Fixing what isn’t broken

The further the broadcast television industry transitions to digital, the more I’m reminded that throughout the diversity of people who make television content and work at TV stations, there is a common passion. We all love television. Sure, everyone likes to watch TV, but we love it so much we figured out how to get paid to watch it and make it better. Some of the program content and repetitive work may not meet our entertainment standards, but whether we’re troubleshooting a faulty cable during a live event or ingesting incoming spots one after another at a workstation, it’s all television and our career choice.

Nearly everyone who works in television makes that choice for a reason. Few are there because they like working weekends, holidays or for the odd hours or stress. Fewer consider working at a station just another job. A television station is a special place, and it takes a special type of person to successfully work in one.

Face time or fun time?

Some people are attracted to stations because they want to be a famous face on TV. Others who work at stations would never stand in front of a TV camera. Some find workplace bliss by simply rubbing elbows with the stars. Others are jaded by stars. Salespeople are there because a station can be a tremendous opportunity for networking and high income. Many at stations find nearly all the job fulfillment they require by making, producing and delivering television content to people’s homes. Everyone works together for the pride of association with their station’s call letters.

TV stations aren’t operated and run by everyday people. They are operated and run by TV fanatics who, like all people, make mistakes. The problem is that when someone makes a mistake at a TV station, thousands or more see it, and depending on the severity, some advertisers may rethink their business relationship with the station. Worse case, as illustrated in the previous “Transition to Digital” newsletter, the mistake becomes the lead story on competing stations and other news media. This is exactly what broadcast engineers were hired to help stations avoid.

You might think that with all the new digital this and automated that, stations would be experiencing fewer so-called “technical difficulties.” The fact is that as stations streamline and consolidate daily operations, there is greater potential for more disruptive technical difficulties. Many broadcast engineers know those words are a pretty broad brush that tends to splatter on more people than it sometimes should. Accidents happen, and engineers are there to prevent and fix them.

Morning surprise

I mention this because while having my first cup of coffee and watching a local network affiliate’s 7:25 a.m. local news cut-in this morning, I witnessed a local TV news meltdown from the comfort of my living room. Station meltdowns are always most entertaining at home and even better when not on your station.

Apparently, microphone inputs from the news set got jumbled. The anchor was talking, and all I could hear were echos from a distant studio mic, although I could see a lavalier securely clipped to the anchor’s clothes. Cutting to the weather set revealed another visible lavalier and a similar wrong-mic problem. That mic was picking up broadcast studio echos too, but sounded different than the anchor’s wrong mic. The station did the right thing and quickly faded to black, ran a spot cluster and resolved the issues during the break.

Accidents happen, and in broadcasting, they can be counted on to happen at the worst possible time. Some accidents can be thwarted by simply following a routine checklist. I would imagine the station had a written or unwritten pre-show checklist that included mic checks. I would also imagine that there was a seemingly valid reason someone assumed the echoing audio they auditioned in the studio before the anchor and weather person were on set was indeed coming from the expected microphones. The only way I know of to audition a mic is with a physical mic check. What should broadcast engineers never do? Assume anything.

Quality controller

Broadcast engineers ultimately control the technical quality of all distributed TV content. Engineers are expected to make the content delivery seamless, transparent and reliable to viewers.

One particular past U.S. President, who also happened to have built a very successful film and broadcasting career, is famous for saying, “Trust but verify.” That’s exactly what you learn to do in film and broadcasting, and it was an axiom that translated well into Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. In broadcast engineering, “trust but verify” remains the most reliable technique for successful quality control available.

In the early days of radio and audio mixers, someone invented the audition or cue channel. It was a purposely and permanently off-line second channel designed specifically for the operator to audition and verify audio before it goes to air. Similarly in teleproduction, production switchers provide a separate preview or preset channel permanently dedicated to observe and verify video and visual images by the operator before it goes to air. If you’ve ever punched up an unexpected input on-air because you skipped previewing it first, you know what a valuable safety device previewing can be.

One step ahead

Controlling quality means checking content or checking the means for creating content before it airs. Whether checking a microphone or reviewing a spot after ingest, an engineer is usually the last person to vouch for technical quality before it airs. An engineer is also the only person at a station who can actively identify, isolate and remedy technical problems before air. Previewing and auditioning keeps engineers one step ahead of most operating problems and provides valuable wiggle room if something isn’t right.

Would it be fair to say that broken cables, bad connectors and faulty mechanical or electronic components are what broadcast engineers are expected to repair or replace? The truth is that broadcast engineers are expected to recognize symptoms and anticipate those faults and failures before they occur.