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As COVID-19 has spread across the world, public service broadcasting has become increasingly important, serving as a crucial informational resource and keeping the public in-the-know while they are in quarantine. However, the pandemic has also presented some unique challenges to broadcasters across the world, who rely on a tight-knit studio atmosphere and the ability to closely coordinate the efforts of their staff to produce a great show.
UK-based Channel 4, a public-service television network, has leveraged Zoom alongside other solutions to continue delivering the news, even with its staff working remotely. Martin Collett, Programme Director at Channel 4 News, and Jon Snow, Presenter at Channel 4 News, shared their journey to Zoom and how the platform enables them to deliver a professional newscast during this challenging time.
Pivoting to a work-from-home broadcast environment
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Channel 4 relied on the well-coordinated efforts of its production team in the studio. However, due to social distancing requirements that were put in place after the pandemic began to spread, Channel 4 was forced to reduce the number of its staff in the studio for the safety of the crew.
“As the Programme Director at Channel 4 News, I work with our editorial teams to plan each night’s programme, and then work in the control room to make sure we tell the stories of the day in an engaging and coherent way,” Collett said. “I have talkback to the presenters and the rest of the production teams to keep the programme on track. The news is changing and the programme requirements are constantly evolving, and things can get busy at times. For the past few months, Channel 4 News has been operating on less than a third of its total workforce in the newsroom through illness and isolation. With staff working remotely on a major scale while introducing social distancing in a newsroom normally buzzing with interaction, we’ve had to change the rules of getting the programme out each night.”
The journey to Zoom
To coordinate the efforts in the studio with the presenters working remotely, Channel 4 leveraged autocue software to deliver scripts to presenters during the broadcast, however, effectively delivering the autocue to the presenters was a challenge due to the high latency and complexity of the available solutions.
“When we realised that we needed to remote present, I had to rapidly evaluate a range of streaming solutions to get autocue working with a minimal delay to the presenter,” Collett said. “I piloted a number of video conferencing services, but none could deliver the sub-one second round trip delay that is essential for reliable autocue. Zoom gives us the low latency video connection, and also a low latency audio return path so the operator can listen directly to the presenter. It means that Jon can rehearse scripts with the operator whilst other sections of the programme are on air. Before lockdown we did have a number of autocue solutions that we used for remote presentation, however, none are as easy to implement as the Zoom feed. Presenters can set it up themselves, and once it’s running there is no need for any further intervention.”
Incorporating Zoom into the future
Addressing the challenges associated with broadcasting during COVID-19 required Channel 4 to rethink their approach to broadcasting and develop clever solutions. In the future, the teams at Channel 4 predict they will use the techniques and skills that they have developed during the pandemic to optimize their operations and create new experiences for their viewers.
“We’ve certainly come up with many new production techniques as a result of the constraints the current situation has placed on us. I’ve just come out of the gallery where we were recording an interview that used three simultaneous Zoom calls – one so we could see the guest, one for Jon to see the interview at his home presenting position, and a third so that the producer who was editing the piece at home could see the interview too. We’ll carry on with many of these techniques once lockdown is eased.”