Round Table: Breaking down the news
Posted on Mar 5, 2021 by Neal Romanek
This Round Table first featured in the Winter 2020/21 issue of FEED magazine.
Raoul Cospen, director of product strategy for news, Dalet
Tom Dickinson, president of US-based operations, TSL Products
Mark Pizzey, BBC key account programme manager,Vizrt
Ruba Ibrahim, director of operations, Al Arabiya
Carl Swanston, director of news operations, CBC News
Neal Romanek, editor, FEED
FEED: It’s been a busy year, but especially for news organisations and the companies who serve them. How did you and your organisations weather the storms of 2020?
RUBA IBRAHIM: All the plans that we had last year at Al Arabiya had to be thrown away. We had to totally shift the way we were thinking, the way we were operating and our priorities. We manage two news channels and digital platforms, websites and social media. News is our bread and butter. We expected 2020 to be all about the American elections, and then we would have other coverage in our main target areas in the Middle East and North Africa. We only broadcast in Arabic with English only on our website.
At the beginning of the pandemic, of course, there was panic.We always had plans to go to the cloud and to function remotely, but we had only tested a couple of things. Suddenly we were in a situation where, in a week, we had to pull most of our staff out of the office. We kept about 15 to 20% of the critical newsroom staff and had to make arrangements for people to start operating from their homes. We needed all our reporters, producers, graphics people, creative people, promo people – almost everybody except for the playout was operating remotely. There were challenges – and there are still challenges – but it went on without a glitch on air. And that was my main concern, that the change go unnoticed by the audience. But one of the main challenges we had is that we were in the process of launching our new newsroom and studios, which was a big project we were working on for the last year. The launch was supposed to take place mid to late March, and then the pandemic came. We wondered if it was an appropriate time. To brag about your top-notch, futuristic studio while people are dying is not very appropriate. At the same time, people have worked so hard and the studio has a totally different look, so people will know.
All the plans that we had last year had to be thrown away
When we realised things weren’t going back to normal, we thought we might as well launch the new studio, and it was successful. We introduced a lot of new technologies; automation, robotic cameras and new augmented reality.
We function in an Avid environment, use Dalet for some of our asset management on the programme side and are big customers of Vizrt. It’s been challenging, but I would call it a successful experience.
CARL SWANSTON: It was similar for us at the CBC. Fortunately, we were on the heels of all of our main projects. We had a large technical renewal project in Toronto, updating our studio facilities and control rooms, and we ended that project last summer. So going into the winter, we were in good shape. My colleagues on the French side in Montreal were in the midst of moving locations, and that has been quite challenging.
We were reporting this news through January and March, but it wasn’t hitting home. And it wasn’t until the beginning of March that people started getting into contingency modes. We started securing outside facilities for radio and television. We locked down our building to guests. We had cameras and remote radio booths set up in the lobby for guests.
We had opted for the Google ecosystem a few years ago – we’re heavy users of Google Docs, Spreadsheets and Hangouts – and that was really helpful, because our people were already using these tools. Also we had stockpiled laptops for a Windows 10 project and for the Olympics, and on the English-language side we were able to deploy 530 laptops to the staff that needed them in a few weeks. So luck was on our side. We had to quickly add Citrix licenses and VPNs. In some instances, we deployed people, like graphics designers, with their desktop computers. We also quickly discovered Teradici, virtual desktop technology.
All of our editors work remotely. It’s odd, because we have edit suites that are completely empty, but the editors are accessing those CPUs and editing remotely. It’s quite eerie, seeing all these empty rooms and yet the machines are all busy working.
Also, CBC is not new to remotely producing news and special events like the Olympics.We had a very robust team of production folks helping us with technology. But part of the difficulty was it all happened during March break, when kids are off school. With daycare and camps closed, everything shut down and our employees found it very difficult to be home working with kids that need attention.
I think Covid just accelerated what was going to happen anyway
FEED: Turning to our vendors, you get to hear about these challenges from the other side, and from multiple broadcasters. What were some of the major themes you heard from your customers in 2020?
RAOUL COSPEN: Obviously, our customers’ issues are our issues. It was definitely a terrible time for many of our customers. I remember, when it all started, talking to a customer of ours in New York and they explained to me that they went from 300 people on site to just seven in one week. They already had the infrastructure ready to support those kind of things. People who are working with cloud and those kind of technologies, they’ll switch and adapt more easily.
Others struggled a lot more, because they didn’t necessarily have the infrastructure. We started to offer what we call Galaxy xCloud, which is a SaaS solution that you can consume out of the box in the cloud, with remote editing capability and connection to your network. Customers like France Télévisions started to adopt this way of working so they could get people to work from home, but as Carl just said, supplying laptops is always an issue.
I think the coronavirus pandemic has radically changed the way our customers think. There is really the ‘before Covid’ and ‘after Covid’. I think Covid just accelerated what was going to happen anyway. More and more people are starting to work from home and, by nature, the newsroom is a very distributed organisation. People are often spread all over many sites.
TOM DICKINSON: TSL has two main markets, the production side of the business, serving mobile trucks and live events, which went to almost zero in a matter of weeks. The pieces that kept going were where there was a major integration project still going on. At the beginning of the year, before I joined TSL, I was in the rental business and all the business for trucks and sporting events just stopped, literally in a day.
DNF Controls, the company that TSL bought last year, focuses on the manual overrides for news and the ability to do ad insertion. Usually those are button panels; you hit a button to stop the automation system and go to ‘live breaking news’ for example. But that’s in a physical building with someone hitting that button. So the first call we got was a request for a web app and web keys so our customers could do that remotely without anyone in the building. We quickly put in web keys so you can do manual breaks, commercial insertion and stop the automation remotely from a different location. With most of our news networks distributed, we can have any station override and control anybody else’s stations playout. So that business has continued well, because we quickly had to write code to do web keys and code to do more virtualisation of our equipment. Going forward, everything we’re developing involves virtualisation and being cloud-based. We can’t assume you have a person in a room hitting a button all the time.
MARK PIZZEY: It’s very interesting to hear the stories so far, because I can relate to them all, both as a supplier and as somebody absorbing the news. When March came about, it seemed everybody had to react. In the case of the BBC, which I work closely with, we have an automation product, Mosart, which has been a success there for many years. And by default, it enables a socially distanced way of making programmes. It wasn’t like they had to turn around and cut the number of people in the gallery, because news production in the majority of BBC sites already uses that product, so they realised that was a bit of a blessing. It wasn’t something anybody could have predicted. It was something acquired to save money, not to socially distance.
A lot of interesting projects, especially in sports, had to be shelved, but news went on. And the BBC’s traditional broadcast news viewing figures rocketed up, and that includes the regional news as well. The reason is, quite simply, more people were working from home and we all went back to watching traditional television bulletins. Sure, we’ve got the apps and 24-hour access and iPlayer, but people were watching news the way they would have done many years ago.
Everybody tuned in, to use an old-fashioned term, to hear the prime minister’s announcement. As a supplier, our priority became how to help broadcasters continue to make programmes. The immediate focus of attention became remote production.Vizrt acquired Newtek recently and our focus is to make remote production a lot more affordable. As the year has gone on, I’ve seen that popularity increase, especially as people look ahead to 2021.
So we were affected just as the broadcasters were. But the news goes on. More eyes are on it than ever. One positive thing about 2020 is it’s the year of the return of traditional broadcast news.
FEED: Ruba and Carl, does that resonate with you? Did you see more engagement with traditional broadcast news from the public?
RUBA IBRAHIM: Definitely, the viewership has skyrocketed for the conventional TV screen. Normally, it was more on the digital platforms than the TV screen. Now, people are at home. They are confined. So the families – for the first time in I don’t know how many years – are together, watching the news.
But at the same time, the viewership on our digital platforms has never been higher. People are interacting big time with all platforms at the same time. The ones that were at the top during this pandemic were the ones that provided the best content.
CARL SWANSTON: Our ratings were really good in the month of March and April. We were literally in breaking-news mode for about two months. So not only did we have the pressures of all the regular things, but our staff were required to work harder than they’ve ever worked.
But what I’m wondering is, what happens after all this has passed? Are we going to lose our audience to a fundamental change in work-life balance? Since Covid, people are reading more, they’re engaging in family games. I’m just wondering, are people going to turn the page on news a bit and focus on other things? That’ll be interesting to track.
One positive thing about 2020 is it's the year of the return of traditional broadcast news
FEED: What other changes in viewing habits have you observed?
CARL SWANSTON: Talking to people who are close to me, some people have stopped watching the news altogether; they watch Netflix or other CBC programmes. I’m wondering if that’s going to be a bit of a trend, especially with our younger demographic.
RUBA IBRAHIM: All VOD has increased significantly during the pandemic, because people are at home. Normally people are out doing activities, so definitely, it will change.We know that whenever there is big news, our viewership peaks and then it goes down. During wars or during the football leagues or the Olympics, it goes up then it goes down. It’s the nature of the consumption of news. Even before the pandemic, it had changed from watching a big screen to watching your mobile or your iPad. They will go back, most probably, into more digitally oriented mediums.
MARK PIZZEY: One thing that I noticed is, we’ve gotten used to a different kind of news coverage. You couldn’t have guests come into your studio, but there was all this online communications technology available. If this happened 20 years ago, you would hear a voice on a phone or you’d use the old ISDN communication. Now all you need is a laptop and guests can communicate with the anchors in the studio, using Zoom or Skype or Teams.
We’re used to looking at things on these very high-quality screens – even our phones are great quality. But we’ve adapted to this poor video quality very easily. I’ve heard many presenters say, “I’m sorry, but your picture is breaking up or the audio is breaking up, we’ll have to come back to you later,” because of poor bandwidth on the guest’s end. And on all the major networks, the interviews are of somebody on a consumer communications platform. And I’m still struggling to accept that.
It's quite eerie, seeing all these empty rooms and yet the machines are all busy working
TOM DICKINSON: Something that’s stood out here in the US is that breaking-news fatigue is real. There’s a point where I want to go back to a documentary. I want to have somebody tell me a detailed story that’s not just the daily grind. I’m fearful that breaking news is blocking the real stories we’re not reporting on, because we don’t have time for it. What else is happening in the background that we’re going to look back on and say, “Wow, we totally missed this bigger story because we were dealing with pandemics and elections”? I hope we see a shift back to other types of stories and not just the drumbeat of what’s been happening in the last five minutes.
RAOUL COSPEN: That’s a very good point. If you want your news to be watched, you need to be on all screens. Everybody understands that. But you also need your content to be personalised for different platforms, experiences and types of consumers. You want those same stories to be to be shaped differently depending on who is going to watch it.
I think this is one of the big issues for us as suppliers having to also adapt our editorial workflows. We need to get away from thinking of the old newsroom rundown, with TV first and then doing digital. We need to give that freedom to the digital teams – to take the lead on putting stories together and going digital first. I’m not a TV producer, but I think that if news organisations don’t adapt their production workflows to this, the future is looking bad for them.
This Round Table first featured in the Winter 2020/21 issue of FEED magazine.