The COVID-19 pandemic has put new stress on communications and media systems, and at the same time provided new opportunities for creativity. The current global situation is changing business models, technology choices, and ways of interacting across the globe, and leading an irreversible shift in media and technology investment away from legacy, toward digital business models and workflows.
According to the latest research by IABM, the impact of the pandemic is not only radically changing the events landscape for the media and entertainment industry but is also shaping technology roadmaps and supply chain investment. New programming formats and workflows, direct-to-consumer driving digital transformation, and the adoption of virtual selling models are top priorities.
In the professional media industry, the impact has been significant. News has expanded under new rules and there is a new genre of live. Mandated environments surrounding the COVID-19 are impacting news and live production workflows, altering how they produce and deliver their live and prerecorded shows in ways they had not previously comprehended.
They include, when possible, sending staff home to work remotely; breaking newsroom personnel into small pods to limit interpersonal contact and possible exposure; distancing personnel from one another in the newsroom and on-set; limiting exposure of field reporters and photographers to newsroom personnel; use of old-school mic techniques; and frequently using internet technologies like Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime in place of personal interviews with newsmakers and other sources.
Hence, entire newsrooms are working outside the office. But measures like these are meant to be band-aids, temporary solutions until the world stops spiraling out of control, whether that is 18 weeks from now or 18 months. At the same time, it is worth considering whether any of these band-aids will stick. News broadcasters are also evaluating longer-term strategies like leveraging control room and master control automation, to address a range of possible eventualities, the worst of which includes an entire shutdown of a station building.
As the need to separate continues to grow for news, producers are getting creative and looking at technology to support seamless and uninterrupted live reporting. The use of collaborative tools to bring together virtual interviews is growing.
More than 50 percent of elements needed to produce a regular live news, when most of the human elements are in the same building, are being disassociated physically from one another. In the current scenario, one studio has changed to multiple studios – and they are not located in traditional spaces, they are now in people’s homes.
The normal of the past
TV production operations live heavily on the physical side. Major news organizations usually have control rooms seating 12–15 production personnel, composed of tech managers, directors, and others. Editorial spaces have in excess of 200 desktops and a dozen-plus craft edit suites. Audio needs editing and live-to-air spaces. Still, 3D and animated graphics need large displays with high-performance compute stations. Additionally, there is a myriad of web-producers, writers and researchers, and an assortment of people who must all commute, share spaces, and consume resources every day.
Support-wise, there are ingest managers, archivists, and MAM wranglers. Add studio, field reporters and technicians, and a gaggle of remote equipment to produce live and breaking news, whenever needed. Numbers quickly grow toward a hundred or more. Many work functions demand physical people attached to physical gear, fixed to cables that attach to dedicated equipment, housed in a complex (usually enormous) central equipment room (CER).
Until cloud technologies, nearly every studio function and show activity was centered around similar infrastructure-support spaces. Even when productions moved somewhat out of house or some processes extended into the cloud, elements basically required tablets, cell phones, and laptops connected through high-end CPU workstations. Network connections, software management, storage, MAM and archive, ingest and playout, local and distance support, and operations grew more complex and specific. Operations were steeped in human interaction from conception to delivery.
Once most functions were branded to discrete, dedicated devices, which were connected to an internal LAN or an SDI-router. They likely functioned using KVM-like technologies to control or manage the relatively nearby components found in the central equipment room. Multiviewers of enormous proportions governed the images, sound, and metering interpretations.
More recently, organizations have embraced new features using virtual machines and/or cloud-based technologies to supplement, administer, or orchestrate functions previously associated entirely around on-premises physical, dedicated hardware. Operations and workflows, which were likely candidates for change included graphics, acquisition, storage, playout, asset management, and some distant/occasional use activities like an EFP remote or a feed from another location. Each had a consistent and structured agenda, based upon managed workflows governed by functions attached to connections to/from the devices.
Previously, such workflows were relatively straightforward. Dedicated people sat at dedicated machines and moved files, images, or operational commands using a mouse and keyboard. Communications depended upon dedicated intercom stations with multiple channels that could be easily selected from a panel. Essentially, this was a local one-to-one operational workflow, exemplified by activities like a remote feed for a live broadcast.
When addressing real-time images or sound, operators used a router panel on a dedicated network that was associated internally to a fixed format and flow. To stream images to another location involved workflows with another set of encoders, gateways, and networks connected between internal or external locations.
Exploring the workflow evolution
News is already adapting to the lockdown requirements with several programs around the world gathering experts’ input through consumer video technology. The situation continues to change rapidly, and news broadcasters continue to adjust their coverage plans and contingency plans. Among the adjustments is clamping down on studio guests. Rather than inviting newsmakers into its stations’ studios, the stations are turning to FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype to conduct live interviews.
With the recent world changes and in under 60 days, many of the traditional one-to-one production activities have become dematerialized, i.e., taking the physical association of hardware/software and moving it to a position that could be connected to or from anywhere else. Such new workflows are becoming the most significant challenge a broadcast network enterprise is facing since portability became the norm for content collection and transmission.
In some instances, mini studios are set up for some people; in other instances, mobile devices are being used as camera and microphone and streamed over open internet to the broadcast center, where it gets brought into a studio production system or incorporated into a sparsely staffed production studio.
The first week of this new REMI-like production model was assembled with cell phone and laptop cameras, usually functioning in dual capacity. Once a comfort level was achieved, week two moved into locations adding (or adapting) 42-inch and above displays to put rolling backgrounds behind close-ups. Images were fed live from laptops played via VNC connections or files. Audio processing and equalization soon followed as consistent levels needed to feed into local encoders before sending the signals across a public internet connection. By week three, viewers begin to see home-lighting, two (or more) sets from the same home and multiviewers, prompters from PCs, or equivalent making up the new workflows.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis forced operations into isolation, a standard PC from an off-site location would connect via AWS workspaces to a secure high-resolution, compressed PC-over-IP client. For real-time operations, users need a highly responsive computing experience. By employing advanced display compression, end-users can associate with on-premises or cloud-based virtual machines to emulate an alternative to their once local computers. Essentially, the users work directly and remotely on their servers, but from afar, at home or other locations, making sure that the right amount of connectivity and the highest level of quality with the least amount of lag are prompting personnel to place PCoIP-devices at every endpoint. Once called thin-clients or zero-clients, PCoIP capabilities have taken signal transmissions as direct connections from laptops direct to CER-based high-performance graphics or video servers or feeds between make-shift home studios and primary control rooms at the network’s studios. Most are using card-based zero clients that outperform software-based applications on desktops.
Virtual workspace architectures will now compress, encrypt, and transmit only the pixels (instead of the data) to software clients, including mobile clients, thin clients, and stateless endpoints. Control room multiviewers are replicated, encoded, and sent to the remote sites as compressed video, allowing each remote operator, talent, or artist to see the same content as is in the live control rooms at the studios. For graphics, the coupling of the endpoint engines and compositing means that artists can see what they are creating with minimal delay and no reduction in image quality.
Operators must have the same user experience at remote home studios as when at the studio facility. Pushing the MAM to the edge via a web browser lets producers (editors) cut proxies, or push cut items either to editing or direct to control room for playback. Using core-native floating licenses, i.e., the bring your own license option, through to remote editing and VXF is now commonplace.
Furthermore, several news-producing stations have stopped using lavalier mics but instead are using stick mics – frequently clamped to an object – to minimize how many people touch workaday gear. ENG trucks are being assigned to single individuals – all to isolate news personnel from one another.
Dematerialization is not new and was headed in those directions for some time. The industry just had not expected this to occur in such a risky, isolated environment. Change has demanded instantaneous scaling that dissected the studio talent and put them in locations they had not expected before.
Yet what is occurring now may, or already has, altered how production and studio facilities could be for years to come. Newly adopted workflows now produce similar outcomes without the huge physical footprints, costs, and overheads, currently required for large-scale operations. Such changes could forever disrupt how news programming is created and delivered.
Where is the biggest headache? Getting an approximate level of studio intercom-like functionality is the nemesis of daily productions, so far. Cell phones with earbuds have limited functionality, yet that is what is needed for the least amount of latency between home and main studios.
Getting interruptible foldback (IFB) to the remote home studio adds another tier of complexity. Multichannel and multi-access IP-based communications become essential when operating in several simultaneous locations. Intercom, using virtual link products, is a good start; yet substituting a tablet-but-ton-set for a physical button-control-panel is not an ideal workflow.
Link-bandwidths make all the difference when spinning up multiple activities into a VPC, or when interconnecting studios, and CERs between major metropolitan locations. Having 10G or higher connectivity, while a luxury for many, is essential at a network level. Security services also play important parts that limit network access. Firewall rules (set by the appropriate user, application, port-set, and IP addresses) need to be extensible to gain appropriate access on a tier or tailored workspace.
Looking at the future
How the pandemic is impacting a newsroom’s day-to-day operations is still a learning process. But boundaries are being pushed when it comes to using technology to help newsrooms through this process. Adjusting strategy to the realities of working during the outbreak and relying on technology to fill the gaps created by the contagion are pivotal.
There is a possibility of long-term impact of the pandemic on newsrooms to what happened coming out of the economic downturn 12 years ago. The Great Recession had shaken the newsrooms foundation. It forced news broadcasters into thinking proactively about using the technology that was available, and that is what led to their hubs in the first place.
The pandemic’s effect on newsrooms is already under way. It is accelerating the newsroom of the future. Technology is being used at the fingertips, and it is pushing the stakeholders to be innovative.
While this seems like a perfect use of cloud products and services, there are still some challenges to overcome. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 crisis is going to change business in 2020. The broadcast and media industry will be affected by the shock created by this but could take some actions to adapt to it. There is no way to be sure of the real effects of this crisis, but in a time of such uncertainty, it is worth looking at the glass half full and understand how the industry can all make the most out of the current situation.
Given the social distancing paths certain to be here for many months, these new workflows change the dimensions of how technologies like bonded-cellular will migrate. Many clever enterprises are rapidly changing the production domain, and these adaptations may become the links to a new way of designing and outfitting studios.
It will be interesting to see what evolves from this global adventure in new workflows, new remote considerations, and how newsroom operations change. Will there be new technology to support this level of remote operations? Will this be a driver toward more cloud solutions? Will the home studio become more popular? Only time will tell!