PBS leaders open busy TechCon in Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — Against the backdrop of the threat to federal funding and massive technological changes including the TV spectrum auction and channel repack, top PBS executives welcomed hundreds of PBS TechCon attendees to Las Vegas Wednesday with messages of optimism.

“This is clearly the most dynamic landscape I’ve ever seen,” said President Paula Kerger at TechCon’s opening session. “As the backbone of public media, you sit at the very center of these transformational changes.”

The timing of the conference is “especially fortuitous” because it follows last week’s FCC announcement of the spectrum auction results, Kerger said.

While some PBS member stations sold spectrum rights, Kerger said, “I’m very pleased to share that public TV’s near-universal coverage of the American public has been preserved.”

She described many challenges ahead, including the repack process under which nearly half of all public TV stations will change channels. “We have to be sure we not only get through the process as a system, but we have to be sure our viewers find us,” she said. “We are working with APTS and CPB to make sure the repack is minimally disruptive.”

Mario Vecchi, PBS chief technology officer, said the theme for TechCon 2017 is “convergence.” As public TV’s technology focus shifts from hardware to software, from on-premise servers to the cloud and from proprietary to open-source software, “our plants are all going to look more and more alike in the coming years.”

Vecchi acknowledged the pressures that engineers and technical staff are experiencing.

“Sometimes it feels as if we’re asked to build a plane while we’re flying it, and sometimes it feels like we’re being told we have to do it to reach the moon,” he said. “And we have to do it all in the middle of a really big storm. But we are engineers, and that’s what we do — we figure it out and make it work. It is a heavy lift, and we don’t have all the answers, but we’re here to listen and here to learn.”

At TechCon, that will include plenty of discussion of “sIX,” or “service interconnection,” the new name for the next-generation interconnection system based on terrestrial fiber. The shift to that new system has been a TechCon topic for years.

PBS expanded the TechCon agenda beyond traditional engineering this year to include tracks on content and engagement, development, marketing and digital infrastructure. Ira Rubenstein, PBS chief digital and marketing officer, said the change drew more than 200 first-time atttendees and set a record attendance of nearly 700.

TechCon runs through Friday.