As more media organisations enforce home working, could the spread of the coronavirus hasten the transition to remote production?
While the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc and hysteria across the globe, the epidemic has accelerated the deployment of remote-working software to such an extent that many businesses may never look back.
“What has changed in the last few weeks is that working remotely is no longer a work-life balance argument, or a nice-to-have, it is now a question of business continuity,” says Daniella Weigner, owner, Cinegy. “Crisis is forcing change right now. This is a catalyst. It is also a major opportunity to get change done.”
Teleworking and online collaboration has skyrocketed in China with the providers of virtual workspaces like Alibaba’s DingTalk, Tencent’s WeChat Work and Huawei’s teleconference software WeLink, seeing a sudden surge in new users.
As the virus spread outside of China and the ability to travel and meet face-to-face is curtailed, people are using remote platforms to hold meetings, conduct training, even deliver presentations online. Having withdrawn from NAB, AJA will transition all of its planned events, including its annual NAB press conference, to web-based video conferences.
If there are a significant number of cancellations NAB itself could be forced to pull the plug, with show organisers and exhibitors preparing virtual meetings in the event of a no-show.
Shares in the cloud-based video conferencing and collaboration provider Zoom Video Communications have boomed as the outbreak impacts business operations. The company has already added more new active users in two months than it did throughout all of 2019.
This week Google told most of its 8,000 staff in Dublin to work from home explaining that it wants to test its ability to function with staff working remotely. Twitter has followed suit.
Broadcast tech vendors are either unusually reluctant to give their view on the issue or extremely eager to put their point of view across. The difference seems to depend on how genuinely their solutions are, in fact, ready for remote operation.
Base Media Cloud reports a significant uplift in enquiries. “The highest number is from larger broadcasters, post-production and production companies we work with who are now looking for full remote working or virtual facility systems, anticipating the potential need for locking down business premises and having staff work remotely,” says Ben Foakes, founder and managing director.
“We’ve also seen a lot more enquiries coming in for our automated cloud backup sync and cloud file sharing services - as more and more companies prepare to implement remote working across various regions. We’re talking about hundreds of TBs, which is what we’ve built our platform to handle. Traditional backup and DR solutions are not built for media.”
Demand for Quicklink’s video call management system has never been higher, according to CEO Richard Rees. It’s already used for talk shows, news and even game shows as well as corporate events. “There are lots of video conference solutions but we’re seeing an increase because we offer a professionally managed environment for broadcast,” he says.
As fortune would have it, the firm is about to debut a completely browser-based cloud supported workflow with automated Panasonic PTZ camera and lighting.
“A journalist could sit at home and interview someone located elsewhere live to air while a colleague edits the video online (in Adobe Premiere) and in realtime. That edit could be passed to a control room for wider channel distribution. The whole environment is now virtualised. We believe this is the future.”
“We’ve seen a significant increase in sales enquiries from all over the world in the past few weeks,” reports chief executive Ian McDonough, who spoke about Blackbird’s suitability for “the majority of live and file-based video production workflows. Essentially, Blackbird can be used by anyone, anytime, anywhere and this flexibility is enormously attractive to enterprises looking to drive massive productivity efficiencies through their operations.”
As teams become used to de-centralised video production Blackbird anticipates an accelerated adoption of its technology.
Global media network Sohonet reports increased enquiries from new and existing customers, anticipating the restriction of travel and reflecting nervousness about the impact of the Chinese supply chain.
Cinegy says it’s long been a proponent of virtualisation and IP. “Give your office-based staff a laptop, access to the internet and access to Cinegy software, locally or in the cloud, and they are ready to remotely produce content, remotely playout content; remotely monitor channels,” says Weigner. “The technological infrastructure is in place – from acquisition to production to distribution, all can be handled remotely and in the cloud.”
“The crisis may be the catalyst for industry-wide adoption of cloud technologies and virtualising content,” Scott Davies
Never.no hasn’t seen any direct changes in its users’ requirements for cloud-based audience engagement platform Bee-On but says the need for remote production has gathered pace in the last year.
“Our clients’ and partners’ require more integrated solutions that are accessible remotely and enable real-time collaboration – which can mitigate production costs and alleviate the risk of spreading the virus,” says CEO Scott Davies. “Bee-On is a secure SaaS cloud solution running on AWS and can be accessed anywhere with a web browser and internet connection, so there is no need for production teams to be managed under one roof.”
Gone are the days where production is managed and delivered from one hub. “The crisis may be the catalyst for industry-wide adoption of cloud technologies and virtualising content, especially as the technology is becoming more cost-effective as security, connectivity, ML and content solutions continue to rapidly evolve,” Davies adds.
Post houses prepare
Post-production group The Farm Group, which has offices in London, Bristol and Manchester in the UK as well as Los Angeles, US, has a pre-existing flexible work policy to allow its 360 permanent staff to work from home. “Because we already work in shift patterns we can accommodate a greater element of flexibility but it’s more difficult for creatives,” says Séamus MacCormaic, chief financial officer. “Given the nature of their work, creatives already self-isolate in suites, to an extent. That said, we’ve had management meetings to discuss what we can do if things scale, in particular, to counter the risks of a commute.”
Options include making greater use of a couple of existing home-based suites fully kitted for creative work. “Since we’re multi-site we have the ability to share work and if a particular region becomes more hazardous we could potentially relocate staff in the short term to different cities.”
The Farm, which works on factual, comedy, sport, drama, short-form and film, already performs some streaming of review and approvals and uses Microsoft Teams for videoconferencing with US parent Picture Head. This could increase depending on client demand.
Remote post-production is fast becoming a viable (and sometimes preferable) workflow for many teams these days, according to Frame.io. It offers proxy workflows with Adobe Premiere Pro for making uploads, downloads, sorting, conforming, collaboration, and review.
“The TV and postproduction sector is behind the curve compared to other industries in using remote working technology but I can see it kicking in [post-virus] not least because of pressures from the cost of operating in central London,” says MacCormaic.
“But you can’t get away from the interpersonal nature of the sector. The community will want to maintain face to face interaction until that clashes with risk to life. I think we need to have the flexibility going forward to offer clients the choice of on site or remote working.”
Like other TV facilities, London-headquartered Evolutions has business continuity plans in place and is insisting that staff and clients advise of any travel plans.
“As a protection to staff we won’t allow anybody to work with us who has recently travelled from category 1 countries,” says Owen Tyler, operations director. “For home working we can copy media for remote access for sign off and we know which of our staff has VPN access, but heavy editing does need access to site. For a small production we can set up an Avid at home with proxy drives but anything requiring massive collaborative workflows will need more resources.”
Fellow London-based post firm Molinare is performing ‘volume testing’ this week on plans for absent or remote working creatives and key staff.
“We use the full suite of Microsoft Office 365 cloud-based tools for remote working and collaboration, including Teams with Skype for virtual meetings and video conferencing,” informs Richard Wilding, CTO. “That’s all in daily use and enables our office team to be totally flexible in working from any of our offices, at home, or on the move. For remote access to internal services we run Microsoft Remote Desktop Services to virtualise user PCs, along with tightly controlled VPN to extend the network reach where needed – all together giving complete and secure external control.”
As a member of the Sohonet community, Molinare also offers a full range of remote review tools for editorial sign-off to high quality remote grading or editing sessions.
“We utilise Streambox for remote picture and surround sound sessions too, and offer Source-Connect for remote mix sessions and audio recording, giving access to thousands of studios and talent worldwide,” Wilding says.
As part of indie producer Rogan Productions’ business continuity plan, it will enable team members to work remotely if required. “Email is accessed remotely and remote server access will be enabled to continue working as necessary,” says managing director Soleta Rogan.
Virtual meetings, conference calls, editing at home, end-to-end encryption messaging through WhatsApp and Signal with desk phones diverted to mobile phones are other tools at its disposal.
“The continuance of operations is vital and the maintenance of communications within and external to the business is key. With the heavy reliance on the internet for most remote working solutions, we’re paying particular attention to this when assessing the feasibility of solutions.”
The new normal
For some companies, coronavirus, as well as recent flooding issues and public transport interruptions, has created an inflection point.
“Remote and cloud-based workflows are now of absolute importance and therefore top-of-mind at board level,” says Foakes. “Once the effects of any disruptive event subside, we tend to see clients have a revised view of the benefits of remote working and it means that they tend to then budget for a continuous service, which avoids the risks for the future.”
For many companies, returning to business as usual, safe in the knowledge that their data is backed up in the cloud will likely be sufficient, but others can be expected to shift to more distributed, decentralised working practices sooner than they would otherwise have planned - with less reliance on fixed, physical premises in major cities.
Rees expects the impact on business to be huge and as a result, we will see more homeworking. “Efficiency will become more critical and lead to a permanent shift to this new way of working,” he says.
Analysts are similarly upbeat. “We think the coronavirus will draw more attention to the remote work solutions market, which may enjoy long-term sustainable growth,” according to Asian financial services group Nomura.
“Just as the industry was forced overnight into digital from LTO in the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake in Japan in 2011 this could be that moment when people are forced to test remote production,” says Chuck Parker, chairman and CEO, Sohonet.
“In normal times, the hardest thing is to convince people to change their behaviour. Even when you say that 30% of production costs is travel and that remote working can improve your productivity, some people just don’t want to know. They will only change when pushed. This is the opportunity to prove you can do a lot of this remotely. People will always have a reason to travel – you need to get everyone onto the same stage - but you don’t need to live in Atlanta adjacent to the set for nine months just to post a show.”
“I think it will confirm newer thinking that creativity and collaboration can be achieved remotely,” Lesley Marr
Being ready for business process change is markedly harder than being ready for a technology change; it takes someone to decide for change, agrees Weigner. “Circumstances are dictating that companies re-evaluate their ways of working and finally act upon it.
“The investments being made now will not simply be a temporary work-around,” she insists. “Given the ease with which you can deploy a Cinegy solution, you should almost justify why you didn’t adopt earlier. A return to ‘normal’ workflows is, therefore, neither desirable nor smart. If you aren’t already protecting your business, you won’t have a business to protect in the long run.”
Impact on viewing
As far as media production as a whole is concerned there may be a short-term rise in viewing of broadcast TV and use of VOD services if people stay at home but that’s hardly good for the industry, says Ampere research director, Richard Broughton. “Any underlying economic weakness triggered by the effects of Coronavirus on business and trade, alongside consumer spending patterns on goods and services, will have a negative impact on both advertiser confidence and consumer discretionary media spend.
“We might see a short-term gain in subscription OTT before any serious social or economic damage has occurred, but the mid-term performance of the sector is likely to be more tightly linked to the overall impact of Coronavirus on the economy – and thus health/jobs/personal finances.”
Lesley Marr, operations director, Molinare doesn’t think the virus will completely change behaviours. “It may give good insight and remove any stigma that working from home/remotely in postproduction is achievable, perhaps helping to shift thinking towards a better work life balance and multi-site working in the industry,” she says. “I think it will confirm newer thinking that creativity and collaboration can be achieved remotely. That will enable more remote working practices than we see today.”
The industry is already moving towards remote, decentralised working practices because of the ecological and economic benefits. Large projects like these often have long timescales for refurbishment or replacement of playout and production infrastructure.
“Our technology can be virtualised and deployed in data centre or public cloud, with remote access operation from anywhere in the world,” says James Gilbert, CEO, Pixel Power. “This is not something that can be done as an impulse reaction to the current situation - this capability has to be architected and designed into the product from the beginning. Whilst the ability of staff to work from any location is an obvious advantage during the current outbreak, I do not feel the pace of change will be accelerated – there are already enough drivers for it.”
Sports events casualties are few so far but the industry is braced for wholesale cancellations regardless of whether the production for a Premier League match or the Olympics could be shifted entirely to ‘At Home’ workflows.
“Amid the ongoing developments around Coronavirus, the reality of at-home production capabilities, in which only cameras need be deployed on-location, is significant,” says Neil Maycock, SVP of strategic marketing and playout, Grass Valley. “Grass Valley’s remote production workflows… can be effectively leveraged from within quarantined areas to help reduce the level of risk to operators while ensuring consumers stay connected.”
Looking ahead, he thinks the remote production model opens the potential for truly distributed production. “Collaborative live production workflows that allow production staff to work from any location, even if it’s their home, are not that far off. Workflows that free staff to focus on higher-impact creative tasks are compelling, allowing broadcasters and production companies to leverage the best talent – wherever they are in the world.”