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Delivering news during lockdown

The social distancing measures required during the Covid-19 pandemic now mean that the majority of broadcast staff in many countries are now working form home. While there have been some frustrations, it’s clear there have also been many more innovations – with some tech bosses admitting that the pandemic has made them reassess their workflows moving forward.

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With news playing an important social role during the crisis, broadcasters have taken to setting up remote and home-based solutions to keep news services running.

Here, a news anchor, a post-production director and two broadcast support teams reveal their home office setups to IBC365.

The news anchor
Through a video conference call Adam Longo, a Maryland-based news anchor and reporter for WUSA9 invited IBC365 to look around his impromptu home studio, which he’s been using now for the last two weeks.

“The station started to introduce measures and protocols for working from home about three weeks ago, when it was clear that the pandemic had hit the US,” he explains.

“For the last week and a half now there have been fewer than ten people based at the building and the station has been great at providing technical support, although as someone who has worked in the TV business for over 20 years, I kind of like to learn as I go,” he says.

Longo is using an iPhone 11 running on the Dejero LivePlus Mobile App which blends cellular connections as well as lots of different IP networks including 3G/4G/LTE, Ethernet, Wi-Fi and satellite

The news anchor is using Dejero for the return control feed on an iPad, which enables him to see the teleprompter feed, so that he can read the news.

He explains: “I positioned the iPad running the teleprompter so that the lens of the iPhone is at eye level: I don’t want to appear looking above, to the left or to the right of the camera lens, I need to look straight into the eye of the camera.”

While framing is important, Longo explains that he needs the iPhone camera to transmit the pictures, so he’s currently reliant on the station to tell him whether he needs to frame himself better.

However, he plans to add another tripod with an angled mirror so that he can actually see the Dejero app from where he’s sitting at his desk.

Another iPad runs the return video, which he uses while he’s anchoring the news. “Sometimes you have to refresh it to keep it going, but there’s absolutely no delay. I’m seeing exactly what’s happening as I’m speaking from it – which is useful for ad lib teasers: if I see the President coming in to do a speech from the White House, I can just break away and go right to it,” he says.

What ITN technology have achieved over the last month is pretty short of staggering, literally a generational jump forward in working from home, editing off base, transferring picture in and out of the building and also the ability to broadcast from peoples’ front rooms.” Ben de Pear, Channel 4

Another iPad runs an ENPS feed of the script prompter in the event that the teleprompter goes down, and also allows him to keep up-to-date with any changes being made to the script.

For IFBs, which allow him to take directions from the show’s producers, he uses his own phone plugged into a molded earpiece.

For voice track packages, Longo has been using his regular XDCAM with a mic that records onto an SD card as well as the open source audio software Audacity.

A soft lighting backdrop for Longo’s newscast meanwhile, is achieved by using three battery-operated barn door Frezzis.

For pre recorded interviews – now conducted via Zoom or Skype – Longo likes to use four camera shoots and has installed some extra Go Pros positioned at various points around the room for cutaways, reverse cutaways and wide angled shots.

“The super wide shot – provided by a Go Pro Hero 3 positioned on a book shelf in the corner of the room – bit me once: I’d left the bathroom door open and you could see the toilet in shot! ” he recalls.

According to Longo, mobile transmission apps like Dejero have been “a game changer” in newsgathering. “When I was working on a court case twenty years ago we needed a device called a golden rod to transmit signals back to the station, which was basically a microwave truck transmitter without the truck – and even that was dependent on the topography of the area.

With the Dejero app picking up signals is not the issue – there are no delay and no quality issues – the only challenge I have is making my office look as good as I can.”

The only advice Longo has for other broadcasters exploring similar set ups is to have patience. “We’re all learning new things at a rapid pace at the same time and it’s easy to get frustrated if you don’t understand something.

“ At WUSA9 we’ve actually added patience to our core values: because we’re all out of our element right now and we’re all dealing with the same frustrations – but we just need to keep putting our best foot forward and show our audience that we are there for them.”

Longform post production
Around 95% of ITN Post Production – which is currently working on dozens of longer form factual projects for ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 – is now working remotely according to the facility’s director Olly Strous.

He adds that one of the main challenges has been the remote posting of fast turnaround coronavirus documentaries for strands such as Channel 4’s Dispatches, which need to be refreshed and updated as new information comes in.

“The ability to edit concurrently across the same media for these shows is vital – it’s not just a matter of lifting and shifting an Avid to home,” he says.

The backbone of ITN Post Production’s set up is a PC-over-IP technology called Teradici, which enables remote access into ITN’s system.

The advantage of this workflow, Strous explains, is that it sends over changing pixels on screen rather than the full display area– so editors are not swamped with data.

“Everyone’s home broadband is different and it means that editors with duel screen playback can operate on a relatively small amount of bandwidth,” he adds.

Editors connect into ITN’s infrastructure via the internet using a two-factor authentication system. Teradici is used primarily for the offline at this point, where four to six editors are working concurrently on the same projects.

ITN has made its Avid Media Composer workstations – most of which are situated centrally at its HQ in Grays Inn Road – available for its editors to access remotely from their homes. The broadcaster has rolled out both hardware zero clients and software clients allowing editors to get up and running with as little as an ethernet cable, display cable, keyboard and mouse.

Strous stops short of calling these “virtualised workstations” because, he argues, they already own stations. “We’re just providing extended access to hardware we own,” he says. On this front, Strous adds that Avid has been accommodating: issuing ITN Post Production with 43 temporary VM licenses to get around an issue with how Avids detect virtualisation.

Other Avid features the offline team is benefiting from include bin locking which enable teams of editors to have simultaneous access to projects with rules in place to define access.

Online
To manage the flow of the physical data into final post a quicker pace, Strous has also reduced the size of the video codecs from DNXHD 185X to XDCAM 50.

When it comes to final post ITN have adopted a hybrid approach with the colourist working on physical material locally on calibrated hardware that they have supplied, while the online editor works on a remote workstation connected to Grays Inn Road, giving them full access to all of their automation including AQC for PSE checking throughout the online.

“Once the colourist has finished their work, all they need to do is send a single Baselight editions grade layer back to the online editor who then lays it into the timeline. Final review of the online takes place with the online editor remoted into ITN but with an NDI stream publishing to their broadcast monitor at home.,” Strous explains.

Audio and QC
Once the show has been signed off remotely, a quality control operator watches the programme back at ITN’s Grays Inn Road HQ, and takes care of delivery.

In terms of the audio, the staff dubbing mixer has an Avid S3 desk with Protools Ultimate and the other plugins available at the Grays Inn Road studios.

“We also use a lot of freelance dubbing mixers and you tend to find that many have their own home studios,” says Strous. “It’s a compromise though: we have state-of-the-art audio studios at ITN that have been designed within an inch of their life – and now mixers are doing this in their back bedrooms so we have to assess what is acceptable given the circumstances,” he adds.

Voice overs, meanwhile, are performed over remote recording software Source-Connect. In some cases mics are also sent out and the team are looking at sending out flyaway cases that offer more of an acoustic surround.

The 5% of operational staff who are still in the building are mainly taking care of the local management, QC and delivery operations.

They’re on rotational shifts and work reduced hours – but the facility is still hoping to become 100% remote and is looking at installing a fibre link cable on the basis that the situation develops further and there are tighter restrictions.

ITN Post Production first started planning a remote workflow scenario a year ago, according to Strous, and Covid-19 has served to expedite this process.

“It has all come at a cost – we’ve made a substantial investment – but if this is what it takes to be nimble – it’s what people expect from us,” says Strous.

He adds that another upshot of remote working is that ITN’s facilities can never in the future claim to be full. “All we need to do is add another computer to our network. If I have 40 people working from home then I’ve doubled my facility overnight.”

Broadcaster’s tech support teams
Sky News’ Tech Team has worked hard over the last two weeks to set up remote working capabilities so that its presenters and correspondents can work outside its West London Studios.

For the broadcaster’s UK-based presenters this has involved installing the Dejero LivePlus Mobile App for remote video acquisition running on an iPhone, to enable them to send a high quality live video feed to the studio.

The team has tweeted out several images of Sky breakfast presenter Stephen Dixon and afternoon host Sarah Jane Mee using these apps in their home office set ups.

These presenters’ home studios also display three tripod-mounted iPads, running TechexUK video-over-IP solution MWPlay that enables the presenters to receive independent low latency feeds from the studio for autocue, off air feedback and the presenter return feeds.

For its US coverage Amanda Walker, Sky’s Washington-based correspondent, is using a tripod mounted iPhone running on a LiveU transmission app for her straight to camera live broadcasts.

Other kit includes a couple of portable studio lights and a surprisingly effective backdrop of Washington provided by a 60 inch TV screen displaying a freeze-framed slightly-out-of focus aerial image of the US capital.

Sky News Washington cameraman Duncan Sharp was responsible for setting up both broadcasts. According to Sharp, Walker’s IFB monitoring and cueing system was activated simply by calling into West London via an iPhone plugged into an earpiece using a Sony ECM mic connected to a Rode iXLR.

Some on Twitter were keen to discover why Sky’s US Bureau uses LiveU while the UK presenters have opted for Live Plus. Both work broadly in the same way: bonding home WiFi with 4G to make the most of the available connectivity then taking pictures from the cameras, streaming the images over the internet to the broadcaster in West London.

According to Sky News Tech team, the choice of encoder is largely down to user familiarity. “The UK team was familiar with Dejero whereas the Live U app involves more manual control that our DC camera op liked the look of,” the team explained, in a reply tweet.

Sky News Tech Team added that LiveU app furniture can make it trickier for the presenters to get the framing just right on TV, but through the DC router the team was able to offer a return feed on the iPad so that the correspondents were able to see their LiveU output to the DC encoder and the MW Play gateway.

ITV & C4
Over the last couple of weeks ITN has delivered more than twelve home presenter kits, bringing studios into the homes broadcasters such as C4’s Krishnan Guru- Murthy and Jon Snow as well as ITV’s Robert Peston and the broadcaster’s science editor Tom Clarke – to name but a few.

All are using packages that include tripods, lights, a decent mic, mic brackets and latest LiveU video encoders.

“The new encoders mean that the flow is much better, the picture quality significantly improved, latency reduced and the autocue can be fed live straight from Gray’s Inn Road to the home – as if they were in the studio,” says ITN’s chief technology officer Bevan Gibson. He adds that the sound delay on the new encoders is only just over half a second compared the older ones, which come with a one to one-and-a-half -second delay.

Rather than using the iPhone camera, ITN has also set up its main presenters and correspondents with DSLR Pansonic GH5s, fed into the LiveU for a better quality of sound and picture.

“It’s still not the highest quality but it has a decent lens,” Gibson adds.

The presenters’ lapel mics are plugged into either these cameras, which come with a decent tripod, or iPhones in the cases of less frequently used correspondents and reporters.

Gibson adds that it’s important not to overlook aspects such as room acoustics or backgrounds when sourcing a presenter’s home studio.

Many presenters and interviewees can be seen broadcasting against the backdrop of a bookshelf or a mantelpiece bursting with awards or framed family snaps. According to Gibson, this isn’t (always) visual showing off.

“You need to look for a room with plenty of books, uneven surfaces, curtains…hard flat surfaces can sound echo-y – which is why people often use bookcases to deaden the sound,” he says.

Other measures taken by ITN have been the expansion of its Skype Live capacity from two channels to eight for the purposes of conducting interviews.

While all this is making it easier, Gibson admits that it’s strange not have much human contact in a live broadcasting environment – but it’s opened up his eyes in terms of what might be possible to action in the future. “Maybe more people will be able to work from home from now on. But our main challenge, for now, is to look at ways in which we can improve the quality.”

Channel 4 news editor Ben De Pear is full of praise for the ITN technology team. “What they have achieved over the last month is pretty short of staggering, literally a generational jump forward in working from home, editing off base, transferring picture in and out of the building and also the ability to broadcast from peoples’ front rooms.

”This was done because we have the best in the business a bunch of wonder people who work through the day and night to set up laptops and new ports, software and the ability to think round the next corner. Before the lock down and social distancing took effect I was able to buy some of the grizzlier members of the team beers at the Lady Ottoline and we all look forward to buying all of them drinks to say thanks in the not too distant future.” IBC365

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