May 19, 2022

The Dilemma of Broadcast Technology Management

BEAM Lobbying Interview: Tom Dickinson, February 2022

The Dilemma of Broadcast Technology Management

Getting the most out of production equipment isn't easy. A lot goes into lifecycle management: from organizing and tracking equipment, planning essential maintenance, and staying up to date with the latest firmware and software while keeping teams informed and maintaining the budget. With over 30 years of experience as an executive in the broadcast industry, Tom Dickinson has faced nearly every issue. BEAM co-founder Tobias Keuthen caught up with Dickinson to discuss the challenge of maintaining production equipment.

Dickinson is a seasoned broadcast technology executive and a key industry advisor of BEAM. He's also held nearly every broadcast position possible, from working in production for a PAC10 school to managing technical operations with OB truck companies and network television. In his most recent roles, Dickinson was Chief Technology Officer of OB rental company Bexel (later NEP) and later held the position of President of TV control systems for TSL Products US. 

Tobias: Tom, can you tell us more about how you found your way into broadcast & media production? 

Tom: I got the bug back in high school when they built a new school building, and the principal decided to acquire video equipment. I was the first guy to unpack the boxes, grab a camera and a switcher, and figure it all out. I loved it and decided to join the communication department at Washington State University. I was able to move right into a job producing sports shows in LA. I produced USC football, basketball, baseball and did pre-season NFL football. I was with the Oakland Raiders radio network and traveled with the teams. That was an amazing experience, especially coming right out of college. 

Tobias: Why did you transition early in your career from production to technology? 

Tom: I really enjoyed the production experience but kept gravitating towards the technical side of the business while being curious about how to enhance production with new technology. So I decided to move on to an OB truck company to look after the technical operations for their big national sporting and live events. There, I started to understand how television production works. In the early 80s, when the first portable cameras and recorders started coming out, I took a job at a rental business, which exploded at the same time. You couldn't buy equipment fast enough. I quickly learned how to make money from renting gear and packing kits for our own productions. Here I understood how to look for new technology assets that enhance our production and handle capital budgets. I also handled the lifecycle of television equipment. 

Tobias: Was there something like a red line guiding you throughout your professional life? 

Tom: Well, I'm a TV guy by heart. I was always driven to make the company successful as a business and how to produce more efficiently and effectively to make it commercially successful in a very competitive marketplace. 

Tobias: Can you share one of your biggest projects you managed and what you learned from it? 

Tom: The biggest event was when I was involved in the 1994 World Cup Soccer in the US. I knew Manolo Romero, who later became Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS) Chief, for many years. At the time, he won a contract to manage all of World Cup Soccer with his company ISB. I acted as an advisor and sat in every meeting with him and all the broadcasters to ensure we provided the equipment they needed in the IBC and any ENG camera needs. We played in 13 stadiums across the US. We had ENG crews flying all around to the different sites. And we were trying to coordinate what package of equipment needs to be in Seattle versus Detroit versus Tampa Bay etc. The IBC was in Dallas, and I was in LA, which was an incredible challenge at the time. But my greatest learning from this project was not underestimating other countries' production needs and not being an "Arrogant American" where I think I know what everyone needs. 

Tobias: Why is that? 

Tom: Well, because I thought all I needed to know was how productions are done in the US, I could dictate it to the international teams. But those TV guys from Brazil, Canada, France etc they had their views and I have to say, and some had better solutions than ours. So I learned the hard way that you have to treat your customers, in my case the TV stations from out of the country, with respect and really understand what they need. I could have avoided many difficult situations if I had listened upfront to what they were asking for and not made assumptions. 

Tobias: Talking about difficult situations, can you name a major technical failure you had to manage? 

Tom: I remember a few. But the biggest was when I first produced a USC football game. At the end of the game, I would come down to the truck crew to check the recordings when I realized they had not recorded any audio on the videotape. A tape machine could only record about half of a football game back then. So at halftime, they always had to stop recording and change tapes. You would think that the crew would check the tape from the first half, but they didn't. So, we had video recordings of the entire game without any host voices. I thought that was the end of my broadcast career. 

Tobias: How did you deal with this? 

Tom: Well, I needed to find a quick way to re-record the audio track of the entire game. I found a little sound studio in LA. I drove my announcers down to the studio. You can imagine, they were far from being amused about it. We recreated the entire audio track with background crowd noise carts and sound effects and had the announcers re-announce the whole football game. We had about four hours to record a three-hour game before going on air. It was so nerve-wracking! The TV station general manager came down to the sound studio and listened to the audio. Luckily he approved it, and I drove like a maniac back to the station and we aired just in time.

 

Tobias: Wow, a great story of gear and workflow failure indeed! This leads me to my next question. We at BEAM try to help operations manage their production technology. Where do you see the biggest challenges with this today? 

Tom: The entire process of taking a piece of new technology 'live' is normally hurried, at least in my world. Usually, the equipment goes into service the same day it arrives at the dock. While the process to negotiate the equipment, Vendor quotes, sometimes tenders, PO approvals, capital approvals with finance can take a long time. The actual receiving of the equipment is fast, which allows for a lot of data to be missed. 

Tobias: I see the need to capture the product in your company's ERP system, but does this include all product values for the tech team to run the product and keep it in working order during its lifetime? 

Tom: No! The people from the dock receiving the new shipment never fill in all the information attached to the product, only what is urgently needed from finance. At least in the broadcast rental business, you need to know all the details for international logistics. How much does it weigh? What kind of power does it use? Is it 110 volts or 220 volts? What's the wattage—country of Origin, Harmonized Tariff codes. So every time we go ship that product out to a show, let's say the Olympics, you have to figure out all that information each time. It can be very frustrating to find all this information on vendor websites and put in the additional labor to capture it. The ERP system has empty fields available but no mechanism to have that information imported and updated regularly. And ERP systems do not know how to handle software updates and equipment life cycles for finance and engineering. 

Tobias: With your background in OB rental, you obviously have a strong focus on logistics.

Tom: Yes, that is true. But there is so much more to do to keep the technology in good working order and up to date. I'm talking for instance, software and firmware updates that are more important than ever. And keep in mind, a lot of tech is inter-connected. If you update firmware here, you may have to update the software on a related product from another manufacturer. Vendors are not very helpful to inform you about software changes and make it hard to find the information. It's a nightmare and in the end a very labor-intensive manual process for the operations and engineering teams. And if you do all that work, it is only good for that one point in time and not updated regularly. 

Tobias: Ok, I understand the challenge of finding all that tech-related information. But let's assume you found all of it, where do you actually store this information and make it visible to everybody working on keeping that product working? 

Tom: You currently have the choice between existing ERP/planning systems or an Excel spreadsheet. But even if you fill in all of the information manually, that would take hundreds of hours. And there is no mechanism to keep it updated and current. We have great collaboration tools like task managing and service ticket systems, but they all work independently. They do not help you capture all of this information or receive any vendor updates. 

Tobias: What do you mean by vendor updates? 

Tom: I believe that managing all the related inventory information is one big task. I mean to keep it organized within your organization. And then it requires constant monitoring and updating. And as the equipment is becoming more firmware and software dependent, that part of the information is becoming more critical. Software and firmware is always being updated with a new version. So first, how do you get access to this information, and second, how do you store and share it with the people maintaining the products? You may have one software engineer doing it his way and another doing it her way. But they may run their own spreadsheets, and nobody else knows about it. And they keep searching for critical vendor information, or worst case, realize that something doesn't work, and then they start the search. Unfortunately, vendors are not very proactive in sharing their updates, and maybe they don't even know me as a customer. They may put something on their website, but how are we supposed to know about it? They just kind of release it. And so you have to go hunting for it. And that is only the start. 

Tobias: So, how do you see BEAM helping to solve this tech upkeep dilemma? 

Tom: Well, when looking at what you guys have built, I see the solution to consolidate all the information needed for my equipment is right there! You help us to organize and update my assets. That would save me and others in the media industry a lot of manual labor inputting the data and the headache of trying to update it all. This is especially true as we are moving fast into an IP world, and even faster in virtual ways of production, the production technology will become even more complex, interlinked, and software-driven. If you deliver what you promise, I do not doubt that BEAM will help to define a new standard of technology lifetime management in our industry. I wish it had been around 20 years ago! 

Tobias: Thank you for the interview and your time, Tom. We have no doubts we can deliver what we promise you :)

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