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Broadcasting Masterclass: Lessons in Live Production

Posted on Aug 24, 2022 by FEED Staff

It can be hard to keep up with the fast-changing field of live production. FEED sat down with industry representatives, to learn about the state of live content delivery

Neal Romanek: How have the past couple of years changed your customers’ approach to live broadcast?

JOHN WILLIAMS: During the pandemic, everyone was locked down and working from home, which meant buzzwords like remote production and virtualisation ramped up massively. There were those engineering and technical teams in the background, flat out trying to come up with new ways of working, which is the element that has carried on post-pandemic.

In terms of live production, we’re still doing the facilities on-site – but the remote studio operations, including commentary and monitoring, remain in place. As the world has slowly ‘woken up’, it has been interesting to see the different avenues production departments have gone down. It appears many have hurried to get teams back on-site, rebuilding that special atmosphere you get with a live production. However, we see it from the angle that you just don’t need to fly all those people and ship all of that kit. So, we spread it out in our studio facilities or at home – as well as having different ways of working with the core technical crew on-site.

Neal Romanek: Do you think this remote production boom is going to stick? Or do people want to get back out there?

JOHN WILLIAMS: If the world continues in its current fashion, budgets will be squeezed so much that we’ll stick with it. Also, the freight and logistics charges are still just eye-watering. I can’t really see an end in sight at the moment.

CRAIG MOEHL: On the economic side, when the client realises what they can get at a different price point, they are going to make an assessment. Should they pay top dollar for the best production values, or are they prepared to compromise for something that is just acceptable – but at a game-changing price?

We’ve had a mix of attitudes when it comes to our clients. Some clients want us on-site, others are happy doing it remotely.

As a result, the approach is led by the market at the moment. As long as we can stay flexible and provide the old-school way of doing things, as well as having a new attitude to other things, we can continue to display a level of empathy with our customers. It’s a brand-new world for them, too.

TIM FELSTEAD: The thing I’d like to ask you two gentlemen is: have the changes around human resource needs only come along over the past couple of years? There has been this emphasis on remote production and skills that we didn’t necessarily have in abundance in our industry before.

The change required now is a human transformation, as opposed to a technology transformation. I wondered, what are your perspectives on that?

CRAIG MOEHL: As we are an internet-based company, which means we are using PCs, Ethernet IP addresses and DNS security firewalls, we are already in a position where our people are more flexible. 

Take, for example, something not as black and white as moving from SDI to IP, but something like Dante audio. For us to move to Dante is an issue, even though we are networking. Before, I could unplug an SDI cable and plug it into another router, right? But if you’re playing with Dante, you need IT experts to do that. Therefore, no matter what you’re doing, you require expertise. 

The way we mitigate that risk is by having redundancy in everything. So, if our IP switch for Dante goes down, we will probably lose some audio. But if the guys know and have been trained to actually take those cables out and stick them into another router, then we can deal with that risk. It’s a case of understanding the problem, then coming up with real-world, practical solutions.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Broadcast engineers must have a level of skill in a multitude of things; be it IP technology and switch configuration, DNS IP addressing, or the structure around both control networks.

There is a whole other world of pain in some situations, because you have yet to get all that configuration. As you say, it’s not just a simple case of getting a BNC and a monitor. There’s a whole ecosystem of configuration in the background.

CRAIG MOEHL: Then, of course, you’ve got the world we live in today – everything is based on security. 

We’ve been ISO 27001-based now for about four years, and it’s been a real pain to do. It takes up so much time and money – but it has completely transformed our attitude to business. It’s all very well having a technical solution, but you need to be led by security.

"Some clients want us on-site, others are happy doing it remotely"

Neal Romanek: Do you see your customers as willing to rethink how they are doing live broadcast?

JOHN WILLIAMS: We are here to facilitate productions, large or small – on the moon or in a desert – it doesn’t matter. We will try and make sure you can tell your story anywhere. Long-standing partnerships are part of really trying to sustain a production relationship, where you can discuss new and emerging technologies and make choices around them.

It also comes back to the HR part of it. We don’t necessarily need to fly someone across the world now, because technology allows them to sit in their bedroom and configure a switch or set up workflows. But we have to also reassure the client that they’re getting the same level of service that they used to when moving that person around.

TIM FELSTEAD: From a supply perspective, we’re trying to support all of those demands – ie, the need for agility and flexibility – with respect to asset redeployment and operational efficiency.

At the same time as delivering SDI products, where people do still want something that is plug and play, we’re also developing cloud solutions – and everything in-between. But the most critical part seems to be the management layer, to enable the flexibility and operational models that seem to change daily.

John and Craig get clients walking in the door with different demands on a day-to-day basis. And as technology vendors, we’re trying to enable any business or operational model that can facilitate this.

CRAIG MOEHL: We tend to look at our ecosystem as a sort of challenge to hardware and software manufacturers like Sony and say, ‘What can you guys provide to get us to the next level’? For example, I would love to be able to do a simple two-camera shoot. Now, for us to do that with a laptop is possible, but not easy. It would be great to have a two camera PTZ  from Sony, that isn’t a cost-effective, almost-throwaway range, that I can set up and remotely control. But the real challenge is that we’re moving away from broadcast production budgets and values, to a streaming production value. And that’s the tension and challenge put to Sony and other manufacturers.

TIM FELSTEAD: We’ve been writing cloud software for years, for different reasons. Sometimes it’s file-based asset management and editing – and sometimes it’s stream based. But at the same time, we’re trying to service the different compromises that are available. In some circumstances, there is no compromise possible on certain aspects of a production, like synchronous signal processing, for instance, or the quality of the image.

On top of that, you’ve got to make sure that the operational facilities, the control surfaces and the deployment model that people want to use are also enabled. From putting the people in a different location, to the processing, to the event itself, all of those things have to be enabled. But, at the same time, being a sort of broad-church manufacturer means we are using cloud solutions, where different compromises are enabled.

Covering all of these possibilities is what Sony is trying to do with both software and hardware. It’s definitely a transition. Even if someone is planning an HDR UHD production for a very prestigious event, with lots of rights to be sold, they still want to use OTT delivery technology to get that signal to people’s mobile phones. This is why I say our industries are clashing, headlong.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Part of this derives from emerging out of Covid-19. People are more open to new things, and more accepting of different levels of quality.

CRAIG MOEHL: From a practical point of view, with Covid-19 still hanging over our heads; if you do remote production, you don’t have to do venue records. You don’t need the venue clearances. You don’t need to do logistics. There are all these things you no longer need to do. Therefore, the benefits to having remote facilities are definitely there.

Nobody’s mentioned the ‘H word’ yet – hybrid. Human beings need to be with other human beings to do quality business. But practically, some people just won’t be able to join. If your lead speaker has got Covid-19, it would be irresponsible for them to join that event. So, bringing them on stage on a 4K screen, and making that part of the original plan, is the only thing you can do. That’s where we’re heading – it’s about having that flexibility to live in a hybrid world. We need to make sure that you can offer your clients a price point that provides a compromise between the production values and that agility – otherwise the event won’t happen.

“From a supply perspective, we’re trying to support the need for agility and flexibility”

Neal Romanek: What are the real efficiencies in cloud, and are there cost savings or hidden expenses that people should know about?

TIM FELSTEAD: The ‘C word’ is somewhat overused. I don’t think people should have the impression that there’s only one answer – that life, the universe and everything can be solved by cloud – because that’s simply not the case. What you’ve got to do is use whatever technology is available to solve your problems, in a more flexible, agile and efficient way.

Cloud is another set of technologies that enables other modes of operation. If, when you say cloud, you’re talking about remote connectivity for control systems, or private networks and private data centres – which are shifting huge amounts of real-time data – it’s easy to get wrapped up in this idea of the cloud. Then it becomes all-knowing and all-seeing, and I think it’s a point to mention, it’s not a good use of the term – it gives people the wrong impression.

JOHN WILLIAMS: I don’t really like the term cloud anyway. What do you mean by cloud? Is it the bare metal in my data centre? Or is it sat in AWS? We just try and build services within our own ‘clouds’. In terms of someone walking through the door saying ‘we want to use cloud’, you start by just trying to harness and get as much of their deliverables, finding out where they want to get to in the end. Then you work back from there and see what is achievable.

CRAIG MOEHL: Everything we do is in the cloud, right? (I also hate the word!). You could say that we’ve been doing streaming in the cloud for 16-17 years. But for the same definition, we’ve got a backup wealth server in our data centre. That’s our cloud, whether it’s private, or hybrid.

We don’t have clients who come to us and ask questions about cloud. They have a business problem that they want to solve, and they’re looking to us to find a technical solution. And what we do then is push back to them and say: ‘Is it really a technical solution that you want us to provide? What exactly are you trying to get out of this event?’

We try to extrapolate everything away from a technology solution to understand what the client actually wants. If you can discern their business outcomes, then you can map something that’s technically appropriate for that, because what we’re desperately trying to avoid is the whole done-in-one approach.

One thing I would like to say, in terms of using the cloud, is that it has enabled us to scale up tremendously. Whereas, before cloud, if you wanted to go into, let’s say, 50 or 100 pages on Facebook or Twitter, we had to have those encoders sitting there in the MCR, taking that SDI feed and splitting it out. We now use a product called GG Reflector, where we send a single stream up to the cloud. Cloud is definitely an enabler for us. But it’s not something that we talk about with our customers much, because it’s already part of our solution.

JOHN WILLIAMS: It comes back to the context earlier, in terms of emerging technology. You still require the broadcast engineer on-site to plug all the cameras, but now the need is to understand all this next level – where it’s going and how that’s configured. And you must have a greater knowledge of the full end-to-end path.

“what’s needed is a fundamental shift in terms of the production process”

Neal Romanek: What are companies using to create new revenue streams and reach audiences they might not have before?

CRAIG MOEHL: There was a buzzword going around before the pandemic, ‘second screen’. If you went to IBC, or any show, second screen was one of the major themes. But it hasn’t actually kicked off that much. I would very much like to see a renaissance of it, because most people are doing both. They are watching TV as a family, as well as being on their personal screen at the same time. For example, we did something for Coronation Street where, during the ad break, we were streaming live on to an interactive page.

Once you’ve got that second screen operation, it’s a platform in itself.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Regarding regional advertising, people are into Facebook and TikTok videos, for example, and generally trying to get all outlets covered, aside from the main broadcast operation. This leads to the development of approaches in how this all integrates into your OTT, web and social teams, to help you get that full 360 delivery.

You’re then getting supplementary cameras and inputs in the Oculus and Meta side of things. We’re doing VR headsets, so people can have the best seats in the house, and choose which camera to watch a match from.

TIM FELSTEAD: There are a great number of technology threads, that relate to the business objectives of data introduction. The ability to watch tracking data of players, for instance, is another relatively recent development. There’s also the introduction of 5G services. These are all developments that are enabling different subscription models. People might pay for that second screen application, and there are some industries doing that already.

Neal Romanek: How can we get live broadcast and production down to zero carbon?

CRAIG MOEHL: We all know that carbon footprint and carbon emissions are generated when you move people and kit. If you can cut down on those two things, you are well on your way. If you’re being efficient, that means lower costs, which means either higher profit for you, or a better relationship with your client – that’s what people are trying to achieve.

JOHN WILLIAMS: As Craig said, we do have that fundamental issue of shipping kits and people around the world. It’s always on our agenda to try and reduce that as much as possible. But what’s needed is a fundamental shift in the production process, and a move to cloud-based operations. As well as this, there is a centralisation of resource within facilities – or a change to the production model, where we set up a specific venue to do it.

TIM FELSTEAD: I know the answer for not shipping kit around. But that speaks to the real solution: using the minimum amount of shipping and the minimum amount of power. It’s very difficult with sensing equipment, because anything that’s got a sensor needs to be where the action is. And if you want a special sensor that captures four, six or eight times the speed at UHD, then you’ve got to send a special piece of equipment. But there are many other things that can be centrally located. It becomes a question of resource efficiency.

This round table first featured in the spring 2022 issue of FEED magazine.

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