In the entertainment technology industry today, the number one topic of conversation is change, as companies merge, split, consolidate, litigate, go public, and, in some cases, go broke. Yet underneath, a more fundamental revolution is taking place, one that may help bring a long-term stability to the industry: it's the quest for technical standards, a still-new movement that, even so, has wrought many important and beneficial changes for manufacturers, distributors, andend-users.

At the center of this movement is the Technical Standards Program (TSP) of the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA). In 1994, ESTA created a Technical Standards Committee (TSC), which is responsible for creating policy, okaying projects, establishing working groups and appointing chairs, approving documents for public review and publication, budgeting, and fundraising. The TSC is made up of individuals who have extensive experience in standards-making activities or in finance and management. It's a list that includes some of the industry's brightest minds: Bill Groener (who chairs) of Production Arts, Steve Carlson of High Speed Design, Tim Cox of PLASA, Mike Garl of James Thomas Engineering, Jay O. Glerum of USITT, Mitch Hefter of Rosco/Entertainment Technology, Tera Johnson of Electronic Theatre Controls, Ted Paget of Jones & Phillips Associates, Larry Schoeneman of Interesting Products, Frank Stewart of Specialty Tech Services, Ken Vannice of NSI Corporation, Florian von Hofen of VPLT, Colin Waters of TMB, and Mike Wood of High End Systems (and, currently, president of ESTA). There are also three alternate members Tony Douglas-Beveridge of PLASA, Rodney Kaiser of USITT, and Eckart Steffens of VPLT.

The TSC currently oversees six working groups, which are charged with the task of creating new standards. The groups are Camera Cranes, chaired by Ed Clare of Production Equipment Rental Association (PERA) and Andy Romanoff of Panavision Remote Systems; Control Protocols, chaired by Steve Carlson and Steve Terry; Electrical Power, chaired by Bob Luther of Lex Products Corp. and Vannice; Fog and Smoke, chaired by Schoeneman; Photometrics, chaired by Larry Lieberman of Vixion Quest Lighting and Tom Tyler of Lighting & Electronics; and rigging, chaired by Garl. Working Group membership is open to anyone affected by the work of the group. The goal is to have balanced representation from producers, users, and other interest groups that might be affected by the working group's standards-drafting projects.

According to Karl G. Ruling, ESTA's technical standards manager, here's how the process works: "People bring project ideas to the TSC, and the TSC initiates the working groups to deal with the projects. The groups can be large--there are 32 voting members in Control Protocol. Members of the working group form a task group, keeping it down to a handful of people. The members of the task group write the standards document, then the working group approves it. Also, the document needs the TSC's approval."

Like everything else in this painstaking process, getting the working group's approval can take time. A document, Ruling notes, can be returned to the task group by the working group several times with comments. When the document is deemed ready, he adds, "The working group votes on it by letter ballot, which can take up to 40 days. This allows members to have time to read the document closely and really think about it one more time." For a document to pass, more than half the working group must vote on it, with two-thirds of them voting for approval. Then the approved document is sent to the TSC, which votes on whether to send it out for public review.

At this point, Ruling notifies the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) of the public review; the latter organization announces the review period in its publication, Standards Action. After a 60-day period, Ruling collates all comments and sends them back to the working group, which passes them on to the task group, which has to revise the document, responding to all the comments. All comments must be resolved--that is, they have to be accepted, or extensive and compelling reason must be given for disagreement. If there are any substantive changes, then the document must be returned for another public review. The document is also sent to anyone who made a comment. "We hope they will accept them," adds Ruling, "but if they continue to object, then that becomes part of the record." Once all comments are resolved, the TSC votes to accept the document, which is then passed on to the ESTA Board, which also must vote to accept it. It is then sent to ANSI, for a procedural review; hopefully, ANSI then accepts the standard as well.

If reading this makes you feel a little winded, consider this: the overall process is, essentially, never-ending. The TSC meets four times a year to review the progress on all documents. Twice a year, the committee meets at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport Marriott Hotel in Irving, TX; the other two meetings are held in conjunction with USITT and LDI. At times, the process must seem crushingly tedious. It can be further slowed by the fact that visitors are allowed to attend meetings and offer their input (although they may not vote). Still, as Wood says, this fanatical attention to detail and the process is what makes the standards strong. "These are consensus standards, not government standards," he says. "They are standards that, within reason, everyone agrees are correct. They are not an imposition, as government standards might be. Therefore, they have to be done in a very open, public manner. If you have good consensus standards, they will be adhered to, because everybody has been part of the process of creating them."

Furthermore, with globalization transforming the industry, Wood says that standards are more important than ever. "You have to make a product that meets national electric codes--the UL in this country, the CSA in Canada, the CE standards in Europe. There are other standards elsewhere, in Australia and Singapore. If product standards come from our industry, and are all normalized, it would be much easier for everybody. For example, we're trying to work with the British version of the trussing standards, so that a rock-and-roll tour can take truss from one country to another."

Carlson's group, Control Protocols, has authored the Recommended Practice for Ethernet Cabling Systems in Entertainment Lighting Applications and the Supplement to the Recommended Practicing for Ethernet Cabling Systems in Entertainment Lighting Applications. Currently, the group is developing an Advanced Control Network protocol for entertainment control systems and is documenting DMX512 channel allocations on multi-parameter equipment. He notes that his group is international: "We have members from Europe, Australia, the Far East." Speaking of the long, slow work of writing a document, he says, "It is, intrinsically, a slow process. You have to have a Zen viewpoint, especially when you get into public review and comment resolution. When you hit public review, you don't know if you'll get five or 500 comments."

On the other hand, he says, the standards process has helped to unify the industry. "We have people coming together from competing companies. With the Advanced Control Network Group. we had the top design and R&D people getting together to talk candidly and design a new thing in common. Nothing like that had ever happened in our industry. At the beginning, nobody knew quite how to behave, what to say and not to say." Thus, Carlson says, extra time and effort was spent on developing relationships: "We had some extra meetings, with social activities--to get people to talk to each other as people. Now, members of the group enjoy each other--they like being and working together." It is, he adds, a transformation of sorts: "I believe our industry will be better for it and our customers will be getting better products."

Garl echoes Carlson's comments. "When we had the meeting to deal with the newest incarnation of the trussing standard, there were people from James Thomas Engineering, Tomcat, Total Fabrications, Slick Systems, and Bash. They were all competitors, but all with the same goal in mind--to put a good, safe product on the market."

In addition, the standards process helps create tighter relationships between industry organizations. For example, Wood says the standards effort began at USITT, "which was not a recognized standards-making body. USITT has brought projects to us to carry forth under the ESTA banner, so they could become ANSI standards. It has forged strong links between ESTA and USITT. Also, our links with PLASA and VPLT would not be as strong without the glue of the Technical Standards Program. The World ETF [the international alliance between APIAS, ESTA, PLASA, and VPLT] would not have happened without the TSP."

The standards development process also carries implications for other members of the entertainment industry as well. Take the example of the Fog and Smoke Working Group; for many years debate has raged on the alleged effect of fog and smoke on the respiratory systems of actors. (Actors' Equity has been vocal on this topic). Yet, very little is known about the long-term effects of this technology, says Schoeneman, who heads the Fog and Smoke Group. "The glycol machines are out there, but there's no standard for how much is enough. We're trying to determine the border between safe and unsafe." In fact, he says, "There is no established data for how much fog is being used" in the industry. "There are no numbers--it's all anecdotal." Thus, the working group is doing crucial research, using ESTA-purchased equipment. "With it," he says, "members of the committee can take samples of fog or smoke at different venues in their areas--at theatres, discos, sports stadiums. The test samples are sent to a lab in Texas--they'll run the samples to tell us what people are really being exposed to." This accumulated information will help lead to standards that will affect the well-being of performers and musicians as well as backstage workers.

Among the Fog and Smoke group's other initiatives, Schoeneman, says, "We have a draft document from Mike Wood, which is being reviewed by the working group--it's a stewardship program regarding glycol products. This way, people who are selling the product will be trained to use it, and can pass on the right information, so customers will use it safely and, at the end of their lives, products will be dispensed with safely. It's a cradle-to-grave approach, which can also be applied to other products," such as the disposal of certain lamps that contain heavy metals. "It's really an overall attitude, which will be adopted by ESTA as a whole," Schoeneman adds.

There are many other initiatives underway with the various working group. The Rigging group has, perhaps, the largest number of documents in preparation, including standards for manual counterweight systems, motorized rigging systems, scoreboard systems, and systems for flying performers, among others. The group also has written one of the first ANSI-accepted standards, for wire rope ladders. It's a lot of work, and Garl says, "I think everybody is grateful to all the people who volunteer their time and effort to take part in the standards process. Without the companies who buy the plane tickets and hotel rooms, it would be a much longer road."

Which brings us to the all-important issue of money. Except for Ruling, who is a salaried employee, all of the ESTA standards work is done on a volunteer basis. Companies pay to send their employees to the two Texas meetings annually (adding on two more meetings to USITT and LDI, which are attended by most industry personnel, helps to defray costs.) Then again, standards work requires endless hours of study and thought from each member of each working group. Furthermore, there are many other costs. Besides Ruling's salary, there are ANSI dues and fees, staff travel costs, the costs of running the meetings and distributing the documents, and associated office expenses, including support staff and equipment.

"In about five years, we've raised about half a million dollars," says Bill Groener, adding that this represents an unprecedented effort in this industry. "The unique nature of the program allowed us to do it," he adds. "These standards are important. Many contributions have been significant in size and duration, as much as $10,000 a year for six years." Other, smaller donations have been nearly as significant, considering the size of the companies making them. In addition, ESTA receives an income stream from its co-sponsorship of LDI. Still, he says, "It gets increasingly hard. The TSP is expensive and the general revenues of ESTA just don't cover it."

One fundraising approach, Groener says, is to reach out for funds from related industry organizations that will benefit from standards. "We're looking to the unions and insurance companies. Ultimately, the goal is to seek out sources of funding that don't rely on ESTA member companies to give more and more."

In a way, it's a crucial moment in ESTA's short history. Even given the lengthy prep time required for new standards, many important new documents are nearing completion, many of which will potentially profoundly affect business for the better. And, with new and ever more complex technologies coming along every day, more and more new standards will be necessary. One of the big challenges facing ESTA is finding a way to keep funding the standards process--from which everyone will benefit.

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