Flexibility, Agility: News Production’s New Bywords

Executives from ABC News, Fox Owned Stations, WCBS New York, News 12 and FX Design Group took the measure of remote production’s changes on the industry in a NewsTECHForum panel this week. While traditional studio and field reporting are returning, permanent workflow adjustments are also settling in. Above (l-r): Glen Dickson, Jacques Natz, Fabian Westerwelle, Peter McGowan, Mack McLaughlin and Erik Smith.

The slew of new remote production techniques that were forced upon broadcasters in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have made news operations more agile and prioritized flexible technology that can be used just as easily at home as in the studio, according to top technology executives who spoke at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum on Tuesday. (Watch the full panel above).

Now almost two years into a pandemic that still isn’t over but has largely stabilized, broadcasters are trying to emphasize traditional newsgathering and production techniques as much as is safely possible, including in-person field interviews, staffed newsrooms and anchors in the studio instead of their living room. But they haven’t scrapped any of the home studio setups they installed in the first half of 2020. And they are continuing to invest in virtual desktop and cloud software as a way to maintain hybrid on-premise/remote production models where they make sense.

Fox Hardens Hybrid Systems

Like most broadcasters, in March 2020 Fox Owned Stations sent all but a few staffers home along with every piece of existing hardware that could be put into remote service, said Erik Smith, director of news operations. Since then, the group has hardened those systems, even as most staffers have returned to the stations, and worked with vendors to find new technology that is “really flexible and agile,” he said.

“Those are the key words as we work forward into the future beyond COVID,” Smith said. “A lot of what we learned from COVID applies to business continuity planning, which is obviously front and center for all of us in this industry right now. For us, it’s really about finding systems that can support us both in our buildings and out of our buildings.”

News 12 Returns To Studios, Holds On To Remote Nimbleness


Altice USA’s News 12 operations were already geographically distributed before COVID, with seven newsrooms spread across New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. They became dramatically more so in early 2020, with 80% of staffers shifting to working from home and only 20% remaining onsite. Those numbers reversed this fall, as News 12 brought most staffers back to its facilities in November.

“We’ve just been through arguably the most disruptive period in the years we’ve been doing television news,” said Jacques Natz, News 12 SVP-GM.

As News 12 weighed whether to maintain a hybrid model or go back to more traditional operations, it decided that personal interaction in the newsroom was critical to day-to-day production. One major drawback of widespread remote production was that younger journalists were missing out on the natural mentoring that comes from working alongside veterans in the newsroom, which they couldn’t get without scheduling a Zoom meeting.

But Natz said the remote infrastructure that News 12 spun up to deal with COVID has definitely made the cable news network better prepared to deal with disasters, natural or otherwise. And in the case of breaking news like weather events, the ability to quickly augment coverage with remote talent working from home greatly improves the product. He is curious where things will stand a year from now.

“That’s really the telling point,” Natz said. “How much of this really lasts as part of our future workflow, and how much of it will we just remember as a monumental disruptor that taught us a few things that we’ve inculcated in how we do daily workflow? I don’t know if anybody can predict that quite yet. But the flexibility it gives people to get on-air is unquestionable, and I think it has made our staff more nimble.”

Traditional Field Reporting Returns At WCBS

CBS owned-and-operated WCBS New York has also brought most staffers back to the newsroom and the studio, said Peter McGowan, WCBS director of news operations and new technology. Like Natz, McGowan said that younger journalists were missing out on crucial on-the-job training during the many months of mostly remote production. But he applauded the entire WCBS news staff for their resiliency in continuing to deliver coverage through life-threatening circumstances.

We’re back in the building, and that’s clearly where life is best for us,” McGowan said.

McGowan admitted to having a “love/hate relationship” with Zoom. He said the cloud-based videoconferencing system was tremendously effective during the early days of COVID as a way to do interviews, and remains a fallback when a last-minute interview comes through at the far reaches of the NYC market or a key source is traveling. But he said he’s also spotted journalists doing Zoom interviews “with people who are 10 minutes down the road, and there’s no reason why they couldn’t go and do that interview.” He emphasizes traditional field reporting at WCBS.

“If it’s 10 in the morning and your interview says come out and talk to me, we go talk to them,” McGowan said. “And those are the kinds of things we worry about with the younger folks, and that’s why we are aggressive about getting them with our people and back in the street while at the same time taking advantage of what they know how to do.”

Studio Designs Stabilize

Studio presentations have also mostly returned to normal. During the early days of the pandemic, news set vendor FX Design Group quickly provided digital backgrounds to customers looking to go live from reporters’ or anchors’ homes, said CEO Mack McLaughlin, which were generally digital copies of their station’s hard set. Then as the pandemic continued, FX Design worked with a few stations to install plastic partitions on anchor desks as talent returned.

“After that there really weren’t many changes as they came back to the studios,” McLaughlin said. “There were plenty of venues in most sets where they could stand up and socially distance, and they used opposite ends of the anchor desk versus sitting close together.”

A few customers weighed incorporating more social distancing into future designs, he said, but most expected the pandemic to end soon. While that obviously hasn’t happened, there haven’t been any further changes, such as making anchor desks bigger.

“We do have more venues in the studio, more video storytelling areas with large LED walls now, they’re a big part of that,” McLaughlin said. “But I don’t think it’s really pandemic-driven. I think the video walls are the next part of studio design for the future.”

However, McLaughlin did say that a few outside contributors to newscasts, such as industry experts, had asked FX Design to create a small studio at their corporate headquarters or within their homes in order to deliver a more polished product.

Leaving Remote Setups In Place

Even after the pandemic is over, the Fox stations plan to leave the remote contribution setups in place for their talent. Smith said the systems have been a huge benefit to breaking weather coverage, particularly in between regular news shifts when a meteorologist might not be in the building. The same goes for a handful of systems installed with regular outside contributors.

“There’s nothing like having someone in the studio with our anchors talking to them eye to eye,” Smith said. “Having said that, from a content perspective there are interviews we get now, or content we get, that we would not have been able to get in the world prior to COVID. And whether that be through Zoom, or through regular contributors where we’ve set up systems in their homes or offices, that technology that we put in place [first] just to get our anchors and meteorologists on TV has really helped us from a content perspective with contributors.”

ABC News Continues Transition To Software-Defined Workflows

ABC News was already well into a major virtualization effort across all of its news operations before COVID hit, and the network only accelerated that shift during the pandemic, said Fabian Westerwelle, executive director, media and technology, ABC News. The transition to software-defined production workflows over traditional hardware systems is expected to culminate in the new broadcast center ABC is building in downtown Manhattan, which it should move into by 2024.

Westerwelle said the three key goals of ABC’s virtualization effort are flexibility, accessibility and creativity, which require the right combination of network infrastructure, storage and compute. He pointed out that the pandemic has made all ABC personnel comfortable with “working on the internet” through cloud-based systems like Office 365, Slack and Zoom that aren’t tied to any physical location. And that same concept is driving ABC’s software design for the production systems used by its producers and journalists.

“It’s really about creating a user experience out of these applications where the user and our producers don’t care, they don’t know the difference,” Westerwelle said. “That’s what I mean about working on the internet. People are used to opening up their laptops and using these applications seamlessly, usually their web apps, from anywhere. They don’t need to care whether they’re in the building or not in the building.”

That said, Westerwelle doesn’t believe the public cloud is quite ready to handle some of the low-latency live production functions that ABC requires. So those workflows are best left in on-premise or private cloud compute that ABC manages, with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology used as a bridge to provide remote access. ABC’s production IT team is focused on creating software for those systems that will be compatible and able to communicate with the public cloud, including exchanging media, which is important both for production flexibility and business continuity goals.

“A big focus for us is to streamline our VDI buildout, and make sure that the ecosystem of applications we run on there is really seamless and creates that kind of feel for our end users,” Westerwelle said. “Because we want to enable that creativity for our producers as much as possible. That to me is really the point of a lot of this. We want to make sure obviously from a tech perspective that it’s efficient and cost-effective, but at the end of the day it’s really about enabling that creativity for people.”

For more stories on NewsTECHForum 2021, click here.

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