How Skeleton Crews Are Still Keeping Networks Like CBS on the Air

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Normally, around 1,600 people work out of the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York. But these aren’t normal times. Just about a dozen key staffers are still coming into the office, keeping the lights on as most everyone else works from home.

“Things have definitely changed,” says Glenn Oakley, CBS executive VP of global media technology operations. “We have reduced staff, down to skeleton crews virtually everywhere. We have definitely removed people going in to essential personnel only.”

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These are the unsung heroes of TV: the broadcast, cable and local TV staffers who are still showing up to work in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Across the country, media outlets have sent most of their employees home to work — but there are some, particularly in operations and in news — who have been tasked with making sure their outlets are still on the air.

Unlike most disaster plans, in which a network or station might set up shop somewhere outside of the danger zone, COVID-19 presents a unique problem: There’s no safe place, even globally, to move your team. “A global pandemic is really hard to plan for,” Oakley says.

Over at PBS, Yvonne Bennett, director of distribution operations, has been commuting frequently to what is a critical facility for the public-service broadcasting network in Springfield, Va. That’s where 10 full-time technicians and other employees are taking in programs fed from various stations and production outlets and checking to make sure the quality of each show is suitable for broadcast.

Despite logistical challenges, staffers are still coming in and loading up “PBS NewsHour” for distribution in the early evening and taking in BBC News feeds at different times of the day. Her technicians also played a role in getting a recent “Frontline” special report on the pandemic ready for air across the nation, and routinely prepare PBS Kids favorites like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” for wider view.

She’s had to rearrange her schedule and those of her staff — many of whom have been with PBS for decades and are accustomed to working in the office. “It was a challenge just to convince them to take a laptop home,” she says.

At CNN, “we are keeping multiple networks on the air around the clock, with 90% of our 3,800 employees working from home,” says Ken Jautz, an executive vice president at CNN who oversees the news unit’s operations. “And we are doing it despite having a physical plant and systems that were not designed to be operated remotely, so it’s kind of been extraordinary,” he adds.

In the middle of March, executives began to realize a serious contingency plan was required in case the pandemic forced staffers out of important offices in New York and elsewhere, says Jack Womack, a senior vice president who supervises operations. “We really worked hard on getting anchor studios built quickly so we’d have a back-up, and then we looked at the protocols for the master control operations, based in Atlanta. That’s really a key spot. We wanted to shore that up right away.”

Staffers had to design software that would allow producers to work from home and still monitor feeds and video elements as if they were in a studio, he says. Only a handful of key employees are working from an Atlanta facility where they monitor CNN’s feeds and the technical aspects of loading up programming.

In Philadelphia’s Comcast Technology Center, where NBC-owned WCAU and sister Telemundo station WWSI operate, some 35 out of the normal 140 staffers are still coming in to make sure the stations and their newscasts continue.

But Nick Evansky, the VP of tech-ops for NBC/Telemundo Philadelphia, says those employees have been split into three units: “That way, if somebody in one of those teams was infected, we weren’t going to knock out all of our key people,” he says.

The on-air broadcasts for NBC’s owned stations group are all operated from a centralized master control hub in Denver, where another staff is managing all the playlists, commercials and more. “They had to reduce the number of staff that they had in that facility but still maintain the level of functionality,” Evansky says.

The stations’ normally dense control rooms have been mostly emptied out. Writers and content producers now edit video packages from home, and even meteorologists, sportscasters and anchors are appearing from their living rooms.

“With IP technology, with the internet, that has really enabled us to execute this and provide the different resources to the producers, the anchors, all those folks who are working from home, producing television,” Evansky says.

Back at CBS, Oakley explains that the key people still working in the network’s media distribution center are checking schedules and ads and inventory. There’s also some satellite, distribution and scheduling prep staff.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced them to move fast, CBS, Showtime and the Viacom networks were able to be virtually “100% remote capable” in record time, Oakley says: “Things that we couldn’t do in a year, we were able to do in three days.”

For those still showing up to the office, CBS has lengthened shifts, in order to reduce the number of times people come in and out of the building.

“We’ve gone to crews that work for a solid week, and then get a week off, so that we can essentially protect the people who are not there from the people who are,” Oakley says. “And we’re doing the electrostatic fogging — what we call deep cleaning — every night in places people are occupying.”

Now that TV has managed to stay on the air despite the reduced on-site presence, Oakley says he believes that “there will be a new normal. People have seen what can be done with a lot fewer people, and I think you’ll see a lot of the entire industry rethinking a lot of their assumptions.”

Some of the procedures mastered now could affect how things work at CNN in the future, says Jautz. “We are going to take a hard look at the lessons we learned about remote work,” he says, but not until operations return to normal.

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