How the pandemic likely changed TV news production for good

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There was a time when remote guest appearances via what are widely regarded as consumer-level video calls on TV networks were almost a novelty: But that was all pre-pandemic. 

Now, as the world emerges from the grasp of COVID-19 and the safety protocols started in 2020 largely relaxed, it appears this is one trend that may be sticking around. 

While this approach to remote guests doesn’t allow for the same quality that a professional-grade studio or video conferencing setup can achieve, it does open the door to more cost-efficient and faster access to more sources and viewpoints, which all in all can give TV news producers an edge when done correctly. 

It’s always been popular for TV journalism to incorporate on-camera interviews from not only witnesses to newsworthy events but also experts in fields related to the story at hand. This typically meant venturing out with a camera and lighting gear and filming an interview on location or, in cases when that wasn’t physically possible due to geography, make arrangements for a remote interview.

Pre-pandemic, the idea of a “remote” interview often required the interviewee to travel to a local station or broadcast facility with satellite or fiber connectivity. They’d typically be seated in a space outfitted with studio-grade background, lighting and audio hookups in front of a studio camera. 

For live appearances, most subjects are depicted looking directly into the camera, though it’s not uncommon for long-sided framing to be used when interviews are conducted remotely for recorded story packages.

Long sided framing, which can be done both for sit-down interviews or in-the-field ones, involves placing the body and head of the subject to either the left or right side of the frame. The person typically is positioned in a way that they are facing toward the long side, which helps convey the idea that a conversation between two people is being captured.

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In some cases, interviewees may be shot long-sided even if there isn’t someone isn’t actually sitting or standing there conducting the interview, though this is more commonly done with individuals who are accustomed to being interviewed on-camera, such as spokespeople and other correspondents. 

Although not as common, it is possible to do long-sided shots remotely as well.

This January 2021 interview with a guest included a fully lit camera setup in both locations with the subject shot long-sided, but also incorporated wide views of the setup to emphasize the interview was done remotely.

Remotely shot long-sided framing has also been accomplished using fully lit camera setups on both ends, but with the actual conversation taking place via some type of audio-video hookup between the locations. This wasn’t unheard pre-pandemic, but started showing up more during COVID-19 as travel become more challenging but local crews could still be dispatched.

No matter what the setup, someone being interviewed remotely can hear the distant correspondent or anchor are fed in via an earpiece and with the ability to see that person on a monitor positioned off camera (though faux long-sided “interviews” are sometimes shot with the person answering questions from a list provided by the reporter or simply providing a generic statement that can be used in a report).

The demand for remote guest shots increased as cable news added more channels and many of the shows on them started to rely heavily on often live interviews with experts, analysts and pundits to fill time. This could be a solo exchange with just the guest and anchor or include the (now often infamous) panel format. These shots are typically done with head-and-shoulder framing with the guest looking directly into the camera as opposed to long-sided.

These segments have the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, especially given that they can fill multiple blocks of a program and, because they can often stir up debate among guests, tend to be a good way to attract viewers. Bookers need to find and contact guests and make arrangements for them to get to a location with a camera hookup, but overall this could be significantly less expensive than having multiple correspondents or reporters packages created to fill time. 

In many cases, local affiliated stations could be used for these appearances, which are also known as “inserts.” In major metro areas, facilities with dedicated insert studios also sprouted up that networks could pay a fee to use.

Panels and interviews can also include one or more guests being in-studio if that was physically possible for them and often there would be a mix of in-person and remote guests. 

Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unheard of for a guest to appear from their home or office, but producers understood that these internet connections often didn’t have the bandwidth or reliability to provide a full, television quality picture (especially once HD took over as the norm).

Picture quality from home or office interviews is also hampered by the comparatively low-quality cameras installed in many consumer-grade hardware and audio was also problematic because guests had to rely on built-in microphones on their device or consumer-grade headphones or ear buds with microphones.

There can also problems with feedback and delays when an interviewer would pose a question and the guest might be seen on camera for a few fractions of a second longer than might seem natural with the last portion of the question echoing back.

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Because of all this, broadcasters often still prefer to have guests travel to a studio for remote appearances. 

As the years went by and technology improved, higher-end video conferencing systems could sometimes be leveraged instead, offering near-broadcast quality video and audio, though this could vary based on the system’s specifications.

Then 2020 came along.

When entire communities began closing down in March 2020 and scientists were still only starting to understand COVID-19 and how it spread, leaving home wasn’t a viable option for many. 

Major networks did start dispatching professional grade gear and ordering up fiber lines into the homes of key anchors and other on-air talent, a practice that quickly became more common.

In this November 2020 show, ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor Lester Holt anchors the broadcast from his home. He’s seated in front of a large flat screen TV panel that’s showing a photo of the ‘Nightly’ set, but is not actually seated in the studio.

NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt anchored months worth of the signature evening newscast from his New York City home thanks to collection of lighting, audio and video gear the network sent in. Other networks had setups deployed as backups to key anchors’ homes.

Not all anchors remained at home. For newscasts with multiple anchors, many networks opted to split the show between two locations to not only encourage social distancing but also have a backup in the event something happened in either place, though it was probably more likely a technical glitch would take down the remote anchor.

Some shows did remain in studio, but either were done with only the anchor in the studio with little to no floor crew, or by spreading out talent and crew farther apart at the anchor desk, in multiple venues of the same studio or across multiple spaces. For various periods of time, ABC, CBS and NBC all had at least one anchor broadcasting from home during the height of the pre-vaccine pandemic. 

However, most broadcasters were reluctant to bring in guests, especially in the early days of the pandemic, because that meant, quite literally, opening the door, to the virus possibly sneaking its way in the building. The same issue extended to correspondents and reporters as companies tried to limit foot traffic, especially in newsrooms that tend to be open workspaces.

Local TV stations also started sending portable chroma key walls and lighting gear to meteorologists’ homes, where they would be set up in various locations, including garages. 

NBC anchor Al Roker delivers a weather forecast from his kitchen in March 2020.

So, not only did remote guests start appearing from home offices, dining rooms, kitchens and spare bedrooms — but reporters did as well. Remote shots and standups, especially from outdoor spaces, started appearing after some time, but reporters also likewise appeared from a variety of mostly home-based environments.

As interest in news skyrocketed thanks to COVID-19, some viewers took to commenting on talent’s decor and choices of reading material when bookshelves showed up behind them. And, of course, plenty of children and pets made guest appearances during live broadcasts — and incidents with talent or guests getting caught without pants or amusing or entertaining objects in the background went viral.

The big difference was that most of these appearances were done using what might be classified as “consumer-grade” video calling tools such as Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or Google Hangouts (now rebranded as Meet) that typically send video and audio data across standard internet connections. 

At least some of these tools had already been growing in popularity as a way for friends and family to see each other’s faces when geography separated them and businesses would even use them for meetings among staffers scattered around the globe. For these purposes, people were largely willing to put up with lower picture quality. In addition, many of the devices the calls were being made on had small or lower resolution screens, so the sometimes lower quality video was sometimes harder to discern.

These tools are distinct from higher quality systems often referred to as videoconferencing or telepresence solutions that businesses and organizations might have installed to allow for higher quality, more immersive “video calls.” Often these systems are outfitted with higher quality hardware, better and dedicated internet connections and multiple screens. The disadvantage of them, however, is that they often require pricey proprietary hardware and might only be able to call between like-systems. 

Even prior to the pandemic, TV networks had started relying more on systems such as these to bring guests in remotely, though these would typically only feature a single person looking at the camera.

Often these arrangements relied on slimmed down versions of a full teleconferencing setup with only a single camera and screen and could be brought into homes or offices temporarily or permanently installed at convenient, central locations. In other cases, large companies or organizations invested in these types of systems in order to make it easier for their experts to appear on TV shows — though these were often based in a set location and still required the person to make their way to that part of the building or campus. 

During much of COVID-19, TV networks and stations were all but forced to fall back on using lower quality video feeds for at least some remote appearances because it simply wasn’t practical to outfit every potential guest, reporter or anchor with the connection and gear needed for a better quality feed.

Slowly, it became the norm to turn on TV and see someone being interviewed in a spare room with odd lighting and having the feed break up and “buffer” throughout the segment. However, not counting severe technical meltdowns, guests and talent were still largely able to get their point across to viewers and other panel members despite the lower quality.

Here NBC’s Lindsey Reiser interviews an expert remotely via a computer. NBC captured shots of Reiser sitting in front of her laptop asking questions using professional camera gear but recorded the guest off the computer feed.

It also become more common to see someone being interviewed via these same types of tools for a pre-recorded package, with their picture showing up in the familiar jumpy look while cutaway shots of the correspondent or reporter might be captured with a higher quality camera that was recording directly to disk without requiring transmission over crowded internet lines. Often these types of setups also include reverse cross-shot style views showing the reporting facing a computer or TV screen conducting the interview remotely, which serves, at least partially, as a way to acknowledge the fact the interview is being done remotely.

As TV news moves forward, it’s still common to see guests continue to show up via lower quality feeds from home or office spaces — and it’s likely to continue.

For one, the pandemic sparked a huge increase in people’s familiarity with video calls and the accompanying tin-y audio, stuttering video and even inevitable dropouts.

This arguably means the average consumer is more familiar with and willing to accept the lower quality picture and occasional glitch since they themselves might be experiencing it regularly. An increased number of companies are also remaining hybrid or allowing employees to work remotely permanently, meaning more business communication will be taking place using these types of tools, which still don’t have parity with professional broadcast equipment. 

Producers and bookers also benefited from the ability to book guests or panel members on short notice and without having to deal with the logistics of getting the person to a station or studio to appear live. Instead, a potential guest could conceivably get a request and be on air within minutes without having to leave their home (or put on pants). While this type of benefit is more obvious during breaking news (when broadcasters would often rely on “phoners” for reporters to “appear” on air via audio until they could get in front of a camera), it also has implications in today’s near constantly evolving news cycle.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic this also had the added advantage of being able to interview medical professionals from inside their hospitals, often just a short walk from where they were treating patients. Not only did this reduce the amount of time they had to be away from patients, it also added an added dimension to the story of overworked doctors and nurses struggling to save lives. In many ways, this meant delivering updates and observations from the front line of the pandemic.

By increasing the potential pool of guests, networks also have gained the ability to feature a broader scope of voices, views, perspectives and expertise, increasing the diversity among the normal slate of faces appearing on TV. In cases where an offbeat or more obscure topic is being discussed, featuring some of the handful of experts in that area becomes much easier.

That said, there are some words of caution that producers, bookers, guests and panelists should consider.

First, with the wider acceptance of lower quality video feeds does open up the door to book potentially dozens, hundreds or even thousands of more guests, it’s still important to vet everyone in terms of both their expertise, experience and professional history in the subject being discussed as well as considering how much value a guest might bring to the segment (in other words, don’t book more guests just for the sake of booking more guests). 

Most networks have avoided shooting remote interviews long-sided, which could suggest, at least on a subtle basis, that the interview subject and reporter were in the same room. If long-sided framing is used, it’s probably important for the interviewer to be shown seated in front of a computer or other device screen at least once during the segment so viewers are given an accurate picture of how the interview was done.

Guests should also, when possible, be comfortable with appearing on TV or speaking in public and, if necessary, coached on how to make a TV appearance look and work effectively. For example, guests should be reminded to always look at the camera (or, as appropriate, a fixed spot off camera), rather than the picture of the anchor or reporter on their screen.

Not everyone can speak off-the-cuff and respond clearly, concisely and objectively to questions anchors pose, so this should be considered as well.

For guests and panelists, it is of course always a good idea to find a quiet place where you’ll be undisturbed (with a reliable internet connection, of course). This includes making sure family members and pets steer clear of where you’re sitting and remember to remain quiet.

Backgrounds should be kept clean and simple if possible. Walls of books or clutter can be distracting and open the possibility of something appearing on air that shouldn’t.

Lighting is also important and so-called “ring” lights can be a good option for an easy and compact option. If there’s no time to order a unit, sitting in a room with plenty of natural or ambient lighting can help. Guests can also move lighting from other rooms into a space temporarily.

If no additional lighting is available, avoid sitting in front of windows, because they’ll most likely wash the picture out during daylight hours and provide annoying reflections when it’s dark out.

Guests should also clear out any personal photos or artwork if they don’t want them to appear in the background.

When using a laptop or traditional monitor with built-in camera, it may be necessary to adjust the angle of the screen to avoid having too much framing along the top of the picture. Often the way users naturally position screens for being able to see what’s on them results in too much headroom and getting a better framed view can require positioning the monitor at what may seen like an unnatural angle (though this can sometimes have the added advantage of reducing the temptation to glance at the screen).

Crews should, when possible, check the shot ahead of air, for both good framing and to check for anything odd in the background or items that, when someone sits in front of them, end up looking odd or could be mistaken for something else.

While the majority of these types of remote appearances are done from a home or office, there are alternative options that have been used for remote TV interviews via computers or mobile devices, including a rented home or other space or enclosed office at a coworking space. Some remote interviews have even been conducted from vehicles or RVs parked near a good wifi signal or using cellular data networks (which typically result in lower quality feeds).

In cases of individuals who are regular contributors or find themselves called upon to be on TV frequently, it can be convenient to designate a space for such appearances, taking into account how it looks on camera and how isolated it is from errant sound and other people. Some regulars on the TV news circuit have even invested in a mini “set” that could include a collection of furniture and decorative items specifically selected to appear on camera, hanging prints or imagery related to their area of expertise and quasi-permanent lighting.

Digital screen backgrounds typically require better lighting setups, since cameras, particularly ones in consumer-level devices, often have difficultly adjusting for a bright, backlit background if the person in front of it isn’t lit well. These also require having a graphic available to display that could range from a local cityscape to an image related to the subject matter typically discussed.

Those who appear as part of their professional role with a company, organization or institution can also use “step and repeat” style imagery provided by a graphic designer. In general, it is best to avoid using a single logo in the center of the screen since this will be covered by at least part of the body. The same rule goes for using an image that has a key focal point in the middle of the screen (it’s also important to consider what a face and body will cover when placing any objects in the background and they might appear to be awkwardly jutting out from someone’s head).

Some networks can also provide guests with branded imagery to show on such screens, so outfitting the space with a monitor that accepts a variety of input formats can be a good move.

The idea of the remote interview has also been enhanced thanks to advances in technology that allows broadcasters to simulate in-person interviews between people who are in different cities, countries or even continents.

In this view, former President Barack Obama is not in the same room with Oprah Winfrey.

For example, Oprah Winfrey conducted a remote interview with former President Barack Obama this way during the pandemic in November 2020. Both were seated on matching chairs. Winfrey was in a real room and the wide shots were framed to allow space for Obama to be inserted as if he was seated across from her. In reality, he was in green screen studio and captured by quality cameras under professional lighting setups. 

This image shows former President Barack Obama on a green screen. His chair matches the one Winfrey sat on.

In shots where both were on-screen, such as wide two-shots or cross-shots, the two images are combined to create the illusion the pair were sitting across from each other when in reality they were sitting thousands of miles apart. 

The Drew Barrymore Show,” in what could be seen as some pretty good accidental foresight, had its New York set equipped with the ability to “bring in” guests remotely from the Los Angeles area, where many celebrities are based. Again, these celebs are captured in California sitting on matching chairs and have their images combined with Barrymore on set in New York.

This was done for a reunion interview between Barrymore and her “Charlie’s Angels” movie co-stars. Although Barrymore and Lucy Liu were in New York but seated farther apart than is typical, Cameron Diaz was made to appear as if she was on-set thanks to the virtual production tools.

These setups typically include audio hookups between the pair still allowed them to hear each other as well as video screens placed in a way so that, when one person is looking at it, their eye line is matched to where the other person’s face would be. 

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are highly recommended by multiple public health officials and experts. COVID-19 vaccines and boosters have undergone extensive testing and monitoring to ensure their safety. Scientific research has shown the vaccines and boosters to be very safe and highly effective any may help stop you from contracting COVID-19 or resulting in less severe symptoms and chance of hospitalization or death. For more information about COVID-19 and coronavirus, visit the CDC website. You can locate a free vaccination site or clinic near you at Vaccines.gov. As with any medical decision, you should always discuss your options with your doctor.

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