Sunday, September 11, 2011

Producing the Evening News is less than 1 percent as Difficult as Landing a Man on the Moon

Last night I was watching a documentary on how a bunch of MIT scientists created a program in 1960s that would automatically navigate the United States' first Lunar Orbit module.

I was riveted to the TV screen as they recounted details of how difficult it was to create software and then build a computer that could handle it.  The navigational program called Sextant was apparently bigger than what most room sized computers of that day could handle.  The memory of most computers at that time was at around 72kb and it couldn't execute programs bigger than that.

Anyway, it took them years to create a program and a computer that could handle it.  But just when they had figured out how to solve the problem, higher ups in the space program decided that they weren't doing things fast enough and well enough.  Eventually a decision was handed down to demote the Sextant program and make it a back up navigational system.

Instead of using Sextant to guide the lunar module from the time it left the Earth's atmosphere to the time that it re-enters it, the program was assigned to navigate the lunar module when it went on the far side of the moon.  Now, this mission for Sextant wasn't less critical than the other phases of the lunar orbit because there was a chance that the slightest miscalculation could actually launch the module away from the moon or towards the moon -- the module wasn't equipped for a landing.  This was, I think, one of the first Apollo missions that was meant as a practice flight before the actual lunar landing.

Anyway, the program worked as it should except for a glitch -- 1201 and 1202 errors.  At first people at Houston's command center didn't know what the frack it meant or why it had been triggered.  Eventually, they figured out that it meant that the navigational computer's processor was overloading with data and was dumping less critical tasks in order to perform its main task.  They traced the cause to a lapse in the complicated protocols for flying the lunar module and apparently, one of the astronauts switch on the radar a few seconds too soon thus loading the navigational computer with data it wasn't yet prepared to handle and thus overloading its capacity to process data.

After figuring out what went wrong, Houston told the astronauts what the errors meant and advised them to revised their protocol.  Sextant was later declared to be a success and was used in the succeeding lunar mission.

While watching the documentary, I was overcome with a sense of just how stressed the guys working on Sextant were.  There was actually a part where a number of the scientists working on the program got divorced as a result of the long hours they spent at work.

Somehow, that bit of information about the early days of the US Lunar program stuck and I woke up thinking about how oddly familiar it all felt -- though I don't think I've handled a project that was as complicated.

Then again, there are afternoons and early evenings while producing the evening news when I think I felt as if I was one of the people trying to land a man (or several men) on the moon.

Of course, producing the evening news is really perhaps less than 1 percent of 1 percent as difficult as taking command of a lunar module.  But it can feel that way especially when you consider the amount of work you have to do within a very short period of time.

The job of producing can be as easy or as difficult as you conceive your newscast to be.  If all you think that a newscast should be is an enumeration of events, then it'll probably be easier than creating some sense out of the jumble of related and unrelated events that make up one day in the news.

In order to make sense out of everything that is happening or happened during the day, the producer of a newscast in my estimation, ought to know a lot about a lot of things.  Not only that, you have to know what exactly is NEW, relate that to previous developments, and gauge whether it is or it isn't significant.

At crunch time, which is between an hour or two before the airing of the newscast, that's when all hell breaks lose and that's when the idiom 'grace under pressure' comes into play.  

That's when you get deluged by notifications or requests for decisions from a dozen people.  This is the time when reporters submit their scripts and you some times learn that the desk got it slightly wrong.  This is the time when you get word that the phone patch interview scheduled for that day cancelled.  That's when you find out that the sound-byte that was so crucial to a good TV News story has bad audio or that the stand  upper of one reporter can't be used because of some video problem.  That's when your editor tells you that a silent story that you wanted to be included in the newscast can't be done because there is no video that will match the topic of the script.  That's when you learn of breaking news which may make it necessary to revise the story line up you made an hour ago. This is the time when you have to check your scriptwriter's scripts along with the scripts of news reporters.

You can just imagine the amount of stress you get before, during, and after a newscast.

And the thing is, it would actually be somewhat worth all the stress if you didn't have to face the stress of paying your monthly bills, making sure your kid has what he needs, making sure that your ten year old car runs safe, and a bunch of other things that really make up your life after the news.

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