The Trouble With TV

TV stations are great places to work, and talented technical people like the stability. The longer they work at a station, the more difficult they are to replace when they retire.

Many TV engineers and production people spend most of their career at one station and retire from it. That’s why many TV stations experience a retirement wave every 30 years or so. The pioneering TV stations of the late 1940s and early 1950s were built primarily by returning WWII veterans with electronics training. They were nearly all about the same age and most retired in the 1970s. Many new engineers who replaced them were also young. They began retiring in 2000 and continue retiring today, spreading out the retirement wave.

Behind the essential need for a reliable and affordable electricity supply, one of the most important issues facing TV stations in 2021 is not the technology. It’s people. The pandemic has proven that every TV station engineer and technician is essential to carrying out daily operations seamlessly.

Dedicated people make TV work. Those retiring after years of faithful service are the most challenging to replace. Its not easy finding talented new people eager to learn, happy to work all hours, and on all holidays.

The best broadcast engineers have broadcasting in their DNA. One of my favorites was an older TV sound engineer who began his long career mixing audio at a sister radio station before TV came to town. Shortly after he retired as our TV station’s longtime evening news audio engineer, he returned part-time and mixed the weekend newscasts until he passed away years later doing what he loved, with people he loved, that loved him. He was most at home at work. Some other lucky stations have similar stories about similar characters.

Chances are someone you work with will retire this year.

Chances are someone you work with will retire this year.

What Is It?

Radio and TV broadcast facilities have been described by architects and consultants as a combination fast-food restaurant, hospital, factory, and a fire department, with offices. Like fast-food, TV stations deliver live content 24/7/365 with consistent quality. Like hospitals, studios and control rooms must be kept clean, mold-free, and disinfected. Like factories, technicians need wide hallways to roll studio cameras, equipment racks and other heavy electronics with enough space for others to pass. Nearly everything and everybody needs high-speed internet on a super-stable LAN/WAN.

Broadcasters also need a transmitter, antenna, and engineers prepared to extinguish all technical fires invisibly and quickly.

The most valuable TV station people reliably answer their phones 24/7 and are always available in an emergency. Unfortunately, those older, always-reliable people can’t be retained once they've decided they’re done with wee-hours phone calls and ready to turn in their keys. Meeting, recruiting and training new people who excel and happily stay until they retire is management's hope and goal for new hires.

Online Technical Training

One of the unanticipated results of the pandemic is all the fresh information about broadcast technology and equipment operation posted on the internet. Virtual trade shows, physical distancing and travel restrictions have forced manufacturers and trade associations to create and use internet videos to remotely demonstrate and explain new products, techniques, and technologies to the market.

It’s never been easier for new broadcast engineers to gather technical knowledge and get product-specific information and operational training. Several industry organizations have moved to digital delivery of information helpful to incoming and experienced broadcast engineers and technicians.

SMPTE educates all levels of media professionals,” said Frank Kunkle, SMPTE Director of Marketing. “Designed with varying skillsets in mind, webcasts are great for those who are early-in-career or wish to break into the industry because they are available at no cost. On 24 May, the virtual course Imaging System Fundamentals: From Light to Lenses begins its instructor-led format, with special pricing available to students.”

In addition, SMPTE Section meetings are now all virtual. The blog, and the award-winning Motion Imaging Journal offer all professionals a breadth of content choices from entry-level to expert. “Perhaps the most beneficial component is being part of the professional network of people who work in the industry,” Kunkle continued. “As a SMPTE member, making those connections with experts is an important educational opportunity.”

NAB filled the training and information vacuum with the virtual NAB Show Express. NAB also offers Broadcast Education self-paced training videos filled with valuable information about popular broadcast TV software such as Avid, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro and others, although they’re not free. Another NAB education program is NAB Pilot, which is an initiative for innovators, educators and advocates working to strengthen current broadcaster services and to foster new media opportunities. Some information is free, some requires a fee. Pilot is also where the 2020 NAB BEIT Conference Papers are available for a fee.

In addition to certifications, SBE offers training programs specifically for new talent.

In addition to certifications, SBE offers training programs specifically for new talent.

SBE has a Technical Professional Training (TPT) Program “to address the ongoing concern about new technical talent choosing broadcasting as a career.” It consists of extensive, on-demand, webinars by SBE, and it includes the SBE Broadcast Engineering Handbook. It also provides a mentor program and a program for entry-level Certified Broadcast Technologist certification. TPT requires a fee. SBE also offers SBE University with online, on-demand courses, and certifications from operator and engineering levels to specialist certifications.

SMPTE, NAB and SBE are all excellent resources, as is YouTube. Excellent information about specific video and production gear and software has never been easier to access or more focused than what can be found with a YouTube search. The internet is a tremendous improvement over boring manuals and on-the-job training.

Word From The Field

I asked a couple of commercial TV station department head friends who will remain anonymous about the retirement situation at their stations. The DoE at Station A said, “I am concerned with how I will be able to fill vacancies in the maintenance engineering ranks when retirement time comes around for my more experienced employees. I have one coming up this May and expect a couple more in the next 2 to 3 years. Someone to maintain our transmitters will be especially difficult to find. There simply isn’t a pool of folks that are looking to learn about RF and transmitter systems. I think it will end up being a transmitter maintenance by committee approach going forward. Fortunately, the move to solid state transmitters will simplify maintenance to a certain extent. We have one solid state transmitter in service and will most likely add a second one in the next couple of years. The modular design of the new systems combined with the elimination of the need for high voltage will make it easier to maintain these systems.”

He continued, “As to finding individual for broadcast maintenance, I have run into that situation several times and in most cases I’ve ended up with identified candidates that although they don’t have experience with maintenance, they do have broadcast backgrounds and a desire to learn the maintenance side of the business. The trick then is to determine if the candidate has the troubleshooting mindset to be a productive and successful maintenance engineer. Thus far we have been fortunate in hiring individuals that have developed into good engineers. One came from a Broadcast Operations/Master Control role another was a News photographer.”

My Production Director friend at Station B said “I have a number of part time employees that are right out of college. I have a list of all the local college TV instructors. I contact them whenever I have an opening, asking them to have their best students email me a resume. I know all these teachers personally, having visited their college production facilities.

Once I post the position, I wait for 4 or so days to get a selection of student resumes to review; the best of them, I interview (these days via Zoom). I always keep the ones who do not get hired in a file so when I do have another opening, I can reach out. Pre-covid, I brought on interns; this was the best source of future employees. Now it's entirely through our company's website.”

He continued, “We've had a few people have to learn new positions; I tried not to have employees hover over or next to each other; fortunately we'd shot basic how-to videos for Audio and CG, plus printer shot sheets for all the standard camera shots. This at least minimized close contact. I got a refresher course on the switcher using an IPhone and a flexible phone holder should I be pressed into directing.

Surprisingly, recruiting has not been an issue. Turn over slowed to a crawl when the pandemic hit; it is only now returning to normal levels (3 part timers move on per year, after about a year in the position; once every 18 months for full timers). My main tip; ALWAYS have a succession plan in place, and ALWAYS have a couple of names in your file that you can call should you need someone. Certainly, know the local college's TV Production departments.

COVID has caused a lot of juggling too. When someone calls me and has to stay home for a week due to contact with someone positive, we cover the best we can. I also keep a list of former, well-trained local ex-employees and use them fairly regularly. I even had two former directors come back and get re-familiarized with the switcher, all "just in case." Of course I do a fair amount of crew work, especially when I get very little lead time before I have to fill for the person.

Our Engineering department, which is small, has had no turnover for a couple years. The company does not pay for high end training that I am aware of.”

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