Broadcast Exchange: Democratization of production and pandemic’s impact on broadcasting

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Whether broadcasters wanted it to or not, 2020 turned into a real-world test of cloud production. From it, new workflows and technology are emerging to allow for better creation and distribution of content.

In this episode, Dr. Andrew Cross, president of research & development at Vizrt, joins the Broadcast Exchange to discuss how the pandemic has shaped broadcast storytelling and what changes in workflows and toolsets might remain as more organizations look to the cloud. Plus, we talk about the democratization of broadcasting and how the changing toolsets are allowing new creators to become broadcasters. 

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Transcript

The below transcript appears in an unedited format.

Dak
Welcome to the Broadcast Exchange from NewscastStudio. I’m your host, Dak Dillon. On the Exchange, we talk with those leading the future of broadcast technology, design and content. This week we’re entering the cloud and its untapped potential for broadcasters with Dr. Andrew Cross of Vizrt where he now leads research and development.

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Dak
Andrew has led the development of some of the products shaping production, including NewTek’s TriCaster, and the NDI software standard.

Dak
Thank you for joining me today, Andrew, and I wanted to talk with you about the move we’ve seen, especially now driven faster than ever because of the pandemic, the software defined video. And the progression or the march that we’re on as a broadcast community and where this is taking us. And obviously, Vizrt also is undertaking some of this itself.

Andrew
Yeah. Obviously, these are areas that we’re looking at very, very closely and I’ve spent the best part of my career working on. So for us, I think there’s probably never been a more exciting time. We’ve seen… People always say things like this, but in the last year, we’ve seen five years worth of progress and that’s an exciting thing to be part of. So it’s a good time, it’s a good time for software and video I think in general.

Dak
Yeah. That point you just made there, it’s very similar to virtual sets. People have always heralded that they were going to revolutionize the industry and it’s finally gotten to the point of some adoption. So what are the lessons that the pandemic is teaching broadcasters about software and about its capabilities, especially as the world has, went decentralized?

Andrew
Gosh, so I think we’ve learned so many different lessons, all of which I think are truly important for our industry. And I think most importantly for an industry, I think it is actually of huge benefit to us that we’ve been forced to make this change.

Andrew
Because when we look at other industries like ours, things like the newspaper industry, it is really hard to think within an equilibrium of a market without something like the pandemic hitting us, how we wouldn’t have had all the same problems that the newspaper industry had. All of these are driven by economics in which the creation of content, whether that’s written content or video content, the cost of doing it becomes lower, it becomes more accessible to more people. You have the distribution means via the internet, which makes for disruptive change to these markets.

Andrew
And we’ve seen that been very negative for the newspaper industry. And so there’s no fundamental reason that that exact same thing shouldn’t happen to broadcast. Now interestingly for us, COVID happened, and so where the industry on its own would have taken 10 years to adapt to these changes, we got forced to take one year to adapt, and as a result I think it has forced us to take a look at how we produce shows in all sorts of ways. It’s very beneficial for us and ultimately are going to be good for the industry as a whole.

Andrew
Now, obviously software, we have all learned that decentralized production has been absolutely crucial. The fact that you can now run a great looking TV show and half of your panelists can be remote is incredible. And the fact that we accept that and can make a great show that does that and put it onto air and that it’s still engaging. It’s been an incredibly important learning lesson for us.

Andrew
The fact that we’ve been forced to think about not having all of the crew within a control room anymore, but we’ve got them in different locations. That people are just putting up a green screen in their bedroom and making a new show where you couldn’t tell the difference, is amazing.

Andrew
And those are the things that the pandemic has forced us to do and they’ve forced us to be creative in ways that we haven’t been in a very long time. And I think that’s has been very, very good for the industry.

Dak
Yeah, Lonnie Quinn at WCBS in New York, he put a green screen up in the barn behind his house. So he really used all of his real estate to his advantage. And that gets us to the lasting changes of the pandemic, whether it’s more decentralizing of staffing, such as weathercasters working from their barns or more reduction in staffing.

Dak
ESPN has pioneered this model with REMI, where they’ve started producing more of their games remote, where they have say the ACC or SEC working off site. Do you see more hubbing? And what do you see happening at the media conglomerate level? Are you going to look for those efficiencies?

Andrew
So this is a great question and I think the one that really I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out because… so you and me, I think… This is always the thing that strikes me is I’m going to go back into the office one day hopefully, and the first thing I’m probably going to do is go and get a coffee. And the reason I mentioned that, well there you go. But when we go back into the office, we have certain routines.

Andrew
Now a video producer has certain routines, and me going to get my coffee is ingrained to the way I work in an office. Some things are going to be like that, and some things aren’t going to be like that. It is really, it is a fine line and I know that everybody says, well, look, everything’s changed, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m still getting my coffee when I go into the office. And I’m sure that in the same way, video producers when they go back into the studio, there’s certain things that really make sense and some things that don’t.

Andrew
Now, here are some of the things that really jump out to me as ones that I think as an industry, we have learned the Wonka way. The fact that we can do interviews like this over 3,000 miles is game-changing for the broadcast industry.

Andrew
Because before, if you wanted to run a talk show or do an interview, you needed to fly somebody to your studio. And that both cost you money, it cost you time, it limited the people you could get. And most importantly, didn’t allow you to just bring in the people that would have liked to be part of your show, but couldn’t be for one of those reasons.

Andrew
I think we’re going to get into the studio, people are going to sit down at their traditional equipment and that the producer is going to say, okay, so I want to bring in some famous person from the other side of the country, how do I do that? And people go, well, I guess we’re going to have to work out how we did that with Teams and Zoom and with a traditional production environment. That’s not going away. So I think that that is a clear win that improves shows, improves the way we make shows.

Andrew
There were some things I think like production. There were certain things around production quality, like using really good lighting and so on that I do think we will go back to using.

Andrew
So I think it’s going to be very interesting. Now looking at the broadcast level, I think what’s going to be very interesting to them is first of all, to take a step back and think what are the challenges they face as a business? And that’s always what drives change in a market.

Andrew
So their greatest challenge is probably, how do you compete with the YouTubers who can make it for one tenth of the cost and put it on YouTube, but drive a good audience?

Dak
And you’re hitting on what I was just going to be bringing up. The democratization that the pandemic has brought about in terms of broadcasters and the fact that now, like you said, we’ve all become accustomed to a different, maybe temporary change in quality from before. It allows folks who wouldn’t normally become broadcasters to become de facto broadcasters. For us to have a studio like we have here today, and it allows folks to elevate themselves into an echelon where they’re a broadcaster.

Andrew
Absolutely. Now, and I see a lot of the media conglomerates going, you know what? We really should try a show that hits this demographic or covers this subject, or which talks to this audience in this way. And the things that they have learned in the last year will allow them to try those shows. And probably some of them will fail. Probably some of them will succeed.

Andrew
But it will mean that even the large companies will have learned what it takes to go out and try things and make things. And that is great for all of us. That’s great for us as a software vendor, that’s great for the audiences, and it’s great for the media conglomerates who need to try new things and need affordable ways to try them.

Andrew
It’s like getting all the benefits of start-ups that you can run, try new business ideas, see if they work and move on if they don’t. Adopt them if they do. And I think that is going to be a big change that’s going to make TV better, quite frankly.

Dak
Yeah. I mean, we’ve already seen NBC trialing a lot of formats and shows during the pandemic on their NBC News Now platform. ABC too with ABC News Live, especially around live events.

Dak
So in terms of those problems that were problems that maybe now we’ve learned to live with, where are we on things like latency and things that have always been “problems” for broadcasters? Are they still there as a problem? Or have we now finally gotten over those hurdles?

Andrew
Okay. So that is actually a very interesting question, and I think the answer is actually, I think there’s two answers to that. I think first of all, I think we have made massive progress, and I think that the industry as a whole has looked to how to solve these problems. But maybe more interesting to me is the fact that I think a lot of these things that we thought were problems have turned out to not be problems in the way that they think we are, and we can build workflows and we can build techniques that work around things that we thought were problems.

Andrew
We thought that Zoom would never be of sufficient quality to put onto a podcast network, and yet it’s been done every day now. It’s not impacted the audience and it’s made for better shows and that’s a classic trade-off that is a better one. And I think that there are lots of trade-offs that we have made as part of this that we thought would be problems that aren’t problems.

Andrew
And I think that that has been great for the industry because it’s allowed us in many ways to get back to focusing on the thing we want, which is good shows that audiences like watching. I know my family don’t sit and, oh, that’s a slightly grainy video compared to this one. It’s whether people are talking about interesting stuff.

Andrew
So I think we’ve gained a lot here, and I think that it’s always bugged me that as an industry, we’ve built a whole industry that is around technology and the details of the technology, instead of a whole industry that’s built around making great shows, when the second is clearly what we should be doing.

Dak
Yeah. I’m the kind of person that at the end of the day, I could tell if a sitcom was filmed on an extended reality set or a green screen, but I know my mom couldn’t, and that probably says something about the quality and level of production because 10, 15 years ago it was really hit or miss, especially on some of the second-tier networks. The Mandalorian has democratized and brought some really great toolsets to all broadcasters.

Dak
And with that said, I think we all have gotten used to new software and tools over the past few years, and that segues right into what you all are doing at Vizrt. You all have some new stuff you’re rolling out and some new direction where you’re heading. So talk a little bit about what’s going on at Vizrt.

Andrew
Okay. So we’ve obviously, we’re lucky in many ways. Since our inception 20 years ago, we’ve been making software tools so we love what’s happening right now. We are a start-up trying to work out how to build new tools. We’ve got tools that everybody knows how to use, they’re proven for the last 20 years. So this is an exciting time for us.

Andrew
But what we have done that I think is very important is we announced what we’re calling flexible access, which probably a lot of people look at and go, well, yeah, I get it. Business model change, good fall, business people. But it’s not, it’s actually far more than that.

Andrew
I think that what we’re doing is we’ve recognized the fact that it’s truly important that networks and broadcasters can try things.

Andrew
And one of their challenges is when you need to build a $2 million studio to try a show, you can’t try the show. So about a month ago, what we announced at Vizrt was actually that we were going to address this exact issue. When you think about this industry, really what’s been happening is companies selling software have really been treating it like they were selling hardware. And software, a piece of software is not like a tractor. One is a capital expense and has real physical costs associated with it. The other isn’t.

Andrew
Now when you’re a TV station and you’re thinking, well, the cost of trying a new show is a few million dollars, because you’ve got to build a new studio, you’ve got to get new lighting, cameras, all of this stuff. It makes it very hard to try that new show.

Andrew
So what we did at Vizrt is we just moved to a model in which we’re making all of our tools available to people at a monthly cost so that they could try these things so that it’s very easy to get the best tools in the industry to try them, to try a show. If it works, then great. That’s in everybody’s best interest, and if it doesn’t, you move on. You try a different show.

Andrew
So we’re trying very much to adapt to suit what the market really needs at this point, which I think is a big part of what we’ve been talking about.

Dak
And increasingly part of that incredible toolset has been companies like the Unreal Engine that have been able to plug in to Vizrt and increase the level of quality and realism.

Andrew
Yeah. So it’s quite incredible when you think about it that what would have been a hundred million dollar production a few years ago can now be done for just a fraction of that. And this is what the ever progressing train of commoditization in terms of GPUs, CPUs, then combining it with software that’s being driven by commoditization of computer games has brought to our industry.

Andrew
And it’s very exciting, and I think that even when you go further, cell phones now have cameras that rival those of expensive production cameras not a few years ago. And all of this has made it a very interesting time for us in the industry.

Andrew
And I think that makes it hard as broadcaster, and as a company selling broadcasters, we have to remain very clear-eyed on what we’re bringing that’s of true value, because there really are things. What a TV producer really needs are tools that allow for workflow, that allow news or sports or game shows to be produced with very high quality, very easily.

Andrew
But then yet using the tools that are coming up to us from the broader market, and I think that’s what’s happening and that that’s been very good for us and exciting to see. The creativity that’s being used even when you look at the kind of the election coverage and so on, in terms of the tools used is just remarkable. And it looks every bit as good, and we had about one year to learn how to do it, not all being in the same studio at once. So, what the industry has pulled off, it’s been nothing short of amazing. And it all looks better and sounds better.

Dak
Now on the hardware side. The thing that I’ve been wondering about is there’s always been this talk of, oh, what if we move this to the cloud? What if we move that to the cloud? Can we do this in the cloud? And it’s the fun question every year as new products are rolled out and at trade shows.

Dak
But is there really a need to move something like the viz engine fully to the cloud? Or is it more that you want to be able to rapidly expand your licenses and rapidly expand your capacity on the cloud side of things while still having some physical presence at your broadcasting facility?

Andrew
Oh, I love that you asked that question and you asked it in the way you did, because I think you’re really getting to the heart of the matter. I’ve always thought that the cloud is a thing, but it’s not a thing. The cloud is a tool that we use to make shows in a particular way. And I think that we should focus on the first of those things, not where we do it.

Andrew
Cloud is a computer, and it’s a computer that’s not local. It’s 3,000-5,000 miles away. The incredible thing is not where that computer is located, but the fact that you’re doing it on a computer and making a show in that way, and the cloud is one of the tools you use to get there.

Andrew
But I think that you were dead on. I mean, this is the question isn’t where you want it, it’s how you want to run your show. What kind of show do you want to make? And some pieces of this because of the flexibility of software, do allow you to run them remotely and being in the cloud is one way to do it.

Andrew
But I think we always see cloud as being this noun with a capital C, when we should understand that it’s not. It’s part of a bigger trend that’s towards software. And if one understands that the trend is towards software, that means you can learn how to do it on prem and transition into the cloud. You can then run out new shows in the cloud, and it opens up a lot of new or better ways to build your business than just cloud with a capital C, which seems like a very heavy lift.

Andrew
And so I actually spent a lot of time talking to people and trying to look at how we make the transition to the cloud, which is very important, but it’s not everything. And I think that it is the other, it’s not the underlying trend. It’s the trends of software and what people are doing that are making us go to the cloud and not the other way around.

Dak
And then on the NewTek side of things, I assume business has been booming. There’s all of these folks who had to figure out something to do instead of trade shows, whether that be a virtual event or a virtual keynote, or just corporations looking to do more video content.

Andrew
Yeah, absolutely. And I think NewTek have had the best year in our gosh, 30 year history now. And it’s really cool to see because since the beginning, we always… The first video toaster product we ever made, the analysts look at it and said there’s only a hundred TV stations in North America. You’re going to sell a hundred of these total, that’s the world. And so it needs to be priced at 10 times the price, and we didn’t do that, and we sold thousands.

Andrew
And then the analysts look at us and go, where on earth, where are all these going? There aren’t that many TV stations in the world at that point. And the answer was that we’d always thought that the market was that that so many more people were going to need to be using video and telling videos. And we’ve seen this massive explosion of that in the last year of course.

Andrew
There’s no company that now shouldn’t be thinking about how to do sales through online video, trainings, internal company meetings. And so the use of video has just grown massively and that’s clearly been to our benefit, but it shows that this belief that more people are going to need to use video in more ways, in more places, for more shows is the trend of the overall, the world let’s say.

Andrew
And I think that the companies that are building into that and sitting on top of software and computers are the ones that are going to succeed well. And that’s why I think both on the NewTek and the viz side, we’re really in the right place at the right time.

Dak
So to wrap up, what are the two or three trends that you’re going to be watching for this year, as people get back to the office maybe, as productions continue to increase? What should we be paying attention to?

Andrew
I think you’ve actually already asked me one of the things that I think is a really interesting trend, which is how much of this sticks and how much of it doesn’t. But to go along with that, I think that there were certain things that we, there were a lot of corners cut in the last year. And some of those corners that got cut are ones we don’t want to live within the long run, because they make the factory of production difficult.

Andrew
But some of them are ones that were very beneficial and it’s going to be that trade-off, that I think is very, very interesting. I think that it’s given us a very new and more pragmatic view about some of the priorities. So going into this, I think a lot of TV stations were thinking quality, move to IP, move to HDR, move to 4K, are their priorities.

Andrew
And I think now they’ve realized no, it’s actually about being able to take media from everywhere, to move it anywhere, to be able to bring in new forms of media, to be able to bring in callers from different places. And so I sense that the priorities that people have in terms of where they would develop even their own technology stacks has changed a lot in very interesting ways.

Andrew
And I think those are going to be the things that I watch very closely. And I think it’s going to be as interesting coming out of COVID as it was being in COVID, because I think we’re going to see a lot of change and it’s going to be really very interesting to look at TV in three years time.

Andrew
And I think that we’re lucky. If the newspaper industry had run out of ink, they would have been forced to change and they didn’t run out of ink. To me, COVID is that equivalent for the broadcast industry. We ran out of ink, we needed to change. That’s exciting. It’s caused us all to change and it’s for the better, and it’s going to allow us, it’s going to look very different three or five years from now. And I think that’s exciting and it’s great to be in an industry that’s going through that. Exciting times, really.

Dak
Thank you, Andrew, for spending a few minutes here with me today and talking about where the industry is heading and the exciting changes coming to Vizrt.

Andrew
It’s been my pleasure. Thank you for talking to me.

Dak
Thank you for joining us on the Broadcast Exchange. New episodes are released every two weeks, and we hope you’ll like and follow us on YouTube or on your favorite podcasting platform.

Dak
In the meantime, make sure to check out NewscastStudio for the latest in broadcast production. And if you have any questions you’d like to see answered on the Broadcast Exchange, please tweet at @Newscaststudio or email us.

Dak
The Broadcast Exchange is a production of NewscastStudio, part of HD Media Ventures.

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