TVN Tech | ‘No Going Back’ To Pre-COVID Workflows
Some major changes to broadcasters’ day-to-day operations that have occurred due to the COVID-19 crisis are likely to persist after the pandemic is over, particularly the heavy use of IP contribution, cloud-based collaboration tools and production automation systems that have allowed most employees to work remotely while stations continue to produce local news.
Two months after the initial COVID-19 lockdowns these new workflows have become well practiced, and anchors broadcasting from their basement is no longer a novelty. With a vaccine months, if not more than a year, away, broadcasters are now considering that some shifts may be permanent.
“There’s no going back to what it was before this started,” said Robert Lydick, VP of information technology and station operations for Tegna. “Some of the workflows and some of the innovation that’s happened has put us in a much better place than we were, even pre-COVID.”
Lydick was one of several top broadcast engineers and technology executives who discussed the current and future state of news production in the recent TVNewsCheck webinar, “At Home Production and the Future of News Workflow,” moderated by this reporter. Representatives from the Fox and Gray station groups and IP transmission vendors TVU Networks and Latakoo described the scramble in mid-March to get employees out of broadcast facilities and quickly set up remote workflows from employees’ homes.
At one point, Tegna had 85% of its employees across the group working from home. That number has dropped to around 80% as a few employees have returned to stations to address particular job functions, generally those where someone has to physically touch a piece of on-premise hardware. For example, Lydick said that directors remotely switching shows from home, as some stations have successfully done, makes him nervous. More employees will likely come back to the station, he added, but there “still has to be a business or journalistic or efficiency reason for going into a facility.”
Richard Friedel, EVP of engineering, operations and technology for Fox Television Stations, and Clint Moore, director of broadcast operations for Gray Television, said their stations also had around 15% of employees coming into a building each day. And like Lydick, they saluted the efforts of station personnel who quickly adapted to the new way of doing business.
“I have to thank everybody on the Fox engineering and operations teams for the work these guys did,” Friedel said. “They pulled [off] miracles.”
Friedel said the Fox stations’ on-air talent was equally resourceful, as producers and anchors hooked up their own camera setups and meteorologists repurposed TV sets to serve as monitors for their weather graphics.
Moore also found a can-do spirit among the Gray stations, which were already running lean from a personnel perspective by using Ross Overdrive automation software to allow one Technical Media Producer (TMP) to direct the noon newscast and also run master control.
“When it came to us, it was how can we get producers working from home and how do we get these TMP operators who run master control and do the noon newscasts working from home?” Moore said. “And in our process we were able to put some systems together and do a lot of remote workflows. I’m really happy about the way the people across the company, all of our employees bought into it and put their arms around it.”
Some of the ways Gray has adapted: achieving social distancing by assigning employees to unused offices throughout its stations to spread them out; repurposing news trucks to use them as single-person edit bays in the station’s parking lot; parking microwave trucks in anchors’ driveways to solve connectivity issues for live shots; and using Microsoft Teams to send return video with prompter to reporters in the field.
New Toolsets Become Essential
Shifting the nexus of many stations’ news production to employee homes has meant an increased reliance on VPNs and cloud desktops like AWS Workspaces; collaboration tools like the Slack messaging system; and videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and Teams. It has also created a huge spike in activity for vendors who deliver video and audio over IP to the station, such as IP contribution and intercom systems.
TVU Networks, whose bonded cellular transmission systems have been used for years by Tegna and other big groups for field contribution, is now delivering live feeds from anchors’ homes for many stations. Since the COVID-19 crisis started, the company has seen more than a 500% increase in utilization, said Jared Timmins, SVP of solutions for TVU.
“We’ve always specialized in helping people do things in nonlocalized ways — the whole workflow from a cellular bonding perspective is to do things you normally couldn’t do in places where you normally couldn’t do them,” Timmins said. “But for us the thing we didn’t expect was just the demand. It was extreme.”
Latakoo, whose cloud-based file transfer system has been adopted by big groups like Nexstar for ingesting field footage and edited packages, experienced a similar jump in usage, said Jade Kurian, Latakoo president and co-founder.
“As news crews began working from home, we saw immediate impact in traffic to our system,” Kurian said. “Normally we would have a peak in traffic from about 3 p.m. Central to 7 p.m. Central, but we found the peak was lasting all day long.”
On a year-to-year basis, uploads to the Latakoo system were up 129% in April and streaming through the system was up 231% for the month. The company has added additional infrastructure to support all of the new traffic, much of it generated by existing Latakoo clients who have added many more users to the service.
“And our clients began to use more of our feature set, such as the cloud editor, synching to CMS [content management systems], and our transcription service,” Kurian said. “So while our core product is sending files from the field to the cloud and then automating the ingest into your asset manager, we’ve found that our clients have dictated new workflows.”
For example, one client is now using Latatoo to take live feeds from a bonded cellular service into Latakoo’s cloud and record them in five-minute chunks, along with time-of-day timecode. Producers can then direct editors to find the desired clip in the Latakoo cloud, do a quick edit and then use Latakoo to export it back to the station’s asset management system.
TVU has also been driven to innovate by clients’ changing needs from COVID-19. While Timmins said the “cloud has been the savior of us all,” he noted that the one big thing missing from the new workflows is the easy collaboration traditionally found in a station production environment. So TVU has developed a new product called Partyline that achieves what Timmins called “social production,” allowing for a similar level of interaction through the cloud as if people were in the same room.
“Imagine a tool like a Zoom or a [Microsoft] Teams, but completely connected into the cloud, completely connected into our Grid [TVU’s content sharing system] environments, completely connected into the production environment,” Timmins said. “You have an unlimited audio/video matrix that you can route people who are joining either via a link or joining via a mobile app for user-generated content. You can use it for meetings, and then you take those people into the production domain, but with the audio and video control that you need in a professional setting.
“So that if a director wants to talk to talent they can choose what earpiece they want to talk into. They can monitor and produce things in an effective way,” he said.
Hardening Workflows For The Long Haul
A big part of TVU’s proposition with Partyline is that the remote workflows being used to cope with COVID-19 are not a temporary blip but are instead here to stay. Based on what broadcasters are saying, that seems a safe bet.
When asked when things might somewhat normalize and more staff might return to stations, Friedel said that in six months things would likely still be the same. In fact, without a vaccine in place he’s worried about a resurgence of COVID-19 this winter and is planning accordingly.
Friedel said that Fox’s news workflows are running well now and the stations are done experimenting. Instead they are focused on preparing for natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, particularly the Fox stations in the South.
“We’re hardening stuff and putting stuff in place for what we believe is going to be the long haul,” Friedel said.
Many employees will never return to work five days a week at the station, he added, but instead will continue working from home and come in occasionally for meetings. Friedel thinks that will be a benefit for many staffers who have lengthy commutes or significant family commitments like child or elder care.
Tegna has a similar mindset, and Lydick said the new workflows bring improvements to many roles including reporters, editors and producers. The group is also focused on preparing for severe weather coverage this summer. That includes rethinking disaster contingency plans, since previous backup facilities like PBS stations may not be able host Tegna staffers due to social distancing concerns. Some markets are building switchers or “go-kits” in their parking garages.
Another consideration for hurricane coverage is that to be safe Tegna never allows a reporter to cover a storm solo. But Lydick noted that social distancing is rather difficult inside a Ford Escape compact SUV. So Tegna is buying the same kind of plexiglass dividers that taxis use to separate a photographer in the driver’s seat from a reporter in the back, or vice versa (Friedel said Fox is doing the same thing).
“That wasn’t even on my radar 90 days ago, and now we’re buying them en masse to get them out to our hurricane markets,” Lydick said.
What Gray employees return to stations will be looked at on a case-by-case basis, Moore said, depending on both job need and the efficiency of their existing work-from-home setup. He noted that if many employees return to a station and there is another flare up of COVID-19, employees will be prepared for it and simply grab their “to-go kit” and shift their workflow home. And he thinks there are a lot of advantages to the current state of operations.
“We’ve always tried to push field crews to work remotely, and now it’s more of a necessity than a want,” Moore said. “I think down the road it could turn out to be really good for our newsrooms and our people who are turning out content every day, and for our on-call folks. You’re on call now, and instead of having to come into the station if you get called — if you’re a producer on call on the weekend — maybe you take the work-from-home kit that gets you into turning your content and your shows faster. It’s opened a lot of doors and paved a lot of new roads for us to explore as we go forward.”
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.