October 03

Why the industry needs more broadcast engineers 

An interview I did for the National Film and Television School


Top technologist and former BBC Scotland Head of Technology John Maxwell Hobbs has been appointed to lead the National Film and Television School Production Technology MA. The Masters has been introduced to tackle a shortage of broadcast engineers and fill a looming skills gap in the industry. We asked John about the reasons for the skills gap, technological advances in broadcast engineering and who should apply for the new MA which starts in January 2017.

Why do you think there is a skills gap in broadcast engineering in the television industry?

In the past, most of the training in broadcast engineering was done by the major broadcasters themselves.  Over the years, more and more actual production has been shifted to independent production companies, who work with freelancers, so they don’t have the structure to provide this sort of long term development.

Publicly funded broadcasters have traditionally had significant training programmes and engineers who were educated by them regularly made their way into the commercial world.  With the significant budget cuts now being imposed on these public organisations, they can no longer afford to do this sort of training, and the commercial broadcasters don’t have the resources to take up the slack.  Our new Masters programme is intended to fill this gap.

What kinds of technological advances do you foresee in broadcast engineering?

We’re seeing the merging of the worlds of broadcasting and IT. More and more functions are migrating from dedicated hardware to being software-based, and we’re seeing a move from traditional baseband transmission to IP-based approaches.  This is making broadcasting more adaptable and making it possible to capture the world in new ways.

Although the underlying technologies may be changing, it’s still important for broadcast engineers to be sensitive to the needs of production, and to have an appreciation of the unique qualities of the industry.

How has the broadcast engineering role evolved and how does the engineer interact with the creatives (director, producer, writer etc.)?

First off, it’s time to drop the word, “creatives.”  Everyone involved in production from the engineers to the actors are, “creatives.” For a long time, broadcast engineers were viewed simply as the boffins who configured the kit and then repaired it when it came back smashed to pieces. We’re now moving into a world where close interaction between engineers and production is imperative. A camera may look pretty much the same as it always has, but it’s a totally different creature now – it’s now a complex computer with a lens. We are moving into a model is much like music production has been for years – in that world, engineers are viewed as the people who help the musicians and producers realise their aesthetic vision.

Which undergraduate degrees/ studies are suitable for applicants to the NFTS Production Technology MA?

Almost any background is suitable as long as you have a keen interest in the intersection of technology and creativity.  Of course, a background in computer science or electrical engineering are always useful, but I’ve known excellent broadcast engineers with backgrounds in philosophy and music.

How can you stand out from the crowd when applying to study Production Technology at the NFTS?

We’d love to see people with a true interest in making things and delivering things.  Production is a high pressure, real-time environment. If a show is scheduled to go out at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, that’s when it goes out. And then you go on to the next one.  There are no “shipping delays” in broadcasting.

How do I apply?

Applications are open until October 31st 2016 and the course starts in January 2017. Please visit https://nfts.co.uk/our-courses/masters/production-technology to apply.