Opening the Box

“Changing live broadcast with COVID-19”

Social distancing:  A new concept introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  It was a time when people were encouraged to stay 1.5 metres away from each other, to avoid coughing or sneezing into the air, and to frequently wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.  Most of these actions are fairly easy to accomplish in everyday life, but when you start considering how this plays out in a live broadcast control room or OB unit, it becomes a bigger challenge.

Traditionally, control rooms are extensions of television studios, and are usually sound-proof. This implies that the room is sealed – often double sealed. There are no windows.  Air conditioners are the only ventilation.  The room is generally dark, with script lights overhead and hidden tech lights below the desk and behind the racks.  The technical operators (tech ops) sit approximately 30 – 50cm from each other in various-sized OB vans, and perhaps a bit further in large network control rooms.  Many control rooms in small OB vans and studios require that tech ops work in even closer quarters, making the transmission of COVID-19 a massive risk.

So, how do we redesign these already-built, already-in-operation control rooms to allow for safe working conditions as we start thinking about and planning for life and work during this pandemic, and possibly to avoid transmission of other diseases and infections going forward. I need to state upfront that I am not an engineer, nor am I a medical professional. The intention is to open a conversation, a thought-flow of ideas of how we can adapt to this new normal. 

As we anticipate the reintroduction of non-contact sports events in the next six to nine months, as well as ongoing news broadcasting, how do we ensure that our OB vans and control rooms are healthier environments where viruses of any kind don’t get spread. Here are 5 renovations and course-corrections that could be done right now to allow for safer productions. I look forward to input from broadcast design engineers.  

Until now, control rooms and OB vans were designed primarily for the optimal working of machines. Dust-free, temperature-controlled environments are the norm, and humans slotted into that ecosystem.  

    PROS: Quick, easy and cheap to install.
    • Firstly, LIGHT. Conventional thinking is that the control room should be dark if we are to accurately view a camera shot, particularly for the vision engineers. But these are different times, and we need to adapt.  One needs to carefully consider the placement of the windows together with the orientation of the OB unit or Control Room to avoid direct sunlight. An awning or overhang mounted on the outside is an inexpensive way of avoiding direct light hitting the monitors whilst still allowing in fresh air.
    • Secondly, NOISE. Depending on where you are parked and your city location, this could be a serious discomfort. However, noise-cancelling headsets can mitigate this issue to a large extent. Although these are expensive, the cost of losing a production job to a facility with safer ventilation will be much higher.
    During the SARS epidemic, HEPA filters were used extensively for isolation units and were shown to filter out most microbes at the 0.3 micron level. An air con with HEPA filtration, combined with separate high-velocity extractor fans could reduce the viral volume circulating in the main control room.
    The downside of this solution is NOISE, which is easily solved. See point one.
    This would include Vision Control, VT, Graphics and Audio.Machines and operators can be positioned in safer areas, away from the main control room or OB van. Separate rooms or containers with good ventilation and more space between the personnel can be positioned close to the main control room with equipment and comms cabled.
    • Ventilation
    • More space between personnel


    • Expensive to set up in some cases
    • Extra cabling required
    • Space may not be available
    This is a major change to the way that things have always been done. Anybody who has worked on cricket or golf understands the need for spending up to 8 hours or more live on air. However, desperate times call for creative solutions. Just because things have always been done a certain way, does not mean it needs to continue. The most obvious solution is to have 2 crews that alternate every hour or every 2 hours.  This is often done on larger productions with bigger budgets, but it could be economically un-viable for smaller budgets where two crews are just too expensive.  As we emerge from many months of zero work, would you consider a temporarily lower rate that would enable twice as many operators to get back to work? I know I would.
    This is the toughest one of all, considering the amount of air travel we currently do. The best solution to this problem is to use local crew who can reach the venue in their own vehicles

All of the above will no doubt result in some serious pushback from clients.  What director doesn’t insist on an absolutely perfect environment that they are accustomed to.  But throughout major historical upheavals, it is those that do not adapt, who remain firmly seated in tunnel number four bemoaning the loss of their cheese, who fall by the wayside.

Innovate. Adapt. Act.