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Live Production During COVID and Beyond

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When we first ushered in 2020, unaware of the forthcoming COVID-19 changes to social and workplace gatherings, my music playlist was titled 2020 Is the Answer. With respect to video solutions architecture and live-event streaming, that playlist should have been named 2020 Presents the Problem, and this year’s playlist could optimistically be named 2021 Is the Answer, as the challenges created by COVID-19 have forced us to engage with a wide range of ongoing production and business dilemmas faced by organizations and individuals in nearly every sector who rely more than ever on live streaming. Now that we're well into the new year, I’d like to take what I’ve learned and project to the near future with some solutions that seem useful for a variety of different client situations.

From my perspective, there are two approaches that are well-suited to the "limited physical presence" that COVID-19 safeguards may continue to require: 

  1. On-site production with limited resources: Webcasters can likely still arrive at an event location and produce a live stream, but personnel will be limited to whatever the local guidelines allow. Most production companies have adapted their mobile on-site strategies to work with the new restrictions in place; the bigger question is whether the event(s) will continue based on new restrictions. Sports teams may not be allowed to play in specific jurisdictions. There may be a fair bit of remote production involved with on-site production as well, in which on-site personnel are pushing streams to a cloud-based ingest, and an off-site technical director is managing the inputs, additional graphics, and so on to the final live feed. 
  2. Remote production with limited resources: Webcasters that offer technical direction for multiple camera/input scenarios may continue to repurpose their efforts to running virtual events on whatever conferencing platform meets the business requirements of the tasks at hand. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and others offer convenient ways for hosts or managers to regulate nearly every aspect of a virtual meeting or webinar. Most of my company’s work has evolved to run technical direction on Zoom webinars, controlling whose camera and mic are active, running video-on-demand (VOD) inputs through dedicated presenter accounts, and, if necessary, acting as moderator during Q&A periods. 

The problems in both of these scenarios are fairly consistent:

  • Lack of resources may mean reduced quality: If you’re not able to have all of the resources you typically allocate to your productions, how do you fill in the gap? Do you invest in more remote-controllable devices and cameras so that limited staff can operate more cameras? If budgets don’t allow for shipping quality gear to remote presenters (in situations where nearly everyone is remote), how do you prepare presenters to look and sound their best when they’re live in front of a virtual audience?
  • Internet speed and quality: As more and more of the global workforce (and audience) is staying at home, network requirements are even more critical than they have been in the past. It may not be possible to have everyone look and sound the same simply based on differences in connection speed. 
  • VOD over live: As more and more organizations and companies become accustomed to the ease of recording live meetings and webinars, live participation may not be as critical for audiences as it was prior to COVID-19. 

As a result of these predictable problems, we need to be more diligent than ever with preproduction, production, and postproduction tasks, including the following: 

  • Technical diagrams:Make sure you 
    take the time to meticulously map out all of the components and resources necessary for production day; have all stakeholders/product owners as well as other vendors participate in the plan.
  • Housekeeping rules:For virtual events, build a specific presentation slide deck that walks through the engagement process for attendees. Every conferencing platform has subtle differences in how attendees can interact with presenters and other attendees. For example, 
    spell out how and when the “raise hand” feature should be used versus text chat and Q&A features.
  • Redundancy:As I mentioned earlier, 
    the network quality of connected presenters and attendees is more important than ever, and every production should strive to have the highest-quality connection available. Make sure that everyone has a backup connection if their participation is vital 
    to the success of the program. Try to require a wired connection to the internet, and test a tethered phone or hotspot as a backup connection should the primary connection fail. 
  • Technical checks:Build into your production schedule the time to vet any and all gear setups with presenters and hosts. Camera quality, audio quality, lighting, and connection speed tests 
    should be included in all technical checks. 
  • Rehearsals:Any live event should include technical rehearsals with all available presenters and test audiences. Budget permitting, full dress rehearsals in real time should also be conducted. Oftentimes, unforeseen problems will pop up only when everything’s in place, and if you have your rehearsal(s) ahead of the live event by at least 24 hours, you’ll have the time to adjust the program and/or resources to address the problems. 

Hopefully, we’re all feeling better about the challenges we continue to face as we deal with the reality of COVID-19-affected productions in the coming months. The more prepared you are to handle uncertainties as they arise, the better you’ll be able to navigate our new virtual reality. The good news is that most of these issues are familiar territory for anyone who has been in this business for a while. The even better news is that more people are becoming video-literate with each hurdle they overcome.

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