Broadcast television's transition to digital has translated to many things for engineers - a steep learning curve, long hours, new equipment and new ways of doing old jobs. But with a great deal of the responsibility for that transition placed squarely upon their shoulders, have industry professionals seen monetary gains in balance with their increased workloads?
That's the question Broadcast Engineering set out to answer in its 2000 Salary Survey. 2750 surveys were mailed out to randomly selected readers spread across three different segments of the television industry (broadcast, cable and production) and four different job titles (VP/DOE, chief engineer, staff engineer and operations management). To further stratify the results, they were divided by market rank, either Top 50 or Below Top 50, and presented in context with earlier surveys from 1997 and 1998. In addition to querying our readers about salary status, we also asked some interesting questions about implementation budgets, the replies to which yielded some insight to the industry's support of the digital transition.
The salary results Vice presidents and directors of engineering are, logically, the most likely to see wage increases in the first waves of the transition to digital. They are the individuals largely responsible for fashioning a station's plan of attack and for implementing staff structures to smooth what is inevitably a bumpy ride.
That logic is not borne out by the results of the survey. Respondents in the Broadcast Top 50 saw only minimal gains since 1998, moving to $76,000 from $75,000, while Below Top 50 saw a marked downturn, to only about $51,250 from a high of $61,666. Both cable and production segments saw healthy gains over the last two years, with the average Cable VP/DOE increasing to $65,000 from just under $55,000 and production executives making an even more substantial gain - to $70,000 from $50,000.
The numbers for chief engineers provided a little better news for small market stations, with Below Top 50 increasing about 10 percent to $50,278. However, Top 50 took another hit, decreasing from a high of $70,000 to just under $68,000. Salaries for cable CEs made a healthy move to $47,500 from $39,444.
Results for staff engineers were mixed as well. The cable segment showed another strong rise, to $50,800 from $38,750, and Top 50 saw a solid 8 percent increase to $54,642 from $50,555. A relatively flat 3 percent increase was reported in the Below Top 50 segment.
Contrary to returns from the three other job title categories, operations management saw strong increases in all categories. Median salaries in broadcast increased 11 percent in larger markets to $70,000 and 14 percent in smaller markets to $48,571. Cable and production segments saw similar gains, to $45,625 and $55,000 respectively.
The question of certification Is it worth the effort to gain SBE certification? The answer to that question depends largely upon where you currently reside in the engineering hierarchy.
Overall, the percentage of engineers holding SBE certification has moderately increased since the 1998 survey, to 28 percent from 23 percent, with the most significant change occurring among chief engineers (to 36 percent from 26 percent). If you are a VP/DOE, SBE certification is something you should look into. Those holding some level of certification reported a 19 percent higher salary, $73,571 vs. $61,666. However, salaries for chief engineers and staff engineers held consistent regardless of SBE certification status. So from a salary standpoint, SBE certification does not necessarily translate into a salary advantage.
Other indications A great deal of information not specifically related to the salary numbers above was collected, and it presents a more fully realized picture of the status of the broadcast industry and those who work in it. For example, an overwhelming majority of broadcast and non-broadcast professionals received salary increases over the last 12 months. In broadcast, the percentage seeing increases remained consistently above 80 percent regardless of job classification. The numbers for non-broadcast were not quite as high, though still firmly in the majority - between 72 percent and 85 percent. Regardless of job title or industry segment, professionals received, on average, a 4 percent increase. Staff engineers in broadcast facilities received slightly lower salary increase (3 percent), while non-broadcast VPs/DOEs received 5 percent increases.
Age also plays a part in the wages of industry professionals. Average salaries can be expected to continually rise until the 50 to 59 age range, where they level off. Salaries for those 60 and older can be expected to drop marginally but remain in the mid- to upper $50,000s.
A surprising number of respondents also participate in part-time or freelance work within the industry. Operations managers in cable or production facilities are the most likely to be involved in additional part-time or freelance work, with nearly half (47 percent). Non-broadcast chief engineers are the least likely to take on additional work, with only about 26 percent supplementing their incomes.
Industry investment Perhaps the most telling results contained in this survey are in answer to the question "What is your station's year 2000 budget specifically for the implementation of DTV?" The results speak volumes about the commitment of large market and small market stations. It was expected going in that large market stations would be investing more in the transition for two reasons - they're affected by an earlier DTV deadline and, being larger markets, they have more money to spend. However, what was not expected was the relatively small amount of funding the majority of stations are aiming toward their impending conversion to digital operations.
For 2000, only 12 percent of small market stations had dedicated $1 million or more to the transition and only another 10 percent clocked in between $1 million and $500,000. Of large market stations, only 22 percent were planning to spend at least $1 million for digital implementation. Another 18 percent came in between $1 million and $500,000. Given the obvious expenses related to going digital, it is hard to imagine that even those spending up to $1 million are giving serious consideration to an immediate, meaningful digital signal.
On the flip side of those numbers, 19 percent of large markets and nearly 40 percent of small markets had budgeted less than $75,000 toward the digital conversion - hardly enough to buy a digital VTR. With a May 1, 2002, deadline looming, that $75,000 hardly translates to a real commitment. The lack of investment by large markets is less shocking when you consider that a number of them have already made the digital conversion and are budgeting less for equipment. However, the question of small markets, those stations that should be in the full swing of digital transition, remains open.
What that transition to digital means to the bottom lines of broadcast professionals also remains an open question. While the changes in our industry are largely benefiting those in cable and production, the results for broadcast, whether in small or large markets, are mixed. Though this survey provides an accurate snapshot of the broadcast industry in 2000, the picture of where we'll stand remains out of focus.