Is it a talk show if there’s no one to talk to?
That’s the problem numerous daytime and cable series faced when the coronavirus pandemic put an end to in-person studio audiences.
Rather than joshing with crew members or relying on Zoom calls, everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Tamron Hall looked for ways to safely interact with audience members.
The key? Simplicity.
“Anybody can set up a Zoom call, but you’re going to get Zoom quality,” says Larry Thaler, CEO of The Video Call Center, a production and service technology company. “The question is how do you deal with this to make it easy for the person who is the subject? You shouldn’t have to download an application. You shouldn’t have to remember a password or user ID. It has to be easy…and high quality.”
VCC, he says, had been providing those services to companies even before the pandemic. “And then business skyrocketed. The things we had been talking about for years really became the reality.”
For cable shows – like “90-Day Fiance,” which relies on interactivity – it was even more crucial. Thanks to travel restrictions, potential brides and grooms couldn’t meet in the United States. They needed some way to “date” virtually. VCC, Thaler says, made 14-hour remotes possible. “This is a relationship show. They want people to feel natural, so they’re bringing people into the conversation and they have to forget they’re on technology in order to behave like themselves.” Mission? Accomplished.
Drew Barrymore, who launched her talk show last fall, says she wanted to build a talk show “where everybody feels welcomed. Is that naïve? Probably. Am I going to go for it? Totally.”
To make it look like she was talking to someone across from her, producers built a three-dimensional green screen studio in Los Angeles where they could beam someone into Barrymore’s studio in New York. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Executive Producer Jason Kurtz. For Barrymore – who has spent a lifetime on sets around the world – it was essential to hear from viewers in states between the coasts. The goal: “Close chasms of differences and talk about what we have in common,” she says.
But how does that happen?
Thaler says it’s as simple as holding up a cellphone. The key is connectivity. And that’s where his company comes into play. Because VCC has been doing remotes by smartphone for six years, its executives know how to troubleshoot. Call producers, as the go-betweens are dubbed, connect with those interview sources and help them set up the shots, achieve conductivity and produce broadcast-quality content. “This is their job,” he says. “They’ll send a link to you and it’s as simple as clicking on that link and you’re connected. We can have video from you in as little as 20 seconds.”
Then, it’s a matter of troubleshooting the details. At times, “they’re also psychologists because they’re getting people to do things they’re maybe not able to do with their devices and they’re making them comfortable before air,” Thaler says.
Those producers even deal with last-minute problems. “We’ve had the power go out. We’ve had a cat knock over a phone. We even had a woman with noise in the background and it turned out it was her pet ostrich,” Thaler says. “You can’t make this stuff up.”
In the past, shows sent crews to far-flung locations and, often, it took more than a day to accomplish. The trek was expensive. Now, with companies like VCC, it’s possible to scout, light and frame at a fraction of the cost.
“When we started this, the quality of everybody’s phone wasn’t nearly what it is now,” Thaler says.
That shift – and the ability to reduce the lag during a conversation – has made virtual chatting a reality.
Clarkson, who thrives on interaction, was an early adapter and continues now, even though she has guests in studio. For something like the spotlight singer segment, it’s crucial.
Others, like Tamron Hall and Phil McGraw, often use them to give their shows less of a one-on-one interview atmosphere.
Recent award shows have had mixed success. Daniel Kaluuya, for example, was muted when he tried to accept his Golden Globe award. The problem, Thaler says, is some production companies are afraid to do business a little differently. “They get very conservative with what they want. You can choose between having 100 people all up at the same time or have five at a time who look really, really good.”
Other companies are seeing the value in high-quality, instantaneous chatting. Physicians are upgrading their telemedicine calls; conference organizers are realizing they can pull in speakers from all parts of the world.
Whole shows, Thaler says, have been created just from using the technology in homes. “Show me what’s in your refrigerator,” for example, is great for comedy. “We’ve done shows where sports fans are able to chat with their favorite players. Before anybody knew you could do this, we wanted to build the next generation of talk radio.”
And beyond that? The sky is literally the limit.
“if there was a high-definition, low latency network,” Thaler says, “we could go to the moon.”