After years spent agonising over unreliable, low-quality video links with remote guests, producers of the hit TV shows Dr. Phil and The Doctors have cured their production ills by upgrading to a standards-based visual communication infrastructure from Polycom. In the process, they're cutting combined production costs for the syndicated daytime shows by up to $250,000 a season.
Taped at adjacent soundstages at CBS Paramount Studios, the shows regularly use video conferencing links to cost-effectively interview guests in remote locations. In 2009, producers began collaborating with Polycom to achieve something that had previously proven elusive: a high-definition (HD) video communication experience that producers could count on all day, every day.
From the beginning, Dr. Phil and its spin-off The Doctors had struggled mightily with video conferencing solutions that added more stress than value. "It always seemed to work great in rehearsal, and then as soon as we got ready to roll tape, it fell apart," said Rich de Michele, the executive in charge of production for both shows. "It was horrible."
With Polycom, all that changed. "We immediately saw the difference in working with Polycom," said Tom Baird, director of engineering for Dr. Phil and The Doctors. "The other providers gave us a spec sheet. Polycom came in and worked very hard to provide us with just what we needed. It couldn't have been smoother."
In fact, once the Dr. Phil crew made the necessary network upgrades to integrate Polycom telepresence with its own broadcast environment, producers at The Doctors wanted in. "We always prefer to interview guests using video," said de Michele. "It elevates the viewing experience. But that's only if it works well. And with Polycom, it does."
A shared Polycom infrastructure
Both Dr. Phil and The Doctors are equipped with their own Polycom HDX™ 8000 and 9000 telepresence systems. In a shared control room, Baird's team relies on a Polycom RMX® 1000 conference platform and Polycom Converged Management Application™ (CMA™) to manage calls between both shows."We sometimes have to make changes quickly while we're taping shows," said Baird. "With the shared infrastructure, it's easy."
To ensure a quality connection at all times, the team set up its own T3 line outside of the internal IT network at CBS Paramount. At first, production executives arranged for remote guests to be interviewed from Polycom offices throughout North America. That ensured both Dr. Phil and The Doctors could display remote guests in HD video and audio – and in the process, deliver a vast improvement in quality and clarity.
But with Polycom CMA desktop client software, which turns any broadband-connected computer into a video conferencing station, the two shows could interview guests located virtually anywhere. Now, both shows ship preconfigured notebooks and digital cameras to guests prior to their scheduled interviews. The software's intuitive, click-to-dial, instant-messaging-style interface makes set-up a snap for guests, and includes technology that helps ensure consistent, high-quality experience over less-than-perfect networks.
"Depending on the bandwidth available to the guest, we can sometimes achieve an HD connection," said Baird.
To enable remote connections without impacting the studio's firewall, Baird added the Polycom Video Border Proxy™ (VBP®) firewall traversal solution. Simple call management is another big plus for a crew that shoots several episodes a day.
"We sometimes need to quickly end one call and start another," said Baird. "With Polycom, we can reconnect a call in 10 seconds. Previously, if a call was dropped, we might never get it back. Polycom gives us a level of stability that's outstanding, even with the laptops."
According to de Michele, a reliable, quality experience is essential to both shows. "It's embarrassing when a guest is trying to explain a very personal, painful situation, and all of a sudden the host can't see them or hear them. The entire segment is ruined."
Saving $250,000 a season
De Michele said interviewing guests over video saves Dr. Phil about $50,000 per season on travel alone. "If we didn't interview them over video, we'd have to fly them in, and cover hotel, meals and other costs," he said. "And the guests may lose up to three days of work just to appear on the show for a few minutes."
The new infrastructure also offers flexibility – and along with it, even greater cost savings. For instance, when he's not taping episodes of The Doctors, Dr. Travis Stork is an emergency room faculty physician at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. "Now when Dr. Stork is in Tennessee, we can use Polycom to communicate with him through a laptop or desktop system. Prior to Polycom, getting a stable connection would have required us to roll a satellite truck at $7,500 to $15,000 a trip," said de Michele, who estimates that last year, the two shows conducted 20 satellite uplinks. That's roughly $200,000 in costs that neither show will need to shoulder again, thanks to Polycom.
Eventually, de Michele and Baird want to enable video calls with multiple guests at once. "Polycom offers another tool I can give the production crew to craft their show," said Baird.
For now, however, the crews behind Dr. Phil and The Doctors are happy that remotely interviewing guests is no longer a high-wire act. "The mood in the control room was very tense before Polycom came along," said Baird. "Now it's routine. People know it's going to work."
An open platform provides options
Because Polycom offers open standards-based solutions, the shows' producers also can interview remote guests who may have access to another provider's videoconferencing system. Unlike vendors who only offer closed, proprietary, single-vendor solutions, Polycom takes a multivendor approach with interoperable video, telepresence, voice and content sharing offerings for Unified Communications environments. For Dr. Phil, The Doctors, and organisations around the world, that provides flexibility and protects investments.
Producers also can achieve broadcast-quality video connections more frequently thanks to Polycom's support for H.264 High Profile, a breakthrough, standards-based video compression technology. The new technology, which comes standard in all new Polycom telepresence systems, reduces bandwidth requirements for HD and standard-definition video conferencing by as much as 50%.
"Polycom gives us three things we didn't have before: Quality, reliability and flexibility," added Baird. "And those are the three things we needed most."