Emmy Awards honor the engineers who make TV worth watching

On Sunday, April 8, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) will honor winners at the 69th Annual Technical and Engineering Emmy Awards. Among the honorees is Lifetime Achievement Award winner Richard Friedel, executive vice president, Technology and Broadcast Strategy for Fox. We talked to Friedel and Robert P. Seidel, CBS vice president of Engineering and Advanced Technology and chairman of the NATAS Technology & Engineering Committee, about why it’s important to recognize engineers and the role of technology in entertainment.

 

Q: For generations, television has been an intimate part of our lives – bringing families together to entertain and delivering important news and information to the public. The NATAS Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards are given to individuals or companies “that either represent so extensive an improvement on existing methods or are so innovative in nature that they materially have affected television.” When it comes to making TV more enjoyable and compelling for the audience, what has been the most impactful technological advancement?

Robert P. Seidel: During the early days of television, there were two ways to present entertainment and news information. Specifically, live or film. The advent of video tape allowed for programs to be recorded, edited and broadcast very quickly. Many older viewers will remember the phrase “film at 11” because the six o’clock news was unable to present footage of the actual news event. The need to provide live breaking news led to the development of electronic newsgathering and the incorporation of multiple technologies such as video tape and microwave transmissions. The next growth of this technology was satellite newsgathering, which enabled the events of the world to unfold in your living room. This technology created a “global village” of television viewers and, in many cases, brought about social changes, such as coverage of the civil rights movement, the student uprising in Tiananmen Square, China, or served as a milepost in our lives; where were you during the Kennedy assassination, the first lunar landing, or the terror attacks on 9/11? The addition of High Definition television with its crystal clear widescreen images, surround sound and improved color fidelity enhanced the viewing experience by providing a “like you are there” window to the world.

Q: Let’s go back a bit to the start of your careers. How did you get into television?

Richard Friedel
photo credit: 21st Century Fox

Richard Friedel: Since childhood, I’ve always been interested in electricity and electronics. I would mess around with my parents’ hi-fi system and other things around the house. I was fortunate that my high school offered an electronics program. I jumped at the chance to learn the fundamentals of electronics. The third year, there was no set curriculum; instead, we had to complete a project. The school had just received some defunct television equipment from the old Dumont TV Network. A friend and I were assigned to turn it into a simple TV station for homeroom announcements. That project is what got me started.

At Drexel University, there was no student television activity, but there was a radio station. When they learned I could actually repair equipment, I was immediately added to the engineering department. That was the beginning of my experience with broadcasting.

Drexel had a cooperative education program, so I returned home to Washington, D.C. to work. While there, I enrolled in broadcast and engineering courses at the University of Maryland and became involved with the school’s radio station too.

After I graduated, a friend asked me to help him run the university’s Radio-TV-Film Department’s technical facility. There I learned about professional television equipment and system design, which eventually led to a job with WRC/NBC.

RS: I started dabbling in television at my high school when I got involved with their local cable access program called “Knight Life.” At Lehigh University, I was the chief engineer of the two radio stations and built two black and white TV studios for their local cable channels. After graduating from Lehigh with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, I looked for a career in television broadcast engineering. I started as a design engineer with CBS in the mid-‘70s. Some of the projects I have worked on include designing studios for Walter Cronkite, mobile units for CBS Sports, a RApid Deployment Earth Terminal (RADET) (i.e. portable satellite uplink dish) that could be shipped to anywhere in the globe to cover a fast-breaking news event. In 1996, I headed up the team that made broadcasting history when WRAL-HD, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina became the first commercial high definition television station to sign on the air in the United States. On October 29, 1998 CBS launched their high definition network service with the coverage of John Glenn’s return to space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. The event was carried on eight early-adopter TV stations. In those days, we knew all our viewers on a first name basis. This was followed by the broadcast of four NFL games in HDTV. At that point in time, most prime time shows were photographed on 35mm film. In order to cover the cost of converting the film to HDTV, I had to go out and sell advertising to offset the cost. A graphic at the bottom third of the screen would inform the viewer “This program is in HDTV by Mitsubishi, or Samsung or Panasonic, or RCA.” If the viewer did not have an HDTV, then they knew they were missing something. For the 1999-2000 TV season, CBS converted most of their prime program schedule to the highest form of HDTV.

Robert Seidel (kneeling) cueing the Reading High School Knight Life Television Staff

Why is it important to celebrate television’s achievements in engineering and technology? How does your training as an engineer factor into your role?

RF: Television is a technologically driven industry. Whether it’s how we create programming, produce it, transmit it or monetize it, it all requires technology. I was taught that engineering is the business of technology. So, my engineering training was what I needed to be effective and successful at applying technology to business solutions. A lot of experience and a little luck helped too.

RS: It is important to recognize the achievements of engineers and technologists for innovations like HDTV and digital television because you want to encourage continued thought on how to improve existing technologies. In February 2000, Neil Armstrong spoke to the National Press Club regarding the advancement of understanding of the critical importance of engineering. He said, “…Almost every part of our lives underwent profound changes during the past 100 years thanks to the efforts of engineers, changes impossible to imagine a century ago. People living in the early 1900s would be amazed at the advancements wrought by engineers.” He went on to say that “…as someone who has experienced firsthand one of engineering’s most incredible advancements – space exploration – I have no doubt that the next 100 years will be even more amazing.”

In February 1981, CBS demonstrated HDTV for the first time in the United States at the Winter Technical Conference at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. At that point in time, it was unthinkable that we would be asking to replace every television set in America, every television studio, every edit room and every transmitter for this new technology. Yet today, HDTV has become a global phenomenon that permits the viewers to experience the event as if they were there. Recognition of these achievements helps motivate engineers and technologists to keep asking themselves how they can create something new or make an existing product or technology better.

It is important to recognize the achievements of engineers and technologists for innovations like HDTV and digital television because you want to encourage continued thought on how to improve existing technologies.
– Robert Seidel

give us a glimpse into what it’s like for the Technology & Engineering Achievement Committee to select the Emmy honorees. What consistencies do you see in the award-winning innovations that set the industry standard for excellence?

RS: Every year, a committee of approximately 55–75 television industry engineering professionals and innovators volunteer their time for a three-meeting cycle to consider technology nominations. At our first two meetings, we review category nominations submitted to the committee for consideration. These nominations are broad categories of technology and are not product specific. For example, a video storage nomination could include film, videotape, digital video disc, and solid-state storage. At the end of the second meeting, the committee votes on the technology categories that will be investigated and assigned subcommittees who will conduct in depth research into the technology including patents, first public demonstration, and organizations and individuals who have materially affected television with this technology. At the third meeting, the subcommittees present their findings to the larger group and specific products or individuals that may be “Emmy worthy.” A vigorous discussion usually ensues prior to the full committee vote. At the end of these discussions, a vote is taken by secret ballot. If the technology receives affirmative votes from two-thirds of the committee, an Emmy is awarded to the organizations or individuals recommended by the subcommittee. These results are kept confidential until the winning organizations and individuals are notified by the Chairman and a press release is issued by the National Academy.

Technologies or living individuals are awarded Emmys because they represent so extensive an improvement on existing methods or are so innovative in nature that they have materially affected television.

NATAS®

Richard, what’s it like to find out you’re getting the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Technology?

RF: Surreal. I had no expectation for an Emmy. I guess that sentiment is true for most of the honorees who receive this award. I still can’t believe that my peers recommended me for this honor.

Where will you keep this Emmy?

RF: I haven’t given that any thought. I’d like to place it publicly outside my office so my team can be inspired by it. They are the reason I’m being honored. Without their efforts and energy this could never have happened.

 

Richard, you’re responsible for overseeing FOX Networks Engineering & Operations including the network’s long-term technology strategy and day-to-day operations for the Fox Network Center in Los Angeles and the Fox Houston Technical Operations Center, home of Fox Sports’ regional networks, and providing technical support for 14 regional production centers… how important is it to stay on the cutting edge of technology in television?

RF: Staying current with technology, not just television technology, is essential. The media and entertainment business is being heavily impacted by consumer adoption of broadband connected electronic devices and new distribution methods utilizing the Internet. To succeed in the future, broadcasters and media studios must adopt internet technologies and computer science techniques to successfully compete. For example, to better understand what consumers like or want, we are now using big data technologies, analytics and AI (artificial intelligence) to better understand our audiences. We are investigating block chain techniques for use in tracking information about content creation and for our advertising sales and rights. We are also currently developing applications that leverage machine learning and AI to help discover and monetize content that we own.

To succeed in the future, broadcasters and media studios must adopt internet technologies and computer science techniques to successfully compete.
– Richard Friedel

Richard, What’s the most exciting part of your job at Fox?

RF: This may sound like a cliché, but, it is trying to understand what the future of television and broadcasting is as our business is being disrupted by both societal and technological changes. What could be more exciting than to help figure out how our society will all be educated, informed and entertained in the future? And how Fox will be a major part of that.

Robert, What’s the most exciting part of your job at CBS?

RS: As a toolmaker for the entertainment industry, I get to design and evaluate new technologies that enhance the story telling process for the creative community. We work with all divisions including CBS News, Sports, and Entertainment, helping to design, build, test and rollout new technologies into the production and distribution process. An example of a recent project is our Over-the-Top (OTT) Internet service, CBS ALL ACCESS, which provides access to the live-linear local station’s over-the-air signal, as well as thousands of episodes of CBS programming, on mobile phones, tablets, PCs, other streaming devices.

“With digital TV, we’re selling the value of being involved with a new technology,” says CBS’ Robert Seidel. The 1998 Winter Olympics were broadcast in HDTV.

What advice can you share for the next generation of network engineering executives?

RS: In addition to your engineering major, I would take a variety of economics and accounting courses. Join industry professional groups as a student member, such as Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) or IEEE. These will provide great networking opportunities.

RF: I think this advice applies to much of life. First, find a field that truly interests you. Second, be and stay curious about technology, the business and how society reacts to changes in both. Third, always strive to be the best. And, always help others along the way. These traits will help you throughout your career.

Finally, I would add that I have always believed that luck comes to those who are prepared. I’d suggest being active in at least one or two professional societies or trade associations that create standards and support industry endeavors. The fellow engineers you meet will help you stay on top of technology, develop networking skills and challenge you to work with them to invent the future of your business.

Robert Seidel and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, at the top of the Empire State Building, the home of the first HDTV station in New York City. Walden is a former radio station owner and chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee.