Distribution & Delivery Global Viewpoint – May 2020

Learning From Video Conferencing

As interview guests are finding it nearly impossible to visit television studios, many broadcasters are turning to video conferencing to interview them from their own homes. Although the results are “acceptable”, given the circumstances, this clearly results in a significantly reduced technical quality, but has video conferencing now paved the way for a new method of working?

My overwhelming take from this period has reinforced the need to respect and enforce high production values and this in turn boosts the need to maintain high technical standards. To help achieve technical excellence, professional broadcast systems and infrastructures allow us to monitor and control an incredible number of parameters, but these systems are rarely available to domestic users.

In a recent frustrated attempt to fix an over exposed image from my video conferencing camera (without any method of lens iris control) I placed a one-half-stop neutral density filter in front of the lens, only for the video AGC to kick in and set the luminance level back to where it had been prior to my intervention! The added video noise induced by the poor amplification electronics was a further insult.

I accept that I could always buy a better camera instead of relying on the mass-produced domestic version sat on top of my monitor, but how much should I spend and what type of lights should I buy? We know from John Watkinson’s recent in-depth articles on colorimetry that this choice is not as easy as it may first seem, and that’s before we start talking about microphones, pre-amps and equalization.

For broadcast engineers and technologists wanting to deliver the best possible video and audio, high-quality monitoring is our greatest friend, but few people using video conferencing software know what monitoring does or how to use it. This is the reason we have automatic gain controls for video and audio, automated video color balance, and automated audio level and equalization. But in this context, automation is once again a significant compromise. Even in a locked-off camera setting, automated software generally finds it difficult to deliver anything resembling the optimal solution.

Away from the technology we have barking dogs, children who insist on wanting help with their homework, swivel chairs, email alerts, and then there’s eye-line. Has anybody yet mentioned eye-line? Dare anybody mention eye-line? Look at the camera and not down to, or up to, or sideways to it. But how do you do this when the guest insists on looking at the presenter on their computer monitor directly in front of them? What about the bookshelves behind the guest? It’s always interesting to see what they’ve been reading.

There are technical solutions to the issues regarding mass-produced video conference cameras and microphones, but they soon increase in complexity as their quality improves resulting in the need for an experienced user to configure them. Automation is quickly relegated as the smallest aesthetic tweak of the iris control or audio level by an experienced technologist will make all the difference and will change the guest from “recognizable” to looking and sounding “outstanding”.

If somebody looks good and sounds good then as humans, we are naturally biased towards aligning with them. To make a television guest sound good and look good then they need to work from a sound-proof room with predictable acoustic responses, they need high quality manually controlled cameras with managed lighting, help from somebody who can frame a shot including getting the background right, and no distractions, barking dogs or swivel chairs. Oh yes, we call that a television studio.

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