Trains that wreck themselves

According to some Internet chatter these days, there are plenty of geeks but a lack of qualified broadcast engineers. It takes a special person to fit and succeed in broadcast engineering. Broadcast television stations attract all kinds of people — job applicants, employees, volunteers, interns, viewers and the occasional nut who wants to make news. People in the latter category often target TV stations in one way or another.

A week ago, San Francisco Bay Area TV station KTVU reported that the names of the pilots of Asiana's disastrous flight 214 were Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow. Not only were the names displayed in a full-screen graphic, but the anchor read each one aloud without missing a beat. The entire event seemed to pass without intervention through a series of human robots. You can see the performance here.

There was a time when something like that would have everyone in the studio and control room roaring in uncontrollable laughter, followed shortly thereafter by somebody leaving the parking lot in search of a new job. Not this time. Not only did the writer, producer, director and anchor not get it, but as you can imagine, some viewers didn’t laugh either. Threats of lawsuits were flying. Allegedly, as the story goes, an NTSB intern confirmed the names to someone at KTVU who had called the NTSB for verification.

Question: Who didn’t do their job? An NTSB spokeswoman described the intern as “a very intelligent young man who made a very big mistake.” I might editorially add (and found a bigger sucker). How many pairs of eyeballs saw the list or graphic and failed to see the obvious, even as it aired?

The KTVU intrusion wasn’t a computer hack or a broken lock. it was an intellectual hack that should have been stopped by an intellectual firewall. The question apparently never asked as the phony list of names bounced from a federal agency to a broadcast television station and back to the federal agency for verification before broadcast on the station: “You’re kidding me, right?” Apparently, not one eyebrow was raised.

It’s not like TV broadcasters haven’t seen technical pranks before. They can range from annoying to illegal. A recent prank, described in the Feb. 17, 2013, "Transition to Digital" newsletter tutorial was the somewhat infamous EAS zombie warning hack attack. It didn’t cause social disruption, but it was a serious wake-up call to broadcast engineers and the industry. The zombie warning perp remains at large.

Lock the doors

Digital technology has put doors and windows in television stations where there once was bedrock. The challenge for broadcast engineers is to recognize that threats to the station’s license, brand, employees, physical plant and facilities are expanding. Everyone at stations should raise their antennas and be on the lookout for potential security threats. As demonstrated by the recent KTVU incident, some security threats can bypass the strongest locks and passwords.

Locking the doors is supposed to keep the bad guys out. But as reported in the May 31, 2012, edition of the "Transition to Digital" newsletter tutorial “Dangerous Reality,” locked doors aren’t always a guarantee. Similarly, passwords are more of a filter than a guarantee, particularly if they are as obvious and easy to compromise as finding a key under a mat. If your station’s call letters or frequency is in your station’s networked equipment passwords, change the passwords.

Watchful engineers actively monitor digital devices for unauthorized attempts to log in from the outside world. They also watch and listen to what is on-air or being prepared for air. From operators to maintenance supervisors, assistants to chiefs, all engineers should be equally focused on Q/C and security. Question and investigate everything that doesn’t look right. Get everyone involved in the loop.

Sometimes, it can be revealing to question a visitor about station security. A sharp visitor might notice a weakness so obvious most people at the station won’t see it. I was once at a station with keypad access beyond the front lobby. A saleperson visiting the station to see me mentioned that he learned our lobby keypad access code in less than a minute by simply watching people punch the same numbers in as he waited. That keypad had been there for years, and nobody noticed before?

More than solder

Broadcast engineers are expected to be soldering, crimping and wiring experts with a natural ability to do base 60 math in their heads, frame-accurately predict when the next commercial break will roll or end, and to fix or replace equipment before it fails. If that’s not enough, broadcast engineers are also often a station’s last line of defense of the station’s FCC license, brand and reputation.

Loudness and CALM Act compliance has been a hot topic in the industry recently. While there are all types of gadgets and gizmos with all kinds of algorithms, processing and displays designed to ensure CALM Act compliance, nothing beats an attentive ear with an experienced hand on the gain control. Broadcast engineers are the human filter content must pass through before going to air. If something sounds too loud, investigate and fix it so it doesn’t happen next time.

Broadcast engineers have a knack for noticing things that don’t seem right. It might be an unusual transmitter current reading, a misspelled graphic on a preview channel, or a low tire on a vehicle in the parking lot. Good broadcast engineers spot and fix technical irregularities so no viewer ever notices, even on DVR replays. Engineers aren’t usually graphics operators, but don’t let that stop you from speaking up. Part of the fun of working in television is that everyone is a television watching expert; we’re all in it together, and few of us can do the other person’s job.

The secret to maintaining a successful last line of defense is to keep a curious and skeptical eye open at all times. If something doesn’t look right, speak up or fix it. It’s always better that you ask at the moment rather than the GM being asked tomorrow morning by a couple of dozen viewers, community leaders or, worse yet, reporters from other stations. Be prepared for a head-on crash with Murphy’s Law with invisible Plans B, C and D always at the ready.

No business like show business

What’s the generally accepted show business motto? “The show must go on.” Whether the show is on a Broadway stage or emanating from your local broadcast studio news set, audiences expect to see a flawless professional performance that starts on time. People make the shows, and people make mistakes. The mark of a professional is how mistakes are dealt with. A mistake is a mistake only if you let the audience know you made a mistake.

What separates broadcast engineers from typical geeks is that broadcast engineers understand show business. They know that the 10 p.m. news never starts at 10:01 p.m. They know mistakes will happen, move on and take appropriate steps asap to ensure it won’t recur. They know that viewers deserve perfection.

Not long ago, while setting up for a live remote broadcast, I typed some test words into a character generator to verify that they appeared on the production switcher and keyed correctly. They were a simple black and white Helvetica font with words that were loosely appropriate to the event we were preparing to broadcast. My mistake was not to delete them.

Wouldn’t you know, the graphics operator arrived late and used my overly-simple test pages as templates for the live broadcast. How embarrassing.

Like studio microphones, all station sources must be assumed to be as hot these days as the people who seem to delight in griping about technical minutia to GMs and FCC. In today’s competitive market, there often aren’t enough dedicated station eyeballs to check and recheck everything, which moves more operational gatekeeping responsibilities to broadcast engineers by default.