Tech One On One | For Fox-Owned Stations, Pandemic Responses Look To Be A Precursor Of Future Workflows
If Fox Television Stations had one serendipitous discovery in the COVID-19 era, it was the power of AWS WorkStations.
“We literally can run the entire business on WorkSpace,” says Richard Friedel, EVP of engineering, operations and technology. “All the applications that people need routinely are on there.”
Friedel says those WorkStations were a key component to the group’s rapid shift to remote workflows and production, the other essential piece being the sharp instincts of his stations’ engineering teams.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Friedel says the long-term tail of the pandemic’s industry impact is starting to come into focus, starting with a swifter adoption of the cloud and IP infrastructures.
Given the pandemic’s enormous drain on resources since March, he says it’s likely to have a slowing effect on the industry’s ambitious plans for a NextGen TV rollout in 60 markets this year. And Friedel is preparing for future workspaces where social distancing is permanently accommodated: “We are going to make this more part of the DNA of our group,” he says.
An edited transcript.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced creating at-home production and operations for Fox Television Stations?
The truth is probably the single hardest part of it was getting people to embrace it. It didn’t matter whether it was a salesperson or an engineer. This business has always been everybody comes to the building and works together. It is a collaborative enterprise.
It was completely foreign to not have people here. The challenges were getting people to embrace it and to educate them to some degree on some of the technology. This was pretty sudden. We had all kinds of disaster plans and redundancy planning, but not quite for this. We never really planned for everybody to go home and we are going to do a broadcast together.
How much did you have to adapt your disaster relief contingency plans to ensure that you had business continuity during the pandemic and the associated lockdowns?
The business itself really was OK. The equipment works. It was how to get all this collaborative work done. So the salespeople went home because most of their time is out with clients. That is their job. They are out talking to people, selling. They were not hugely impacted. But when you tell an editor he is going to have to work from home and use a remote desktop to edit content in the station, that is a radical change in how they work.
When you get into the technical adaptation, where were the hardest parts?
Lots of people don’t have good connectivity at home, and so that was an interesting challenge in many cases. The other problem was we know how to do remote broadcasting, but you don’t necessarily have it in the kind of quantities and scale that we need. Whoever thought every one of your anchors or reporters would broadcast from home? We had to scramble for equipment. We had lots of systems that weren’t obviously adapted to that like a teleprompter.
When your general manager calls your local engineer and says you have got to get the three anchors out of the building today, nobody is sitting around going let’s think about all the stuff we have to do. They just go. We will figure it out as we do it. That was our challenge.
This was just a huge communal effort. This was every one of our engineers at each of our stations [having] to figure stuff out. We shared ideas [and] the strength of our group was ad hoc divide and conquer. We had regular calls and used Slack. We had practical ideas, like we were the first I know of that put plastic wrap over control panels. You come in, clean the control room on your shift, put down the plastic wrap, at the end pick it up, clean the control panel again. The next guy comes in and repeats the whole deal. A simple concept.
We’ve heard Fox is using AWS WorkSpaces to provide access to Wide Orbit traffic and billing and sales platforms from people’s homes. How hard was that to set up? Is it working?
Probably the single biggest thing we did other than just getting people out early was the deploying of AWS WorkSpaces. We had organized around VPNs and the very first thing we when this happened was get the VPNs up, working like mad to expand capacity. [Fox Corp. CIO and SVP of Technology] Paul Capizzi wanted to try WorkSpaces, and I have to tell you, if there was one thing that made this easy, it was WorkSpaces. We literally can run the entire business on WorkSpace. All the applications that people need routinely are on there. We still have VPNs, but the vast majority of the staff is on WorkSpaces.
So you have already gone beyond sales to other parts of the company with WorkSpaces?
Everybody, including me, the businesspeople, even some of production is on it. There isn’t a video switcher in it. I can’t do that. There is still somebody at the station punching buttons on a switcher, but virtually everything else you can think of — iNews, our Bitcentral newsroom systems, editing systems, virtually everything else.
Have you had to acquire any other new software or gear other than those WorkStations to facilitate at-home work?
The cloud does exactly what it is supposed to do. We have been decent adopters of it at Fox, although clearly not to the extent that we are using it now because it is the mother of necessity. We tried different systems that compete with Zoom, but nothing huge.
The big things like Salesforce and Slack we have already embraced, and the great news is they are all large enough that they have AWS integrations. That made the transition really simple. Our biggest problem with WorkSpace has been people’s internet connections.
Do you have thoughts about how all of this will change television production and distribution workflows more permanently?
It is going to change our business, unquestionably. Some people may never come back into the building. Do the salespeople ever really need to come back? Let me be clear, it’s not like we are banning people from the building. But why would they have an office? Maybe we will have a meeting once a week in a conference room and everybody goes home.
You can argue most of the finance people don’t actually have to be here. Why would crews and field producers come back into the building? Maybe they don’t work out of here anymore, either. Maybe they all work from home, go from story to story. They will have conference calls, Zoom meetings for production, but maybe those people don’t have to come back except for gatherings and team meetings. You still want to build a cohesive team.
I can argue many of the producers on a television newscast don’t actually have to be in the building. That is certainly more convenient, but we have producers with clocks and monitor walls on one monitor and a rundown on another monitor. They are on an intercom over the internet back to the control room, producing a show remotely. We built them a monitor wall with a multiviewer. The only job we haven’t been able to move out of the building is the actual person switching the switcher, and we have one experiment with that at the moment.
What is the widespread at-home provisioning doing to the IP transition and TV’s move to the cloud?
It is exactly where we were heading anyway, and this will allow us to speed up certain aspects. It is also going to simplify some of it. We didn’t think moving to the cloud was going to be because of remote working. It was just going to be because it was more efficient or gave us some additional capabilities. Now that people are remote working, it just drives us further and deeper into it.
In the capacity of IP, it might allow us to do more sophisticated monitor walls at employee’s homes. That might be a driver. Most of our stations now have hybrid Evertz routers; they are IP and SDI. The IP or 2210 portion is small, but we can grow it. As more stuff get virtualized — master controls, and things like that — Fox is betting on that.
Is the group canceling any IP-related projects as a result of the pandemic and the big drops in ad revenue that are almost certainly coming?
We are not canceling any projects per se. There is no mandate [to not] put in switchers or buy routers. Each of the stations do their own plan. It is probably safe to say that our ambitions will be cut back. The industry is clearly going to face reductions in spending and suppliers are going to be hurt overall.
Certain suppliers will do better and certain product lines will do better. If you sell a low-latency video encoder, my bet is you can’t keep up with your orders. But it will certainly impact other business. We are not crawling under a desk and hiding. Things will just slow down a bit as you might expect is based upon what happens with revenues.
And when revenues come back we still have lots of ambitious projects and things we want to do. We are just going to be more value focused than maybe we were before.
How is the pandemic affecting the industry’s plan to launch stations in 60 markets on the NextGen TV standard this year?
I would love to say it’s not going to have any effect, but I have to be realistic. We had said the top 40 markets plus some more, so roughly 60 markets. If nothing else, fewer people are able to work on many things and people are stuck at home. We have cut back our engineering staffs.
There is just less productivity and that is going to slow it down, period, because there are fewer hands to do things. I have to suspect some groups or stations may decide that they are not going to make the investment at the moment or they are going to slow down. Fox’s investment is continuing.
I want to say I am actively working on it, but these days I am actively working on COVID relations more than I am working on anything else. My industry activities have really stopped for the last four to six weeks, but I am slowly finding a little bit of time for some of them.
We are still moving ahead, but it has also slowed down negotiations in markets because it is a market-by-market negotiation and everyone is distracted. If you made me pick a number, I would say we probably will not hit the top 40 markets, but we can probably hit 20 of the top 40. It will vary by the negotiations in each market. Obviously in the bigger markets, the more people you have to talk to.
What else is on your mind in terms of Fox’s pandemic-related planning or other redirected trends that have been a result of what is going on?
We are stuck with social distancing. We have no real choice from a practical standpoint. We are trying to figure out how we are going to restructure our workspaces and change how people work and provide the appropriate distancing techniques and/or physical barriers that you have to put in place.
As a businessperson, I have to plan, so we are assuming that [COVID-19] will come back. We will fix some problems, buy a little bit more equipment and clean up some of the stuff we did. We are going to make this more part of the DNA of our group.
I personally think the business is not going to return back to what it was six months ago anytime soon, if ever, and we need to plan. I look at it as a really interesting opportunity to change certain aspects of the business. This is a time of change with IP coming. People are going to be working in different ways. We are going to have different workflows. Some will probably continue forever.
To read more TVNewsCheck coverage of how TV stations, station groups, news organizations and individuals are pivoting to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, click here.