As the man responsible for keeping the CBS network on the air, Bob Ross draws on experience that bridges the vendor, local station and network engineering communities and spans the technical curve from film-based news cameras to today's multi-platform, file-based world.
Ross, 57, is senior VP of East Coast operations and the network's top East Coast engineer. He runs the CBS Broadcast Center and supports a diverse range of clients, including the network's sports, news, studio and station divisions.
One of Ross' key skills is making technology understandable for non-engineering types, says Bruce Taub, executive VP of operations and CFO for the CBS Television Network, and Ross' boss. Taub has worked with Ross on various large engineering endeavors over the past decade. They include the network's gradual conversion to high-definition television production and distribution, which began in 1998 and was completed last summer with the switch to an all-HD satellite distribution system. And as Ross joins the 2009 class of the B&C Hall of Fame, CBS executives are collaborating on the switchover from an aging tape-based playout infrastructure to the new server-based Media Distribution Center, a project that began in early 2007 and should be complete by year-end.
“Bob's an incredible individual to work with,” Taub says. “He's passionate, he's a workaholic, and he's easily accessible. Most important is the time and effort he's devoted to explaining the technology, helping one understand it in a very meaningful, substantive way, and circumventing all the tech talk.”
A New Hampshire native, Ross was only 10 when he first tried to take his father's television apart. That early enthusiasm for gadgets got him interested in a career in TV or radio. So he studied industrial electronics at Southern Maine Technical College and took a part-time job fixing televisions at a local Sears repair shop. There he met Ernie Hartt, a studio supervisor at WCSH Portland, who would give him his first broadcast job in 1973,working in operations and maintenance.
In 1974, Ross was recommended for a field job with then-broadcast-equipment giant RCA, traveling to stations nationwide and overseas to install and test film telecines, studio cameras and quad videotape machines. Flying 300,000 miles in three years, he gained a wealth of experience (including working the 1976 Winter and Summer Olympics) and hundreds of broadcast contacts.
Ross met his wife during his RCA tenure; that led him to look for a less mobile position. In 1977, he took a job at WBZ, the Group W station and NBC affiliate in Boston, which was in the midst of a major reconstruction project. After five years, he moved on to WJZ Baltimore, where he assembled Group W's first combined operations and engineering unit. In 1990, he moved to KYW Philadelphia to set up a similar system there.
Moving from the vendor side to the station side required a shift in mindset, but Ross quickly adapted. “At RCA, I was like the hit man that came in and got one specific piece of equipment working and online; then I would go off and be the hit man for someone else,” he says. “At the station, you had to take a project from conception all the way to complete usage, and I moved from doing one part of an upgrade to now working the whole upgrade.”
Ross rose to VP of engineering for Group W's five-station group in 1994, and became VP of operations and engineering for CBS Television Stations after the Westinghouse/CBS merger in 1995. One of his biggest accomplishments there was developing a proprietary automation system for the CBS-owned stations that is still used today.
He initially got involved in DTV standards-setting at Group W; Ross expanded that work at CBS Television Stations by overseeing DTV-tower upgrades and choosing HDTV transmission gear, including working with the CBS laboratory to test that new DTV gear met the ATSC standard. In spring 1998, he was promoted to a network job as VP of operations and engineering for CBS's News Production Systems, taking responsibility for supporting CBS News videotape operations, hard-news center operations, traffic, graphics, studio operations and project engineering.
Ross was rewarded for his versatility by being promoted to his current spot in September 1998. He has overseen conversion of CBS's production and distribution to digital technology; helped plan the launch of the country's first DTV station at CBS affiliate WRAL Raleigh as well as the launch of WCBS New York's first low-power DTV transmitter; and drafted plans for station overhauls at WBBM Chicago and KCBS/KCAL Los Angeles.
Ross's current big project is the creation of the Media Distribution Center, a 32,000-square-foot facility that will handle program playout for the East Coast, West Coast and regional-network feeds. It will link, via fiber and satellite, to CBS Television City in Los Angeles, as well as the network's live-news and sports operations in New York, and help deliver content to new digital platforms such as video-on-demand, broadband and mobile.
Thomas Schnecke, VP of operations and engineering for WBBM, recalls that when he was being recruited from NBC-owned WMAQ to WBBM in 2003, the last step in the interview process was meeting Ross at the NAB show. The two hit it off, and Schnecke worked hand-in-hand with Ross and CBS network engineers Bob Seidel and Greg Coppa on the construction of a completely new digital facility in Chicago. Schnecke remembers being initially impressed by a technology-focused e-mail queue Ross managed that not only included top managers and engineers from the CBS stations, but also engineers from the Broadcast Center, CBS Television City and Late Night With David Letterman.
“He really pushes collaboration,” Schnecke says. “While the groups may be separate, in engineering it feels like we're all one.”—Glen Dickson