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Adventures in Remote Production

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In recent months, remote (aka remote-inte­gration, or REMI) video production workflows have evolved from a thrifty and nimble alternative to all-hands-on-the-same-deck production to a practical necessity for many producers and streaming professionals. And where on-site, in-person production persists—or has, in some fashion, returned—it's generally implemented with smaller and deliberately distanced crews and often augmented with remote workflow elements.

Even in the absence of traditional, in-person live events, live streaming surged in several verticals even in the months of the tightest lockdowns, partly because ongoing business communications demanded it, but also because advances in the technology that undergirds remote production were solidly in place before off-site streaming workflows became the only game in town. Widely available telecommunications infrastructure, Wi-Fi-ready cameras, and proven IP-based workflows have freed production crews from the restraints of wired proximity and enabled them to accomplish most production tasks at a far remove from the site of content creation or acquisition.

To get a snapshot of the current state of remote and distanced production, I spoke with a few streaming professionals and discussed their evolving production workflows and how they’ve adapted to in-flux production realities and embraced emerging opportunities in distanced and remote production.

GovTV: Who Needs Remote Control?

San Diego-based GovTV never underwent a migration to remote production and streaming—its operations were remote from the get-go. Built to offer flexible, turnkey, scalable, cloud-based, C-SPAN-style live-streamed coverage to government agencies and other organizations holding public meetings, GovTV’s BroadcastManager systems require little more on-site footprint than the one or more mounted, remotely controlled, robotic cameras its clients request.

Among other regional clients, GovTV has been working with the city of Lancaster, Calif., since 2017, streaming all of its city council meetings (Figure 1, below). The BroadcastManager system is based on technology from Broadcast Pix, which provides live, multiformat switching; customizable multiview; and robotic camera and external device control. Meetings are delivered online through Granicus, a streaming platform expressly designed for streaming government meetings.

Figure 1. Live-streamed Lancaster, Calif., city council meetings pre-COVID-19

Before adopting the Broadcast Pix solution, according to GovTV president and CEO Bob Anderson, “the system that we were using was slow and tired, with a lot of bandwidth issues, and really poor latency.” (In this context, “latency” refers not to streaming-video latency but to delayed response in serial control for robotic PTZ cameras.) “If we didn’t move a camera after about a minute,” Anderson recalls, “the camera would fall asleep. And if we went to that camera, we had to wake it up and then we had to move it. So it was rather cumbersome to say the least in the old system.”

Moving from the older serial control system to an IP-based infrastructure with Broadcast Pix in 2017 made a huge difference in the responsiveness of the system, Anderson says, and it enabled GovTV to do essentially what it set out to do as a company: help local governments that have either inadequate, ad-hoc video coverage or no video program at all to get their meetings online in a reliable and effective manner.

“Some cities, believe it or not, still don’t stream or broadcast their meetings,” Anderson says. “In some cases, it’s a very small system, a couple of cameras on a tripod, and a small switcher somewhere either in the back of the chambers or in a room. So, we’ll come in and put in a whole new system, or just forklift out an old system and replace it. When we put in a BroadcastManager system, we own it, we maintain it 24/7, and the city pays us a license fee. Some cities have a television department, and that works well for them, but other cities really don’t want to be in the business of television/ They’re in the business of government.”

Paul Redfield, founder and president of Orbdot Networks, GovTV’s IT consultant, explains how the BroadcastManager workflow offloads TV-production responsibilities in the Lancaster municipal government to GovTV’s San Diego-based control room: “We have a facility in San Diego. We have the Broadcast Pix cloud infrastructure. And then we have our endpoint, which is in Lancaster. There we have several pieces of equipment, because we are tying into their legacy stuff. We have our cameras there, we have a Broadcast Pix control unit that provides that all the cameras feed into the IP.  And we also have our own network here, so we’re not touching any of the city’s network. We connect into Lancaster via a VPN that we manage and maintain with our own hardware, and that’s how we can control and manage the equipment on-site and get confidence feeds back. It allows us to get in and switch on some things manually. We also have a recorder on-prem so we can record the meetings. The Broadcast Pix unit that’s sitting in Lancaster goes into the cloud service that Broadcast Pix provides and then provides us a return feed that we connect to out of San Diego. From that, we get control of the cameras and a multiviewer so we’re able to see all the cameras in real time."

Figure 2. GovTV’s Broadcast Pix-based control room in San Diego

“Lancaster has a server that their programming comes out of, which is basically a pre-programmed play channel,” adds Jeff Spencer, in-house manager of TV production at GovTV. “When we go to air, we actually have to interrupt their on-air feed, route our signal from the chambers to air, and then, when the meeting’s all over, we have to switch it all back as well. So it’s not just cameras and switchers that are being controlled from our remote location in San Diego. It’s basically everything it takes to get them on and off the air.”

While the shift to working from home over the last 6 months has heightened the demand and the technical requirements for remote production for a lot of outfits, for GovTV, the lack of in-person, on-site meetings has both slowed down and dumbed down its usual operations. “Cities, for the most part, are not doing meetings in their council chambers,” says Anderson. “In the case of Lancaster, now they’re doing Zoom meetings. And so we’re basically just picking up the Zoom feed, and then we broadcast it.”

“But with our service,” Redfield continues, “we take people out of control rooms. And if you’ve ever seen any city government control rooms, you know they’re usually a closet with two or three people in there”—a problematic proposition in many states under current conditions. “We don’t want to jump in too soon when cities are more in the business of protecting their citizens, but we can offer a service that certainly can help them in this environment.”

Brooklyn Bowl Nashville: Fans in the Stream

New York City-based live music and media company Dayglo Presents’ planned opening of the third location of its popular, media-rich Brooklyn Bowl venues was in the right place at the wrong time. Joining successful outposts in Brooklyn and Las Vegas, the new Nashville, Tenn.-based location was officially scheduled to open its doors on March 14—just as social distancing measures were shuttering live concert venues across the country.

Signature elements of the Brooklyn Bowl brand include copious bowling lanes and live music, featuring popular bands captured with multiple cameras, switched live, streamed, and projected via IMAG throughout the venue. Nashville was set to debut with 19 lanes of bowling, spread over two levels, as well as food and drink and a lineup of acts on its calendar, including St. Paul & the Broken Bones, Angel Olsen, The Revivalists, Larkin Poe, and The String Cheese Incident.

The COVID-19 pandemic scuttled most of those plans. But on May 15, Brooklyn Bowl Nashville became one of the first music venues in the country to deliver an entirely audience-less concert when Grammy Award-winning Nashville-based artist Jason Isbell and his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, took the stage to celebrate the release of their new album, Reunions, and debut songs from it.

Streamed live via FANS, a streaming platform that carries the tagline “Be in the Stream,” Isbell and Shires’ Brooklyn Bowl show wasn’t entirely audience-less. As with other FANS events, participants in the live stream could choose from two options: tune in, sit back, and underneath the event page’s video player to enter a Zoom room and join a semi-bidirectional stream with other viewers that switched between shots of the artists and the fans. In the case of the Isbell-Shires show (below), participants featured on the FANS CAM (something like a fan-cam at a baseball game, but pulling from remote sources) appeared on projection screens at the Brooklyn Bowl, visible to the performers as they played.

Isbell/Shires

Figure 3. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires perform at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, streamed live via FANS

“When we found out we could do crowd-less shows, the first one was Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. It was like we opened, but we didn’t open,” recalls Jonathan Healey, VP of marketing and digital strategy at Dayglo Presents. In addition to promoting the new album, part of the purpose of the event was to serve as a benefit for Isbell’s band and crew using a donation mechanism embedded in the stream, which generated roughly $125,000. That meant creating an experience that went beyond the sort of stripped-down living room concerts that artists have used to stay connected to their fans during the pandemic and producing something they could legitimately monetize.

“Our companies have been live streaming concerts for over 10 years,” Healey says. “Peter Shapiro, who owns the company, and I have a film and television background, a venue background. We’ve been in the space for a very long time. And we’ve seen live streaming pivot several times. It used to be a paid space for pay-per-view, which now, in contemporary times, they’re calling ‘ticketed live streams.’ We saw it pivot to free for marketers to really initiate a data grab via viewer-retention data or email capture. And now it’s pivoting back to paid again. During the time of coronavirus, at least in the music landscape, a lot of artists live streamed for free to maintain that connection with their fans. But now as this is prolonged, as we know, free is not really sustainable, so we’re noticing everything pivoting back to paid.”

This means emphasizing higher production values and delivering engaged and immersive experiences—something that the Brooklyn Bowls and Dayglo Presents’ other venues are well-prepared to do. “All of our venues are equipped for high-definition video, with anywhere from eight to 12 cameras, a camera operator, robotic cameras, video switcher, live-stream encoder, IMAG, etc.,” says Healey. Brooklyn Bowl Nashville’s production rig includes three PTZ cameras, four POV cameras, and two handheld cameras, all fed into a front-of-house Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio Pro 4K, with ISO and Program feeds recorded to a Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro and streaming and graphics handled by Livestream Studio (below).

Figure 4. Video production control at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. Image by Erika Goldring

“Historically, it’s kind of been a we-deliver-to-you experience,” says Healey. “We have a show in our venue, we switch it live, we encode it, we stream it live, and people watch it at home. When coronavirus hit, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we work with the times to make the experience more engaging to the people at home?’ We’re able to mix the people at home into the live event that’s happening. We can do that picture-in-picture, split-screen, or fullframe dissolves—however you want.”

One challenge with combining a videoconferencing feed with a live performance feed from a venue (and integrating those feeds in another location entirely, then streaming them to audiences on multiple platforms) is dealing with different amounts of latency on those feeds. In general, latency is not considered as critical an issue with music as it is with live sports or esports.

But integrating the feeds with a creative eye to matching content that’s not really synced can greatly improve the “Be in the Stream” experience. “I have a lot of liberty in what I do because I work in music, and music is a lot more forgiving,” Healey says. “There are no touchdowns, there’s no immediate reaction required. So I can do really creative things. If a band is singing a chorus, and I’m only working on a 10- second delay, and someone [in the online audience] is singing the chorus, even under 10 seconds behind, I can re-sync it and make it look like they’re singing the chorus in real time. So music is a lot more forgiving that way.”

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