In the fresh connected world of IP, do years of experience in broadcast engineering still count, or should veteran technicians just hang up their SDI cables and retire?

The all-IP world is upon us. Depending on who you listen to, it will either change everything, or be so perfectly implemented as to be seamless.

John Maxwell Hobbs

John Maxwell Hobbs

The truth is, unlike recent technological changes like widescreen and HD, audiences won’t notice anything different. 

However, that is not the case on the other side of the screen.

True, cameras, lenses, lights, microphones, mixing boards, and edit suites will still do the things they’ve done in the past, but everything we’ve learned about connecting them together will have no resemblance to the way it’s worked in the past.

Up to now, even though the nature of the signal being carried has evolved from analogue black and white to digital colour HD, the principles underlying the signal flow have remained basically the same. The knowledge of how to route a video signal was pretty much the same whether it was RF or HD-SDI – they even use the same connectors. The same is not true in the IP world. Not only is the connector different, the underlying logic is different as well.

In the world of the good-old BNC connector, you run a cable from a camera to a stagebox. The stagebox is connected to a patch panel. Making a connection using a jumper on the patch panel routes the feed coming from the camera to a camera channel on a vision mixer. More cables with BNC connectors sprout from the vision mixer, making direct connections to monitors, distribution amps, and so on.

In recent years, software control has replaced manually plugging cables, but the underlying systems architecture and routing logic remains the same. If there’s a fault in a component anywhere in the change, simply swapping the problematic item out for an identical unit will quickly solve the problem.

The world of IP-based production involves more than just changing from BNC to RJ-45 connectors – both the physical and logical architecture are completely different as well. True, running an Ethernet cable from a camera to a network hub may feel a little like running a video cable from a camera to a stagebox, but the resemblance ends there. The physical interconnections are completely separate from the logical connections.

In the baseband world, if a camera is faulty, you simply grab a camera from the stores, or another studio, connect it to the faulty camera’s cable, power it up, and hey presto! the new camera pops up in the right location on the vision mixer.

In the world of IP, you grab a camera from the stores or another studio, connect it to the faulty camera’s Ethernet cable, power it up, and hey presto! the new camera pops up on the last vision mixer it was used with, if it even shows up at all. That’s because the routing is specified by the device, not the network.

Both the camera and the vision mixer need to be configured to work together. This not only requires coordination between the camera operators and the gallery, but also requires knowledge of configuring IP devices and networks on the part of both.

The initial reaction might be, ‘big deal – new kit has always required training’. This is true, but until now, that training built upon a foundation based on years of practical experience. With the introduction of IP technology, not a single thing gained through years of production experience can be applied. A broadcast engineer with 20 years of experience will be just as much of a newbie as a graduate trainee.

And it’s not just broadcast engineers who will be affected. In the camera swap scenario described above, it’s highly unlikely that an engineer was involved at any stage – normally, those situations are handled by operational staff. One of the biggest impacts of the introduction of this new technology will be to highlight just how much ‘engineering’ is actually done by operational and production staff.

There’s an ongoing debate as to whether it will be easier to train broadcast engineers to work with IP networking or to train IT engineers in broadcast engineering, but both types of engineers are ‘old dogs’. And that still doesn’t address the issue of operational staff – I don’t believe anyone would argue that we should try to train IT engineers to be vision mixers or camera operators, or that we must increase headcount and have IT engineers working full time in every gallery and on every stage floor.

We are at an inflection point where manufacturers, broadcasters, and educational institutions need to work together to solve this problem. Not only do we need to start training the next generation of broadcast technicians, we need to rapidly bring the current generation of engineers and operational staff up to speed.

Although it’s true that from a purely technical perspective, years of broadcast engineering experience counts for nothing, those years of experience count for a great deal in the bigger picture – a deep understanding of what goes into making television programmes and what need to be done to ensure that, ‘it will be alright on the night’.

As well as being a music producer and composer, John Maxwell Hobbs is CEO of music technology startup Delic, media consultant and the former Head of Technology at BBC Scotland.