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HLW Media Production Facility Cost Report – Full Interview

Author HLW Staff

Tags Insight, Interview


Moderator: Keith Hanadel (KH), Principal, HLW

Larry Brody (LB), Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI);
Darrell Wenhardt (DW), CBT-West;
Alfred Beck (AB), Beck TV;
John Gering (JG), Managing Partner, HLW

Keith Hanadel: Let’s start at the beginning. All three of you entered the business around the same time, I suspect, but I’m sure you entered in different ways. Why don’t you each give us a brief rundown of your histories?

Larry Brody: So how did I start? Like a lot of things—by accident. I went to New York University and, frankly, was pretty bored by everything going on in college. One day a friend of mine invited me to come by the college radio station for a look and I was fascinated by the technical and production process that was being run by students. The station (WNYU) was carrier current AM radio distributed only on campus. Practically living at the station, I eventually became the chief engineer, playing a big role in the transition from AM to FM 89.1, the first directional FM station in the country. Exciting times filled with transmitters, new studios, and radio on a tight budget. After working summers at WNEW AM & FM in NYC, I transitioned to television (where I knew the money was) and in 1975 pursued a job at the CBS’ engineering department.

At the time, there were at least 100 engineers and 50 drafting people working for CBS—hard to imagine that happening today. My mentors were the giants of the industry at the time (e.g., Joe Flaherty, Dick O’Brien, Dave Horowitz, etc.) and they were certainly characters but very smart. Many consider Joe Flaherty to be the father of High-Definition Television. Extremely dedicated people in many ways, and they had a wealth of knowledge to impart to me. I worked on a lot of fascinating projects for CBS. First CBS computerized editing systems, new control rooms, digital video effects (Vital Squeezoom) for the Cronkite News Hour and the CBS transition from two-inch quad tape to one-inch tape, which was a big change at the time. When I joined the company, you would walk into the CBS broadcast center and almost as far as you could see, the whole place was filled with quad tape machines. Eventually I replaced all those with Sony BVH1000/1100’s. That helped me build up enough cred to get sent to the Masters Golf Tournament. Got to experiment with using tape driven slo-mo for the first time there. It was a wildly interesting time to be working as an engineer.

By about 1980, I decided to take a leap of faith and work for a company called Satellite Television Corporation a subsidiary of COMSAT (Intelsat), which had this insane, ridiculous idea that they were going to use satellites to broadcast television into the home. But they didn’t have anybody on their team who actually knew about how television worked. So, they brought me on board, and I worked there for five years. Without the sophisticated compression techniques that came along later, the costs were high and quality questionable. The reality of direct to home TV was still down the road. Eventually, being the optimist that I was and because I simply did not understand all the challenges that needed to be overcome, I started my own company, Communications Engineering Inc. (CEI) with a group of dedicated, hard-working people. We drove many early innovations (like fully CAD documentation) and had much success working on groundbreaking projects for all the major networks and the up-and-coming cable entities. The rest is history.

KH: Thanks, Larry. Darrell, why don’t you give us your story?

Darrell Wenhardt: My parents shared a duplex with an aunt and uncle, who had a son that was 12 years older than me. He was my idol. He went to USC and became a darn good engineer. I followed in his footsteps. But it didn’t really sink in how cool this all was until I built my first Heathkit, a three-tube amplifier. I was eight years old. I’m sure I still have it somewhere up in the attic.

John Gering: I remember those, Darrell. They were great.

DW: From there, I just kept building stuff. I started making a little collection of PA items and things like that when I was in my early teens. I wouldn’t call myself a DJ, but I would set up a system for people to spin records and have parties. I never saw it as a money-making venture, I was just having fun.

By high school, I knew I was going to be an electrical engineer—partially because I idolized my cousin, but more importantly, I had a great electronics teacher. I loved his classes, but one day he just disappeared. Rumor around the school was that he was setting up some special, secret project. I got a phone call from him at my house one day and he asked me if I wanted to take a TV production class at a different high school about 20 miles away in a TV studio control room that he had built himself. Of course, I said yes. The first hour of his class we studied the electronics of television. The second hour was all about production. I did that class for a whole year and really fell in love with the industry after that experience. This was the first Regional Occupational Class in the San Diego City schools.

For college, I went to San Diego State University and pursued my degree in electrical engineering. While I was there, I ended up working as the lead engineer at Grossmont College. When I finished my degree, they hired me full-time. They paid me $1,000 a month, provided full benefits, and I got to do whatever I wanted with both the TV and radio studios. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

While I was in college, my main interest was in circuit design. It probably goes back to my Heathkit days—I just love that level of electronics. I had planned to return to that eventually. There was a sales guy at Grossmont who used to call on us and he always had these great product ideas. Eventually, he and I, along with another guy, formed our own corporation called CENTRO. We designed a whole array of products, including a fully portable TV production system that could fit in a three-suit suitcase, and some of them even sold. But we had trouble really making any money out of R&D. We ended up pivoting to building TV studios for people and we found out we were pretty good at it. So, we focused on facilities. In the very early 70s, a lot of money was being spent, particularly in California, to upgrade libraries. It was really the first time they introduced electronic media into the school curriculum. I bet we did probably 12 to 18 early projects like that in quick succession. We assembled a great team of people who came with their own connections to materials we’d need—it wasn’t like today where you can just flip through a catalog of everything you need to fit-out a space. We had our own metal shop, our own cabinet shop, our own paint shop, and our own panel shop. We were completely self-sufficient. Then things really blew up for us when we got into the mobile unit market. We had to fight for every eighth of an inch of space in those trucks and trailers. That kicked off a long-lasting love of facilities design. Truth be told, my career developed in a way that I do more architectural work than I do engineering work, and it’s been that way for a long time.

KH: Thanks, Darrell. Fred, I think your story isn’t too different from Darrell’s?

Alfred Beck: Yeah, not really. Started out the same way, at least, with a nerdy interest in electronics in high school.  I was in a band, and I was always making things for the band: speakers, color organs, Dynakit, like Darrell’s Heathkit. Also, my father was an engineer. We moved to Austin so he could work on building a TV station. I had been working at the grocery store, but they dropped my pay down to $1 an hour. I couldn’t pay for a drum kit with that kind of wage. One day my dad heard me singing the blues at home and he asked me if I wanted to make $20 a month at the station instead. Well, that was enough for my drum kit, so I started sweeping floors at the station on weekends. That very rapidly evolved to me running the master control for the remainder of my high school years.

After graduating, I went to UT Austin’s School of Architecture. Then, I got drafted into the Vietnam War. I had a low, low draft number and the military ended up giving me electronics work to do, which suited me just fine. So, for a couple of years I repaired Pershing missile guidance systems. When the war ended, I repaired TVs and stereos for a couple years. I took a night job as an engineer at a TV station; I went back to school to pursue a dual degree in architecture and engineering. I worked for a couple of firms, then decided to go out on my own. The building industry in Texas in the 1980s was brutal—interest rates were pushing 20 percent. I was in the middle of building my own house and houses for two clients and everything just went to hell due to these high rates. I needed to find another job. My father called me up and asked if I wanted to help him build a TV station in Tallahassee. That was the first time I did anything related to television. But I realized, it’s not anything different than what I’d tackled before. I did that one and then I kept doing more. Eventually, my dad and I started Beck TV.

KH: That’s great. So, the only blot on your resume, as far as I can tell, is the decision to go to architecture school, but we can look past that. John, you’re up. Tell us your story.

JG: When I was growing up my next-door neighbor was my chemistry teacher. One day he asked me, What did I want to do with my life? I said, “Well I’m of two minds. I either want to be a musician (I had been playing guitar for many years by then) or an architect.” He looked at me and said: Do you really want to find a new gig every weekend?

KH: So basically, just like what you’re doing now…

JG: It’s no different. So, then I shifted into getting serious about architecture. My father was doing side jobs all the time when I was growing up, like residential construction. My neighbor was a contractor, and in the summer, I’d worked for him. So, I was familiar with this stuff. I went to school for architecture.

By 1980, I had arrived at HLW and made a partner in 1990. My first decade at the firm, I was working on very complex technical projects—in fact, I started the firm’s media studio that Keith now heads. (HLW has a history of designing and engineering research facilities—Alexander Graham Bell was our first client.) Half of our office were engineers at the time. One of my first major projects was called Riverview Studios, a collection of film studios on the Upper East Side. I discovered that inside-out driven programs are wildly interesting to me. Media projects are driven from their insides, as opposed to an office building, which is simply a wrapper around a floor plate.

From there we built many buildings for CNBC and Disney. We got acquainted with Robert Murdoch through those projects. He’s actually the reason we have an office in L.A. He wanted us to work on the 20th Century Fox Film consolidation project out in California. That job really bolstered our firm’s credentials and reputation in the media world.

These media projects have always been my true love. Architects get frustrated with these types of buildings because they want to get the solutions pretty quickly, right? They want the big idea, but the reality often is that there is no big idea. The big idea is how do you make the guts work? The idea comes out of that.

DW: And the biggest challenge is figuring out how to get there within the client’s zero-dollar budget.

KH: Well, that too. I always tell designers that they need to be people that like to work with very complex puzzles to do this type of design work.

Let’s move on to some questions I’ve been eager to ask you guys. Basically, all of you talked about being involved in the design of stations. Were the stations primarily designed by in-house engineers or had the integration business evolved enough that the integrators were the guys leading the charge and the station engineers were the client?

AB: I think my experience is a little bit different from Larry’s and Darrell’s because we started off building these UHF stations. Most of them were fairly tight budget. Most of them were fairly fast design cycles for us. Because of my background, I was doing all the technical space design.

KH: So, you were selecting the equipment, telling the client how it was going to work, and specifically what they should buy.

AB: Yes, although the first part of any project were the technical spaces. I didn’t care what they did with the newsroom or other public-facing spaces. The architects were all perfectly happy with that. They treated the technical spaces like black holes in the middle of their projects that they didn’t know what to do with. My typical package would be space plan design, where I’d work with the architects and the client by handing them a list of loads and details about where I wanted outlets, where I wanted my isolation transformer, all that kind of stuff condensed into one package.

KH: Larry, what about on your side?

LB: Its exactly the same. To go back to your original question…In my mind, there were really three groups of people that you could work for. Networks did their own engineering back in those days. The local network owned-and-operated stations did their own engineering, too.  The third kind were independent stations owned by large companies, like Gannett. They had engineering people, but they also recognized that their local people were too busy doing their local thing, and they didn’t have time to engineer and build a station. And of course, they really didn’t have the experience either. If you did good work for them and proved you could be innovative and cost effective, you could be hired to work on their projects across the country. But it’s like Fred said: they would give you the list of what they needed, you would probe a lot into how they wanted to operate, you would show them what the equipment would be, how you were going to put it all together, and how it would all work. On a budget!

KH: So, what I’m hearing for both of you guys is that the integrator provided almost a turnkey set.

LB: I think that’s right, Keith. And I will just add that, depending on the architect that you were working with, it could either be an enjoyable collaboration (like with HLW) or it could be like being pulled across broken glass. Because it was a specialization and some architects recognized that. Maybe they had some knowledge in that area, but they knew where they stopped and where you started. Others would just be completely in your face for the entire project.

DW: I’m approaching this question from a different perspective. When we walked into the stations, I didn’t really want to talk to the engineering staff. I wanted to talk to the general manager and the Chief Financial Officer because invariably the engineers would want to do detailed engineering and more often than not, they didn’t have the experience base to do what they said they were going to do. But I wanted to get in front of the Chief Financial Officer and ask, If your engineers have so much time to work on a ground-up project, why are you hiring me?

LB: They must have loved you.

DW: And that would usually open the door, allowing us to give them a proposal and our proposal started right at the very beginning with a complete evaluation of workflow. We’d ask, What are you trying to create in this facility? That’s where we would start, and we’d lay that out to the GM and CFO. It was such a logical approach. The last thing we’d look at is technical equipment. That’s the direction we started at the station level. Unfortunately, we only did a few small stations.

KH: Between the 1960s/70s and now, what has been lost?

DW: We don’t have anything now, in terms of machinery. It’s all server based, but the transition between then and now had some great machines. One of the biggest changes in the industry, and I think one of the reasons that the engineering staff population degraded over the years, is that the products became much more reliable.

KH: Interesting.

DW: A lot of people see the shift like this: black-and-white tv to color, NTSC to digital, then to high definition. I think one of the biggest paradigm-shifts in those decades was the increasing reliability of the products. Products became more reliable that maintenance staff, which was really engineering based, began to dwindle. And I think that took a chunk out of the engineering staff at most of the stations because when the old guard retired, the higher-ups didn’t replace them. Or if they did replace them, it was with a technician, not an engineer. There’s also a lot of history and historical perspective that’s lost with this shift. I think it’s very important to impart the whole historical advancement of our industry going back to, you know, tube cameras and everything else. And really understanding in depth what it what it takes to pull this complicated, technical stuff off. You know, back in the 60s and 70s, I’d have to show up at 3 a.m. for a 7 a.m. news show. Warming up the camera, aligning the monitors. There was no automation for those things back then. Everyone had to understand what they were doing and why.

AB: That’s a great insight, Darrell.

KH: Do you guys feel that things were done better or worse back in the day, from an integration point of view? Because remember, everything you did was full service back then. It seems to me that the full service for clients has completely disappeared, and that’s a bad thing. I should clarify what I mean in the pre-digital days.

AB: For us, nothing has changed; we don’t repair equipment. If it’s something very obvious, I’m willing to jump in there, open it up, and see if the problem is what I think it is. In the early days I was a lot more willing to do those kinds of small repairs for electrical/mechanical equipment.  And then Sony came along. I remember putting in a Sony machine and then asking, Where’s the engineer? It was amazing: You plugged it in and turned it on, and the thing worked perfectly! I think that was the beginning of the end for tape machines.

DW: You know, I’ll give you my take on it. In the early days, we never even thought of doing service because most of our clients had an engineering staff who handled that stuff in-house. I stayed out of doing official or impromptu service because it just took too much time and people started to question everything you did. It was a headache.

KH: I realize I mislead the conversation in a funny way. What I meant by full service was less about the equipment and more about the total package you’d provide for the client. It seemed to me that full service was about outlining the facility, specifying for it, delivering, and installing the machines. And then two things happened: One, Sony happened. They changed the complexion of the technical business by providing reliable equipment, but they also decided that they wanted to be an integrator. They wanted to compete with the people they were selling equipment to.

DW: Oh, I got good stories for that.

AB: Yeah, my favorite conversation.

KH: Two, the way clients like to do business now seems very different. The clients seem to want to negotiate the deal with all the equipment suppliers. They don’t want to deal with the integrator markup anymore. They’ll make the integrator rack it and stack it, do all the manual work. But the integrator is not going to get the benefit of ordering fees or see any payment for what used to be their expertise.

AB: We charge for it.

DW: Yeah, I did the same thing.

AB: Our history is that we started off just doing engineering and integration and did not sell equipment. I’d tell clients, We don’t sell equipment, so you can trust us when we tell you that this piece of equipment is good or a piece of junk. It wasn’t until later on that clients drove my company to sell equipment. They said, “We want the whole thing, we want turnkey.” And a lot of our competitors were offering turnkey. Now, we sell more equipment than we’ve ever sold.

KH: Let’s jump back to this Sony thing. I want to hear some of those stories.

AB: OK, for us, it didn’t really change anything that we did. Mostly it just made me angry. I was ready to go to war. These people wanted us to install their equipment, and they turned around and competed with us. I took it personally. I did not go out of my way to get Sony into the packages I was offering clients. It wasn’t very long, however, before Sony started whining about not being included. And then they started using our services on some of their projects.  They were subcontracting the integration and engineering to us.  So, I capitulated. I hated it… But we wanted the money, I had personnel to support.

DW:  The Sony thing is pretty interesting because them starting up their integration division coincided with relocation of CENTRO from San Diego to Salt Lake City in the early 1990s, which lead to its eventual demise. I had been negotiating with Sony to put their integration center down in San Diego. I had 128 employees at the time, and only 18 went to Salt Lake City. The Sony guys didn’t want to relocate down to San Diego, even though I had a 120,000 square foot integration facility ready for them. And there were people all lined up for it. The answer was still no. Then, about a year and a half later, Sony moves their US corporate HQ to Rancho Bernardo. We were more than disappointed.

KH: I bet.

DW: We stopped working with them. I wouldn’t even put Sony headphones into a project for a long time. I was done. I left, CENTRO went into consulting, and ended up opening a commercial division of SAIC, which was a government contractor. But, like Fred said, they started whining at us, too. Next thing I know, they’re knocking on the door asking if we can help them with their projects. I think we did one. It was a rebuild of a screening and mix-down studio they did in the Bay Area, and it did not turn out well at all. That was our first and only favor for Sony. And, of course, they didn’t survive long term in that arena.

AB: Sounds like the same experience I had. Sony were not good bosses. I’ll tell one story about the last job I ever did for Sony. It was an East Coast job, for a corporate client. We were asked to do a facility. In the very first meeting, the architects and engineers were talking about AC loads, and I could tell they were going to get screwed. The loads were way too high. It was crazy. The Sony guy didn’t listen. Fast forward a few months later: One of the client’s guys comes into the tech core and asks, When are you guys going to turn on all the equipment?

DW: Let me guess: It’s already on.

AB: Yeah. The guy turned white as a sheet.

DW: And now you’ve got an uncontrollable air conditioning system at that point.

KH: You can’t dehumidify at all.

AB: It was totally untenable. That was my last experience with Sony. I didn’t want to be associated with this cuckoo stuff.

KH: Larry, what’s your take on Sony?

LB: Well, you know, I remember very clearly when they first called to tell me they were going into the integration business. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant phone call. I had to tell them straight out that they were choosing to become my competitor if they proceeded, and that I would do everything in my power to not use Sony equipment. Like Darrel said, I wouldn’t even specify a set of headphones. And they were shocked! Ultimately, I think they came to realize that going into integration was negatively impacting their business. Eventually, they put the kibosh on it. You know, they actually took me and a few other people over to Japan at the end of their integration foray to sort of kiss and make up for it. But their relationship with the rest of the industry was soured, it really messed them up.

KH: Well, let me ask you all three of you guys this: Were their products substantially better? Remember Sony represented, at one point, the highest standard of consumer electronics. Apple has replaced them now, but back in the 80s and 90s, Sony was it. You just didn’t waste your time on the imitation. Was the same true for broadcast equipment?

AB: They had some good pieces.

LB: Agreed, but it really depended on what it was.

DW: The tape machines were the best. With a Sony tape machine, you’d open the box, plug it in, and it just worked. If it was an Ampex product, they’d have to ship an engineer with it. It was a more reliable product. Now, the cameras were a different story. The only way Sony made traction in the camera world was to literally buy projects.

LB: Yeah, that was definitely a Sony M.O. They bought projects at an insane rate. I was told that the U.S. team was basically given a pot of money and told to go out there and buy market share. And they did at dollar levels nobody else could touch. It was so strange, they’d lose money on project after project, but it didn’t seem to matter.

DW: They were insanely subsidized.

KH: I will say we have the same problem with some of our competitors. You know when that competitor decides they want a project, they move in a marketplace direction. They can afford to subsidize it for a year or two that is completely out of HLW’s reach. It’s just one of many battlefields we meet them on. They can really shift the needle on us.

DW: Well, I’ll give you guys one more story about Sony, specifically about how their tactic of buying projects hurt the industry. You guys remember Bob Gilmartin?

LB: Sure, loved him. We started at CBS together and sat in a two-person office.

DW: Bob and I were hired by DIRECTV, specifically by an old colleague from NBC. We were asked to design a broadcast center to support this whole new concept. I mean, we were working with rocket scientists who were at the leading edge of MPEG. We had to write a specification to go out to build this broadcast center in Castle Rock, Colorado. Bob and I worked very hard on it and put together a great specification package, which was based on an IBM and HP video server solution. We didn’t include Sony because we didn’t think they had enough depth of experience. But they bought themselves a seat at the negotiating table and eventually bought the whole job. The Sony engineering staff had almost no practical experience in the television broadcast world. Most of them came out of an audio design background. Eventually, our friend at DIRECTV brought us back into the project because Sony was messing it up so badly. We fought them like crazy throughout the whole process.  Bottom line was, DirecTV ended up with 450 digital tape machines and no video file servers.

KH: That story is a good segue into another topic I wanted to discuss. Let’s get into the transition from tape-based to server-based workflow. We are kind of handmaidens to the media industry, and not part of the industry the way you guys are. But we’ve renovated older stations, and when you go in you can see that they were originally designed for hundreds of tape machines and tape rooms. Well, that tech went extinct and now the clients are backed into using these crazy awkward rooms and passageways. With these kinds of projects, it’s clear that a big workflow change needs to happen each time there is a major technical change. Are there workflow changes that you think are coming now?

AB: Oh yeah. Big, big changes are coming.

LB: Yeah, more than ever before.

DW: Keith, let me let me open this up because I’m going to take a different approach than what I think you’re going for, and I’m going to use ABC7 in Los Angeles as an example. We were more than half-way through the design when the union raised their hand and said, “We’re not working with servers, only tape machines.” ABC pushed back hard, but eventually lost. We were supposed to have only eight or nine legacy machines in the place—the final number was over 100, plus the servers we wanted. It took six years to convince the union to let old broadcast machines go. And you know what? We still see some of that today. We’re trying to introduce new, IP-based workflows and there’s a lot of pushbacks. It’s stupid because in two years or so, it’s all going to be IP-based. The only solution for it is training.

LB: The sad thing about that is a lot of these engineers are going to go by the wayside because they’re just not trainable. A lot of them are seniors, they’ve been doing this for a long time, and they just can’t understand the new IP tech. Unions have lost a lot of their power to this, too. This is a complete revolution, which is going to flip the whole production element on its head. It will require different people to do the job with a different mindset. It’s going to involve cloud economies at a scale that people have never seen. It’s going to be chaotic for sure.

KH: So, my question for you guys is: How is this going to change the facilities we are designing right now? What do you see as the physical impact of IP moving things into the cloud? How do I future-proof these things?

LB: First, they’re all going to be smaller.

DW: COVID accelerated something here. The remote technology has really been a game-changer. I mean, if you look at a typical golf tournament produced over the past two COVID years, half the replays and half the graphics are being done by people that are working out of their homes. Your footprints will have to accommodate transitory workers, people who only come in a few days a week.

LB: True, just take a look at how the Olympics was done. Even in the last few Olympics, there was much, much less happening on site. Everything was done remotely.

KH: So, that remote thing for us as architects…you know, we have historically been an extremely collaborative bunch. Working and mentoring—something critical to young architects and engineers, I imagine—is best done face-to-face. How is remote going to affect that relationship? Do young people not actually need that anymore? Are they such a digital generation that they don’t need as much instruction on how to use tech?

AB: I think it’s kind of what you’re saying. What a lot of it is, though, is simply technological change. The schools teach them how to be on that machine super efficiently. I don’t know how important mentoring is anymore, but I’d love to hear other opinions.

LB: There’s an issue of culture clash, too, because a lot of young people don’t want to go into the office. They want to do their work at home, have lots of flexibility in their schedule, and all kinds of other things. There is a real dichotomy in our industry in that we need people in office seats, but the new generation doesn’t want to be there

KH: You know, it’s interesting as an outsider, seeing the tension in facilities during the transition to a digital workflow. There were IT guys and there were broadcast guys, and never the twain should meet. In fact, I did a number of rack rooms where we’d actually group IT and broadcast equipment together and then install a chain-link fence to separate them. That’s clearly gone away. I will say it seems to me like the IT guys won that battle.

AB: I will say our single biggest issue, in terms of hiring at our company, is finding people that are skilled both in IT and in broadcast. We call them purple squirrels and we’re always on the lookout for purple squirrels because they are so hard to find. I have station managers literally calling me asking if I know any engineers.

LB: There are none.

AB: The other issue is that kids entering the workforce today don’t think of TV as a hip or high-tech industry to be in.

KH: Right, it always seemed to me that the other part of the tension was that broadcast engineers were, sorry to say, kind of cranky and particular. And, you know, you have to be if you’re responsible for getting the news on the air every day at 5 p.m. sharp. There’s a tremendous amount of money and respect on the line. The tension came from the fact that the IT guys felt like they had more slack. If 90-percent of the content got up there as it should, that’s ok.

DW: Yeah, they had a real “well the server’s down” mentality about work in the early days. I think that’s getting better, though.

We have a whole new breed of people that are coming up. Some have enough interest to get into the broadcast side. Keith and I were involved in a pretty interesting series of projects ten years ago, it was a series of YouTube studios. We built the first one in Los Angeles, followed by Tokyo, London, and New York.  We put all this great technology in there, organized around a broadcast workflow, and for several years nobody used it! They’d shoot their stuff in the YouTube studios and then go home to edit on their laptops. It took a long time, but finally they began to embrace it. The really successful people coming out of the YouTube studios had enough curiosity to try to understand a broadcast workflow.

We’re seeing a similar thing happening now with regards to the collaboration element. It’s so important, particularly on the creative side, to have everyone in the same room. They are really struggling with getting people to come back to the big networks. With COVID, a lot of people discovered they like working at home. They have extremely flexible hours. But the thing that’s going to drive people back together is the collaboration effort. So, what you’re going to see are the type of investments that some of the networks are making. They aren’t letting all of the peripheral workers stay in their homes. They’re bringing them into the broadcast center to work as a team. Making TV is a creative art. And unless people collaborate face-to-face, it’s not going to be good.

LB: Yeah, I have to agree with that 100 percent. I personally never understood how you can just have people working remotely. You need to have personal collaboration in order to really be good at developing the product. The thing that I’m seeing now is a whole division that works on the strategy of workflow. I mean, scores of people are working on that because no one really understands what the workflow should be. How many people do I need? What technology do I need to use? How do things get developed? It’s extremely important, it may be the most important thing. Forget about buying equipment or anything else. If you don’t know how your workflow is going to go then you’re going to fail.

And that goes back to your question, Keith, about what kind of facility you’re building. Until you know the workflow—who’s going to be occupying the space, what they’re going to be doing, how they’re going to be doing it—the client doesn’t know what to ask of the architect.

KH: Typical stations used to be 60,000 to 80,000 square feet. The new ones we are doing are 35,000 square feet. I wonder, Will these low-cost stations define the technology and how things happen rather than the networks? For example, we just built a 25,000-square-foot regional news station. Our original design was two floors, 50,000 square feet. The client came back and slashed almost everything out of it. They’ve reduced staff, and they don’t do mastering in their studio facilities anymore. They’re editing on their laptops and coming into the office only a couple times a week for assignment meetings. We started with one with one large studio and divided it into three small studios complete with green screens.

DW: Yeah, the other big thing that’s reducing studio space is the advent of virtual.

LB: The Big Three are taking their cues from the smaller networks. Nobody wants to spend the money if they don’t have to.

DW: Just look at the ratings.

KH: Agreed, the money that used to be there is not there.

DW: You know, the only network division that is growing right now is sports. And the largest growth on the streaming side is concentrated in sports, too. It’s the same story for streaming. News departments and revenue are shrinking. It’s not what it used to be. And that’s because consumers are turning to their phones and the web for information. But, you know, the whole model is changing and it’s hard to predict where we’re really going to be in a few years from now. The pace of change is just so fast.

I want to return to the post-COVID remote work question for a second. There’s another perspective to consider: the quality of the work product. People editing at home don’t typically have access to high quality tech for color correction, audio editing, etc. And you might think, Well everybody’s just lowering their standards, but I can tell you that Netflix, Amazon, and Apple have incredibly high standards. They are pouring millions of dollars into their color correction rooms and audio mixing and post rooms. You can’t do that kind of work from home. The networks are doing the same thing for their sports divisions. A collaborative editing room, color correction room, or an audio post room is critical to them because they believe in delivering a quality product. So, they’re asking themselves, Are we willing to compromise to give people that flexibility to work from home X number of days if it means sacrificing the product?

KH: Ok, but if I’m watching 90 percent of content on my phone, what do I care about all that finessing?

LB: Yes, that certainly is one market. But the other market is people that are at home with big screen TVs that are capable of 4k, coupled with surround sound systems. Those people want quality. Same with the people who are watching things like the gazillion dollar Amazon Lord of the Rings production.

DW: With regards to broadcast news, the demographics skew old. Everyone else is getting it on their phones. Maybe they watch a morning show while they’re getting ready for the day. But when it comes to things like the Super Bowl or World Series, people aren’t going to want to watch that on their phones, in part because they miss out on all the ancillary info the TVs can display—statistics, odds, things like that. They’ll use their phones to do their betting. It’s a mixture of tech, and I think that’s what we’re going to keep using for a while.

KH: Here’s a question: When do satellite antennas go away?

AB: Don’t hold your breath.

LB: It’s going to be a while. Yes, fiber is great, but you know people are still using satellites, so that’s going to take a long time for that stuff to go away.

KH: They’re such a pain in my neck all the time. Alright, here’s another one: Are news trucks going to be needed in the future? Any producer can hop in their car and cover an assignment with their laptop and their phone.

LB: Bigger stations use them because they need to be able to cover stories at a certain quality level and they don’t want the guy on the street with the iPhone, although they use that, too. But I think, like everything else, they’ll transition away from trucks as phone cameras and laptop software gets better and better. Or people accept lower quality audio/visual content. But it’s going to be awhile.

KH: We talked about the changes in engineering. Do you guys think there will be engineering shops in the future?

AB: I think there’ll still be shops, but they’re going to be different from the ones we worked in. TV stations still have to maintain shops because they’re really rough with their news equipment. But for the sports facilities we’re designing, we’re not putting in any engineering shops.

LB: There might be shops, but they’ll more likely have limited IT diagnostic equipment. Quite frankly the equipment is so complex and specialized nowadays, you can’t repair it anyway. All you’re doing is replacing circuit boards or letting the manufacturer’s IT people run remote diagnostics.

DW: I think a lot of that space that used to be used for shops is now going to be used for storage. FedEx and UPS changed the world, they you could get something overnight, but that isn’t the case anymore with all these part shortages and shipping delays. To keep a studio running, you’re going to have to have parts stored somewhere for quick fixes. Most engineers are fixing issues on their laptops now, anyway. You could be in London fixing an issue at an LA studio. That’s the world we live in now, and it all has to do with the reliability of the equipment, something we talked about earlier.

KH: Ok, let’s talk Covid. As you guys know well, when COVID hit in spring 2020, everything sort of spun out of control with regards to remote production. REMI had started before COVID, but it really took off during the pandemic. It’s come to light that there’s been all sorts of workflow and technological issues with it. So, taking all that into account, what do you guys think is going to stick around?

DW: You know, Fred and I get to play with the Switch guys on some REMI stuff. Together, we demonstrated quite clearly that the latency issue is solvable. The question comes down to: Is the bandwidth there where you need it and is it reliable? COVID forced us to find an answer to that question really quickly. The technology is there. Making TV remotely is very doable. So, I don’t see us ever going back to a situation where you have to have 100 percent of your staff in the building to do a show. And, unfortunately for the bean counters, it doesn’t make much of a financial difference. Maybe a five to seven percent reduction in cost. The real change is simplifying logistics and the people issues.

That tech benefit mostly comes from fiber and how quickly it can transport signals. Fiber is the best way to get the lowest latency. But there are other options, too. We’ve been experimenting with Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. We can get a signal out and back in 22 milliseconds. The tech is extraordinary. I think with these tools we’ll really be able to make TV anywhere, and a station will be nice to have but not a technological necessity.

AB: I agree with everything Darrell said, but I would add a couple of things. Before COVID, we were building a lot of trucks, 25-person trucks. Once COVID hit, that situation absolutely would no longer work. ESPN was already considering converting fully over to REMI, and COVID was the final push to get them to commit. And now that we’ve all been there, we’ve seen it and we’ve been doing it, we’re getting a little knowledge. The bandwidth part of the tech has definitely improved, but it’s not just that. These newer codecs enable us to send very good quality video out using a much lower bandwidth. Normally, the problem with very high compression rates is time, but that’s been improved. The tools and equipment just keep getting better and better. It’s going to be like Moore’s law with this tech: The bandwidth and the codecs are going to improve at an exponential rate until they eventually equal each other in efficiency. I think that’s coming in the fairly near future.

DW: Don’t forget about 5G, too. That is going to open up some very interesting doors, I predict. Bonded cellular, too. Bonded cellular has totally changed all local news. A station used to have one or two sat trucks. Now the SAT trucks are parked.

AB: There are so many different ways to get from point A to point B now. Fiber, satellite, bonded cellular, Starlink. There’s going to be more and more of those sorts of technologies coming in the future.

KH: So, is the variety of tech the real advancement spurred on by COVID?

LB: I think you guys have hit the nail on the head. News production is almost always now bonded cellular. People are out with their iPhones doing local news and getting it back to the station through bonded cellular or even some crummy iPhone transmissions. All the big networks still have and use satellite dishes because they’ve got them and they’re expensive pieces of machinery, but I predict in 10 years they’re going to be relics.

DW: You bring up a really important point, though. If you look across the nation, a large percentage of Americans receive their television through local stations, local cable companies.  They distribute their content through satellite. They’ve put major investments into their receivers, IRDs, decoders. To migrate that all over into a fiber set up, that’s going to take several cycles of complete equipment upgrade and replacement. Now, on the other hand, if you look at the local broadcasters and the fight for bandwidth, you’ll see streaming is definitely gaining. The last graph I looked at showed that streaming distribution now outpaces broadcast delivery of programming.

JG: So, what do you guys think? What’s the forecasted lifetime of broadcast relative to streaming?

LB: It’s an interesting question. For years I heard that ATSC 3 was going to be the savior of local broadcasters, but I have seen miniscule returns. Darrell’s right: Streaming is the coming thing. The local stations will still put out their content, but it’s not going to be delivered via over-the-air broadcast to most people. It’s going to come through streaming.

JG: I’ve noticed that shift. Some of the big networks have moved their programming to streaming entirely. Dancing With The Stars on ABC, for instance, is streaming only now. That’s a big show.

LB: Even Amazon’s got Thursday night football now. But look, I wouldn’t discount local broadcasters entirely. They’re going to have their place, but it’s going to shrink.

AB: Look, it doesn’t matter to me how it gets there.

The one thing that won’t change is going to be content. The more channels you have, the more content you have to have. Sports are bigger than they’ve even been right now because they have fresh content, fresh meat, and content’s not going away. As a company we’ve focused on the flip side, which is not to say we’re not consolidating master control facilities for some of these big people, but we stay with content product production. That’s the safest way for us to grow and survive.

LB: Content has always been king. I know personally I am overwhelmed by content right now. I’ve got a bunch of different ways of getting content into my home, but I never know where to go. There’s no universal or accessible way of searching for the things you like and getting a reliable recommendation. I think the viewing public is overwhelmed by the pathways to and varieties of content.

AB: A lot of mediocre content out there, too, unfortunately.

DW: Let’s take a look at where our conversation’s gone here. We started talking about engineering and systems integration and all that stuff, and now we’re talking about content. Content is king and it’s where the dollars get made and where they get spent. Really, the thing that distinguishes Amazon, Netflix, and Apple from each other isn’t the tech. They’re all doing 4k and surround sound.

 JG:  What do you guys think about the life of cable? When will the demise of cable happen?

AB: I think the real key here is it’s going to actually divide into those things that need over-the-air transmission and those that don’t. Some things will always benefit from broadcast bandwidth. So, it’s here to stay, but it will change.

LB: Well, your cable’s going to become your Internet provider. They’re not just the TV provider, they’re also the internet provider. And that’s how they’ll keep everything else alive. That’s what’s going to save them. So, John, the answer to your question is we have no idea. Like Keith there, we have no idea what the heck is going to happen in 10 years.

By far the biggest cloudy area in my mind is what is entertainment going to look like? What are they going to try to sell to us that they’re not selling to us now and how they’re going to present it to the audience? That’s going to be really interesting. And my bet is that we’re going to see entities become powerhouses that aren’t even in the business right now. When you have trillions of dollars in the bank, you have to figure out something to do with it. Entertainment and media are always good places to put your money, if you’ve got a good idea.

DW: So, here’s a question for you on that one, and it will steer us back to the technology discussion. How much of a sell is the technological quality of the content? Is someone going to decide about watching a program based on how it’s presented? Can you really tell the difference between a 1080P and a 4K that’s been properly handled? Amazon, Netflix, Apple, all of them have 4k production and immersive sound as their standards.

KH: Do you think they’re doing 4K for now, or are they doing that with a mind towards archiving?

AB: They want to archive 4K even if they can only put 1080P over the air. With the idea that in the future they’re going to be able to have this 4K content.

LB: It’s just not going to matter. It’s going to become so cheap. Every LCD TV that you buy right now is 4K capable. Eventually you’ll be able to get everything in 4K. So, the real question is: If something a viewer wants to watch isn’t in 4K are they going to forgo it? Probably not, in my opinion, because if the content is what they like, if it’s important to them, they’re going to watch it. They won’t settle for poorer quality on a regular basis, but on occasion they’ll go downstream in order to get what they want.

KH: I figured it was for the library aspect. You can convert a film to digital and you know the quality is still good cause 35 millimeters is high resolution. I figure the 4K is the TV analogy to that reasoning.

DW: Yeah, you want a shock to your system? Go back and look at some NTSC content. Before that we had RGB and before that we had black and white. Everybody had a thousand lines of resolution in the black-and-white world and then we threw NTSC in there. Next thing you know you got 320 lines. It was ridiculous. Find a baseball game or a football game in NTSC and see if you can stomach it.

AB: Well, Darrell, remember: You’re a very sophisticated watcher. Everybody on this on this call is a very sophisticated watcher.

DW: That’s why I asked the question: How important is that technology? That advancement?

LB: I don’t know if you guys have been watching the Amazon presentation of the Lord of the Rings. It is stunning. There’s no way you would ever enjoy that to the same extent in NTSC. Modern LCD or OLED 4K is the only way to go. It blows me away and I’m a critical watcher.

DW: You know what that reminds me of? The planned obsolescence in the computer industry. Because computers and software just keep getting better, and you have to constantly upgrade or replace them to get the best performance. I think the TV industry is trying to follow the same path. Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, you bought a TV set and used it until it burned out. Nobody does that anymore. With NTSC, it was the same standard for all those years, and it was compatible with pretty much every model.

LB: I think the consumer industry has a real problem, actually. Back in the day, I was the guy who went out and liked to buy the latest and the greatest. But I’m done, you know? I’ve got my 4K TV, I’ve got my Dolby Atmos. I’ve got a room optimized setup to do it. I’m not going out and buying anything for a long time. And that’s a problem for the consumer industry because the people are saturated with technology.

JG: Unless you do gaming or something like that, right?

KH: Right, right. We’re near the end here, gentlemen. Any final prognostications?

AB: Every time I try to predict how things will change, throughout my entire life, I always get it wrong. I think things are going to happen sooner or later than they actually do. I’ve never been right so far.

LB: I think we’ve covered an incredible amount of ground here. I love talking to all you guys. Here’s my prediction: Content drives the technology, not the other way around. So, as we go through the next decade, the kind of content that’s produced and the way it’s delivered is going to be driven by the content producers (creatives) and what they want. And what do they always want? A cheap, quick, high-quality, blockbuster hit every time. The technology that gets them there will thrive. There’s going to be many, many more sources of content in the future, more ways of getting it in front of people’s eyeballs. It’s just the way of the world.

DW: I’m going to amend my last statement, Keith. Larry nailed it. It’s content. When I sit down with a client, the first thing I always ask him is: “What are you trying to produce?” Then we get into questions about workflow, etc. The very last thing that I want to apply is technology.

KH: Well, I think it’s a good place to end. John and I really appreciate you guys spending time with us to discuss these issues. Both of us love to be involved in the design of media production facilities but as folks trained as architects, we look at the technical issues as outsiders. It has been great to discuss the past, present, and future of this industry with three of the most accomplished guys we know.