Pros and comms?


Anyone who has had any experience with live television will surely agree that the biggest challenge of all has to be communications. Getting 12 people to communicate in a studio environment is a big enough ask, getting twice that number in two locations 7km apart with a stretch of the Indian Ocean between you is another story, writes IAN DORMER.

Eight months ago I was asked to come up with a solution that would allow two crews in different locations to communicate with each other during a live production.

Comms has always been an issue with live television especially when there is distance involved. At least in a studio environment one can use a “wired’ approach to connect the crew together, but linking a studio and control room on land with a catamaran anchored 7km away creates an interesting number of challenges.

My immediate thought was two-way radio, but walkie-talkies are cumbersome, require repeaters to get the distance and are prone to interference from external signal sources. Cell phones were a possibility, but how reliable is the mobile signal off-shore and how do you get multiple users connected all at one time?

While at IBC in Amsterdam, Murry Nitch from Gencom South Africa and I discussed the challenge. He whisked me off to the Intracom stand where they displayed their VCOM system and I immediately warmed to the concept.

VCOM runs on standard computer and network hardware and is based on a dedicated server with multiple client architecture. By using the Internet, 3G or a wireless network, multiple group and individual voice paths can be established simultaneously and multiple conferences can be accommodated in any complexity. VCOM control panels can then be loaded on PCs, tablet PCs, PDAs, and smartphones and provide point-and-click control for establishing talk and / or listen voice paths.

I was excited as this really had all the elements I was looking for and so the tests began. Not knowing all the variables associated with the local 3G network and how reliable the signal was I decided to build a private wireless network that we could control ourselves.

It’s not rocket science, but anything to do with RF has its challenges and soon we had tests running in Johannesburg with great success, but were uncertain how wireless would perform over water. Could we maintain the wireless network solidly over 12 hours without a glitch, what about weather and sea conditions? On paper we had the perfect system and set off to the KwaZulu-Natal coast confident that all would be plain sailing from here on.

Weather issues

Initially we had five days for setup, testing and rehearsing but Mother Nature had another agenda for us. Stormy seas with huge swells prevented the catamaran from leaving Durban Harbour as planned and as each day passed we were losing out on the valuable tech setups and tests.

Finally, on the day prior to the broadcast the catamaran was given the green light and set sail to its destination. With only hours to go before the first crossing the system was booted up and after a while…bingo! The signal was active – we had established a wireless link in heavy swells between two and four metres and it seemed stable.

Using an HP server with touchscreen capabilities in our control room as the backbone of the system, I used iPod Touches as the comms units. The wireless connectivity of the units proved to be more stable than any other device and the cost per unit was acceptable in comparison to smartphones and PDAs and of course they were very portable and made nice little beltpacks.

With a presenter in the studio on land and one on the cat, we integrated IBF units via our wireless link so that the two hosts could communicate with each other. We also tapped into the underwater comms units so that there could be some interaction between the divers and talent above the waterline, as well as take direction from the production crew.

For the most part the comms were solid and behaved as expected, then out of the blue the weather turned for the worse; on land local telephone and Internet connectivity was lost (we presume due to a lightning strike). With that our static IP address was lost so we had no chance of linking up with the US control room via the Internet on our system, and would have to revert to a hybrid cell link to New York. But comms to the cat remained solid. One mistake that I had made was not taking into account that most of the crew was on a 42ft cat all in close proximity to each other and some howl round was generated creating interference. A few tweaks on the engineering control panel back on land soon fixed most problems and in general we had a workable but not perfect communications setup that saw the show go on. Had we had the time for set ups and testing I am sure we would have solved the little niggles that plagued us.

One thing I have learned through this experience…no matter how prepared you are, expect the unexpected, the legacy of comms in live television continues!


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