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| There Ain't No Justice |
| #87 |
- How to Destroy a Network -
by Joeseph Elkhorne
Given: one Middle Eastern country with more sudden wealth than is good for
it, for finance; an American quasi-governmental Group with insufficient
expertise in the field of television, for planning; a firm from Great Britain
with their own standards and poor logistics, for construction; an American
field service company with American standards -- and no prior television
experience -- for maintenance; and local people with no technological
background, for operations.
Specify that each group will be autonomous; add them together. Do not stir --
they will mix themselves. The result after half a decade will make one of
early communist Russia's five-year plans look like grand achievement.
The newcomer asks in dismay, "Where did it all go wrong?"
There is no simple answer. Like Topsy, the thing "jest growed." Perhaps one
can say that this particular television network is a tribute to the committee
mind -- or its damnation.
The country concerned had more than enough capital to do things right. Its
ruler is progressive, wise, and a good administrator; his Minister of
Information is knowledgeable, concerned about the high illiteracy rate of the
people, and believes that television ought to aid them. So, good intentions
inspired the authorization of a nationwide system, but did not pave a road to
Undoubtedly, the first mistake was to place the responsibility for planning
in the hands of men who knew nothing about television. Without valid criteria
for evaluation, they could not judge good from bad. Without the grace to
disqualify themselves, they created a Frankenstein monster. The system they
conceived does a disservice not only to the people for whom it was intended
but heaps guilt by association on American ability.
This group has gained notoriety in American recently through errors in its
prime field of endeavor; needless to say, television engineer is not it.
Engineering is a word as broad as theology -- each specialist should stick to
his own field until he has the additional knowledge to branch out. Few
television engineers could built a road -- nor would they try to.
An analysis of the flagship station of this Middle Eastern network indicts
the Group for creative stupidity. The plan of the building shows no logic
whatsoever. For instance, engineers' stores cannot be reached except by going
through the studio -- frequently inadvisable or impossible because of
production or on-the-air operations. What few supplies are delivered to the
station are invariably placed in the engineering office at a third corner of
the building, making an inefficient triangle for parts handling.
The workshop itself almost seems to be an afterthought. Few pieces of test
equipment were on hand, mainly because Group's representative at the station
always had people "putting things out of the way" in the stores area, so that
everything would be suitable for the numerous inspections. The maintenance
area is small and cramped, nestled behind equipment racks -- if an
oscilloscope cart is pulled alongside the workbench, one has to walk around
the racks to get to the other end of the bench.
Studio Control required just enough thought to get equipment placed
initially, with absoutely no consideration for maintenance thereafter. The
19-inch monitors on suspended shelves were potential hernia producers, and
always failed at busy times. A hapless engineer then had to climb over the
director, stand on the video console, disconnect cables, and lift the monster
down -- without interfering with operations, mind. Two console-mounted audio
tape recorders and a transcription turntable clustered around the audio
console, which itself sat on a "temporary" table, all adjacent to the video
switcher. Mothing in studio control could be checked without moving at least
two other pieces of gear.
The videotape room, designed for two machines, pointed up the fact that no
concept of growth entered the minds of the designers. Three large, quadrature
machines graced that tiny floor, side by side. Neither of the two electric
outlets in the room were convenient to the machines. If one ran an extension
cord, someone who shouldn't have been in there in the first place was certain
to fall over the cord while squeezing past the test cart, while the engineer
tried to do emergency maintenance (is there any other kind?) with half a
dozen ME's (middle easterners) offering advice and asking when they could use
the machine for "a very important program". In addition, several hundred
one-hour tapes were stored in this cozy room.
Master Control contained the camera control units, an auxiliary but unuseable
audio console, a transmitter control console and master monitor, two
transmitters, and the equipment racks, all in the space of a large living
The telecine area contained two film islands, one with a 35 mm. projector.
This unit was used once in 16 months. Since the entire building was on a
concrete slab and cable trenches had not been thought of, buss ducts ran
along the walls, across the floors and some cable disappeared into the
overhead lofts. Cable had been tied onto horizontal runs there initially, in
piles ten inches high, making it totally impossible to remove a bad one.
All the bad features of this station certainly stretch the long arm of
coincidence. It is as though the designers lay awake at night trying to
achieve perfection in ineptness. Every facet of the station showed such
For instance, the city was on 60-cycle power, but the television system was
625-line, 25-frame standard. This necessitated a 60-to-50 rotary convertor in
a utility building. That particular monument to malfeasance contained two
stand-by generators also. One was 60-cycle, the other 50. The latter unit
usually wouldn't run in an emergency -- but if the situation had gotten bad,
the control circuitry for the rotary convertor was probably out of action
too, rendering the 60-cycle stand-by unit superfluous.
Lighting in the studio building was supposed to be 60-cycle and all the
television equipment tied to the 50-cycle mains. However, the audio console
and some ancillary gear was on 60. One transmitter had the wonderful
provision of emergency operation on the 60-cycle mains, but that did little
good if the sync generators, cameras, vtr's and film islands were out of
The power system was loaded so close to its limitations that line surges
frequently destroyed equipment. City power varied anywhere from 80 to 145
volts, with some surges peaking 170. This is great for broadcast gear. Those
two transmitters were to insure no lost air-time -- but if both were
energized, the surge when the second transmitter's cooling blower came on
could conceivably take out half the station.
Signal distribution was singular. The video patch panels appeared in two
different bays, scattered amongst four racks. Sometimes one "couldn't get
there from here". There was one rack-mounted oscilloscope, but most of the
signals that needed to be checked were in the other bay. Clearing a fault
while on the air was a major miracle.
In addition to poor distribution, the station records were abyssmal: one
tattered, looseleaf notebook, adhering to no known engineering standard, gave
partial block diagrams of the _original_ wiring. Few changes had been entered
therein for five years. At least, the perpetrators of such a poor job weren't
ashamed to put their sins to paper -- as in the case of the TR-22 which had
one output used, wired to the studio control monitor, looped through the
patch panel and terminated back in studio control at the TS-11 (vintage 1946)
switcher. When the monitor caught fire one night and was removed, naturally
the VTR signal path was broken and no video came through on the next take,
upsetting the director. The engineer who pulled the monitor made a natural
mistake -- he never expected such idiotic distribution. The oher outputs of
the machine? Unused and unterminated.
The original cabling itself could only be described as horrible -- the system
must have been laid out by a drunken plumber and finished by a spastic
blacksmith. Some cables had tags or numbers, different at each end, and
written on surgical tape. Others had labels affixed with fossilized Scotch
tape, and evidently written with a 6H pencil. Five years of heat and dust
made everything "temporary" of this nature completely worthless.
The first subcontractor was ousted for "racial" misdemeanors: it did business
with Israel. Before their men left, as their final contribution to chaos,
they burned many volumes of records and drawings.
That the second subcontractor had never been involved in an international
television operation before didn't disqualify them -- they were in good
company. As a matter of record, this firm had never been involved in _any_
sort of television before. Nor had they done business in the Middle East
before. And from their curious personnel treatment, they evidently had never
employed human beings before. When anyone had a complaint, major or minor,
legitimate or spurious -- instead of discussing it, the management said, "If
you don't like it here, you can go back to the States."
In less than a year, the project resembled a turnstile. The project manager
was replaced. Two engineering adviers and three production advisers strutted
their brief hour on the stage. Three staff accountants graced the scene.
Eleven different company men served as chief engineer or acting chief
engineer in the flagship station in a 16-month period. The man who lasted the
longest had been requested to come down from the second station in the
network -- it didn't take long under the close scrutiny of the project office
and daily contact for him to be dismissed for incompetency. He had been with
the company in the Middle East for 15 months. The man appealed to the prime
contractor, who suggested tha tthe letter of dismissal be rescinded.
The engineering staff in the flagship station should have been six warm
bodies, bu the average for over a year was four. Of these, only two were
permnanetly assigned there during that year. Some 25 other engineers passed
through the station in 15 months, some for as little as two days, some for a
couple of weeks. Needless to say, with a station in such poor condition, a
man had to be there quite a while before he knew what was going on.
Temporary jobs and repairs left by the first company became a permanent
legacy, since "temporary" work has a notorious habit of entrenching itself.
No reliable inventory was provided. The stores area resembled a pack-rat's
nest and hadn't seen janitorial skills in five years.
Most of the equipment was deteriorating, for several reasons. First of all,
the station was obsolescent when it was built. The bulk of the gear came out
of a warehouse where it had been for years -- since most was circa-1946
tube-type equipment. The extreme desert heat and insidious dust hastened the
process of decline. Granted, the building had air-conditioning -- when it
worked -- but all power was shut down at sign-off and it didn't take long for
the interior to reach ambient outdoor level.
Another topper -- Group had planned for 15 years' use from each and every
item -- "just as it done in the United States" -- a curious and untrue
Outside broadcasts were always fun. Imagine TK-60's on a parade ground or
playing field when the temperature in the shade might be 121 degrees, not
uncommon at ten on a May morning. At the studio, the received microwave
signal did not appear on the TS-11 siwtcher but had to be patched at the
penultimate moment into a normal VTR position. The engineer there never had
any assurance that anything would work until he saw it OK on the air. If he
had audio and video, he was never congratulated. If there was some problem,
he alone would carry the can. The situation felt like snatching defeat out of
the jaws of victory, every day of the week.
Syndicated videotapes arrived from Lebanon, multiple generation dubs. It was
not uncommon to find something like 240 units of recorded geometric error --
and the ME's would criticize the Americans for "not cooperating to make the
picture nice". The ME's also had a habit of shooting sound-on-film at the
wrong speed and a gross inability to understand that if you jury-rigged an
on-air projector to partially correct the frame rate on this "very important
film", the audio would also change. Directors would block four hours of
production time, show up three hours late, demand special engineering effects
that required half a day to rig, then wonder why their time was cut off so
that the station could go on the air. As usual, the consensus was that the
Americans were not cooperating again ...
Many such problems were pointed out to the project office. Hundreds of
suggestions originated with the staff engineers. They had to originate there,
since the project manager arrived in the Middle East bragging that he didn't
know a thing about television. Unfortunately for everyone, his ignorance,
coupled with a psychological inability to accept meaningful advice from his
"inferiors" meant that no improvement would be forthcoming.
But if the Americans had personnel problems with their own people, the locals
were an unique case. The American subcontractor had no authority over the
Middle Easterners -- and they in turn had no sense of responsibility.
The ME's wrecked equipment with impunity, and frequently. Their attitude
toward work was the same as in their private life: "When something is broke
we can get another one."
The Americans were told by their employer (before they left the states) that
they had to work six days a week because the ME's did -- and found out when
they arrived overseas that the ME's only worked six hours a day, when they
showed up at all! The ME's had frequent religious holidays, forty-eight
authorized vacation days, unlimited sick leave -- and many of them seemed
poorly most of the year. One ME had not been seen at the television station
in eight months but once -- when he came in to have his vacation permission
signed by the ME station manager.
When these excesses were pointed out of the Group, nothing was done. When
criticisms were delivered to the project manager, he ignored them. When ME
operators failed to show up to do their jobs, American maintenance engineers
were expected to fill in. The project manager, in his ivory tower miles away,
not having to face the multitude of daily problems, only said, "We got to
help them fellers out."
The ME's had a strange attitude toward the staton. Some of them had spent two
or more years in the United States, receiving specialized training. But, as
the expression goes, you can lead a camel to water ... One bright young man
came back talking about how great he was at solid-state circuit design --
when asked to perform maintenance work on his maintenance shift, he stated
without apparent shame: "I am not qualifed to do such work. I am not able to
fix a picture monitor."
They hold an attitude similar to the ancient Greek scientists. Those worthies
were glad to observe but didn't want to get their hands dirty, for that was
beneath them. The ME's either took the approach that physical work was good
enough for the Americans, or that their advanced training qualified them for
a much more responsbile job like, say, Minister of Information.
Since the various factions were autonomous, this made for strained relations
and nil achievement. The engineer in 'the firing line' was certain of only
one thing: he had authority for nothing and responsibility for everything. If
he told the ME's the proper approach to a job, he received a rude suggestion
and the statement: "We have always done it this way." That is why video
operators often adjusted the cameras with the Beam pot. In addition to direct
insults, several days later, a query would be received from the project
office asking the engineer why he was no 'cooperating'.
The chief engineer, if there was one, would lay down regulations for station
personnel -- and have them underbut by the project manager, conferring in
secret with the ME station manager and his henchmen. The other ME's would
then strut and brag that they could do as they pleased.
The Group representative would tell the ME's something would be done which
they wanted -- when such things conld only be done by the subcontractor, but
were out of the scope of the contract, anyway. "Our Man from Group" had only
one qualification to oversee and critique a television operation --
twenty-two years in the regular army.
Just one additional example of working conditions at this station describes
the quality: a weekly, full optical and mechanical alignment of both film
islands was mandatory.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating -- and the proof of television is
in the seeing. The amount of air time lost is rising by an exponential rate.
There is no hope in sight with the present hierarchy, both American and
If the situation weren't grim enough, some of the ME's are muttering darkly,
"We can run it all by ourselves" while others are saying, "It's time to go
Meanwhile, Our Man from Group has come up with a neat scheme to keep invaders
from using the transmitters: booby trap them with grenades.
Move over, House of Usher!
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