Behind The Scenes at Disney TV

One of the things I like about my job is getting to meet you, my readers, face to face. Last week I spent some time with Michael Pusateri, the VP of Engineering for the Disney-ABC Cable Networks Group. Pusateri handles the IT department of four different Disney cable channels, and you can imagine that he has a demanding but very fun job.

He has been working for Disney for ten years and in broadcast engineering all of his professional life, and a long-time Tom’s reader. "I was heavily into overclocking my PCs a few years ago and was reading Tom’s to figure out how to pull it all off," he said. "I was always printing out stuff and trying to get things to work." He mentioned how he pushed one of his early 75 MHz Pentiums up to 120 MHz "but my wife complained that the cooler was making too much noise" and turned it back down. "My watch probably has more processing power than that machine."

I got to spend a few hours at Disney’s Burbank headquarters and saw how they put their shows on the air and some of the technology that is involved in running a cable network. What is fascinating is how we are at the cusp of analog and digital technologies : while many things digital are coming to TV-land, they aren’t quite 100% there yet.

For example, Disney just finished migrating one of their station’s control rooms from the east coast to Burbank. They installed large-panel LCD screens that display multiple images across the wall for the technicians to monitor the feeds that are sent to and from the satellites that broadcast their signals. The older control rooms have separate monitors that don’t look as high-tech. And while all of the programming is digitized before being broadcast to the world, the originals are kept on ordinary videotapes (granted, very high quality video tapes) that are stored in a library and wheeled around the building on library carts when they are needed for broadcast.

As I was walking around the control rooms and bowels of the building, I couldn’t help but notice that the cabling for the video side was extremely well organized, labeled, and just plain neater when compared to the data side. Like many networks, Disney has editing rooms with just about any hardware and software tool you can think of, including Macintosh-based software too. The editing rooms are also segregated on a separate physical network from the general corporate LAN - "we don’t want any of our content coming anywhere near our corporate LAN." And then there is a third network for visitors that is separate still and runs outside of the Disney firewall. Clearly, these guys have done a solid job and know what they are doing.

"Some IT organizations design things to make work simpler for their IT organizations at the expense of frustrating their users. This isn’t our philosophy. We focus on the business needs and to provide the tools to meet our people’s needs, even when it makes things tougher for us to run as an IT group."

One of the things that Pusateri is pushing the envelope on is more storage for their digital content, and pushing isn’t the word to describe their needs. "We are looking at putting all of our content on digital storage, but it wasn’t until recently that we could go shopping for a petaByte of storage," he says. That is a 1000 teraBytes, for those of you that don’t think in that high a magnitude. And you thought you have storage problems ?

Pusateri manages a staff of 30 engineers and developers and has some interesting projects that are on the cutting edge of technology, apart from digital broadcasting and shopping for more petaBytes. As an example, he and his staff are heavily into using RSS feeds to automate various processes. "We got tired of all the email notifications from our systems that we use to track various things, such as logging on-air programming problems, or for shift logs or when equipment breaks and an operator needs it fixed. We started building RSS feeds that go into our email system, and it saves us a bunch of headaches and gives us a uniform way to work with our applications." Now Disney is heavily into Atom, Movable Type, a J2EE application called Rome and other RSS and blogging technologies. "We are just beginning to see the applications for these technologies in the corporate space for internal communications," he says.

Speaking of blogging, Pusateri runs his own website and blog called Why the name ? "Well, cruft refers to debris left over, junky stuff around. I always liked the word." Does it get dicey blogging about work issues ? "No, I have never gotten into trouble with it. I learned early on that the people I work with read my blog and they have their own blogs. I don’t write about anything at work unless it is something that I imagine I could say to someone face to face over lunch. It is just inappropriate. I am in a position that things that I say matter to people’s livelihoods, and try to be careful. These days, anyone with Google can look up anything."

Pusateri builds all of his PCs at home for his family himself, and is proud of the fact that his original circa 1995 tower case is still in use today, although with very different innards. He made mods to cases for his wife to add lighting effects, and also ones for his kids. He is also a big gamer, playing World of Warcraft and Battlefield 2 at the moment. He began the site, what he calls a "rant" site, five years ago principally because he had issues with some of the games he was playing back then. "My first PC was the Atari 800 where we had much 8-bit goodness and I was into games with the Mattel and Intellivision gear, and have just kept going," he said. He still has an 800 in his garage and tried to get his kids interested, but no takers.

His kids are into games too, but he draws the line at violent games - "it is up to the parent to make the choice, and violent games are fine for adults. My kids need to be with us when they are playing on the computer, I have their PCs in a public place in the house and not in their rooms. I like playing GTA and it is a lot of fun but I don’t even keep it in the house." What about the Hot Coffee mods ? "They were pushing the boundaries. If the game developers had been a little truthful up front about what was going on, they wouldn’t have been in so much hot water."

Being an IT guy at home has its disadvantages, as many of us well know. He ripped all of his CDs into 40 GB worth of MP3s but had a hard drive crash before he could back up the files and had to rip them all over again. "At home I do get a lot of calls from family and friends for computer support," he says. "My dad is a EE and bought one of the first Macs. And his PCs are infected with all sorts of spyware and have all sorts of problems today. What scares me is that I think I am as smart as my dad, and am afraid that in 20 years my kids are going to be thinking the same things about me then and look at me like some dinosaur, making requests of them to fix my computers." His mother is one of the most demanding support calls. "She is always coming up with things that take hours to resolve," he says. "It is a challenging project for me and my brother to deal with." And lest you think he has the latest and greatest gear at home, his fastest PC is an AMD 2800+ with a gig of RAM and a 6600 GT Nvidia graphics card. "It is hard to justify to the wife to spend $800 bucks on a processor." Let alone a new graphics card costing almost as much.

Overall, he feels "pretty lucky to be in the right place at the right time" and glad to have been working in such an exciting place. And it was a thrill for me to meet the man who helps bring all this gear to life and is on the front lines of our industry. As Pusateri said, "When I go home I see my kids watching the Disney channel and know that I had something to do with putting that on the air."

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