABC then kept a tight liaison with production and post-production people, to assure that its high standards were being met. All this required strong leadership, and Preston provided it in abundance.

Preston was, as has already been said, one of the nicest guys in the business, and a true gentleman. In addition to the working environment, he was a great guy socially; one of the people I most enjoyed having dinner with, for example. And, he was without a doubt my best friend in the ABC corporate structure. I will miss his presence.” ~ Randy Hoffner

Pagano said his friend was a gearhead.

“When I talked to him in December, he was looking forward to getting back into his other hobby—automobiles. He was a child of the ’50s and ’60s, and we grew up with that mentality…. I was telling him about my 1966 Chevelle Super Sport I outfitted with a big-block L88 engine and coated with black lacquer, and I had him drooling in front of me.

“He liked real cars. Every conversation we had was about a car, but mostly about the future of television; the early days of high-definition rolling out. Those are special moments… he was a reservoir of knowledge and vision. He was a phenomenal partner, and a leader. He was there, made the decisions and didn’t gloat about things or make noise. He was a good soldier of this country and this business.

“I feel honored to have known him. He touched a lot of people. He was truly one of the princes and one of the mental leaders of this industry. We’ve lost a special person on this planet.”

(Editor’s Note -- reactions continue to come in. I will add them as they do. Please feel free to email me if you’d like to share your thoughts. - D.)

From Warren Allgyer, who wrote from Asia:
My memories of Preston were of a strong capable leader who earned the respect of his staff, his competitors, and his partners. Preston was a rarity in in my experience with big network management; a person who was willing to innovate and take risks to advance the state of his company. He will be deeply missed as a friend and as a leader in our industry.

From Vince Roberts, chief technology officer and executive vice president of global operations for Disney/ABC Television Group:
I have had the opportunity to work closely with Preston for the past 20 years. When Disney acquired Cap Cities in 1996, the first groups to get together were the BO&E teams from the now merged companies of ESPN (Chuck Pagano), Preston’s New York ABC BO&E group, and my Disney team. From that moment on, we worked collaboratively on all things television. When he announced his retirement in 2010, I knew he was ready to move on the the next phase of his life… cooking school, his car collection… but most importantly spending time with his family. From early 2011 until his departure in 2012, Preston and I worked closely together – many times speaking multiple time a day - as we transitioned the ABC BO&E management to my watch. Leadership, honesty, integrity, are just a few words that represent his character. Preston was one of my dearest friends and a true gentle soul. A friend of mine summed it up by saying that few people are irreplaceable: Preston Davis was one of those irreplaceable few. He will be greatly missed.