By Hillary Atkin
It’s every television producer’s headache waiting to happen: The audio or video going down right in the middle of a remote guest interview — or at any time.
It was a scenario that occurred all too often on the syndicated “Dr. Phil” show, which gets much of its substance from Dr. Phil McGraw interviewing guests either on set or from remote locations, and on its spinoff program, “The Doctors.”
Those fears of unreliable video connections dissipated recently when the shows instituted some new technology that has made remote interviews from far-flung locations virtually foolproof.
They are now utilizing a standards-based visual communication infrastructure from Polycom, a Silicon Valley-headquartered company known for its telephone and video conferencing capabilities, that has provided the programs with dependable, high-definition video.
In the process, not only are more such interviews being used, but the show is saving a bundle on travel costs by not having to transport guests to its studios on the Paramount lot in Hollywood.
Production executives and engineers went down a long, frustrating road toward a workable solution, suffering through weak connections from remote locations over which they had no control.
“We used webcams, and sent cameras to people, but the quality of video was terrible,” said Rich de Michelle, executive in charge of production for “Dr. Phil” and “The Doctors.” “We went from there to OoVoo and they tried to make it work with every bell and whistle, but just couldn’t. We tried Skype, because we’d seen it on other shows, and thought it looked good and we could maybe make it work — it just didn’t. The video and audio were not in sync. There were dropouts and hiss, and it was not a workable solution.”
Polycom sent reps to the Paramount lot to see what was needed for the productions, which was a more robust setup. Each show is now equipped with its own Polycom HDX 8000 and 9000 telepresence system, with an RMX 1000 conference platform and the company’s converged management application to manage calls between both shows in a shared control room.
“Our goal was to talk to Betty in Idaho instead of flying her here,” said de Michelle. “If Dr. Phil wanted to have her on camera, the only other alternative was to send a satellite truck to her. That requires a two-way feed, which typically costs about $8,000 to $15,000 to set up. Or let’s say Betty can’t leave Idaho and we need to talk to her because her story is very important. We always want to have a two-way, and we used to do just a phoner with a still. But in today’s world where everybody is used to webcasting, it looked old and dated, and we wanted to be more current and cutting-edge.”
In order to ensure a good quality connection at all times, there is a T3 line set up outside of the internal IT network at Paramount. At first, producers arranged for remote guests to be interviewed from Polycom offices throughout North America, located in cities including Atlanta, Boston and New York.
Now, the guests are sent laptops preloaded with a webcam and software, with the equipment return facilitated. “It’s so simple that anybody, even your distant great aunt, could set it up,” said de Michelle. “You see yourself there. You can tell how you look, and if you need more makeup, or different lighting. We guide them from this end, with an engineer from the control booth, helping them position it so it works.”
The new system — only about 6 months old — is an application that lets anyone in the world connect. “We had the ability to do this before with software, but not for anyone on the outside of your firewall to connect to inside the organization,” said Bob Knauf, senior product marketing manager at Polycom. “Every major organization has firewalls. We have hardware and software to securely traverse them, and then cancel the access as soon as the shot is over. The ‘Dr. Phil’ show is one of the first implementations of this total solution.”
Another benefit is the system gives the guest and host true two-way communication. “It’s much more natural and open to have discussions when you can see the other person face to face, versus just hearing them in your ear,” said Knauf. “With Polycom, you have full-frame rate video, and audio is the most important part of any video call. Unless everyone is reading lips, you’re not going to have a successful call.”
De Michelle estimated that his shows have used the system at least 250 times since October 2009, and the cost savings for both shows has amounted to more than $200,000. “But more than savings, it gives us flexibility to do shows that are much broader in scope,” he said. “This has been a tremendous success for us. Without it, we’d still be stumbling along looking for a solution to solve our problems.”