Mark Aitken

In 1974 Mark Aitken was working as a draftsman and mechanical detailer for a small company called CCA Electronics. All that changed within a year when a consultant from Comark Industries by the name of Dick Fiore came to CCA with big ideas about designing RF systems for transmitters.

Aitken, who today is director of advanced technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group and chair of specialist group TSG/S4 to establish standards for mobile and handheld video with the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), jumped at the chance to work with Fiore.

“Being the sort of person I am, I couldn't just sit there drawing pretty pictures—I had to understand why I was doing it,” says Aitken, 52, a recipient of one of this year's Technology Leadership Awards.

Within a year, Aitken stepped out from behind the drafting table. Even though CCA moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey, Aitken stayed behind to work with Fiore, who founded Comark (now part of Thomson) and ignited Aitken's interest in technology.

“My interest was borne out of a 360-degree understanding of technology,” Aitken says. “And I was working with a man willing to share his wealth of knowledge. He said early on that if I learned this technology, I was pretty much assured a lifetime business opportunity,” he says of designing RF systems for transmitters.

Aitken's career got another big boost in the late 1970s when David Smith, currently president of Sinclair, joined Comark, proclaiming that there was big money to be made in building transmitters. Comark began building transmitter systems and installing these at television stations like WBFF Baltimore, owned by Smith's father.

Eventually, Fiore retired, and Smith would take over Sinclair and build it into an empire of 58 stations. Aitken moved over to Sinclair in 1999, and in the last few years he has been overseeing Sinclair's transition to high-def for its 58 stations.

“In 1999 we were beginning our DTV transition and the RF transition, which was a pretty daunting task in 1999,” says Del Parks, VP of engineering and operations at Sinclair. “At the time, Sinclair had 62 stations and we were planning, designing and building out new RF facilities for all those stations. Mark has an extensive background in RF, so he was a very welcome addition to our team.”

At the moment, Aitken's vital work includes working with ATSC to establish a mobile and handheld standard. Many broadcasters think the mobile end of the broadcasting business may be where the digital jackpot is going to be found.

“By now, you pretty much have an industry that has become clearly focused that mobile video is an opportunity they want to be part of,” Aitken says. “From 2000 until now, ATSC has been trying to guide that idea along.”

He says ATSC has made significant headway on developing standards in only a couple of years, including drawing up a broadcasters' requirements document—the first time broadcasters outlined their expectations for mobile handheld—and establishing long-term plans. They hope to have a standard in place by February.

Aitken's group has submitted requests for proposals for mobile and handheld standards, which they're now sifting through. “The committees do the heavy lifting in terms of the technologies and drafting technical documents, in this case the standard,” says Mark Richer, a former colleague of Aitken's from CDS and now president of ATSC.

He says Aitken's sense of humor helps lighten the mood in meetings, which can quickly get bogged down in intense technical discussions.

“Mark believes in broadcasting and the future of terrestrial broadcasting,” Richer says. “He's passionate about it and he's from a company that's passionate about it. But he also has a good perspective because he's been on the equipment-manufacturer side as well as the broadcasting side.”