Sunday, December 20, 2009

Oh, The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Working in television is usually considered a sexy job. By that I mean it looks like it would be fun, and there's a certain fascination with what we do. Proctologists are far more important, I think, but nobody considers their line of work to be glamorous or fun, therefore proctology is not sexy. Radio was once considered sexy, but the music industry and talk radio hosts have pretty much sucked out all the glamor the medium struggled to hang on to. Let's face it, Wolfman Jack's appearance on the original Battlestar Gallactica was the harbinger for a dying medium.

Yes, TV has it's wowie moments. These usually involve conversations at social events where a stranger says something like, "I hear you work at channel __. Tell, me. Is (female anchor) really as hot as she looks on TV?" This is typically followed by even more crude commentary revolving around the male viewer being in possession of a "jet stream" for the female weather specialist. It's for reasons like this I generally avoid social events that involve an open bar. But, the cold hard fact is behind the scenes TV can be a lot of hard, dirty, and decidedly unsexy work.

This weekend, along the east coast of America, working in broadcasting was most definitely unsexy.

A major snowstorm lumbered through Washington, D.C. and New York City, causing all the problems we associate with major snowstorms: traffic backups, power outages, convicts on the football field in Baltimore. No wait. That last one happens every game. For broadcasters, a storm like this creates some major headaches.

First, consider that television is a 24/7 business. You can't cancel the workday due to weather. The show must go on, especially when the show is the local news that is covering the very snowstorm causing all the trouble. In other words, the entire News Channel team, reporters, anchors, producers, directors, graphics operator, audio operator, master control operator, live truck engineers, and the guy with a pickup truck with a blade to clear the parking lot, all have to schlep their way into the station in order to tell you to stay home. You can't work in television and be (vulgarity for poultry feces) about driving in the snow.

Next, just like in aviation, ice is enemy number one in broadcasting. Ice coatings on the tower add substantial weight and stress on the guy wires. Ice on the antenna changes the electrical properties of the system by adding resistance, thus forcing us to run the transmitter at lower power unless the antenna has a built-in heater or weather-proof covering. Ice chunks falling off the tower when the wind kicks up makes working under the tower a hard hat area and conjures up images of an inglorious demise via the priest in The Omen. Many transmitter towers are located on hilltop locations that are barely accessible by Hummer even in the best of conditions. After about four hours of getting panic calls from management, the chief engineer's cell phone usually takes an "accidental" dive into a snow bank.

But the effects of The Big Snow reached far beyond the east. New York and Washington are the homes of the major networks and their satellite uplinks. Saturday Night Live is a high wire act on its own without a snowstorm keeping the studio audience home, not to mention the cast and crew. And even if all is going well in the cozy confines of 30 Rock, the show still has to blast its way through the icy moisture in the air to make the 22,000 mile trip to the satellite... and back through it again if you're taking the feed in another snowbound city. That's assuming the transmitting dish hasn't been iced over like a giant frosted wedding cake.
The ESPN site in Bristol, Conn. during sunnier times. Losing this uplink in a snowstorm means nobody can watch the 'Bama game, and that's just not going to happen.

Again, these uplink dishes aren't installed in most accessible places. Any uplink dish has an automatic de-icing system that, under most conditions, stop the snow from collecting inside the dish and blocking the signal, but a major snowfall can hit too fast for a heater to keep up. And that's assuming the power stays on. Emergency generators can keep the network on the air, but generators need fuel and maintenance. Replacing a fuel filter in a Volvo diesel engine is a long way from sexy. If I had known I'd be doing this I would've found a job in a truck stop.

So, a hearty salute goes out to all the engineers and maintenance technicians who kept the networks, TV, and radio stations on the air this weekend. What you do may not be sexy, but thanks to your four-wheel-driven muscle and fortitude, people got the information they needed in an emergency situation, TV stations across the continent could keep their schedules, and commercials. And we could watch the Cleveland Browns actually win a game. Who says the Holidays aren't a time for miracles?