Pandemic Proves OTT Workflow Resiliency For News

Executives from CNN, Sinclair, Fox Television Stations and Gray Television say COVID-19 has tested the capacities of their streaming workflows and found them even more adaptable and robust than they imagined.

Among the COVID-19 pandemic’s revelations for news organizations is that those operations are better equipped for crisis coverage than they had ever been before.

Steph McGowan

“One of the things we had started doing before the pandemic began was we had started rolling out our OTT desks,” said Steph McGowan, Gray Television’s senior director of digital integrations and OTT on Thursday at TVNewsCheck’s OTT News Summit conference. “What these desks were really designed to do was [help us] operate a newscast or go live from basically a small desk space within a newsroom — with a couple monitors, a small audio board — and it was actually a good way for us to get started with our social distancing for producing and getting those newscasts on air.”

McGowan spoke during a panel, moderated by digital consultant Ian Stinson, called “Creating Frictionless OTT Workflows.” She and other news OTT leaders discussed their dramatic adaptations during pandemic conditions, among other workflow pivots.

McGowan added that the special OTT desks gave Gray engineers an opportunity to examine how they can expand operations remotely with much greater ease. They also came in handy when Hurricane Laura struck Gray’s KPLC Lake Charles, La. The NBC affiliate was evacuated, but the group was able to send personnel to its WAFB Baton Rouge to carry on.

“Just having those desks available for our stations has been very beneficial,” McGowan said.


Scott Ehrlich

Scott Ehrlich, SVP of growth platforms and content for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, said his station group has a widely deployed fleet of LiveU units across its markets. During the pandemic they instead focused on “trying to get remote on other parts of the business,” including “the control room functions and the master control functions.”

They also generated a talk show from a series of living rooms — and maybe one dining room — for Marquee out of Chicago. And they created a new newscast in Gainesville, Fla.

“The goal we had there was to try to produce a newscast that looked like an in-studio newscast,” Ehrlich said, “as opposed to something that looked like what we’ve all become accustomed to,” essentially a Zoom video conference show.

They began airing the show live, upping it to three nights a week, but didn’t announce which nights. “We kind of waited to see if anybody noticed,” Ehrlich said. “We’ve now been doing it for five months and it’s going really well.”

Mike Toppo

At CNN, Mike Toppo, the network’s VP of global digital programming, spoke of a new, pandemic-induced offering that featured anchor Anderson Cooper, three nights a week. They also employed software “to mix it all together,” Toppo said, and have used two Samsung phones located in Anderson’s home — one acting as a camera, the other as a return.

“Not only can he see video, but he can also see his prompter,” Toppo said. “He sets them up every day, really gets on with the team and does that, so that’s been really cool, and it goes to show: when you get the right people on a problem, they can get after it and come up with a solution quickly.”

Fox Television Stations have recently launched a streaming news channel, Fox NewsNow, which Steve Chung, chief digital officer for the station group, described as “stitch[ing] together in a live way different streams that are originating across the country into one linear stream.”

Steve Chung

“They use Tricaster at the station where there’s what we call a ‘DJ’ or a digital journalist in the seat who’s switching between different feeds and also able to comment,” Chung said.

In case of emergency, where an evacuation of the studio was needed, the team behind Fox NewsNow has set up remote switching capabilities, developed with TVU, using cloud technology. This has already come in handy when the Phoenix area, where the station is based, recently experienced internet outages.

“It’s been a complex set of challenges, like one mountain after another mountain after another mountain,” Chung said. “It’s been fun and scary at the same time, but it’s forced our digital and broadcast engineers to work together. I told everyone that now they should see themselves as the chief digital officer.”

Fred Fourcher

Fred Fourcher, founder and CEO of Bitcentral, discussed the new ways in which video has been remotely filed of late. “Someone shoots video, they’ll be editing typically on a laptop, using something like Adobe Premiere, and then to create that package there’s usually a combination of what they shot but a lot of times they want B-roll,” Fourcher said. “Our Oasis software enables them, remotely, from the field, to look through the entire archive, do a quick search, find the B-roll they’re looking for.”

Additionally, the software allows producers to choose a small clip from the larger stock of video — perhaps a 20-minute interview — and only download the desired section to a laptop.

“To cut the steps down we’ve literally enabled the reporter from the field to upload that to the story in the rundown,” Fourcher said. “And with an AP ENPS [system], the director or the producer that’s back at the station, or in this case remotely, would see that the status has changed, the video is in and that story is ready to go to air. So it’s a very simple process, very straightforward.”

Executives from CNN, Sinclair, Fox Television Stations and Gray Television say COVID-19 has tested the capacities of their streaming workflows and found them even more adaptable and robust than they imagined. Click To TweetMany of the workflow changes ushered in during the pandemic era are likely to stick around, the executives agreed.

“Genies rarely crawl back into bottles,” Ehrlich said. In the grand scheme of things, he added, “We really haven’t lost a beat, so, no, I don’t see us going backwards; I see us getting better at this.”

Find more OTT News Summit coverage here.

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