• Rick Singer

Coronavirus Quarantine Liveshots 1

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Part 1: Remote Control Broadcast Interviews of Quarantined Guests

Self-quarantined Vice President Biden via a video-teleconference app

(image credit: ABC Television screenshot))

Something peculiar happened on Meet the Press, the venerable NBC Sunday morning talk show. But not for the usual reasons. The coronavirus conversation wasn't controversial The production values were stark to the degree that regular viewers took notice Chuck Todd and his skeleton production crew engineered a remarkably professional job under surreal circumstances.

The news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic includes live updates from quarantined officials and subject matter experts in Joe Biden’s appearance on the venerable Sunday morning talk show. Under surreal circumstances, Chuck Todd and his skeleton production crew engineered a remarkably professional job.

Worldometer by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has been increasing exponentially according to current data from the World Health Organization. Broadcast news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic requires real-time updates from quarantined officials and subject matter experts. We’re going to see more broadcast news interviews featuring quarantined officials and subject matters in the weeks and months ahead.

Right now, most quarantined guests appear live on the network and local stations over Skype, Zoom, and other video conferencing app. These aren't designed for broadcast remotes. VC apps running on home computers the most expedient way for a quarantined official or subject matter expert to connect with a live television audience.

So who cares about poor sound and image quality? Won't most viewers ignore amateurish images and sound during this unprecedented crisis? Most viewers will, but many viewers find poor quality distracting. Unless the discussion is very compelling, the viewer's remote control within arms reach, and they will change the channel.

Typical Studio and Remote Broadcast Image Credit: Fox News screenshot

During normal times, the studio guest is interviewed on the across from the host. When the interviewee is out of town, a professional crew in that city produces the live-shot. The guest touches up their appearance, sits in the chair and reviews their notes while listening to the program in progress. The producer talks with the guest over the IFB prepare, cueing the guest just before the host starts the segment intro. Pretty cool. It’s worked like this since news broadcast was viewed black and white TV sets. Excuse the pun, but broadcasters have never encountered circumstances remotely like those during the pandemic.

What happens when the guest is quarantined in their home? Is it possible to produce a high production value live shot without a crew on location? Coronavirus quarantined guests appear live on the network and local stations via Skype, Zoom, and other video conferencing app.

Sound and image quality suffers when the interview guest uses a laptop or desktop computer running a video conferencing app. There are limitations to what can be done to improve the quality of the remote feed. The available bandwidth of the last mile network connection varies by location.

Live shots of quarantined officials shouldn't look like this. Image credit: MSNBC screenshot

Most remote interviews are scheduled on short notice. Sometimes with less than an hour before air. Most interviewees under quarantine don't have professional guidance on their media production set-up. Their camera positioned below eye level. Ambient lighting is hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. Build-in audio tends to be hollow and echoey. But there are two quick and easy hacks to fix that.

Three simple hacks can be used for all routine video teleconferences. This configuration greatly improves a business VC, but aren't ideal for a live shot.

These hacks will improve the image and sound quality so that it's not distracting. Part two of this two-part series describes the function and operation of a broadcast quality solution for live remotes via video conferencing apps.

Use Professional Boom Microphone Headsets

Professional BlueTooth boom mic headsets. Image credit: Jabra

Microphone quality and return audio intelligibly can be significantly improved by using a professional quality headset. This isn't the look that broadcasters, prefer, but it's sure beats using the microphone and speakers built-in to the tablet or laptop. The sound should be crisp and echo-free.

For participants who don't feel comfortable with BlueTooth, the headset can plug directly into the computer and also. Don't waste money on junky headsets. Period. (And if you do, you will hate yourself later.)

Mount An External Webcam At Eye level

In a typical video conference, the image from the built-in laptop camera looks pretty bad. Nobody cares. Nobody thinks they look normal on a webcam.

These days fewer people have desktop computers with an external camera mounted on the top of the monitor. Most people use laptops. People work from anywhere and everywhere. Even at the office, most people use laptops. Desk warriors sometimes connect their laptop to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Most who participate in video teleconferences at home use their laptop or tablet on a desk. It's not a good look.

Unflattering framing from the built in laptop or tablet camera.

(image credit: Steve Hullfish)

The built-in camera is framed pointing up at the participant's chin. This isn't a subtle way to convey dominance over all the other participants. Sitting the laptop on a stack of books to put the camera at eye level solves this problem. Somewhat. It’s an improvement over leave the laptop on the desk, but awkward to mouse around and type on the keyboard. The participant's arms and elbows rest similarly positioned on another stack of books. These days, some Millenials use only e-readers and don't own many dead tree books. They put everything on their bookshelf but books.

Don't try fixing the problem by mounting a webcam on a desktop tripod adjusted to eye level. This makes the problem worse. While talking the person talking continually shifts their gaze from the camera down to the screen, then up again to the camera.

This kind of nodding action doesn’t happen in face to face conversation. Connecting an external monitor to the laptop, and mounting the webcam on the top solves this problem. Looking straight into the camera and monitor makes a participant look more normal


Don't Illuminate Faces Using Ambient Light

Webcam and lighting ring mounted on the top of a monitor set to eye level.

Image credit: Logitek

There’s still the problem of poor image quality. Making sure the background isn’t distracting is obvious. A quick and easy way to improve how someone looks on camera can be solved cheaply and easily. Mount soft lighting LED panel next to the camera. LED panels with adjustable brightness and color temperature can be purchased for less than $50.

When a presenter continually shifts their gaze up and down between the camera and their screen. They are sending a subliminal message with their body language. That's not what they want as part of their message.

A quick and easy way to improve image quality is with soft lighting LED panel mounted above and behind the camera. A webcam and an LED panel with adjustable brightness and color temperature can be purchased for less than $75. Even a cheapskate won't blink at that.

Professional Production Equipment For VC Broadcast Live Shots

Viewers willingly accept low-quality remote broadcast interviews during times of crisis,. The guests are foremost experts, elected and appointed official. Too often the, image and sound from the quarantined guest is noticeably distracting. The sound quality varies with the available bandwidth of the last mile network connection. But that's only half of the problem. In many cases, poor videoconferencing production practices on diminish the quality of the interview.

Live broadcast remotes are scheduled on short notice. Sometimes with as little as an hour before air. Most interviewees under quarantine don't have professional video conference production set-up. A laptop sitting on desktop frames the built-in wide angle camera shot from below the chin. The resulting facial distortion isn't the most flattering view. Ambient lighting compounds the problem. Using the laptop mic and speaker makes the audio hollow and echoey.

Professional need a temporary low-cost portable, remotely controlled turnkey video system. A inexpensive and simple portable system for remote live shots can be purchased and configured for less than $8,000, depending on the features. The quality is nearly indistinguishable from remotes produced by a professional crew and transmitted over satellite, cellular, or dedicated fiber.

Broadcast Quality PTZ Camera With Teleprompter On Tripod

(image credit: Datavideo)

A portable broadcast-quality system using video conferencing apps produce a live shot indistinguishable from remotes produced by a professional crew. Video teleconferencing apps can be nearly indistinguishable from live shots transmitted over satellite, cellular, or dedicated fiber.

A low low-cost portable, remotely controlled turnkey video system for temporary can be quickly set-up in a quarantined news guest's home only a few hours before air.

There are six operations specifications for the broadcast system

  1. The equipment must be packed and shipped in three lightweight cases for delivery by FedEx, UPS, or by automobile.

  2. The system can be set-up by a non-technical person in less than 90 minutes.

  3. The system must be easy to support and operate remotely over a secure remote desktop app.

  4. The remote producer must be able turn on the equipment, initiate the connection, control the camera, and adjust audio and video levels from anywhere in the world.

  5. An authorized technician located anywhere in the world can securely connect to the system operational suppose and troubleshooting.

  6. The quarantined guest wears a lapel mic and an IFB earpiece, just as those who appear on live television. Optionally, the interviewee can wear a wireless headset for the mic and return audio feed.

Part two of this series explains to a non-technical person how the remote quarantined guest liveshot system interconnects.

About The Writer

For 40 years give or take, Rick Singer has been designing, installing, breaking and fixing media and entertainment production and distribution systems.

Rick's provided technical 'therapy' for motion picture, broadcast television, post-production, media processing, and transmission equipment. It's lots of fun. For the record Rick Singer is not that Rick Singer.

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