Tuning in the Future with BO&E

6:39 pm Business Stories

ABC InkCOVER STORY
byline: By Dawn Shurmaitis

It’s TV time. You hit the “on” button and a colorful image instantly appears. Easy, isn’t it? Next time, try thinking about everything that has to happen, and happen perfectly, to get that picture on your screen. Go beyond – way beyond – correspondents who bring you news or entertainers who make you laugh. Travel 22,300 miles into space, where ABC’s Telstar satellite is busy sending and receiving your TV signal.

Tired yet? We’re still not done. Return to Earth and dozens of control rooms, studios, editing bays and graphics areas where hundreds of ABC employees work day and night making sure programming gets on the air, and gets on right.

Don’t stop now. Go a bit further, below street level, where miles of colorful cables are housed. As tangled as it looks, each one of those cables has a home, and a BO&E employee who knows its address. For BO&E (Broadcast Operations and Engineering) is where the incredible journey to your TV begins. If television was a person, BO&E would be its circulatory system. Right now, that body – television – is undergoing incredible changes, thanks in large part to a technical transformation called digital TV.

Helping lead the way is BO&E President Preston Davis. When Davis started his TV career in 1976, the basic television format hadn’t changed in decades. Zoom ahead 20 years.

“We’re involved in a revolution,” Davis says from his New York office, where BO&E is headquartered. “It’s an extremely fast-paced shift from analog to digital technology. It will have a huge impact on society and the way we work.”

In early April, ABC finally chose a particular type of high definition TV. The format – called 720P and known as progressive scanning technology – is one executives believe will deliver high-quality pictures economically. Davis and his team are working hand-in-hand with Network President Preston Padden implementing a digital strategy the company and its affiliates can afford and live with.

According to Davis, Padden “has an almost uncanny grasp of technology, and that’s made my life a lot easier. He understands what we’re talking about and he’s supportive of the division.”

The transition to digital, as significant as it is, is not all Davis is tackling. In addition to its facilities in New York, BO&E operates and maintains network production centers in Los Angeles and Washington. Lincoln Harrison oversees the West Coast operations while Mel Garardin heads up operations in D.C. Ultimately, Davis and BO&E make sure every cable is plugged in, every camera is turned on and every news, sports and entertainment chief is happy. “Nothing we do as a division is done without a lot of cooperation with sister divisions,” Davis says. ” At the end of the day, we’re a service organization. We respond to the needs of other divisions.”

Those needs are huge. Consider the exhaustive planning, organizing and execution of a major TV event, such as the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics or any political convention. Even breaking news like the recent Jonesboro student shooting requires massive input from and expertise of BO&E. Filling key positions. Transporting and setting up thousands of pieces of equipment. Tuning in the TV signal.

“To see the trailers coming in, to see studios being built, to see the power go on, to see everyone in the control room and to have everything work – it’s really a gratifying feeling,” says Davis, who won a technical Emmy for his work on the last ABC Olympics. “I enjoy what I do – I enjoy technology, and I enjoy being involved in decisions that can have a long-term affect in the division and the company – decisions whose results you can actually see, like when a studio gets built.”

BO&E is divided into main two areas: engineering, where employees design and install equipment; and operations, where technicians use that equipment. To the layperson, the technical side of BO&E would appear the most complicated. Davis disagrees.

“There are days when I have to make very difficult calls in terms of spending millions of dollars on new equipment,” he says. “But managing a staff of 1,200 managers, technicians and engineers is more challenging.”

The majority of BO&E employees belong to the company’s biggest union – the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET-CWA). ABC is currently immersed in a major contract negotiation with that union. The company is trying to remain competitive in an ever-changing broadcast industry and is hopeful the union will recognize those realities. “The network business is changing. We’ve got to take greater advantage of automation and other efficiencies,” Davis says. “But digital costs a lot of money and takes a lot of people. At the same time, we need to get leaner and more cost-efficient. It’s a real tightrope.”

Helping Davis keep BO&E up and running are: Steve Nenno and Maureen Domal, VPs of program operations; Diane Tryneski, VP of TV operations; Michael Lang, senior VP, business affairs; Geoff Felger, broadcast operations and engineering; and Rich Wolf, VP, telecommunications and distribution. “They make it very easy to come to work every day,” Davis says. In turn, Davis is described by many employees as an “open-minded” manager who introduced new blood to the department; at the same time offering women the opportunity to excel in a field once dominated by men. “The company is committed to diversity,” Davis says. “But there is a lot more that can be done.”

There are tough times ahead, for the industry and for ABC. Managing a costly conversion economically takes considerable effort. “It’s a challenging time,” Davis admits. “It raises difficult issues regarding how we adjust to the changes technology is forcing upon us.”

 

SUBHED: The Mouse that Roared

To Michael Lang, the difference between the old way and the new way boils down to a screwdriver and a mouse. He explains: “In the past, engineers used what they called a greenie – a little screwdriver with a clip and green handle that fit in their pocket. Now, everything is computer based, and everyone in this division must be computer literate. They have to put down the screwdriver and pick up the mouse. That’s why we developed the Learning Center.”

The center is a BO&E’s crown jewel. Conceived by Davis, it’s where employees can learn a variety of computer skills and new ways to operate equipment. “ABC is the network leader in technical training and technical education,” explains Lang, point man for training and re-training of technicians and engineers. Lang wears many hats: in addition to keeping watch over job safety and certain administrative functions, he supervises agreements with outside vendors such as satellite providers and oversees software licensing and ownership agreements. The software is what drives the technological system that runs the network.

Digital means long-term employees must learn to look at TV in an entirely different way. “We’re taking a large workforce of more than 1,000 people and effectively re-training them into embracing new ways of doing business,” Lang says. “It’s an educational process.”

SUBHED: Back to the Drawing Board

Next time you watch “World News Tonight,” pay attention to the camera movement. If it looks smoother, give thanks to the engineers in the systems and maintenance assembly group. They’ve been working on a new invention – a track-mounted camera that will move around TV-3 – that they hope to unveil soon. While ABC spends roughly $20 million a year on new equipment annually, according to press reports, the company often turns to its engineers to solve technical problems and fill production needs.

“When we can’t find it on the open market, we can invent it,” says Director of Engineering Geoff Felger, who also supervises the maintenance crew that performs routine preventative care for all that expensive equipment. Connecting the equipment falls to the systems engineers and drafting group, who maintain more than 8,000 drawings detailing how everything is connected and who made the last change.

But things do break, and accidents do happen. When they do, Felger’s trouble-shooters are the first ones called. “It’s a time-critical business,” Felger says. “We design ‘em, we install ‘em, and we fix ‘em when they break.”

SUBHED: The Incredible Journey

On Jan. 11, 1997 at exactly 6:15 a.m. Rich Wolf experienced his worst nightmare. Wolf, VP of telecommunications and distribution services, was home when the phone woke him. Network traffic coordinator Marianne Adamo gave him chilling news: “We’ve lost our entire satellite.” The TV signal – the vital link between ABC and TV sets across the country – was black.

“I wondered if I was in a bad dream,” says Wolf. Luckily, the outage occurred at an early morning hour, on a Saturday, when ABC wasn’t broadcasting any programs. More important, the network had a back-up satellite and restoration plan in place, ready to take over the signal. In less than a minute, ABC was back in business. “There were dozens of people involved in the recovery process. Everyone in every area was singularly focused. It was another great moment for BO&E,” says Wolf, whose department arranges satellite, fiber optic and other forms of TV service for the needs of network programmers. The department also operates the Satellite Network Control System, which keeps ABC affiliates tuned to the right satellite transponder to receive programming.

The incredible journey from ABC to your TV starts at ABC Master Control, the heart of the New York Broadcast Center. Video/audio cables take the signal to the roof, where satellite dishes beam a signal 22,300 miles to the satellite, which bounces it back to hundreds of stations and affiliates. “It’s a monstrous, complicated process. To me, it’s magic,” Wolf says. “Master control, network traffic, news traffic, RF operations and hundreds of BO&E employees are the magicians. All viewers have to do is turn on their TV.”

For ABC, the latest way to deliver television began in 1983, when a rocket carrying a $250 million satellite blasted off from a Florida launch pad. With that launch, the network began transmitting TV signals from the air, instead of through below-ground wires and M/W links. “We think of ourselves as technical gatekeepers for the distribution and collection of video services,” Wolf says. “Our satellite distribution and origination system provide a seamless flow of programming to 220 affiliates, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Eventually, the network hopes to employ compressed digital signals to load on even more channels, which in the long run will be both cost efficient and profitable. “This is a great time to be in the industry. There’s a technical revolution going on out there, and I hope ABC can be part of it,” Wolf says. “But there are serious business and financial issues. Some technical investments might not have a quick enough return for a mature industry like ours.”

SUBHED: Turning on the World

Diane Tryneski turns on ABC’s internal channel and turns a critical eye toward a more transparent ABC logo being tested for primetime.

“We’re the people who execute requests from producers and programmers. They wanted a more transparent logo, and we took care of that. I consider our group customer service,” says Tryneski, VP of TV operations. “It’s a big challenge to juggle everyone’s needs while trying to do what’s fiscally responsible for the corporation. Like everyone else, we’re making do with less.”

Tryneski is in charge of all New York technical people and facilities. If a news crew is dispatched to Bosnia, it’s Tryneski’s staff who make sure crews are supplied with cameras, microphones and the like. Her jurisdiction includes New York studios, electronic news gathering, edit rooms, control rooms, graphics and post production. Technicians include graphic artists, editors, camera operators and technical directors. Every day, such staffers ensure everything from the opening graphics to the closing credits get on the air. When there’s a news crisis, Tryneski and her staff rush into action, getting technicians in place to capture unfolding events.

“We have to get people into position ASAP,” she says. “Before correspondents can put anything on the air, a technician has to be there.”

Recent successes included the roll-out of a $5 million mobile digital control room first used during “Monday Night Football.” During the year it took to conceive, design and create the unit, Tryneski worked hand-in-glove with Felger, Lang, Wolf and the sports department. Sports managers decided what they needed; Felger’s department oversaw design. Lang supervised training, first on a mock-up in the basement. Wolf’s staff made sure the control room signal was properly transmitted back to the network.

The toughest part of Tryneski’s job right now is helping manage digital transition. She says few people anticipated how complicated the new skills were going to be. “There’s a very steep learning curve. It requires intensive training. We have to learn a new way of looking at things.”

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