Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: New York City

Part 8 of a 5-part series

Our Sunday in New York would be all too brief, but full nonetheless. I was once again up at 5:30 in order to scoot over to the GMA Studio by shortly after 6:00 AM. My wife had opted to sleep in and do a little shopping in the morning. I was relieved (though not surprised) to find that I really was on the GMA guest list – my name handwritten at the bottom of a printed sheet. Moments later, Alice was once again introducing me to all concerned, starting with the three security agents at the entry door. I’m not sure at precisely what point I noticed that she was making an even more concerted effort to introduce me to everybody than the previous day, but I’d soon learn why.

Upstairs to the studio level and more introductions, including to the security guards there and the security manager. Into the control room and more introductions before ending up once more with Joe and Mark in the Audio Booth. Here, Alice dropped the bomb – I was free to come and go through the studio. I had complete, unfettered access to the set, the control room, the audio booth, the offices, anywhere.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again. Wow, right?

I was in awe and deeply grateful. Throughout the morning I’d hear from different people that it’s much more casual and less hectic on the weekend, and I suspect that my “tour” would have probably been less extensive during a Weekday taping of GMA. All I can say to that is, “Yay for weekends!” Alice’s methodical introductions now made complete sense – she’d made certain that anyone and everyone who might have had cause to wonder why the heck I was wandering around unescorted had been briefed. Indeed, not once during the morning was there so much as a confused look or raised eyebrow.

I got myself a copy of the Lineup and spent some time chatting with Joe and Mark. I hadn’t really been able to meet Mark on Saturday, but he was very personable and took every bit as much pleasure as Joe had in explaining how their piece of the operation worked. They had two “remote” feeds in particular that they needed to have in place with the show – one being a Skype feed with a “Mommy Blogger” in Salt Lake City, the other being a Congressman from El Paso. I watched while they worked with a sound tech at the El Paso studio, then as Representative Silvestre Reyes was run through a sound check. Reyes, as Democratic Chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was speaking to some issues of possible Dick Cheney wrongdoing. Heather Armstrong, author of the blog Dooce, was the other remote guest for July 12th, talking to Kate Snow for a segment about Mommy-bloggers getting kickbacks from manufacturers for blogging about their products (which, to be clear, Armstrong said she doesn't do).

Mark and Joe spoke at length about the complexity of some of the feeds they were using, as most everything had to come from the “Uptown Studio” – another ABC studio that my wife and I had passed on Friday while walking from the subway station to Central Park for dinner. It’s there that they tape World News Tonight, The View, and possibly Regis and Kelly (I’m not sure about that last one). Anything coming in over satellite or through any other technical means besides a telephone apparently goes in and out through there, including the Skype connection for Armstrong. The actual PC that she’d be “Skyping” with was at the uptown studio, from which it was being fed down to Times Square and GMA.

There were two nice things about the GMA team’s reaction to my interest in the technical aspects of the show’s production. First, they took my quest for knowledge seriously and were happy to get into the nitty-gritty about how they did their jobs. Second, they operated on the assumption that I was actually smart enough to understand what they were talking about, despite no real evidence that that was true. In fact, I had introduced myself to those who asked as a writer, completely neglecting to mention the decade of front-line, no-shit IT technical and executive experience I’d had. Even so, they rattled off the details of their jobs like I was “one of the guys,” which was great. I learned so much in these two days about a business that many Americans watch and enjoy on a near-daily basis, but which is utterly transparent to us when it’s done correctly.

I had intended to hang in the audio booth for much of the show, as Joe and Mark were utterly engaging and had so much to say about how they did what they did. But when it got to be moments before show time, I headed in to the control room to see how they kicked it off and didn’t make it back to audio for quite a while. The control room is entrancing because there’s just so much going on all at once. The Executive Producer (Andrew) oversees everything, seated directly beside the Director (Lily Olszewski). I was never introduced to most of the people in the room, so I don’t know their specific names or titles, but there was one guy whose job was to keep a stopwatch going throughout the show, verifying moment to moment that the show was on schedule. His job struck me as particularly stressful for some reason, though he seemed in good spirits. What originates from the control room is a steady stream of directions and communications that have a huge influence on the look and feel of the show, but to which the audience is totally oblivious.

For instance, the little block of text that displays a guest’s name and/or title at the bottom of the screen while they’re being interviewed – in this case, Representative Reyes. The tag rotated at intervals between his name and his title. You might think that this rotation was set to occur automatically every few seconds. Or that somebody in the control room pressed a key when they wanted it to rotate. And that second guess is closer to the truth, yet still lacking. In fact, somebody calls out the direction to “roll” the tag, and somebody different hits the key that does it. It may or may not be done that way for every TV news program at every network on TV, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

As a result, there’s a constant chatter in the control room as different people call out information such as what camera to use when or how much time is left in a segment. Plus they’re coordinating the talent on set (with the help of the Stage Manager, Scotty), the audio and video departments (Joe and Mark in Audio, and Arty in Video (we’ll meet him in a bit)), any remote stuff going on, and talking with each other about what to change on the fly. Oh, and I suppose they’re probably chatting with folks at the uptown studio, too, though I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Plus, they still find time to joke around a little.

One advantage of spending two days at the GMA studio was that it gave me a much more complete picture of the whole process behind the show. On Saturday, I saw the talent, camera, sound and lighting techs, prop folks and the stage managers doing their thing out on the set. On Sunday, I got to understand what they were all hearing in their headsets from the control room. I watched most of the first hour from the control room, much of the time looking at the dozens of different monitors on the front wall and trying to figure out what each was for.

One thing I found strange was that Representative Reyes was on within the first five minutes of the show. No, that in itself isn’t strange. But sometime after the half-hour mark, I noticed his image in a bank of monitors on the far right. At first I thought it was a still image of footage that was queued up off the server – like when you pause your TiVo. Then he moved and I realized he was still sitting in that studio, on camera, mic’d up and waiting. I’m still not sure why – it didn’t seem to make any sense unless somebody just forgot he was there. Poor guy.

As a tech guy and a long-time Internet denizen, I found the “Mommy Blog” segment really fascinating. Partly because Kate Snow was talking about Mommy Bloggers (women (primarily) who write online journals about things of interest to other mothers) and how major companies were paying them to help market their products. This shows that the use of the web is constantly evolving and that companies and individuals alike are getting savvy at using it in new ways. But moreso, I was impressed by how Armstrong’s Skype connection was crystal clear beyond a brief delay similar to when a news correspondent is broadcasting from overseas. Let’s remember, this was audio AND video (one-way video only, but still) going over standard broadband using IP, AND being fed from the Uptown studio to the GMA studio, then out to the nation. That’s a lot of jumping around that her voice and picture had to do, originating at a simple laptop computer with some sort of webcam. And unlike commercial-grade Video or Voice Over IP (VOIP), there’s no Quality of Service (QoS) in place when you go over the internet – there’s no way to throttle up your connection when competition for bandwidth with other users gets intense. This isn’t anything unique to Armstrong of course, it just so happens that GMA elected to use residential-grade computer technology to talk to a web-user who was now making her full-time living off a daily online journal about her family, rather than sending a camera crew to her house.

One thing about Kate’s report that made me wish I’d been out on the set is the trio of monitors she was standing near as she did her segment. They look exactly like the ones used to deliver the weather, except they were in the wrong place and the little stage in front of them was missing. I still don’t exactly know where she was or whether that whole bay of displays could have been simply moved across the studio.

I actually met the guy who could have answered my question, had I thought to ask him. Up next, James the Technical Manager would personally explain every piece of technology used to produce the show.

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