As part of an ongoing series of Q&A interviews with TV & video production professionals, we’ll hear from Tom Watch, an Engineering Technician and Master Control Operator at Detroit Public Television. Tom has over 35 years of broadcast experience in radio and public television.
Q: Thanks for taking time out to participate in this Q&A, Tom. First question: where are you from originally, and where did you receive your training?
A: I am from Royal Oak, Michigan. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Broadcasting from Eastern Michigan University in 1978.
Q: How long have you been working in the media production generally, and in broadcast television in particular?
A: My first job was in radio, from summer 1978 to mid-1980. I started at WTVS, Detroit Public Television, in Sept. 1981 and have been there ever since.
Q: What sparked your interest in this field?
A: My interests were in media and writing. Learning the technical aspects of broadcasting led me toward an engineering job as at that time they were far more lucrative and stable than a producer or writer position. Master Control Operator was one of the first television jobs I had, since my previous experience was running a board for a radio station.
Q: Describe the responsibilities of a Master Control Operator at a television station, both historically and currently.
A: Master Control Operators historically were responsible for the “last link in the chain”: the last finger to touch the button before a program hits air. MCR also monitored the transmitter signal, recorded programs, kept logs. At my station now, there are no longer regular MCR operators except during live studio programming. An MCR operator makes sure programming is on the air; our programming is on server whereas before it was on tape, but there may still be stations that use tape formats. Our station is now controlled from a hub station in Boston, but we are able to make changes at our end if necessary. In the past, programs were recorded on tape formats but now they are sent from a "cloud" directly to our database. Our maintenance techs and programming department take of master control now.
Q: Describe the relationship between Master Control and the Control Room during live in-studio broadcasts.
A: The MCR operator gives control to the studio by taking to their position on the board (or in our case, when the computer program takes to studio). The operator counts studio down via intercom and they take it from there. Usually the studio counts out of the program; MCR has flexibility to take control back if studio is too early or too late.
Q: I imagine that there’s quite a bit of pressure that comes with being the “last link in the chain” before broadcast content is transmitted to audiences. How do you handle it?
A: Stay ahead of the game and know what options you have if something goes wrong.
Q: Advancements in technology seem to be changing operations in Master Control, with many functions increasingly computerized and automated. How do you view these changes, and what’s your opinion on this?
A: I think it is a shame that jobs have disappeared. There is still a need for a human in the loop but not all the time.
Q: Do you forsee a day when Master Control will be fully automated 24 hours a day, with no need for a human operator? Or will there always be a need for the human element in Master Control operations?
A: Technology always displaces workers. In the future, TV will likely be all streaming and not need very many workers.
Q: Any tips for aspiring television professionals looking to break into the industry?
A: Know all you can about the technical side but aim for being a producer/writer. Producers can and are using equipment now instead of technicians. TV is getting to the point where you can shoot and edit in virtually broadcast quality video uaing a cell phone. There will not be full-time jobs with benefits in this industry. Be creative, get your ideas out there and become a producer or programmer.
Q: Thanks, Tom!