Broadcast industry lessons in the time of coronavirus

When the Coronavirus pandemic forced many entertainment and broadcasting agencies to suspend operations, they were pushed to innovate on the fly. We spoke with Stijn Lehaen, CTO of VRT, to find out the challenges his team overcame, the limits of current technology, and the long-term impact this will have on the industry.

When the Coronavirus pandemic forced many entertainment and broadcasting agencies to suspend operations, no platform was immune to the sudden breakdown of “typical” business practices. Many were left scrambling to maintain a “business as usual” approach despite having to consider a lack of funding, the safety of employees, and new technological obstacles to overcome. To stay relevant and to thrive, these companies were forced to innovate on the fly, throwing track out in front of the train as fast as they could.

Once such company – VRT, the Flemish Radio and Broadcasting Organization – successfully implemented existing technology and revamped their operations to accommodate employees, turn disadvantages into advantages, and work safely despite these newfound restrictions. We spoke with Stijn Lehaen, CTO of VRT, to find out the challenges his team overcame, the limits of current technology, and the long-term impact this will have on the industry.

We have a crisis - now what?

The television industry relies heavily on personal interaction and collaboration, teams work tirelessly to create “daily fresh” content, where content is produced and broadcasted on the same day. Thus, they rely on creative teamwork to submit content with very short turnaround times. “We definitely felt an impact here, as we worked hard to prevent disruptions in our programming. In the first few weeks, like many industries, we thought we would have to improvise and implement a temporary strategy to see us through the lockdown. However, we soon realized that we would have to adapt to the ‘new normal,’ and create a successful long-term plan.” 

The “new normal” Stijn refers to is a phrase that conjures feelings of anxiety – a state of prolonged unease that looms over us like a dark cloud. But there lies a balance between this acceptance, and the optimism of progressing to a better, safer, post-Coronavirus world, where we reap the benefits of new technological disruptions. After all – with change comes growth. To avoid the coronavirus burnout-blues, VRT’s plan to roll out new programming for Autumn and beyond will not be strictly Corona-related. “We understand that viewers watch television as an escape, and they don’t want to be constantly reminded of this situation. Particularly with fiction, we are accepting the challenge to create programming during this Coronavirus period, with the feel of pre-Coronavirus production,” Stijn tells us.

Plan ahead - but how far ahead?

There is an overwhelming assumption that the television and entertainment industry will eventually recover and resume operations. Some things will certainly change, and there may be a lasting effect of behaviors and our perception of the typical workday as it pertains to productivity. What we do not know is when, exactly, this recovery will take place. For VRT, they are studying the impact of remote working as they plan to build a new office. “We are looking closely at two things: The effect of people working from home, and how we can learn from this situation to create a new office that finds a balance for employees, both personally and professionally.” VRT currently operates out of an open-office layout, but Stijn sees them reevaluating what role the office will play for specific departments, and in the industry as a whole. “We want to have dedicated project offices, or spaces, where employees can collaborate and brainstorm regularly while taking into consideration that not everyone needs to be in the office every day. As we think about the construction of the office and what the new normal looks like, we have to balance the reality of the last 5 months with our expectations of the next 5 years.” 

VRT - working on the set during coronavirus

Never let a good crisis go to waste

Stijn’s department had already begun making changes, which he sees as a permanent solution, to the way they utilize already-existing technology to their advantage during this crisis. For example, prior to the lockdown, video editors had been experimenting with a cloud-based system to manage media. Now, the department has proven that this cloud-based system works, and gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere, any time. “Normally it would have taken a long time to look past the possible disadvantages of working like this, but we were prepared. We were already convinced, but now with the experience of using it, we see this as a lasting solution and use it to our advantage.”

Working on set: the new ‘Golden Rule’

All of the Coronavirus lockdown measures center on one universal premise: safely distance yourself from others. Sure, in some industries it is quite easy to work from home and jump on a Zoom meeting, make a sales call from your kitchen table, or fire off emails from the terrace in your garden, but in the world of television production – with actors – this simply is not an option. “Above all else, we operate with safe distancing measures in mind, and produce around that.” Stijn and his department have implemented operational measures to maintain safe distancing, without sacrificing the quality of “the shot.” “For example, we had people wear devices on set that emitted a signal if someone else came too close. They weren’t designed to be worn on-screen, so we had to hide them from the camera’s view. We also experimented with shooting through a telelens, which allowed us to portray people as standing relatively close to each other while maintaining distance.” While these adaptations are necessary, they are not all convenient. Viewers will notice that future VRT programming will be a couple of minutes shorter than normal – a result of shorter workdays and less production capacity implemented to limit exposure. 

VRT - working on the set during coronavirus

No substitute for the real thing

If you listened to radio shows or podcasts in the first few months of this crisis, you may have noticed that some sounded clear, while others sounded like people were sat in different rooms, speaking into empty soup cans tethered by a string. We’ve all experienced the technological growing pains associated with new media in 2020. But as the circumstances evolve, so too does the technology. Stijn already sees improvements with long-term potential, particularly in the realm of audio engineering. Recently, VRT was able to produce a radio show with four different hosts participating remotely via a home setup that sounded natural and gives hope to the future of remote broadcasting.

However, capturing the “natural” flow of human interaction is not limited to on-screen productions. Stijn’s department realized very quickly that collaboration wasn’t just about sharing files, making edits, and having a chat over messenger. To fully facilitate the creative process, editors and directors and engineers need to feel like there is a connection when working together, with the ability to freely communicate in real-time. “We realized the best collaboration happens between two people in a natural environment, so now we are focusing our efforts to provide an environment that facilitates this creative process.” 

There have been remarkable efforts made to keep television and radio programming on-air while dealing with the behind-the-scenes disruptions. Even during these times, according to Stijn, VRT has discovered a renewed interest in its platform: “We’ve found that, with so much information coming in at such a high pace, viewers are turning to public broadcasters as a source of truth. A lighthouse on a rocky shore, one could say, guiding people in the right direction.” This gives hope to the future of the industry and demonstrates the importance of taking a holistic approach to solve problems and overcome technological barriers through adaptation and innovation.

Stijn Lehaen – CTO of VRT, the Flemish Radio and Broadcasting Organization
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