Tuesday Talk… with Ilya Livshits, HHS 2003

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Ilya Livshits was my student for two years in back-to-back AP classes and a key member of HHS Debate, though he focused primarily on Model Congress over Model United Nations. He was a constant participant in class and was quick to play devil’s advocate on any issue, keeping me honest and relatively fair as a teacher. Without a doubt, he remains one of the great characters to come through my classroom.

What do you remember about your early childhood?

Growing up in Russia I mostly remember living a fairly modest lifestyle and spending summers away in a “dacha” with many trips to the beach. At the time it seemed like a fairly standard kid upbringing but looking back I’ve learned that there were many aspects of life that were difficult for my family due to their Jewish ancestry. I didn’t feel any of that and didn’t really understand it at all until many years later. But I did learn very early to respect how hard my entire family worked to provide for us and that I owed it to them and myself to work hard too. 

What did your parents do for a living? Why did they decide to move to the United States?

They were both involved in pharmaceutical sciences and chemical engineering. I spent a decent amount of time with my grandparents and maintained a very strong relationship with them throughout my childhood and even into adulthood as a result. My family moved here as religious refugees at a time of a mass exodus of Russian Jews to Israel and the U.S…it was a difficult decision to make because on paper we were generally well off and moving to the U.S. meant starting over. But overall I’m obviously very happy with the decision (and sacrifices) they made. 

Did you move directly to Hillsborough or did you live other places before that? 

We moved to Philadelphia initially and then moved every 1-2 years between Baltimore and Allentown until finally ending up in Hillsborough in 1996. 

What do you recall about your adjustment to the United States? How quickly did you pick up English or was that something already spoken in the home?

I don’t remember having to adjust very much at all though I’m sure it felt different at the time. Being only 5 years old I picked up the language pretty quickly and was fully caught up by 1st grade. We pretty much spoke only Russian at home but I was so immersed in television (sneak peek at my future!) that I’m sure it helped me solidify my English even quicker. I remember always “thinking” in English even though i spoke Russian with my family. 

How would you describe your high school experience overall?

By high school I had finally had friends who I’d known for a few years and my family had no more plans to move. I felt comfortable with my social group and began to really get interested in technology, politics and media. Getting involved in school plays and the morning announcements were great ways to explore my desire to perform and Model Congress was a perfect opportunity for me to explore my interest in politics. I remember having some very radical political views and I thoroughly enjoyed playing devil’s advocate at every opportunity.

What did you think of your social studies classes? What did we do well and what needed improvement?

I really enjoyed classes that delved into historical issues that had parallels to current events. I would take advantage of every opportunity I could find to discuss ongoing political issues; most of my peers seemed to not really be into politics but I couldn’t get enough of it. Your classes especially i truly enjoyed because you found ways to relate history to ongoing issues…and with a sense of humor! 

I developed a strong desire to delve deep into particular issues and understand every side. I had a strong belief that very few issues were truly one sided and I knew that the only way I’d feel confident in my point of view would be if I knew everything about the opposition. I loved shows like Meet the Press where Tim Russert would basically play devil’s advocate no matter who his guest was. 

Present company excepted, who was your favorite teacher (at any level of your education), and why?

My very first teacher at Rutgers was Douglas Husak; it was an advanced, small class about drug policy and i found it actually really challenged some of my (at that time) libertarian views. I found myself drawn toward somewhat more moderate stances for the first time in a long while and I remember that it really shaped some of my later political transformations. All of my favorite classes at Rutgers were specialized seminars focusing on media and politics; I loved the non-standard formats and opportunity to engage in smaller groups. It was the perfect fit for my idea of how to learn. 

I had Husak for an intro philosophy course MY freshman year! What drew you to Rutgers College? Why did you opt to major in journalism and political science?

It certainly helped that I lived 20 minutes away; I was not ready to leave home after high school and I felt much more comfortable attending a school while still living at home than moving away somewhere. I will admit that I did treat it as “13th grade” but at that time it was really exactly what I needed. I picked my major based on a desire to study politics and a strong interest in media…but what i was REALLY excited about was the Rutgers tv station (RU-tv); I thought of my major as more of a hobby once I got involved at Rutv (which was almost immediately after starting at Rutgers). 

What did you learn during your four year serving as special event producer for RU-tv? What was your most memorable production?

I had a lot of great friends and experiences at rutv. One of my main jobs was producing the academic review sessions for organic chemistry. While I knew zero about the subject, I enjoyed knowing that my work was helping others prepare for their exams. I later learned that my future wife was one of my shows’ biggest fans as she was a cell biology and neuroscience major. One of my favorite productions was when I got to host RU Safe: The Game Show. It fulfilled my childhood dream of being a game show host and I got to ham it up to an absurd degree on live television. As I spent more and more time producing shows, I felt a stronger and stronger pull toward the technical side of production. I got the change to direct, edit, and host a lot of different productions in my junior and senior years…being the jack-of-all-trades become my favorite part of RUtv. 

Did you have any idea of the career path you would take? What did you think you were going to end up doing?

During senior year of high school I interned at the local cable company and started getting more interested in the technical side of tv production. At Rutgers TV, I had the opportunity to do a little of everything and quickly found myself spending every waking hour there trying to get involved in every facet of tv production. I got heavily involved in planning new program content and even launched a new channel focused specifically on academic lectures and panels. I truly thought this was the kind of work I wanted to do long term; I knew I wanted to work in live TV production. What I didn’t realize is that I actually enjoyed the technical side of things as much as (or maybe even more) the operational side.

You were able to get a job with NBC right out of college. What was it like for you to walk into 30 Rockefeller Center where so much famous programming has been created?

It was very surreal to be in such a historic building each day…it still is even today! I definitely had a huge appreciation for the rich history of television that had taken place in that building. I now often joke that on most days I forget about the glamour and excitement of the building since I’m there working…but in reality, there’s always a part of me that takes a deep breath and appreciates the true magnitude of what it means to be there. 

What does a project coordinator in edit engineering do? Did your college major prep you for any of this stuff or did you learn most of it on the job?

When I first started there were a few others who had done the same role before and also a few others in the same role in the same department. Other than a few logistical responsibilities that I had been told about (ordering equipment, keeping track of purchases), I was really given a decent amount of free reign to pursue projects and get involved. At first this was a bit overwhelming as I didn’t have a degree or a crazy amount of experience in broadcast engineering. But i quickly learned that most folks in this area of television come to it from something other than a broadcast engineering degree…on the job learning is a huge aspect of success in this role. I had started right as MSNBC was migrating from Secaucus, NJ to 30 Rock. This was a monumental change for how production was done at 30 Rock and I was able to get heavily involved in many different aspects of that project. I also learned that NBC was working with Channel One and so I mentioned that I remembered having Channel One on our TVs in school. That somehow turned into me getting very heavily involved in the project of Channel One doing production at 30 Rock. I was very nervous but also took the opportunity to take ownership and responsibility for the success of that project. That proved to be the beginning of folks believing that they could depend on me and thus I was given more and more projects from then onward. 

How about the next couple of positions you held in systems integration engineering? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? 

The next few years I got extremely involved in every major project at 30 Rock. I developed very strong relationships with particular production partners and this resulted in me being “the guy” for certain projects. Some key projects i worked on were the edit infrastructure for Peacock Productions, the move of MSNBC from SD to HD and the studio build for NBC Nightly News. 

In 2014 you started working in advanced projects engineering. Is that “advanced” as in ahead of time or is this TV’s equivalent of honors and AP? What was your favorite project that you worked on in this capacity?

When our director formed the group, the idea was that we would work on projects that didn’t neatly fit into anyone else’s category. We would take on stuff that was complicated and fully “own it” to ensure success. We took on some key areas of infrastructure at 30 Rock, specifically dealing with video routing and fiber cabling. It turned out that these areas were absolutely critical to pretty much every single project we’ve done since. Becoming known as the “router guys” and the “fiber guys” basically brought us into every nook and cranny of TV engineering at 30 Rock. But certainly the most advanced project of all that I ended up taking over was the technical infrastructure for NBC elections coverage. My previous director had done that role for many years and when he decided to leave NBC in 2013 I was asked to take it over. Little did I realize how central it would be to the next 6 years of my career at NBC. 

What was it like to work in the newsroom on election night of 2016?

Of all the many things I’ve worked on I must say that that night felt like the ultimate culmination of everything I had to give to TV engineering. The weeks leading up to it were chaotic and when that night finally came i felt knots in my stomach the entire day. But once we actually went on the air, I started to feel a bit of relief. I do like to joke that I was so focused on all the tech that I barely noticed the crazy news story that was actually happening! My place on each election night is in the NBC Decision Desk where “the call” is made for each race, but I could barely bring myself to focus on the actual results coming in. Overall it was a crazy night all around; to me it actually felt like a big performance of a play, which is always fun for me as i thoroughly enjoyed doing theater in high school. I definitely still have a bit “show” mentality and I loved to be part of such a big production. 

Last year you became the director of production project engineering. Fortunately you’ve described the job to me so I don’t have to make a joke about how these positions all sound a little like business talk mad libs. But since the readers don’t know, can you offered a quick rundown of your current responsibilities?

My main job currently is overseeing the technical requirements of elections coverage for the various networks of NBC. When I’m not doing that I focus on control room, studio and infrastructure broadcast engineering projects, mostly within 30 Rock but also at NBC facilities across the nation (and soon Sky TV in London). Key areas of technology that I work with are video routers, fiber optic cabling, and especially LED video walls. I’ve managed the builds of video walls for most news studios for MSNBC, the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Telemundo Network Sports and News, and NBCU sports net Philadelphia. 

Do you get to be creative in this role or is that someone else’s job that you seek to fulfill with your expertise and leadership?

I work very closely with a few key “creatives” who run the editorial side of things. I really like to stay out of the creative conversations because I find that while i may have opinions about those areas it’s really not my role to step in to those discussions. Rather I actually find that I can offer a lot of creativity in solutions to technical problems. Often we are faced with tech issues that seem to have no straight forward fix…that’s where I really put my creativity cap on. I also hope that by supporting our operations and editorial teams, I am contributing to their creative storytelling and giving them the tools they need to entertain and inform our viewers. 

What are you most proud of during the coverage of the Democratic primaries thus far?

Last year we migrated to a new IP video routing environment which is a pretty monumental technical change for us. It’s actually been a major change across the entire broadcast engineering landscape, and it was a major lift for our entire team and all of our production partners. There were a lot of new technical challenges (and solutions!) that were part of that change and I’ve been excited by how we’ve been able to use some new virtualization and automation tools to help us with elections workflows. But I’m especially proud of the three debates we’ve done (Miami, Atlanta and Las Vegas). Our team built the giant video walls at each of these events and ensured that the real-time graphics that played on them functioned as intended. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge or challenges you have in front of you for the 2020 campaign?

Certainly the biggest challenge is balancing the day-to-day needs of our team’s projects with the special events primaries, conventions and election night in the fall. Each of these events presents a new opportunity to storytell and our editorial partners are constantly looking for ways to use technology tools to tell those stories in unique, interesting and informative ways. We’re excited to be part of that, but it’s a constant juggling act to keep up and make sure we’re keeping pace as new requests come in. 

Considering your libertarian bent on most issues, have you found it strange working for MSNBC? I guess I’m assuming that most people who work there are on the left side of the spectrum… I mean, you used to like to get into debates with people and take on the role of devil’s advocate which was fun, but sometimes irks people. I imagine that isn’t always welcome.

My political views have actually shifted quite a bit over the years and I now find myself much more of a moderate on most issues; I try to listen to all views and figure out what kind of solutions combine the best of all sides. As for politics and my workplace…I actually have found myself surprisingly disconnected from politics at work. I spend so much effort and time focusing on the technical that I barely even think about politics while at the office. It’s interesting that i majored in Journalism and Political Science but have always thought of both of those things as more of a hobby interest than something directly related to my career. I do still play devil’s advocate amongst the folks in my personal life that i like to politically spar with…and it definitely still irks them! But at the end of the day, we usually come away from such back-and-forths having learned something…at least I do!

You must be putting in some long hours at work and with the commute from New Jersey, are you finding time to keep up with popular culture, or are you still listening to Ricky Martin on your iPod?

Hey now those are not mutually exclusive! I definitely still have some deep-rooted connections to some legacy pop culture, which has actually been reinforced by all the nostalgia comebacks of late. I also try to use some of that commute time to keep up with the latest, though I do often find myself one or two steps behind what “the kids” are into these days. But I guess that’s how it should be as you get a little older…I did manage to go see Britney Spears in concert in 2018 so you’ll be very proud to know that some habits will just never die!

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