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The First TX Suite I Ever Worked In

Posted 9th October 2014

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Photograph of a TX suite

Well, not really worked in. More worked by. First in a room next door, transferring material from tape to playout server, and then in the other room next door doing scheduling. But it’s the first TV place I went to where I actually got paid money for being there… so it has a special place in my heart. I don’t wish to romanticise too much, but I always got a little thrill as I walked through the room and saw that bank of monitors.

The above picture was taken in 2009. Nowadays, even the cheapest TX suite will have displays consisting of large flatscreen panels. But this was the tail end of an old unit’s life, so a bunch of CRT monitors it was. Which kept dying… and by the end, replacements were difficult to source. (They also cost an bloody fortune in electricity to run.)

As I said, my first actual job in television wasn’t as a TX op, sitting in front of that bank of monitors playing out the channels. No, it was in a tiny room next door to it, with a bank of VTRs, doing ingest. My job was to get in at stupid o’clock every morning, see what material was missing which needed to be played out, go downstairs to the library to locate the tapes (a difficult job in itself if somebody had put a tape in the wrong place – especially if that somebody was me), struggle back upstairs with huge boxes of tapes, and spend the day sticking them in VTRs.

Sounds simple… and for most ingest operators, it is. Not here. For a start, there was no archive. The idea of an archive is simple: a playout server isn’t big enough to hold all the material you’ll ever need – they can generally do a few days at best, sometimes less. An archive solves this problem: anything you ingest goes to a big central storage unit. Then, whenever the material is required for playout again, the playout server automatically requests the material from the archive, so you don’t have to go hunting for the tape and ingest it again.

As there was no archive in this suite, you’d spend your days – 12 hour days – ingesting the same material and the same tapes, over and over and over again. Much as I loved telly and was proud to get a job in it, however entry-level… it still drove you slightly batty. Also, it meant you had to plan your day extremely carefully to get the job done – every second counted, as there was just so much material to get from tape to server. You’d have to manually split up the work between four different VTRs. (Generally, you’d have two VTRs doing longer material which you’d leave to run, and two doing shorter pieces that you’d frantically be swapping tapes with. And, of course, you’d try and time lunch so you’d go away for an hour and leave all four VTRs ingesting Very Long Films.)

The other issue with doing ingest in this suite is that… well, let’s just say that these channels were “high up on the EPG”. When you’re dealing with a big or medium-sized channel, you can expect a certain level of quality when it comes to technical standards of the material. Here, you also expected a certain level of quality… it’s just that that level was extremely low. Some of the material was entirely unbroadcastable… but we broadcast it anyway.

The best thing? Audio levels wildly changing between different segments on the same tape. When you first put a tape in, you’d change the audio levels on the VTR so they were correct. (My first experience of a PPM meter.) It was most upsetting during a bunch of music videos on the same tape to suddenly have the audio levels peak out of nowhere and ruin the ingest. Even worse was some of the films we had to ingest – films where the concept of a boom mic had clearly passed them by. Yes, they actually used the internal microphone of the camera. Which meant you got scenes where the wide shots were too quiet, AND THEN IT WOULD CUT TO A CLOSE UP AND EVERYBODY WOULD BE VERY VERY VERY LOUD. Yes, seriously. You’d sometimes end up riding the audio levels manually, doing multiple VTRs at a time.

Working on those kind of channels was an experience and a half. I distinctly remember one day a channel’s off-air return feed entirely changed without warning – what we were sending out from the building and what was returning via satellite was entirely different. The channel had completely changed playout companies and switched the feed upstream without telling us. I mean, that stuff just doesn’t happen with… normal channels.

Not that the channels were the only problem. One TX op I worked with was worried about having to look at the feeds of one of the adult chat channels during their fasting – they were worried about temptation and naughty thoughts. So they took some rice paper and taped it to the monitor. That way, they could still see if there was movement, so he’d know if the channel was off air – but they wouldn’t have to watch the source of their temptation. I could never decide whether that was ingenious or ludicrously unprofessional. Probably both.

As I said, the suite was on its last legs – and two years later, I got to see the suite decommissioned. Long past its time, frankly. But it still made me sad to see everything being ripped out. Replaced – in a different building – with brand new technology1, and with the aforementioned sexy flatscreens.

The same suite, in process of being decommissioned

Rickety, old, and on a scruffy industrial estate in North London, that suite is a long way from the kind of thing I do now. But some things don’t change. Whatever the TX suite, whatever the production gallery – when I glance at the wall, I still get a certain thrill.

  1. Of course, the brand new technology had its fair share of… problems. But if there’s one thing that’s a constant, it’s that a TX op is never happy with their automation. 

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