As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from Rafik “Rafi” Atassi, an Engineering Technician at Detroit Public Television and an In-House Production Enginner for Olympia Entertainment. Rafi has over 18 years of broadcast experience in television and worked for several years for as a Senior Production/Studio Engineer at MBC Group/Al Arabiya in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Joshua: Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Rafi. First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?
Rafi: I am from Syria, my hometown is Homs. All my training I got at the MBC headquarters (Middle East Broadcasting Center) in Dubai, UAE.
Joshua: How long have you been working in media production field generally, and in broadcast television in particular? And where have you worked in the field?
Rafi: I have been working in media production since 1999. In 2002, MBC moved from London to Dubai and I joined them in February 2002. Mainly I was based in Dubai, but I have been in all GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, as well as Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
Joshua: What sparked your interest in this field?
Rafi: I was 16 years old and a cousin of mine took me with him to videotape a wedding party - it was a magic world! It was all old VHS gear and I was lucky to be involved in all the steps from filming the party until we handed it over to the bride.
Joshua: What’s different about working in broadcast television in the United States as compared to working in broadcast television in the Middle East? And what are the similarities? Feel free to talk about any aspect: differences or similarities in technology, business, content, etc.
Rafi: There are many differences:
- In the USA, even small cities have their own TV stations. But in most Middle Eastern countries there was only the government-owned TV channel, and the government controlled the content. Then when satellite service was introduced to the region in the 1990s (ARABSAT, NILESAT), a few investors started to broadcast their own channel from Italy (at that time, there were no licenses for privately-owned TV stations in all the Arab world) but the production was done in Lebanon and Egypt. MBC was broadcasting from London from 1991 to 2002 until Dubai Media City, a regional tax-free zone and broadcasting infrastructure hub, was established. So, the big Arabic-language broadcasters all moved to Dubai and then a broadcasting boom started.
- The budget for broadcasting in the Middle East is much higher in general.
- The technology for broadcasting in the Middle East is very advanced, and in general the technology there is more advanced than broadcast technology in the US. Even in the best-case scenario, it is the same.
Joshua: You seem to have a lot of experience with computer-generated, “virtual” television sets at Al Arabiya. The use of virtual sets does not appear to have been fully embraced by American network television to the same extent. What are your thoughts on this?
Rafi: At Al Arabiya, they use VIZ RT http://www.vizrt.com/ and they have a very talented team. To host such a team costs you a lot. As I mentioned above, the budget is the main factor, and small news operations can’t host VIZ because it is very costly. It isn't a standalone character generator: you need to buy many supercomputers along with many applications and the license. So, it is very expensive compared to any character generator. Any local station in the US that is affiliated with a big network (ABC, NBC, FOX, etc.) that wants to have access to VIZ technology would need to contact the network HQ to get a template. Check out Al Arabiya’s Augmented Reality Set for 2016 US Presidential Election - https://www.facebook.com/vizrt/videos/1354769227906739/
Joshua: When did you come to the United States, and why?
Rafi: I landed in Detroit in 2015. What is happening now in Syria had an indirect effect on my life: in 2011 during the peaceful revolution against the Syrian dictatorship, I was working at the news channel that was covering the campaign. During the peaceful protests in my hometown of Homs, I was the link between the protesters and the news channel uploading the videos of the protests. To this day, the Syrian regime considers me as a traitor.
Joshua: Advancements in technology seem to be changing operations in broadcast television, with many functions increasingly computerized and automated. How do you view these changes, and what’s your opinion on this?
Rafi: Everything now is either automated or it will be soon. They don’t need production engineers anymore, they need more IT staff. YouTube, Facebook, TV over IP (streaming), or any other IP-based platforms are getting more and more market share from the huge networks. We are at the end of the era of television as we have known it. We must be prepared for this change with scientific and academic readiness.
Joshua: Do you have any advice for aspiring broadcast professionals about how to break into the television production industry?
Rafi: Be patient! In the TV production dictionary, there is no "IT IS NOT MY JOB". Everything can be your job. It is very possible for a bad audio cable or bad BNC connector to give a bad result.