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Media Management: Cross-Country Integrated Production at HuffPost Live

10/25/2012 6:22 AM Eastern

On Monday, August 13, 2012, at 10 a.m. ET, the Huffington Post launched its live streaming news network. Entitled HuffPost Live, live.huffingtonpost.com delivers 12 hours of live programming daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. The programming features a number of HuffPost Live hosts on a working newsroom set interacting with in-studio guests, Huffington Post reporters and remote viewers coming in via Google+ Hangouts, Skype and other forms of web-based videoconferencing.

The HuffPost Live studio at AOL Huffington Post headquarters in New York. Photo by Damon Dahlen/AOL

Stories taking place on HuffPost Live are tied in to stories posted on HuffingtonPost.com, a more traditional online news outlet, and vice versa; live video from HuffPost Live is edited and repurposed into clips posted on HuffingtonPost.com, AOL (Huffington Post’s parent company) and elsewhere online.

HuffPost Live’s ability to turn its viewers into participants has caught the attention of the broadcast world. Small wonder: In breaking down the invisible wall between those who produce content and those who watch it, this website has applied social media interactivity to traditional TV programming.

Gabriel Lewis, co-creator and executive editor of HuffPost Live and head of AOL Studios, says, “Thanks to the web and social media, we no longer need to send a team of correspondents around the world to get news and comment,” Lewis explains. “Instead, anyone with a laptop and an internet connection who is already there can bring us authentic on-site comments and insights—in real time.”

How HuffPost Live Does It
HuffPost Live’s shows are broadcast from nearly identical studios in New York and Los Angeles, bolstered by a small satellite studio in Washington, D.C., for breaking political news. New York produces live content from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET. Los Angeles takes over from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET.

HuffPost Live control room in New York. Photo by Damon Dahlen/AOL

“Technically, the two studios are as identical as we could make them,” says Joseph Adams, operations manager for AOL Studios and the person in charge of HuffPost Live’s Los Angeles facility. “The only differences are due to the fact that the Los Angeles studio was built for AOL shoots before HuffPost Live was conceived.”

The HuffPost Live studio in each location consists of a large rectangular stage with news desks, tables, chairs and couches. Viewers can see the desks and computers of the show’s staff in the background. “We shoot within our newsrooms, and the people you see are the producers and hosts of our content,” Adams says. “They are also the people who appear on the show; they move back and forth over the course of the broadcast day based on whatever segment is being shot.”

Local Tech
HuffPost Live’s camera of choice is Panasonic’s AJ-HPX2700 2/3-inch 3-CCD P2 HD VariCam camcorder. Mike Whitmore, director of operations for studios and workflow at HuffPost Live Production New York, describes the New York production setup: “We have two HPX2700s on manned pedestals, plus two more on robotically controlled arms.” In Los Angeles, the HuffPost Live set has four HPX2700s on manned pedestals, with wiring for two more as needed. “We have HPX2700 field kits in the studio so we can add them as needed,” Adams adds.

At a list price of $39,950, the AJ-HPX2700 may seem like overkill for a web broadcaster, but HuffPost Live execs don’t see it that way. “We stream in 720p and are big believers in the quality offered by this Panasonic P2 format,” Whitmore says. “We also back up our video on P2 cards and use a P2-based workflow.”

Green Rooms are guides to upcoming segments that enable viewers to interact with a HuffPost Live story before it goes live. Users can read up on a topic using the Resources Well, suggest topics that the hosts should talk about during the segment, and chat with other viewers. Viewers can also use the Green Room to request to be an on-camera guest for that segment.

The video from the HPX2700 cameras, plus audio captured by lavalier mics on the talent, is piped back to separate rooms for production. Both the New York and Los Angeles studios are equipped with “traditional master control rooms,” says Lewis, “with audio being managed in their own separate facilities.” Video is switched using Grass Valley Kayak switchers, while audio is handled through Wheatstone audio consoles. HuffPost Live’s production facilities also use Panasonic robotic camera controllers, Harris Platinum routers and RTS intercom systems.

In-studio lighting is a mix of LED and florescent lights. “Incandescent lights run too hot, requiring more power to be spent on them and running air conditioning,” says Adams.

Bringing in the World via the Web
HuffPost Live’s advantage is its ability to bring in video (and tweeted comments) from outside contributors in real time. To do this, the web site relies on Google+ Hangouts, the multi-user ad hoc chat rooms that can support up to 10 people each. “We help people who contact us get into Google+ Hangout rooms,” says Lewis. “Or if they prefer, we take their calls via Skype. Frankly, we will use whatever works and seems best depending on the situation.”

The live content is captured using four Apple Mac mini computers in New York. (HuffPost Live has fiber links connecting its Los Angeles and New York studios and providing distribution links to its mass content distributors, such as Akamai.)

Viewers may browse upcoming segments in the “Green Room” and submit an audition video explaining why they want to be a live guest in that segment. These videos are screened by HuffPost Live staff for language, suitability and content. Those who pass the test are then referred to the show’s producers, who determine which viewers they believe would have something to contribute to the conversation.

As a live segment airs, HuffPost Live techs record it to their production servers. “We then go over the segment to pull clips that can be posted to our many content sites,” says Lewis. “These clips, which are edited using [Apple] Final Cut Pro, are very important to our brand. So selecting and editing them all takes up a lot of time.”

So Far, No Major Headaches
As any broadcaster will tell you, being live is the ultimate test of both on-air talent and off-camera technical skill. It also puts in-studio production and remote distribution technologies to the test. If something isn’t up to scratch, viewers will soon see it fail in front of their eyes.
Amazingly, “Things have worked so far without any major hitches,” says Adams. “Despite being live 12 hours a day and switching between studios on both coasts, HuffPost Live has managed to stay up as scheduled.”