Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – August 2021

Beyond Remote

Lockdown delivered some interesting challenges for broadcasters, mainly, how do we make television without any people? Innovation won the day and a multitude of solutions soon appeared. But are these new working practices here to stay?

Remote solutions enabled broadcasters to make live events possible. Sports arenas, once filled with tens of thousands of people were empty except for the players on the pitch. The roaring of crowds, sympathetic to the successes and woes of their teams were silent. Canned laughter took on a whole new meaning as broadcasters turned to “canned crowds”.

For me, this raised a very interesting dichotomy as we had innovative engineers providing truly creative technical solutions with crowd noise beds from existing crowd recordings, and the same engineers seemingly making editorial decisions on when to make the crowd roar or diminish based on their perception of how the game was progressing. As many a sports person will tell us, the home crowds are always a great help.

The need for social distancing meant many arena events had to reduce the crew numbers. Again, a whole load of innovation delivered remote operations. OB trucks were side-lined as tens or even hundreds of video and audio feeds were streamed back to the production studio, and cameras were remotely controlled to reduce the number of operators.

Centralization developed and studio facilities soon found themselves producing multiple events in a day from the same facility. Not only did this save money on crewing and expense costs, but crews were better utilized. For example, slo-mo operators could work on consecutive games throughout the day without needing to travel.

In times of adversity, we’re all a bit more sympathetic. If a camera feed was lost at a game, then I could imagine the director accepting this was something they had to just work with knowing that an army of engineers were battling the new technology to rectify the issue. This reminds me of my earlier days in television when we had tube cameras. Although we had several five camera studios, only four cameras were ever operational as one was usually on the chart. This was accepted as the technology was cutting edge and difficult to keep running at the time.

I’m wondering if the same understanding will be applied as we move out of lockdown. Yes, there are many advantages of remote operation from saving money to more efficient use of resource, and much smaller events can be covered as the operational costs are significantly reduced. But as the reliability of broadcast technology has greatly improved over the past ten years, to the point where it’s almost unheard of for a studio camera to fail on-air, then will the same tolerance for technical failure still exist?

As in all things engineering there is always a compromise. We employ incredibly expensive OB trucks and studio facilities for a reason, that is, they take reliability to the next level. I believe that productions with smaller viewing audiences will be fully remote, and this is where we’ll see some real innovation, especially in AI, but productions with much larger viewing audiences will soon hit a falling economy of scale if they don’t have support crews in the arena. But where is the line drawn? Luckily, it’s not me who has to make that decision. After all, who wants to miss the hole-in-one or first goal?