By Nic Dugger, Founder, TNDV
Live event production takes numerous forms with diverse approaches to spectator immersion. Sports production emphasizes the fan experience. Whether taking in the game from inside the venue or on the couch at home, a compelling sports production will expertly follow and capture game action in ways that makes fans feel as though they are part of the experience, with a healthy dose of dramatic flair that creates a deeper connection.
Live concert production puts the focus on immersion into the performance. When we work outdoor festivals and arena events, we consider the fan inside the venue and the viewer taking in the live stream. Technical directors are making split-second decisions about which angles are ripe for projection on large portrait screens, and how to capture the staging and backdrops along with performers to bring a more intimate feel to the streaming community. Beyond that, there is the need to record everything for potential later use by the artist or client, with considerations of camera angles for the subsequent line cut.
Some of the most interesting live production work in our experience has been with Awards programming. From our years at the Stellar Awards of Gospel Music to our decade long relationship with both the CMA and ACM awards to shows as unique as the American Football Coaches Awards and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, each show of this nature deserves time and attention to ensure the honorees and viewers alike have experience they deserve.
The scope and size of these programs vary greatly; some are televised, some are live-streamed, and some are simply in-the-moment live events. This is perhaps most true when it comes to the Emmy Awards, a community that spans three organizations (NATAS, ATAS, and IATAS) and their various awards programs. TNDV has been lucky to be part of the larger productions for NATAS including the national Daytime Emmys to the News and Documentary Emmys, an event that TNDV has provided in-house AV production over the past three years.
The Storytelling Journey
While immersion is always in the mix when producing live events, the approach to awards show production put the focus on storytelling. Telling a story in live awards ceremony production shares the same rudimentary philosophy with any other form of storytelling: there is a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, and the production team is tasked with ushering viewers through that journey.
There is the long-view of the journey where the focus is on captivating audiences through the typical three-hour program. That requires the 30,000-foot view of laying out the production in a way that captures the rising action to the emotional climax. Within that broad spectrum are the miniature journeys that correlate with each segment of the program. There are storytelling events for each category that capture the rise and the apex, followed by a thoughtful fade that gently guides the audience into the next segment.
Within each segment, the rise introduces the category with color, and tells the story of each nominee’s exceptional work. The middle portion anticipates the winner, and the conclusion brings the excitement of the winner unveiled. That means not only capturing the presenter at the lectern and the winner upon announcement – a very split-second moment that required immediate reaction from the production team – but capturing audience members with different reactions, and often from multiple angles.
Video brings the facial expressions and the obvious reactions that come with them, which accentuates the importance of camera counts and positions for immersing presenters, nominees, and audiences into the storytelling process. Video only tells part of the story, however. Where does audio fit into the mix? There is naturally the lectern microphone to hear the presenter, but do microphones need to be placed within the crowd- and where – to capture amusing banter and responses, and hear the joy and disappointment when an award winner is announced? Lighting goes hand in hand with the audio and visual, as the lighting element brings the dramatic flair that sets and establishes different moods throughout the storytelling process.
Taking all of this into account, a significant number of technology and production decisions must be made to ensure effective storytelling when planning and laying out an awards show’s technical strategy. Let’s look at three distinct Emmy Awards show examples that demonstrate the diversity of these programs, and the different approaches taken to ensure a memorable experience for all involved.
No Second Chances
The Daytime Emmys represent the most high-profile Emmy program we have technically produced to date. First held in 1974, the Daytime Emmy Awards recognize both artistic and technical excellence in daytime television programming. The 2022 ceremony was the first Daytime Emmy Awards broadcast where TNDV assumed live production responsibilities.
The Awards broadcast has been a prime-time televised event through most of its history. The 2022 broadcast aired nationally on CBS at 9pm ET on June 24. Being a live broadcast means that there are no second chances, which puts the impetus on the live production team to ensure a rock-solid infrastructure from origination to the delivery point.
NATAS had the added safety net of a warmup show (the Lifestyle Emmy Awards, which award non-televised categories) to test the infrastructure we put into place. That began with the cameras and audio inside the venue through to the redundant transmission architecture, along with the master control, signal processing and live production systems on board the mobile production truck in between.
The ceremony was held at the Pasadena Convention Center near Los Angeles, which has been home to major live national events over many decades. A very production-friendly interior includes natural positions for cameras and microphones to capture the stage and audience, along with lighting and stage design elements that capture the mood of the event along with the visual quality expected of live television. Eight Sony HDC4300 4K/HD cameras were placed around the venue for video acquisition, with fiber connections back to our Exclamation truck’s master control center. Multiple F/X microphones captured audio inside the venue, with signals carried to the Studer Vista X digital mixing console on board Exclamation.
Exclamation is one of TNDV’s flagship trucks, a 53-foot double expando unit with a Grass Valley Kayenne production switcher, EVS playback systems, AJA KiPro recorders, Ross Xpression graphics and Imagine Communications integrated routing systems with multiviewers along with the aforementioned camera and audio gear. The network and the producing team expect a big TV truck with high-end equipment for a project of this magnitude, with plenty of cameras, graphics, and playback gear.
Redundancy on the truck is of absolutely necessity for the televised production. There is very little room for error, and the production team is working with many traditional broadcast elements over the course of a long live production that needs to be very precise. That requires loots of rehearsal, and it means building in multiple layers or redundancy at certain points of the workflow.
Playback and graphics were two of the most critical production elements on board the truck for this production. We bridged multiple EVS playback systems with our routing and switching infrastructure to ensure that opening clip, nomination clip and category winner clip packages were redundantly sourced in the event of a system crash. For graphics, we prepared our Xpression systems for the abundance of lower thirds, opening billboards and credit rolls that we had to fire on demand. That means stepping through every category and rehearsing every presenter as beyond a slight FCC delay for compliance, the show must be perfect once live.
A live shoot of this magnitude absolutely requires primary and backup transmission methods. We established a robust fiber-optic network connection for our primary feed that went direct to a CBS master control, and utilized C-band uplink for our secondary. The fiber connection to CBS was provided through The Switch, which specializes in fiber and video circuits for live broadcast and event production. We worked directly with The Switch to test lip sync and overall stability in advance, and established a satellite connection with a PSSI C-band uplink truck.
From OTA to OTT
We had the luxury of applying what we learned at the Daytime Emmy Awards and scaling down the infrastructure accordingly for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards, two back-to-back shows that took place in New York City in October. The organizers chose the Palladium Theater in Times Square for the first live-audience presentation of these awards since 2019.
The Times Square location immediately removed the possibility of bringing a live truck. While we have had our trucks in Times Square numerous times before, this venue did not allow that option. That meant building flypacks for each show that would allow us to capture the mood with respect to the history of the event. Whereas we sought a more dramatic element for the Daytime Emmys production, the News and Documentary Emmy productions summon a more serious tone, yet with a similar air of prestige.
The conversations around production and technology once again begin with the deliverable, which is a live stream versus a television broadcast for these programs. There are still thousands of viewers watching the events in real-times that expect to see a network-caliber broadcast, without the knowledge that the program originates from a flypack solution in a makeshift TV control room (converted from a dressing room).
Ensuring that the quality of experience for live stream audiences is on par with the broadcast experience is something that our IT partner at NATAS, Delroy Binger, takes seriously.
“Streaming is no longer considered a secondary option,” said Binger, Director of Technical Operations at NATAS and responsible for all-things IT. “Streaming is now part of the main plan. Even the Daytime Emmy Awards on CBS are live-streamed on Paramount+, for example. It’s our job to make sure that we are not only losing eyeballs that hurt business, but that we are engaging audiences with elements that add to the experience and even elevate the program online, such as creating live clips for social media and even providing exclusive content.”
The entire process of exclusive live-streamed events also moves at a much swifter pace. This was particularly true for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards, as the extremely high rental costs of Times Square infrastructure meant one day for load-in and rehearsal. Flypacks are designed for these moments. These are pre-built and pre-engineered systems that function as a complete infrastructure for productions of a certain size. When properly constructed and connected, onsite engineering requirements are minimal. The cases roll in, cables are looped between racks and the infrastructure is ready to go without troubleshooting.
It also means making thoughtful and informed technology decisions. With much less real estate for live production than our Daytime Emmys production, we relied on software from Renewed Vision over the notoriously large EVS playback systems. Redundant ProPresenter machines supported playback for all nomination and winner packages, with seven cameras (three Sony HDC-2500 HD cameras and four Panasonic robotic PTZ cameras) for live video acquisition.
Audio remained an important consideration for capturing the more scholarly presentations, the less dramatic moments of truth, and the more subtle responses and adulations from the audience. In place of the Studer Vista X-style flagship console, a more compact Presonus audio mixer was used to manage the host mic, audience mics, and playback sources for stage music and other event audio elements.
The audio portion is one element that Delroy pays special attention too, as lip sync can quickly minimize the quality of experience for streaming audiences. “We always work with the audio technicians to add the appropriate delay to the audio feed coming from the truck,” said Binger. “That typically ranges from one millisecond to one second of delay. That delay allows the speech and the video to be in sync so that we are sending a perfectly aligned stream to the audience.”
Being a pure live stream, our delivery strategy means producing a stream that can be consumed over multiple platforms. As a television organization, the Emmys look to a host of options across OTT platforms, social media sites and their own website at TheEmmys.tv. Our feed is handed off to the CDN, which encodes and prepares streams for consumption over smart TVs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Bandwidth management for video often comes into play in these situations where the stream is landing on multiple platforms.
“Every platform wants a specific bitrate that at least slightly differs from the other platforms,” said Binger. “We find that 15MBps is an optimal bitrate for quality, but some platforms won’t take that. The higher the bit rate, the higher quality – but it also puts more strain on the IT layer. The encoders are working harder to push out that higher quality for better quality streams. We communicate closely with Nic and his team to ensure we provide the bit rate we need for all platforms while ensuring plenty of redundancy should a feed go down.”
We took a similar approach for the new Children and Family Emmy Awards, a two-night event that debuted to the world on December 10 at Wilshire Ebil Theatre in Los Angeles. Like News and Documentary Emmy Awards, the premiere of the children and Family Emmy Awards – the first new Emmy show since the 1970s -- was a streaming-only event. The streaming audience for the event exceeded expectations, which made our integration with the venue’s IT network infrastructure exceedingly important to the viewer experience.
“It really begins with maintaining those connections with the truck, and working with Nic and his team to troubleshoot issues in real-time as they happen,” said Binger. “The switcher on the truck pushes out a 59.9 1080p signal, which we encode into an H.265 file and send to our OTT service provider. From there, we configure the system to send connections to ioS, Android, Roku, and Xbox among other connections. There is not a single app we don’t connect to, so we need to make sure that signal is optimized for the best possible quality across all of these consumer platforms.”
The Children and Family Emmys – or CAFÉ, as Delroy calls it – added some new challenges to the mix, including a live clipping platform and a specific American sign language stream. We fixed two cameras on the sign language interpreters, who were situated in a seating box adjacent to the stage.
“This was interesting from an IT perspective, as we were taking in the main show feed and a separate feed for ASL,” said Binger. “TNDV added a second switcher to accommodate the separate ASL feed. We then coupled and synchronized that secondary ASL feed with the main program feed so that we could push out a singular feed to our OTT service provider.”
Communication is key to maintaining success across such a diverse roster of events. From New York to LA, from double-expanding trucks to small fly packs, making sure the entire team is on the same page is what will determine the effectiveness of an awards show production. Our primary communication medium for television is the tech pack, authored and managed by the technical producer. By identifying every feed, each input and output, detailed venue maps, even the most mundane of details, a tech pack keeps everyone on the same page. That does not stop at load-in: Keeping the tech pack updated for the entire production through to load-out assures an excellent starting point for the following year.
Even with live event productions returning, we remain prepared for the changing dynamics of the world that can send us back to remote production at any moment. That can produce events in the same sized theaters without an audience, or from a hotel ballroom when there is no concern about trying to mimic a traditional live event. New innovations in IP and cloud technology to drive remote production and content delivery have empowered production companies with toolsets to continue bringing events like these to life even in the face of crowd restrictions.
All of these tools, from the tried-and-true traditional infrastructure for national TV broadcasts to the more intimate direct-to-consumer streams to the cloud-centric approach of remote production, allow us to continue our work as storytellers for the organizations that bring the Emmys and similar events to the world.
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