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KABB-TV Chief Meteorologist Alex Garcia Talks COVID-Era Remote Live Weather Reporting

In an interview with Streaming Media Producer, KABB-TV Chief Meteorologist discusses his station's pivot to remote production, and how he's leveraged Blackmagic gear to deliver a live-switched show with broadcast production value.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated pivots to remote production across the industry in 2020, and in few areas more rapidly than nightly news. This pivot has taken different forms in different situations, in some cases likely dictated--at least at first--by how much of a news broadcast's usual high production values could be replicated by essential crew members in studio working with whatever setups could be quickly slapped together for on-air talent reporting from home. Of course, much news broadcasting is always done remotely with reporters in the field, so production flexibility is a given for these broadcasts. But weather reports integrate production and tech elements that could conceivably prove particularly difficult to reproduce under stay-at-home orders.

For Alex Garcia, Chief Meteorologist at San Antonio-based KABB, the transition to remote broadcasting proved surprisingly seamless, thanks to an in-home setup he'd been using for a daily Facebook Live show, his longtime (though recently suspended) involvement with conference and conference video production, his background in radio, and a broadcast-ready production kit that had him fully equipped for multi-camera, multi-source, chromakeyed live production.

A key motivating factor in the transition for Garcia at a high production level was the need to quickly pivot the National Tropical Weather Conference (NTWC) to a weekly livestreamed show that would satisfy the event's sponsors. "When it finally got to the point to where we realized this was not going to happen," he recalls, "we had to contact all our sponsors and tell them, we're not canceling, but we are pivoting. And this is what we're pivoting to: a live television show, a live broadcast, part webinar, part interview show, part talk show, once a week. And they were all for it. They said, 'Go for it. Let's see what happens.'"

For both the new weekly live show and the nightly "Fox News at Nine" broadcasts, Garcia started with a Blackmagic Design ATEM Television HD Studio for simple A/B punch switching, a greenscreen, Panasonic DVX200, lights, mics, and two laptops. For the initial pivot to remote live production, he says, "We already had that little ATEM Television HD Studio. So all I did was pull that thing around, plugged it in, put in my cameras, and pulled up the chromakey wall and turned on the chromakey. It was a little bit of a challenge, when we first started, because I put things up very quickly. It had to happen in less than 24 hours. And so I just pulled out a light kit. I just kind of threw things together to make it work, and getting the audio frequencies right. I had to make sure that I was clear, and we had issues where every once in a while we get either a break or there'd be some type of static coming on the line. So I had to keep changing frequency. Other than that, it was just a matter of waiting for the right time where I could take two or three days off, take it all down and then put it up the way it should be like it is now. But other than that, it was, it was just a quick turnaround." 

Right away, he was able to deliver his weather report to the station via a KABB-supplied LiveU (same as those issued to the news anchors). On-site, the remaining in-studio essential crew mixes the feeds. Because of the sophistication and seamlessness of his in-home setup, Garcia says, "At least for the weather segments, it's really difficult to tell that I'm not there." 

Garcia kicked off his live show for Storm Science Network on April 2 with a similar approach and kit. But it wasn't long before he discovered he'd need to step up his game to produce the kind of show he had in mind. "Quickly realizing I couldn't just do something that simple and keep our sponsors happy, I wanted to increase the production value and get it up close to what you'd see on network. And so in order to do that, I had to spend a little extra money."

His current workflow incorporates a full complement of Blackmagic Design gear--an ATEM 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K, an ATEM 1 M/E Advanced Panel, a Web Presenter, and HDMI-to-SDI Micro Converters--plus multiple Panasonic cameras and five laptops to bring in remote feeds for interview segments. For the weekly live show, he can do overlays, and switch among the sources or showing up to four panelists at a time. "Everything just pops up. It's ready to go. We hit the show promptly at 10, I hit the open, let my partner Tim do a little bit of a speech, talk about our sponsors. We hit the sponsor promo, we go to build, and then we're off to the races and flying." 

Back on the nightly news side, Garcia says KABB-TV will continue with remote operations and in-studio restrictions through the end of 2020, and then re-assess after January 1 how they'll move forward next year. Garcia says the remote approach has both run smoothly and demonstrated that it has some advantages over the traditional in-studio workflow, to the extent that he believes stations would do well to consider an ongoing hybrid approach after the pandemic subsides and current restrictions are eased.

"If I were running a business or a television station," he says, "I would look seriously at keeping this hybrid thing in place, because it means you don't have to have as many people in the building. You don't have to have such a big building. There's a lot of cost savings involved in doing a remote workflow like this. Plus this is easy for me. If there's something that happens really fast and we need to be on the air, I can just come in here and turn on the lights and the cameras I'm ready to go at a moment's notice. So I think it's better to keep the hybrid. And I think it's probably where we're going to end up going. Right now, I'm doing everything remotely with the exception of one show, where I go in and I'm actually in the studio for an hour. I do the show and come right back home. So I think that pattern is probably what we're going to go with."