After 40 Years, Davis Still Loves Learning

Steve Davis, EVP and chief technology officer at Crawford Media Services in Atlanta, will wrap up a 40-year career in the media and entertainment industry next month. During that time, he’s seen lots of technical advancements and has gained some interesting insights on their impact on storytelling for television. As he prepares to leave, Davis reflects on the important technological changes he has witnessed and the need to pursue a career in this industry with a burning desire to learn.

Last week, an email landed in my inbox from Steve Davis, EVP and chief technology officer at Crawford Media Services in Atlanta, with a simple subject line: “Happy Trails.”

Davis, who has spent 40 years in the audio, television, post, satellite and digital media management industry was announcing his retirement.

While many of his clients and colleagues at Crawford and throughout the industry undoubtedly will be sad to see Davis retire, his impending departure on Feb. 1 creates an opportunity for the industry to see a slice of itself through the eyes of someone who has played a critical technology role at a major post-production and media management facility.

To put Davis’ career into perspective from the point of view of time and technology, he started in media four years before Quantel unveiled its Paintbox, and one year after Ampex and Sony introduced 1-inch Type C videotape recorders.

In this interview, Davis discusses the significant technology changes he’s witnessed, the impact of technology on TV storytelling, how he landed in television, his involvement with two Geraldo Rivera productions that left him in stitches, how he kept pace with the rapid onslaught of technological change and the likely origin of the CTOs of tomorrow.

An edited transcript:


Is television storytelling better now thanks to the innumerable tech advancements you’ve seen during your career, or has it simply been a matter of improving the process of storytelling and the quality of the images and sound?

There is no question technology is enhancing storytelling. But I see it as two parallel paths, the aesthetic and the technical path being kind of parallel.

I think storytelling has evolved because the viewers have become more sophisticated over time.

As the sensitivities of the audience have evolved over time, I think the scripts are more subtle and the stories are grittier and more realistic.

Technologically, so many things have happened. Chips have become more sensitive with the ability to shoot in low light and still have very atmospheric scenes without having to cart in a lot of lighting.

The ways to mic things, to get very soft, pick up subtle dialog. I find the acting is much more understated these days than it used to be because of that sensitivity.

Cameras are smaller and lighter, and there is the ability to have a lot of angles at once without a lot of expense formerly required.

Then you have things like drones, of course. I am seeing just amazing establishing shots on TV where the camera moves up through craggy rocks on a seashore and other types of shots that could never be done with a helicopter or a crane.

When you look back over your time in the industry what do you think have been the most significant tech advancements?

To me the technological changes have been tectonic, and by that I don’t mean they have been slow, but rather massive in their impact.

When I started, everything was analog. There was no good way to synchronize anything. Timecode was just being invented.

So the first major technology change was this ability to synchronize picture and sound and synchronize multiple transports for layering effects and also editorial. I guess you could call it computer control of decks.

Then digital came along. The big thing about digital was you no longer had generational loss.

When everything was analog, a lot of effort went into avoiding adding generations as you edited, composited and added supers and made distribution copies. Every time you brought it down a generation, there was a notable quality decrease.

The impact of going digital was the ability to do much richer layering and so forth.

Then of course, things went to file-based random-access digital, not just a digital recording, which created a couple of advantages in editing. First, you weren’t constantly winding reels back to the content you wanted and waiting for that to happen. Literally, millions of dollars were spent as reels rolled around in edit suites. People were paying for that time.

Second, it meant you could change your mind, go back anywhere in an edit and change something without having to redo all the subsequent work.

And there are more subtle things like storage began to get faster and less expensive. Computations became more powerful and less expensive. Together that meant digital effects, CGI and all those kinds of things became more sophisticated.

I guess I should point out that as things have gone file-based, we’ve gone away from not only linear media, like tape to files, but the transport infrastructure has gone from SDI- to IP-based networks. That’s been a huge, huge shift.

What attracted you to television in the first place?

I think like a lot of people, I sort of stumbled into it. I was an audio engineer doing radio commercials and jingles during the day and music at night.

I was recruited from an audio studio in Atlanta called Doppler. They closed their doors recently, but they were one of the more venerated music studios in Atlanta.

I was an engineer at Doppler and was recruited away to Crawford in 1985.

As a post house, audio is a big part of what Crawford does, and I came in as the senior audio engineer. Then I started managing audio and from there grew into managing post.

I was in such a rich television environment at Crawford that I sort of got it through osmosis, and it became part of the gestalt of what I was doing in my job. So I became a TV person.

What was your education when you began your career, and how have you kept up with the constant changes in technology?

My initial education? You’ll probably think this is comical, but I have a major in anthropology and a minor in art history. I have no formal technical training.

However, I have been a music junkie from the time I was very young. I subscribed to Downbeat magazine when I was a teen-ager. And I would go to downtown Atlanta when I was 12 years old to the record shops.

Once I got a stereo, I listened incessantly. So music was a really big thing to me. And if you were a music fan, high-fidelity became a really big part of your life. It was the ’60s.

So as I emerged from college, I just wanted to see if I could do something in the music industry. I was a pretty good musician, but not good enough to be a professional musician.

I was enamored with the technical side of sound in general. While I was at Florida State University studying cinematography in 1971, there was an electronic music course.

I thought, “Wow, they have a Moog music synthesizer.” At that time, it as a really exotic piece of equipment — one of the early ones with giant suitcase modules with big bakelite knobs and quarter-inch patch cords and voltage-control oscillators.

The instructor said, “Before you touch that synthesizer, you need to understand the constituents of sound.”

He showed us different waveforms on an oscilloscope, how they sounded, how, if you filtered out the harmonics, you got sinewaves. I became fascinated by sound.

There really weren’t recording schools in those days like there are now. So, I bought a book about Ham radio. That was the only book I could find easily. It had hardly anything about audio, but I did learn basic audio electronics from it.

Then I bought another book called Modern Recording Techniques by Robert Runstein. And it actually had how to be an audio engineer. It discussed what compressors do, and gain staging and so forth.

I read that book many times. That is sort of what made me able to walk around and act like an engineer.  But I hadn’t had any formal training.

Eventually, I went up to a film shoot in Raleigh, N.C., and talked to them about a grip job. They told me that although they were looking for a grip, they really needed an audio engineer. I said, “I’m your man.”

That was 1977 and how I racked up my 40 years in the industry. That is when I became a full-time audio engineer working at that studio.

For several years I just learned on the job. Practiced the craft, learned from other engineers around me and just practice, practice, practice. That is where I got basic technique.

Honestly, as the years go by, you just get good at learning, and you get it from everywhere you can get it. There really weren’t formal channels.

You sort of learn how to learn, and figure out gear and how to use it. It’s kind of organic. The important thing is to have an appetite for learning, having the desire and the energy to seek out the knowledge and absorb it.

Are there a couple of stories or incidents that will stick with you from your career as you retire?

One is the famous Geraldo Rivera program where he opened Al Capone’s vault.

We produced that out of Crawford. I guess the vault itself was in Chicago. We built all of the features out of Crawford in Atlanta, and we did a live connect and uplinked it out of Crawford.

There was the climax of the show where they finally opened the vault, and there was nothing in it.

Another time, we did a show with Geraldo Rivera on the drug problem in America. Our art director made this incredible American flag out of pills and white powder on a plate of glass.

We were taping the opening of show in the afternoon before it went on-air that night. The idea was to shoot it with a shotgun and just blow it up for a really dramatic opening.

But they had the shotgun at too much of an angle, and when it went Pow!, it just smeared the pills, and the glass didn’t break at all. And these guys had to scramble and rebuild the American flag just in time for air and make sure their aim was a little better the next time.

What was the reaction of those in the control room to the vault being empty?

We all laughed hysterically, and the same thing for the flag incident. When that just smeared across the glass, I laughed uncontrollably. I felt bad for the guy, but it was just so funny. It was supposed to be such a dramatic effect. But when it just went poof, it was comical.

So everyone normally just had a good laugh at these sorts of things, as long as we didn’t misroute something or blow something technically. We would not laugh about that.

But when something content-wise went sideways, we didn’t really try to hide it. We’d laugh, sometimes uncontrollably.

Is most post, playout and even master control headed to the cloud — whether private or public?

I think they probably are. You know, it used to be a switcher, DVE or an audio console was a very proprietary piece of iron.

Now that the actual infrastructure is generic, it’s a certain amount of computations, a certain amount of storage and a certain amount of connectivity. You can kind of order it up proportionately.

Cloud providers just have the ability to scale, scale, scale, and the users can plug into that infrastructure whatever specific software they need.

In post, the scheme is you have a good quality proxy locally and you’re synchronizing and sending instructions into the cloud. As long as you do it that way, you leverage the ability to have plenty of storage and computation in the cloud without impeding what you have locally.

Doesn’t this ultimately mean post companies and TV broadcasters in many instances can seek out the best talent for a particular job function, such as an editor, and not worry about that person coming into Crawford or a TV station?

I agree, it decentralizes things. But there is more to it than that.

On one hand, it lowers the barrier to entry for people, which means a lot of talented people can break into the industry because they don’t have to get one of the few cherished positions that once existed in a place that had made a big capital investment in the technology required. This makes it possible for a lot more people to enter the field.

On the other hand, I do think it dilutes the field with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily as talented and don’t have to overcome those barriers to earn their way into the industry.

And I can tell you from working in facilities for so many years that there is a combined learning that goes on, a collaboration of people. One person is really smart and one thing, and another at another thing. The osmosis that happens there is a beneficial thing that is being lost.

Where will the CTOs of the future come from in broadcast and post?

I guess some of them are going to come out of schools — sort of vocational schools.

Or, they are going to have a formal education in one or the other [the IT industry or full production-quality video], and have an aptitude for the one they didn’t get the formal education in and kind of fill it in.

A CTO in the media industry today has to be a hybrid person. A typical CIO just won’t get it done. They don’t have nearly enough understanding about the peculiarities of rich media.

And those with a web background really don’t either. They say they know video. But what they really know is proxy video.

Do you have any parting thoughts?

For people who have a real appetite to learn and never be bored, I think ours is an incredible industry. People are so smart and work so hard. They just dive in. I think it has just been a tremendous industry to be in.

I feel very grateful that I stumbled into it all those years ago. It’s been a great experience for me.

To stay up to date on all things tech, follow Phil Kurz on TVNewsCheck’s Playout tech blog here. And follow him on Twitter: @TVplayout.

Comments (1)

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Wolfgang Paul says:

January 27, 2017 at 11:14 am

Great interview, Phil. Best wishes to Steve in all of his future endeavors!