Mixed signals

Kentucky Fried NewscastNothing quite so Earth-shatteringly serious today – but it is another tale from my extremely weird career in the broadcast biz. This has been nearly 20 years ago, so it took place in a very analog world which will doubtlessly require some explanation.

I chuckled heartily over the weekend at this news item, which tells us that:

Viewers watching a TV station in Hamilton, Ont., Friday morning noticed the newscasters onscreen were wearing less clothing than normal.

At 9:30 a.m., the CHCH broadcast was replaced with a few minutes of hardcore gay pornography instead of the news, prompting outrage from many viewers and a slew of apologies from the station.

“It felt like an eternity but I think it was on there for about a minute,” said Mike Katrycz, the vice-president of news at CHCH.

“We discovered through quick investigation that it was not (our station), it was one of the cable companies that had patched it. There was nothing wrong with the transmission from (us) … it was a problem at one of the cable companies that was beyond our control.”

Rrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Of course. Also, pixies, elves and unicorns that float through the air on freshly-farted clouds of magical rainbow fairy powder were at fault for what was undoubtedly some very hard news.

I wound up being the assistant ops manager at the first TV station where I worked. Basically, if anything went wrong, the blame would hit me – as being one of the people responsible for training – en route to the fan (i.e. my immediate superior). Because, y’know, I didn’t have my hands full already running my own control board shifts using gear that was already woefully outdated for the early ’90s.

Among that gear was a pair of consumer-grade satellite dishes. Broadcast satellite gear was more robust, as its makers anticipated and envisioned scenarios where one might want the dish to maintain its position and grab clear signal in situations even while the wind was howling outside. Our dishes, on the other hand, were garden-variety “earth stations” planted on top of the building, and our receivers were very low-end: if you changed the dish that was on air, everyone would see exactly which coordinates you were punching in.

It was a well known “secret,” and I use that term loosely, handed down from male employee to male employee, that one of the dishes could be parked just slightly off from one satellite (i.e. not perfectly tuned in), and one could just about see porn. Yay? Because catching a fleeting glimpse of tits in a picture that had no vertical hold, no horizontal hold, no color lock and abundant interference was the turn-on of the year. I didn’t exactly make a point of including this “procedure” when I was training folks, but we had a helpful (again: term used loosely) engineer who was a total perv who would spread the knowledge around. Again: yay?

I took my job as “assistant ops manager” a bit too seriously. I had a dilapidated B&W TV at home, normally used to hook up to old video games and not even possessing a working speaker, which I left on, and tuned into the station, all the time. I could glance across the OUT OF ORDERroom and immediately ascertain what the problem was (or at least I think that was the idea) if someone called me from work and needed help.

One morning I staggered out of my bedroom and started getting dressed for my early morning shift. As usual, I’d be taking over from “Rush” this morning. Rush wasn’t the guy’s real name, but it’s what we called him because he thought one Mr. Limbaugh spoke Gospel Truth. I can only imagine this fellow’s closet is now well-stocked with “WHERE’S TEH BIRTH CERTIFICATE?” T-shirts as he tries to lay low and avoid all the death panels out there. Rush was the latest in a very, very long line of overnight board ops at the station, a position that was incredibly hard to fill because that shift, more than any other, was responsible for vast amounts of stuff – “building” the shows on tape (don’t ask), catching satellite feeds of shows for the coming week, checking and labeling giant 3/4″ videotapes, and keeping his eye on the road for his own board shift, all completely independently. It was a tough slot to fill because the combination of “likes to stay up all night” and “has even the slightest iota of responsibility and initiative” was a rare and precious alignment of the planets. Rush was one of the few that stuck. He wasn’t running a perfect board shift consistently, but he was close enough for jazz, and I liked not working double shifts.

This was a Fox station, and as always, Fox isn’t a real network: they only programmed a couple of hours a night, a couple of hours of cartoons (including a bizarre new show called Power Rangers – what the hell was all that about?) in the morning, and that was about it. We had to provide the rest. Two things created the 1990s syndication boom: Fox stations, and Star Trek: The Next Generation actually finding a niche. But in the overnights, our station, usually at about 1 or 2 in the morning, went to Home Shopping Channel and stayed there until 6 in the morning, at which time we’d run an hour-long church show and then segue gracefully into Power Rangers. (Hey, they were equally violent.) This made the overnight board op’s job even more challenging, because all satellite feeds had to be caught on a single dish, because the other dish and receiver were tied down to Home Shopping.

Rush was notorious for missing the morning prefeed of Fox cartoons for some reason, but considering the five-car pile-up that trying to catch all of those feeds, on different satellites, with a single dish, represented, I’d never really gotten on his case about it. That could happen to anybody.

I was trying to ooze into my socks, as it seemed more practical than to actually lift them up to my feet, and glanced over at my B&W TV. That’s when I saw the little black box pop up on the screen over Home Shopping.

T3 —

Oh shit.

DEFCON 1I picked up the phone and dialed the direct line to the control room. It’s entirely possible that I’d begun shouting before Rush even picked up the phone.

“RUSH! YOU’RE CHANGING THE DISH THAT’S ON THE AIR!”

“Huh?”

“YOU’RE CHANGING THE DISH THAT’S ON THE AIR!”

Once I saw the transponder number that followed the shorthand designator for the bird, I also knew exactly what he was changing it to.

“YOU’RE CHANGING THE WRONG DISH! HOME SHOPPING! HOME SHOPPING!”

It’s also entirely possible that my just-woke-up mental state made me incoherent and rambling.

“GO BACK TO HOME SHOPPING! BACK TO HOME SHOPPING!

What?”

Was he even looking at the frakkin’ screens?

“DUDE, YOU’RE ABOUT TO PUT PORN ON THE AIR! YOU CHANGED THE WRONG DISH!

What? …OH SHIT!

I have never seen anyone punch in sat coordinates so fast in my life, not even with computer assistance or complete computer control of the dishes, and I’ve been in the business for over 20 years.

I will further admit that it’s entirely possible that at this point, I was screaming “CHANGE IT BACK, GODDAMMIT! CHANGE IT BACK!” over and over again, which probably had the neighbors wondering and/or calling the cops.

The signal, which had now been showing between-satellite static on air for well over a minute, finally resolved back into Home Shopping.

“Sorry dude.”

“Um… I’ll be there in a few minutes, Rush. Just stay put.”

I didn’t have hiring/firing level responsibility at the time, which was damn lucky for this guy, as I gladly would’ve taken the double shift back at that point.

Amazingly, Rush began to catch the morning prefeed of Fox cartoons almost unerringly, starting the next day. Now that the cause was exposed, the symptom suddenly went away. Astounding, that.

Rush did eventually leave us in a blaze of glory, though. My immediate superior and I tried to get the normally extremely spendthrift management (low-end sat receivers? really!?) to give a round of raises to the control room operators, because we finally had a semi-stable group of reliable folks, incidents of pure stoopid were on the decline, and it was almost beginning to look like something that could be mistaken for a real TV station, if one could just look past that whole business of the light bulb in the break room fridge having a much higher effective radiated power than our actual transmitters. (Once I pointed that out to engineering… man, I missed that fridge light bulb.)

Why didn't I take the blue pill?Rush was going to be getting a raise. He lived in an extremely low rent apartment on a bad side of town, or so he was always telling us, so we figured this’ll be the guy who jumps for joy the most.

Oh no. That was not the case. For this champion of Rush Limbaugh’s every word, railing against the Clinton-era welfare state, blew a freakin’ gasket when we told him he’d be getting more money. Because he would now no longer qualify for government assistance. He quit in very short order. Wow.

Now that I’ve read this item on CHCH, I know where he wound up. 😆

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