Some of the reasons why Jeff Birch so richly deserves a 2014 Technology Leadership Award can be found by driving around the streets of New York City, where WCBS has deployed several innovative mobile trucks.
In 2010, WCBS sent out its first Mobile2 van, which can send unique street-level shots back to the studio while the van is moving, and in 2012 it built on that idea to create the Mobile Weather Lab. Working as a kind of weather center on wheels, the mobile van allows the station to report on specific conditions in various parts of the tristate area it covers.
The vans are one example of how Birch and the current generation of senior engineers at major broadcast networks and station groups have helped transform the way broadcasters gather and produce TV news. During decades of work at CBS and NBC, Birch worked on or oversaw projects that helped broadcast operations make the long and difficult transition from analog to digital and from bulky tape-based technologies to much more efficient, streamlined workflows.
“I started out in the days of three-quarter inch tape and worked through all the transitions from analog to digital,” Birch says. “We used to go out in the field with six-foot microwave dishes and now we are shooting with iPhones and sending back video over cellular networks.”
Birch had initially wanted to become a lawyer, but fell in love with broadcasting while working at the radio station at Allegheny College. In 1980, he got his start at WNEW as a maintenance technician and in 1982 joined WCBS. In 1985, he began a 19-year stint at NBC, where he held a series of increasingly senior tech positions, including director of field operations at NBC sports, director of engineering at CNBC and finally director of engineering and operations for the NBC Network. He returned to the CBS stations as the top technologist in 2004.
Over the years, he was particularly active in developing field technologies, beginning with work on mobile units for the 1988 Olympics. “Working in the field was where I really learned television,” he says. “You’re on your own and the show has to go on no matter what you encounter.”
As a tech leader, Birch is praised by colleagues for his collaborative management style. The idea for the mobile trucks, for example, occurred during a brainstorming session with his team in New York and then quickly spread to other CBS owned stations, where a friendly competition emerged on how they could be improved. “Jeff does a terrific job of collaborating with the chief engineers in our group and keeping us ahead of the curve when it comes to finding new ways to innovate and improve the efficiency of our technical operations,” says Peter Dunn, president, CBS Television Stations.
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