Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) maintains a long-standing tradition of providing live television broadcasts of candidate debates for congressional and state offices. GPB works closely with the Atlanta Press Club to deliver debates that inform citizens about their voting options.
When the COVID-19 pandemic and state-wide lockdown threatened the tradition, the turned to Cisco’s Webex® platform (including CMS and Webex Teams™) to ensure the essential civil function could still take place.
In March of 2020, GPB was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic while looking forward to the Georgia primary election debates in early May. The team needed to develop and implement a solution to enable virtual debates and accommodate a high number of remote participants. And they needed to do it fast.
“We knew that the traditional means of remote broadcasting were probably not going to handle what we needed,” says Adam Woodlief, CTO. “So we quickly began assessing partners to help make our virtual vision a reality.”
The GPB team was well equipped with studio and live television equipment. But needed a partner to enable remote communication, interaction, and dialogue between debate candidates, moderators, and panelists.
They would also need to connect the participants’ audio and video with GPB’s broadcast equipment to accommodate the live television broadcast.
To help them explore the possibilities, the GPB team established several key project requirements.
First and foremost, they needed to minimize the amount of physical contact between each candidate, panelist, and moderator. Safety was paramount. Each candidate would join from their home via the selected meeting solution; panelists and moderators would broadcast from studio locations.
Next, they needed to ensure that every participant had a natural, organic experience that encouraged interaction and discussion. Woodlief and team saw this as essential to the spirit of the debate. “We needed intercommunication,” he says.
They also needed to achieve outstanding production value. But the goal wasn’t simply to emulate a traditional debate. The GPB team aimed to deliver a new type of experience and set an example for others to follow. To do that, the new format needed to be delivered with production values that met or exceeded viewer expectations.
Finally, security was critical. The broadcast team needed firm control over attendees to prevent disruptions and ensure no unauthorized parties interfered with the production.
At the end of the process, Woodlief and team selected the Webex platform to help deliver the virtual debates.
The next step was to make it all happen in just two weeks.
“We knew that the traditional means of remote broadcasting were probably not going to handle what we needed. So we quickly began assessing partners to help make our virtual vision a reality.”
Georgia Public Broadcasting, CTO
“We knew that we needed to go beyond a free application,” says Woodlief of their solution-selection process, “because of what we were trying to accomplish. We needed a product that could merge with our broadcasting tools and know-how. We selected an on-premises approach to ensure control and performance.”
The GPB team opted to leverage the Webex platform to enable their production. An on-premises server afforded them more control and protection over the broadcast. Webex Teams provided the intuitive experience and call quality that simplified the experience for all participants.
The Webex platform joined with the broadcasting systems to allow participant audio and video to integrate with other sources for the live television broadcast. Video was routed directly from the collaboration infrastructure to the production control environment.
With the solution defined, joint teams from GPB and Cisco set about tackling the project on a tight timeline. “We had Cisco on-site working with our technology partners to bring the front-end collaboration systems online,” says Woodlief. “I have never seen such a collaboration. It was very exciting.”
The two organizations also worked together to create guidelines and best-practice documents to bring candidates up to speed on Webex Teams and optimizing their home broadcast environments.
As the time window drew to a close, the solution was deployed in time for rehearsal events. This gave the team a valuable opportunity to optimize and troubleshoot before the first debate.
“We had Cisco on-site working with our technology partners to bring the front-end collaboration systems online. I have never seen such a collaboration. It was very exciting.”
Georgia Public Broadcasting, CTO
After a series of early mornings and long nights, the joint teams accomplished their mission. The above-and-beyond efforts were rewarded with a series of successful debates.
The events achieved GPB’s core mission of providing viewers with knowledge and insight to make an informed voting decision. “The high production quality meant that we didn’t lose anything in translation,” says Woodlief.
GPB broadcasted ten virtual debates over two days of live television, with a total of:
● 64 candidates
● 5 panelists
● 5 moderators
● 74 live locations
● 3000 calls to the bridge with no drops
The virtual nature of the events made for engaging, enjoyable viewing while offering an experience that was distinct from the traditional format.
“It allowed voters to see the candidates in an entirely different environment. You felt like you were in their house or office with them,” says Woodlief.
And it all happened with minimal physical contact between those involved.
What made this success possible, even against tight time constraints? According to Woodlief, the shared dedication and project ownership across both teams was the key.
“This was a group effort,” says Woodlief. “I can’t say enough about the energy, ownership, and dedication we saw from the Cisco team. They really became a part of our organization and invested in our success. They were more than just a vendor. They believed in our mission.”
With the Webex platform operating on premises, the GPB team has found additional uses for it: from other live television programming to a behind-the-scenes tool to preserve visual cues for isolated radio broadcasters.
Woodlief and team plan to continue applying their approach to remote broadcasting, even in scenarios where it’s not strictly necessary. They’re constantly refining their approach to deliver an even better end-product.
“By marrying the traditional tools of broadcasting with meeting and collaboration technology, we aimed to create something truly unique,” says Woodlief. “I think together, we accomplished that. And it’s only getting better.”