Technical pioneer, ABC’s Preston Davis dies

With the requisite technical skills and “real-world” experience gained as a 35-year veteran of the ABC network’s field operations division, Preston A. Davis, most recently president of broadcast operations and engineering for the ABC Television Network Group, has died. He was 63.

Many engineers and operations staff that worked with him remember a pleasant man with an inquisitive nature.

Born in Norfolk, VA, Davis served in the U.S. Army as a specialist in communications technology and was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He joined ABC in its Washington, D.C., bureau in 1976, and rose through the ranks while overseeing field and studio operations in Washington, Atlanta and New York. In 1988 he was promoted to vice president of television operations, East Coast.

Davis also was instrumental in overseeing his network’s migration from analog to digital and then on to HD broadcasting. During interviews I personally did with him at the time, around 1995-97, Davis looked at the significant technical challenges the transition to digital posed and calmly said, “We’ll get it done.”

On Tuesday evening (April 16) ABC’s “World News Tonight” program paid tribute to Davis, with anchor Diane Sawyer stating on-camera that he was “known, respected and loved by every single person at every level at ABC.”

Typical of Davis’ ingenuity, during the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia, then ABC News Executive Director Roger Goodman challenged Davis and his team with coming up with a way for the network correspondents to freely wander the convention floor and do live interviews. Davis' solution was called the “Teletubby.” Worn by a cameraman, it was made up of a 15in Sharp LCD monitor attached to a Steadicam harness and outfitted with a wireless receiver from Global Microwave Services. It displayed the ABC programming output, which was transmitted to it by an RF antenna mounted in the rafters of the convention hall. Teleprompter information was displayed to correspondents on a QTV camera-mounted display of the type typically used in a studio configuration. The system made for a completely wireless one-cameraman band and provided the mobility Goodman was looking for.

“Twenty years [before that], we would have built two control rooms as big as you'd find in any studio,” Goodman told Broadcasting & Cable magazine at the time. “It was spectacular.”

Davis also pioneered the use of fiber-optic paths to New York to remotely control coverage from the control room at ABC's New York City headquarters.

Davis, who is survived by his wife, Michelle, and their two children, was the first African-American president of any division at ABC and the first technical executive of color at any television network in the U.S. He was also outspoken about the need for more diversity among the broadcast industry ranks.

His duties over the years included not only day-to-day network broadcast operations, but also the technical planning support required for numerous news, sports and entertainment special events, including presidential elections for the primaries through Inauguration Day, and also major sporting events, including "Monday Night Football" and the Superbowl telecasts.