Something Big Broke

You might not have noticed that everything breaks. Venus de Milo once had arms. The Sphinx once had a nose. The Grand Canyon was once flat. Everything breaks.
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You might not have noticed that everything breaks. Venus de Milo once had arms. The Sphinx once had a nose. The Grand Canyon was once flat. Everything breaks.

Some things everybody expects to break – like light bulbs. Others are a big surprise when they break – like dams.

In the TV technology biz, as I'm sure you already know, we try to prepare for stuff breaking. We keep a supply of extra light bulbs and, for a live show like the news, we make sure no single light burning out will take down the show.

Mics are less likely to break than light bulbs, but it's more serious when they do. If the mic on your news anchor breaks in the middle of the show, that's pretty bad, and that's why you double-up on lavs or use a lav and a desk mic or some other combination.

We usually don't double-up on cameras because they're usually less critical. If one breaks, another can probably cover the shot. If cameras cost as little as lavs, we'd probably go ahead and double-up on them, too, just in case. After all, how many 75-ohm terminators do you need? How many do you have? I rest my case. Cheap stuff is cheap – you might as well stock up. But not everything is cheap.


Sometimes money has to be secondary. We double up on transmitters on account of them being the link that everything passes through. Every light bulb in the studio can shine brightly, every lav can deliver the finest in chest resonance and every camera can produce a moving Mona Lisa but, if the transmitter's down, no one gets to see anything.

Transmitters ain't the only single links in the broadcast chain. Some folks are justifiably (in my useless opinion) scared of ultraflexible digital audio consoles. They're great when they work, but a seven-minute reboot time when they don't is mighty scary! I know of one audio person who sticks an announcer mic and a shotgun into a tiny battery-powered mixer kept next to the digital console, just in case. It ain't gonna be a glorious 5.1-channel mix, but something will get on the air. Let the most complicated console be used in a nonlive studio; on-air is something else entirely.

A little battery-powered mixer is pretty cheap on a broadcaster's P&L sheet (and so are the batteries). Not everything is so cheap. Backing up a live video production switcher ain't quite as easy, so we back up power supplies and have spare boards handy and – if all else fails – we can patch one camera right into the transmitter.

Deciding what to back up is tricky. One-for-one redundancy can send everyone to the poorhouse, but so can no redundancy at all. Bean counters usually object to buying backup stuff until something breaks. But let a station go off-the-air due to a failed exciter, and you'll suddenly find a budget item for a whole bunch of new exciters.

I feel older than the hills, so it ain't chronologically surprising that I remember the U.S. presidential campaign of 1976. It's just amazing to me that Nellie the Neuron still knows where to find the memory files.

Anyhow, methinks 'twas in September of '76 when Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were debating in Philadelphia that an audio DA or something crapped out. There you had the president of the United States and the guy who became the next president of the United States both standing stupidly and silently at their lecterns (a podium is what you stand on, not at) for something like 20 minutes until the problem got fixed. Yeesh!

So, at the next debate or the one after that (Nellie has limits to her historic capacities), there were at least two mics at every mic position, two cameras at every camera position, two audio mixers, two video switchers, two transmission paths, two sources of power – heck, the backups had backups. That ain't necessarily the best thing to do either.

Nellie tells me that for the first Earth Day one station was planning a remote from some distant city. This was in the days of quadruplex VTRs, which weren't something you just plugged into a household outlet.

Everything was backed up. There were two playback machines and two record machines. Everything was checked out. And when they cut to the remote –nothing.

They tell me that everything was checked out all right, but not all at once. The two record and two playback quads starting up at the same moment created a surge that popped the power.

Anyhow, after they figured out what was going on there, they fixed it. Maybe they got more power, or maybe they dropped machines or just staggered starting them up. The point is, when something bad happens, you learn from it. And, if it involves a backup, the bean counters are usually amenable after a disaster.


That's why I've got such a hard time understanding what happened. On a day of infamy in New York, the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists. People were killed. Survivors were bleeding and covered in dust and smoke. Most New York TV stations went off-the-air. Of the stations with transmitters on the World Trade Center, only WCBS-TV, which had a backup transmitter on the Empire State Building, stayed on-the-air.

I ain't talking about why the attack happened. No one can ever give me a reason I can understand for that. I'm wondering why the stations didn't do anything about backup transmission facilities.

"But, Mario, the whole World Trade Center collapsed! What could they do?"

What? Oh, geez! You're talking about Sept. 11, 2001! I'm talking about Feb. 26, 1993.

Sept. 11, 2001 wasn't the first time the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists. It was bombed more than eight-and-a-half years earlier. People were killed. There was smoke and dust everywhere. And the TV transmitters went off-the-air and the stations with them, all except for WCBS-TV with its auxiliary on the Empire State Building.

I'm as upset as anyone else about the people who were killed or harmed in the 2001 attack, this time including some who ran the transmitters. My heart goes out to all of the victims of both attacks and their families and friends. But what happened in the eight-and-one-half years between the attacks?

You'd have to use 20/20 hindsight to fault anyone for going off-the-air in 1993. Ayup, the stations used to be on the Empire State Building and could have kept facilities there as WCBS did, but I can imagine the WCBS bean counters doing a fair amount of chewing out of the engineering staff over how much they'd been spending before Feb. 26, 1993. It was, what, around ten years of paying for what must have seemed like totally worthless facilities at the Empire State Building before the 1993 attack. I'm amazed the engineers won that one for so long.


But wasn't there a wake-up call in 1993? When you go off-the-air, it starts costing money (unless you're a PBS station and even then it ain't a great thing). New York is the primo market in the country, so we're talking a lot of money.

I don't know – maybe not. In 1993 the stations went off-the-air all right, but it wasn't forever. I surely can't fault anyone for not imagining that the buildings could fall down. They were supposed to be able to withstand the impact of a head-on crash with a 727. They did better than that – they handled impact from 767s. But nearly full fuel tanks were something else.

Maybe the bean counters figured the short-term lost revenue in 1993 was cheaper than an auxiliary transmitter on the Empire State Building. Maybe they figured it was stupid to invest in NTSC technology with DTV on-the-way. Maybe they figured that, with direct audio and video feeds to local-area cable systems, over-the-air transmission wasn't really all that important (they probably wouldn't even have imagined back then that satellite systems might want to carry their signals, too).

Now they're (or should I say "we're"?) all scrambling to do something: maybe some kind of transmitter on Major Armstrong's original FM tower in New Jersey, maybe something on some other tall building. Since 1993, space at the Empire State Building has been gobbled up. The word is that it could take years just to restore the NTSC transmissions (but DTV shouldn't take longer).

I ain't trying to point any fingers. Sept. 11, 2001 was horrible and the TV industry can be proud of the role it played. Just don't forget that everything breaks.