Last week’s National Football League college draft was a resounding commercial and artistic success. But most surprising, given the presence of media behemoths at the NFL and its national broadcast partners, was that a critical foundation of the draft’s on-air success was due to a small company you likely never knew existed. And that company just might show the way to the future of live TV production.
The NFL Draft hit at a time of crying need for U.S. sports fans bereft of any sports programming but the ESPN Michael Jordan documentary and a lot of archival “classic” sports telecasts. The draft drew 15.6 million viewers across ESPN, ABC, NFL Network and ESPN Deportes, an increase of nearly 40% over last year, an audience hard to come by for advertisers even absent a pandemic. Aesthetically, I agree with the take from sportswriter Tara Sullivan of The Boston Globe who described the event as “the type of heartwarming, uplifting programming we didn’t even know we wanted but realize now how much we needed.”
Beyond wondering what exactly New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s dog was doing during the draft, I was fascinated by how this telecast came together in the midst of our work-from-home quarantine life. I grew up in a TV business where arranging for one live remote could be a logistical challenge. In this case the NFL and its broadcast partners had to deliver live video from a group of 58 top college football players on top of general managers and coaches from 32 teams and on-air network talent.
The little engine that could – and did – manage this complex production challenge for the NFL is a company called Video Call Center (VCC), based just up the Hudson River from New York City. VCC’s Founder and Chairman is Tom Wolzien, a former NBC executive, Wall Street analyst and inveterate inventor, and its CEO is Larry Thaler, another NBC alum and longtime television production and operations executive. VCC’s primary financial backing, other than from Wolzien and Thaler, comes from Tegna, Inc., the local broadcast TV station group formerly part of Gannett Media.
VCC’s “overnight success” during the NFL draft has been at least 6 years in the making. As CEO Thaler described to me, what Wolzien saw emerging in 2013-2014 has been a harsh reality for broadcast TV ever since: rising production costs combined with declining viewership (i.e., ratings) per dollar of production spend. For remote production you had the option of an expensive professional set up with a camera and crew on-site, or simply using Skype which gave the producer little or no control over the picture or sound they were using. In stepped Wolzien and VCC, filing his first patent in 2014 for software to bring a professional-level “production layer” of quality to the use of off the shelf videoconferencing products such as FaceTime, Gruveo or Zoom that facilitate live remote video production and transmission.
The NFL Draft was hardly VCC’s first rodeo. The heart of the bullseye for VCC has long been sports according to Thaler, and VCC has done extensive work for Fox Sports regional sports networks, Major League Baseball and MSG. In entertainment, their clients have included Vice and TLC, especially for their “tell-all” shows such as 90 Day Fiancée and the upcoming Find Love Live, a “virtual dating” show seemingly made for quarantines. They have recently also launched a new show with CBS All Access called Tooning Out the News, where VCC produces the real-world newsmakers who interact with cartoon characters (yes you can tell them apart).
As Thaler described it to me, VCC has been “blown away” by customers’ reactions to what VCC’s production technology and process do for them. They come away with “lower costs, shorter production cycles, much greater agility and flexibility” in making changes on the fly, and far fewer quality problems such as the annoying latency we are used to seeing from bare-bones Zoom or Facetime remotes. And these clients come back for more.
This track record led to the NFL’s outreach to VCC for the draft. As Thaler told me, the NFL approached VCC only about two and half weeks before the draft. The NFL had already planned to send two smart phones to every one of the 58 prospective player draftees. One phone would be for an always-on “family reaction shot” and the other was intended for live interviews with network hosts. It was then up VCC to determine, with no site visits possible, how to wring the best possible on-air picture and sound for each of these 116 “cameras” in whatever environment the player was situated. That typically necessitated one or more hour-long rehearsals with every prospect. VCC’s software permitted producers to manage the best connectivity sound and picture quality at the moment of airing.
As Thaler described it, the most fascinating challenge for VCC was that in a draft no one can be sure which remote needs to go live until a team makes its formal selection. So instead of a typical 7-15-minute lead time before a remote location goes live, VCC had 75 seconds of notice from the NFL after a pick was made by a team and when the always-on phone shot had to go live. Hopefully no ill-timed bathroom breaks!
One promising feature for present and aspiring TV producers was that technology can’t replace people here. It took 6 VCC producers – all full-time VCC employees – to manage the massive quantity of live remotes. As Thaler pointed out, these intensively trained crew members have to not only act as traditional producers in managing the right visuals, but must simultaneously be technicians in assessing the best internet connectivity at each location and maybe most importantly amateur psychologists, leading a hugely diverse group of players and their families through entirely unfamiliar TV technology and production processes.
In both the midst and afterglow of the successful NFL Draft experience, Thaler, Wolzien and team are already deluged with new inquiries driven by COVID-19 restrictions. Next on the VCC wish list: bringing these new tech and workflow processes to bear for local stations across the country who need to produce news every day. Thaler longs for extending VCC’s tools to help shift the camera lens focus from the speaker to what the speaker is looking at – the nature of live reporting.
Society’s need for effective local journalism – never mind the broadcast industry’s – has never needed more support. The necessity of COVID-19 will hopefully be the mother of innovation here.