Remote broadcasting masterclass | Watch now
Posted on Jun 23, 2021 by Neal Romanek
In our remote broadcasting masterclass, we look at the new method of production, set to revolutionise how we do TV; all this and more in FEED’s summer Round Table
Representing the tech vendors:
Steven Dargham, head of major events, Telstra Broadcast Services
Robert Erickson, strategy account manager sports venues, Grass Valley
Norbert Paquet, head of live production, Sony Professional Solutions Europe
Tim Puschkeit, senior project manager, Riedel
Representing the production company:
Claire Wilkie, managing director, Limitless Broadcast
Neal Romanek, FEED
Neal Romanek: To start, how exactly would you define ‘remote production’/ ‘remote broadcasting’?
Norbert Paquet: There is another term I usually employ for remote broadcasting: ‘distributed production’. That gives a better idea of how we’re distributing resources. In terms of these, two main elements compose a production process.The first is technicalresources – acquiring, processing or distributing the content.Then, there are the people who
Claire Wilkie: That’s right. It’s anything that separates your MCI or gallery from the studio, so they’re operating in different locations. It streamlines your workflow, plus it’s sustainable.
We’re being asked to leave our comfort zone and do it in a different way
Tim Puschkeit: In the early days, we called it a remote production. However, you perhaps only used a few services remotely, while everything else was on-site with OB vans. It has changed, especially throughout the pandemic. That was our comfort zone and the established business practice over the past couple of years. But now, we are being asked to leave our comfort zone and do it in a different, new way.
Neal Romanek: What are the real benefits to doing remote broadcasting in this distributed way?
Robert Erickson: It comes down to efficiency and duty cycle.When you look at college football or college baseball, you might have 70 or 80 games a day. Networks, such as ESPN, traditionally fly a crew to every single production.You want to do a baseball game: you get a truck, you fly in a crew. You want to do another baseball game: you get another truck, you fly in another crew. They are there for a two-hour production, then go back to their hotel room – expense a lot of food and alcohol – before flying back home the next day.
But remote production introduces efficiency. What happens if I don’t have to fly in those crews? What if I can build a hub in LA, Charlotte or London? In that hub, I can assemble a large staff with a technical director, audio engineer, graphics operator, producer and assistant director. All those people can do one show. They can take a break and walk back into that same studio an hour later for another show. You can do back-to-back shows, and that capital asset you invested millions of dollars in can have as much as an 80% usage cycle.
Claire Wilkie: I’m not an engineer. I’m a girl with a vision. I find remote production really exciting. I love live production and coming up with challenging, mad ideas. Remote production opens up so much freedom for that.
We use a lot of Blackmagic Design kit that proves scalable and modular. On top of that, we don’t have a legacy of big broadcast trucks – we are not one of those behemoth companies. With remote production, you really are unlimited in what you can do now. With the tech becoming smaller, it means a more level playing field, and this is something that’s necessary.
I love live production and coming up with challenging, mad ideas
Tim Puschkeit: Even though I’ve been working in this business a while, sometimes I still think it’s unreal that you can operate cameras located in Sydney or Paris from London or Germany. But it’s our bread and butter now – and that will be the future.
Remote production does give you more challenges, requiring clearer communication. The camera operator may be sitting in a different time zone, speaking a different language. It’s not like doing things face to face, so you need to define your standards.
Norbert Paquet: Distributed production is modular.You put the resources where they need to be. But considering where you place the different building blocks of the production process is important. That is the acquisition, production and processing of the content, as well as distribution, plus the people required for the production.
A director might appreciate working close to his home if the stadium is far away. But others prefer to go the stadium to see the atmosphere and talk to their camera operators face to face. There is that flexibility with the remote production model; you can put the right people in the right places, based on the production workflow you want to achieve.
Neal Romanek: How might remote broadcasting actually affect how – and where – people work?
Robert Erickson: There’s been technology in our industry for the past five or ten years that has allowed us to do remote productions efficiently. But the way we’ve been doing production for eternity has worked – and a lot of the broadcasters were quite reticent to make the change. You’ve always had engineers in the background that want to improve things, but someone at the network was likely to say: “I get that, but this is how we’ve done things.This is a premier event and we’re not going to risk messing up our cash cow.”
Covid-19 opened up the door. Engineers could say: “Let’s try it this way.We’ve never done it, but the risk is actually pretty low.” It introduced the idea of innovation to senior management, raising the industry’s tolerance for failure – it’s never been a big fan of failure. But true innovation comes with the idea that you learn from possible failure and move forward.
Tim Puschkeit: I think big events, like the Super Bowl, Olympic Games or the World Cup – where you have a production of four weeks – will remain on-site. Maybe you can share synergies, using already established remote production units as well, but a lot of things will still be happening on-site. For the events that come back on a weekly, monthly or annual period, with a more or less standardised set-up, I definitely see remote production as the future.
Neal Romanek: What has been some of your practical remote production experience recently?
Steven Dargham: For the America’s Cup, we had two of the events in Europe cancelled due to Covid-19. Luckily, it went ahead in New Zealand. At Telstra, we put in a network a year ago. It needed modifying slightly, but we ended up doing the America’s Cup without a single person from Telstra on-site.
Tim Puschkeit: Riedel worked on the America’s Cup project, too. We started three years ago.The plan was to do a series in six or seven different venues across Europe and the US.
We even did recce missions and site visits. Instead, we spent six months in Auckland, New Zealand. But, in that time, we did prototype engineering. It was challenging, because we follow a 360-degree approach. We not only did the broadcast, but the technology on the boats and the race management system. We already had some remote solutions installed, with remote engineering and data logging on the boats, plus the cloud was a remote solution, too. We also had remote edit suites operating in Europe that could create news feeds overnight.
Nonetheless, due to restrictions, not a single broadcaster was able to go over there. We used Telstra’s redundant fibre to feed out to local broadcasters. Steven and I spent a lot of time on the phone between Auckland and where he was in Sydney, trying to figure things out. In the end, we used everything we had, because the local broadcasters asked for so many things: individual signals, a different voiceover and other unilateral services. We were flat out. That’s something we need to learn. Infrastructures and set-up need to be prepared for big events in the future.
We had remote edit suites in Europe that could create news feeds overnight
Norbert Paquet: One thing has been the production planning and coordination of resource. Usually, the main conversation is around latency management: how do we manage the different latencies introduced by remote or distributed operation?
Communication is fundamental to everything. As soon as you introduce latency into communication, it impacts the entire production and value chain. We’ve looked at solutions that manage the overall set of latencies introduced by the different paths the audio takes, and then how you resynchronise that in the end.
We had a lot of discussions with customers around codecs and compression ratios, because bandwidth is also an element to consider. Some people have one gig uplink – some don’t – so you have to pay attention to that.
Neal Romanek: How can remote broadcasting help smaller companies or niche broadcasters?
Robert Erickson: Grass Valley had no involvement in this, so I have no skin in this game, but here’s an amazing example. There is this ridiculous drinking game in North America called cornhole, where people throw sandbags at a wooden platform with a hole in it. During lockdown, cornhole got ratings numbers throughout Covid-19 in North America. The part I thought was really cool was that it was a completely automated production, with AI literally choosing the camera shots and an audio guy at a board riding the levels.
The fact they were using remote broadcasting and some cool new tools allowed them to take something as mental as cornhole, and make money from it. And people watched it! That’s the incredible part – granted they’re watching it less now since we have football and other sports back. It was a really cool use of going down scale and trying new technologies.
Steven Dargham: Remote broadcasting allows tier-two sports to do more for less. Producing a small event, with one or two cameras controlled using artificial intelligence and remote production, you can actually put a high-quality show on air.
The surprises CEOs and CTOs are getting is that they don’t necessarily have to pay more.That’s where the difference comes. It’s a game-changer – not just for major events, but tier-two events as well. You don’t require people to manage cameras. You can control a football match these days using artificial intelligence, without anyone driving to the stadium.
Claire Wilkie: It’s exciting to talk about doing production in circumstances we can’t control – for long-distance cycle racing, motor sport, ultramarathons, not just your top-tier sports.
In 2019, UCI para-cycling came toYorkshire in the UK. For the first time, thanks to remote production, it was streamed and broadcast live, using 4G networks.
My team ran the remote production. We covered six cycle races in one day, before the rest of the UCI cycling coverage. That is what really excites me: offering exposure to sports that usually can’t afford that level of coverage and storytelling.
Neal Romanek: What will remote – or distributed – production be like in five years?
Tim Puschkeit: Remote production will always have to be a consideration in the future. It isn’t the key to success, nor the answer to all our questions. Remote stands and falls, at the end of the day, with what the customer or broadcaster want to achieve. It’s all about emotions.
We’ll also go back to a bit more travelling after Covid-19, so it will be a mixture; a balance. The discussion will move to setting priorities and deciding what is best for the next project.
Robert Erickson: The biggest difference is that we’ll just call it ‘production’. The technologies we have developed today for remote production are going to be innately baked into everything we do. It’s just a toolset that we have to create the content we need to do.
On the engineering side, there is a unique challenge. Our job is to allow creative people to make the best content they possibly can imagine. Do you think aTD really cares if his switcher is a big Grass Valley keyframe sitting in a truck, or if it’s a bunch of compute in AWS, if it gets the job done?
They just want to focus on what they’re doing. We still make switchers, and have to do some things in hardware, but if you want to do a medium or small production in the cloud, we can do that. A lot of the things we still have to do in hardware today, we’ll be able to do in software.
Claire Wilkie: I ask all my clients: “How big is your imagination? What is the most outlandish project you can think of?” Then, we look at the tools to see how we can make it happen.
It comes down to that translation between technology and creativity. Half of my job is being able to do that for production companies or producers. They have an idea and say: “I want to live stream from the North Pole, or a mountain in Italy. I have no idea if I can do that. Is that possible?” I love that question. Of course it is, because we have unlimited technology available and it’s always being innovated.
Everything is going to get better. Delays are going to be smaller and the most outlandish ideas are going to happen. That’s why I’m in business.
The palette of options will just get wider
Norbert Paquet: Cloud, remote, IP, you name it, they will all just be part of the way we’re working. There will be a mixture of ways of creating content.The methods of working and toolsets will be put together based on the objective the creatives have. There will be more creativity, with a lot of flexibility in what people pick and choose.That’s why I like this distributed production model. You pick your resource – whether it’s a creative brain, the engineering or processing back ends – you put them together and you go. The palette of options will just get wider.
Steven Dargham: I like what Claire said. In 2012, James Cameron wanted to go to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the Earth. And guess what? We connected him live, from the Mariana Trench, all the way from National Geographic HQ.
To tell you what things will be like in five years, let me take you back to three years ago, when Fox Sports Australia decided they wanted distributed production. For the past three years, the National Rugby League, Australian soccer and Australian rules football have been done remotely from Melbourne or Sydney. In five years, there will be more AI, but remote will just be part of production.
This article first featured in the Summer 2021 issue of FEED magazine.