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The evolution of broadcast engineering

Once upon a time, a broadcast engineer could know — was required to know — the technical infrastructure from camera to transmission tower. Those days are gone. With the transition to digital, knowledge of the technical skills of engineering, computer science, system administration and security systems is required. Possession of this skill set allows framing of the big picture — knowing the why and how of an integrated broadcast/IT system design.

Today’s BOC is deceptively simple in concept, but strenuously challenging to engineer to real-time, 24-hour operational reliability. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the technology is simple or easy. It is not. The ATSC A/53 standard is 104 pages (without MPEG), AC-3, 204 and IEEE 802.2 OSI Logical Link Layer is 253 pages! And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Required skills

So what skill set does a broadcast engineer need to bridge the transition? Using the four-layer BOC model developed in previous newsletters, the required skills for a contemporary systems engineer include:

  • Physical — video, audio, graphics systems, SDI and AES signal routers, production switchers, cabling and schematic capture
  • Media network — network topology, NOS, protocols, media servers, storage, switches and routers
  • Application — programming, scripting, OS configuration, directory services, account maintenance, platform performance analysis and database development
  • Security — conduct security assessments, firewalls, VPN, authentication, OS security and network security

To acquire the required skills, experience and education to attain mastery of any one of these disciplines is a career-long undertaking.

Experts are needed in each layer’s particular subtleties, such as engineers who know the difference between an RS-232 and an RS-422 interface, network specialists to keep your media essence flowing at the required QoS, application and platform specialists who are aware that chip set selection for a mother board will influence application performance, and security specialists who can give you dozens of reasons why you can’t have the graphic department computers connected to the Internet.

The paradox

The paradox is that no one person can master all the required technical skills in sufficient detail to design and maintain all layers. Yet a sufficient depth of knowledge and experience on all layers is required to design and implement a BOC infrastructure. You can have depth or breadth of knowledge, but not both. So how can this paradox be resolved?

Last month’s IBC conference devoted a session to this issue and examined the evolving role of a broadcast engineer. The panel discussion “Are broadcast engineers made or born?” chaired by Nigel Paine, head of BBC Training and Development, discussed the difficultly in finding personnel with expertise in both broadcast and IT while making the transition to digital integrated infrastructures.

The panel agreed that technical skills are important, but since finding broadcast and IT technologists is so difficult, it is imperative to find people with the right core profile.

These core characteristics include:

  • Troubleshooting skills, logical deductive reasoning
  • Communication skills, teambuilding skills
  • Planning, big picture viewpoint
  • Team player or team leader as called upon
  • Enthusiasm, a desire to learn

Polling the audience revealed that the consensus felt that a person with this core set of characteristics, and a technical background in either engineering or IT, could be trained in the other technologies necessary to perform as a digital media systems broadcast engineer. Therefore, there must be strategic management of technical talent, insuring through education and training so that the technical staff has the necessary skills to achieve the company’s vision. An organization must decide how to develop, categorize and manage its technical talent to transition to and support a digital BOC.

Teamwork and project management

Teambuilding and teamwork can solve the expertise paradox. The project team should include representatives from all impacted stakeholders. This will include engineering, IT, production, creative and business personnel. All should aid in the design, adding pertinent expertise and information.

It is important to include support personnel in the earliest design phases. Incorporating front line, first responder experience into the first stages of system design will save countless hours of problem resolution in the future. The BOC will be designed for support.

Project planning and management are of primary importance. A timeline and budget is not sufficient. How does this project fit in the overall infrastructure? What are the milestones? Who is responsible for what? All this must be planned, managed and documented.

Identifying qualified personnel as potential project managers is a challenge. Being technology dependent projects, it is necessary to have a technologist lead the project. This individual must have core skills, technical expertise and be able to bring the proper groups of technologists together to build an effective team, gather and define user requirements, then guide the team to arrive at the best technical solution.

Process mapping

Engineering, according to Merriam-Webster OnLine, is “the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people” and “the design and manufacture of complex products <software engineering>.” We will add within financial constraints, on schedule and to fulfill a business need.

With the increased complexity of BOC technology, it is important to be sure that the infrastructure is efficiently designed for the production workflow. Mapping of production workflows with respect to the underlying infrastructure is necessary in order to engineer an optimized system design and deployment. This will result in maximum production efficiency and an increase on ROI in infrastructure resources.

Where none have gone beforeConverged BOC infrastructures are deceptively simple in concept and extremely challenging to engineer. System block diagrams are easy to understand, but the deeper level of knowledge necessary to professionally engineer these integrated systems comes only during a career.If sufficient in-house expertise is not available, an option is to use experienced system integrators to design, construct and commission new digital infrastructures. Care should be exercised when relying on systems integrators. Take an active role in overall project management. And be sure that there is a sufficient transfer of knowledge to your engineering and support personnel during all project phases. A one-week training program after commissioning will not be enough.The dawnThese are exciting, challenging times in the media industry. We are dealing with evolving, unproven technologies while standards are emerging. Developing multidiscipline teams for design and deployment of integrated infrastructures has placed added emphasis on project management and teamwork.A BOC infrastructure integrates two major technologies of the 20th century: electrical engineering and computer science. Just as the debate that began 20 years ago over whether computer science really was an engineering discipline has been laid to rest (yes, it is), so too will the broadcast vs. IT debate resolve itself in the emergence of a new engineering discipline.There exists an opportunity to revitalize the experienced veteran broadcast engineer with the thirst for knowledge. Return to school, literally or figuratively. Think of this time as you thought of your career when you began it. Be excited that you get to enjoy the discovery of new ideas and concepts. One key to eternal youth is the perception of the world as a wondrous place with endless secrets to reveal. The transition to digital offers this daily.Additional readingFor a discussion of the integration of broadcast and IT in equipment:[1] Interfacing ATM to the Pro-Bel MADI Audio Switching System[2] “Turning a generic IP network into a video network”, Dan McCray and Henry Sariowan, Broadcast Engineering, August 2005The BBC/UK perspective on broadcast engineering core skills and talents:[3] “Skillset is the Sector Skills Council for the Audio Visual Industries… [whose] job is to make sure that the UK audio visual industries have the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, at the right time...”[4] National Occupational Standards for Broadcast Engineering UK general discussion of the broadcast/IT integration challenge:[5] Building IT systems, By John Luff, Broadcast Engineering, Oct 1, 2004 12:00 PM to the top