Devaluating master control operators: a false economy? Print
Written by Alan Kline   
Saturday, May 16 2009 20:42


December, 1991


Devaluating master control operators: a false economy?

By Alan H. Kline,

SAN FRANCISCO--In the March (1991) issue of TELEVISION BROADCAST, Tom Bracanovich, the engineering group vice president of Malrite Communications, described his master control operators as "...the lowest skilled positions at the stations. They usually come to us with no background at all. Those with technical schooling go into repair and maintenance."

To me, this comment indicates a lack of understanding and lack of respect for what is still a highly skilled position. It seems to imply that MCR work is beneath anyone with any significant background. Unfortunately, this also seems to be an attitude shared by many within the industry today.


Your station has invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art physical plant and many thousands more on first-class programming. Every department works to make the only product that you have to offer your audience, your on-air product, the best that it can be. All of this investment and effort eventually reaches the point where one person has responsibility for it--the master control operator.

It's the operator's responsibility to see that the product reaches your audience. If it doesn't, you're losing money every second. This is a lot of responsibility to place upon an "unskilled" person.


Resources in perspective

No one will argue that our industry is becoming more bottom-line oriented. It has become vital to achieve the maximum from every resource available--and this includes the most precious resource of all: people. It simply is not acceptable to treat any group of employees as if they are unimportant.

Fortunately, there are companies that disagree with Mr. Bracanovich. I've worked for stations on both sides of the fence, and I'm now lucky enough to have found a company which places a high value on the people who work for it, and it's reflected in our staff, our plant and our on-air product.


Automation's limitations

Well, your station is automated. You don't have the possibility of an operator error, so why should you worry about the kind of person you hire? Automation is all well and good--until the bombs started falling on Baghdad or the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked northern California. Then, you'd better hope that your operator had a good head on his shoulders, because at those moments, automation was worthless.

Emergencies require the utmost from everyone, and in the case of a natural disaster, the continued operation of your station, not to mention the safety of your staff and audience, may depend on it. Wars and earthquakes don't happen every day, fortunately. Other events are much more common. The transmitter dies at 3 a.m., or a program fails to arrive. The point? A good day, a routine day, can be handled by almost anyone. It's the unusual--the kind of thing that, if you're honest about it, we make our reputations on--that requires so much more.

What makes a good operator? A good working knowledge of FCC rules, to start: signal parameters, logging and ID requirements, EBS procedures, content regulations dealing with obscenity and political endorsements, and so on. A thorough familiarity with the station's plant is critical. On a good day, there may be little reason to know the master patch bay. But what happens when the MCR switcher dies in the middle of the night? Can you patch a router output directly into the STL? How long will it take?


What every operator needs to know

It's not essential to know the location of every DA in the plant. It is essential to understand a signal's path, from its origin through the antenna. As many stations now operate a good share of the time without an engineer on duty, it's important that the operator understand what is happening and be able to provide the engineer the information he needs in the event of trouble. Being able to perform minor troubleshooting is an asset as well.

The "manic attention to detail" takes several forms. One is understanding company policies on placing make-goods and bumping spots. Another is knowing the idiosyncracies of each of the programs that the operator is responsible for. Where can you trim a second or two? Where must you switch with almost frame accuracy? Along with this goes attention to the artistic aspects of switching. Some stations allow more latitude in this area than others, but the point is the same: Why spend thousands of dollars on graphics for your station image when the on-air presentation is choppy and careless?

As an independent station that carries a large amount of foreign-language programming, particularly Asian, we receive a daily feed from Tokyo--at 3:30 a.m., of course. Between the studio and my VTR near San Francisco, the signal makes three satellite hops and two microwave links. Problems can, and have, occurred on every one of these. Being able to quickly isolate the source of a problem is essential.


Making the right call

An operator must be capable of making sound, reasoned judgements in a matter of seconds. Generally, these decisions are fairly routine, but once in a while, something more significant occurs. Several years ago, at my former employer, it was necessary for me to make the decision to take my station off the air until an engineer could diagnose a potentially damaging problem in our STL. Despite the fact that we lost several thousand dollars in revenue, I signed off. In this instance, it was the right call.

There are economies that can be realized, of course, by using a little imagination. Cross-training of employees is one answer. All but one of our fulltime operators are also qualified as technical directors and audio operators. The employee benefits by a broader range of daily assignments, and the station benefits by having greater flexibility in scheduling.

Another benefit: The company is able to accomplish the same work with a smaller number of fulltime employees rather than a larger number of part-timers. A fulltimer who is capable of more than one position is much more valuable, and more likely to be loyal, than two parttimers, each of who can only do one thing.

Are operators really as "unskilled" as Mr. Bracanovich seems to believe? Not by a long shot. With the breadth of knowledge, skill, decision-making ability and artistic flair that it takes to do the job well, a really good operator is actually one of the most skilled members of a station's staff. We'd just like to be seen as something more than the Rodney Dangerfields of the industry.