Behind the Wheel
Butler steers PBS's DTV agenda
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/28/2004 7:00:00 PM
PBS owes General Motors—big time. When it made the transition to HDTV, it tapped Jerry Butler. But Butler, PBS's technical point man, was available because GM had rejected him from its engineering program years earlier. With more than 230 stations on air in high def, the network has GM's indifference to thank. Its loss is PBS's gain.
When Butler, PBS's senior director/program manager, Interconnection Replacement Office, graduated from high school, cars were his passion. He wanted to be an automotive engineer, so he applied to a GM program. The problem was getting in. It depended as much on whom you knew, as what you knew. Butler didn't know the right people, and GM turned him down.
So he took an alternate route, running an automotive diagnostic center. But he was still in search of an engineering career. Then destiny drove on the lot. A discussion with a fellow Corvette Club member led him to a new field: TV broadcast engineering. "I signed up for a broadcast engineering course at Northern Virginia community college," says Butler. "Most of the TV courses at other schools were production-related."
He studied broadcast engineering, a learning experience that continues to this day, he says. Before completing the two-year program, Butler left for a job at WETA Washington, a PBS station. "I started at the bottom," he recalls. "I was a camera operator on the McNeil/ Lehrer News Hour and other programs like Washington Week in Review."
Unfortunately, he was on the production side. He longed to work as an engineer. So after a few years, he went to his boss and asked for a transfer—to engineering. The request was granted, and Butler was on his way. "I spent a lot of time working on system-integration projects, like building editing rooms and so forth," he says. "In the time I was there, we rebuilt WETA twice."
Those projects led Butler to his next career step, a management post heading important projects, such as WETA's transition to DTV broadcasting. The station was the third in the nation to broadcast HDTV signals and also offered a standard-definition multicast.
In addition to working as the director of engineering and operations, he was on the frontlines of another industry trend: the marriage of IT and traditional broadcast engineering. With the station beginning to use video servers, it was imperative that the IT head and the engineering head work closely together. At first, though, Butler met with resistance.
"I told them they weren't competing and they needed to collaborate because the technologies were converging," he says. "We weren't trying to usurp job functions." Navigating such tricky emotional terrain helped Butler enhance his people skills, an important adjunct to his engineering prowess.
"I learned a lot about people during the system-integration projects," he says. "Engineering is all about putting things together in a way that makes sense. But once the operators arrive, things like ergonomics and user-friendliness become important. Sound engineering practice isn't enough."
In 1998, after six years in the director's chair, he moved to PBS. At first, his job involved investigating new technologies, but when the executive director of a PBS-guided HDTV educational initiative stepped down, Butler had a new gig.
For the next 18 months, he crisscrossed the country in the DTV Express bus, a mobile educational facility that demonstrated HDTV and DTV services to communities that otherwise would not have experienced the service.
Since then, he has been hard at work on the rollout. "We've made good progress," he says, "and it's been a big challenge." With an estimated 120 stations to get on air, he still has his work cut out for him.
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