SABC explains the newsgathering challenges faced during lockdown

The following article was supplied by SABC:

 Johannesburg, June 2020:
Kagisho Maesela, SABC TV OB's Principal Technician understands how some colleagues would have thought that the workload for technicians would be reduced during the lockdown period, considering that many productions had to be cancelled due to the global pandemic regulations on social distancing. On the contrary, Kagisho elaborates on how busy it became for others.

Kagisho Maesela
Kagisho Maesela
"We were caught off-guard", says Kagisho. “Actually, we were never ready for such a drastic change. We therefore had to quickly adapt to new ways of broadcasting." He goes on to explain in detail how SABC News’ determined attempts behind the scenes were appreciated, in ensuring that presenters and field reporters were ready to meet the challenge and have the SABC mandate fulfilled.

“One of the biggest changes viewers of the SABC News have seen during the national lockdown has been presenters, guests and reporters appearing on TV from their homes. The SABC presenters and reporters have been adhering to the social distancing guidelines set out by the government. But this brought a challenge which allowed us to use all the available technology to deliver the news from a reporter/presenter’s home”, comments Kagisho, as he acknowledges the state-of-the-art equipment the SABC prides itself on, which he believes had previously been rarely used, perhaps from change resistance.

“We had about two weeks to prepare our broadcast disaster recovery (DR) site at Nasrec and ensuring that we equip the facility with some remote capability – responsible for bringing all live content into Nasrec, so it was imperative that we could continue to operate with remote or restricted teams.”

Kagisho has, from the outset, been involved in getting the Nasrec-based DR site set up with some remote capabilities, that is, duplicating the Master Control Room (MCR), Line Record, Edit Suites, Production Area and the Studio capabilities to ensure continuous running of the SABC channels in case the SABC main offices stopped operating.

His role is to configure all bonded cellular networks units to be able to connect to MCR when the news shows are broadcast from Auckland Park (Headquarters) and to connect to the DR site when the news shows are run from Nasrec. “In conjunction with Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), remote access software is allowing us to access equipment in the studio, whether for command and control, or to let remote machines do the heavy lifting that a laptop might struggle with, such as video transcoding”, he says. “And of course, we’re continuing to make use of DMNG APP (Digital Mobile News Gathering ) and MojoPro apps, to enable our presenters and reporters to make live contributions/recording/editing and forwarding files either from home or if social distancing is forcing them to work independently.”

SABC hybrid ENG truck for news gathering.
Hybrid ENG
Kagisho expatiates on how the SABC teams are using the DMNG APP, MojoPro, LiveU and DMNG Pro bond cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity to maximize the available bandwidth to offer some robustness, which is key when many network lines are experiencing much more traffic than normal. “All these units are set for the lowest possible latency – MojoPro, Safe Streams Technology (SST) return links etc.” Kagisho adds that the huge demand of apps like MojoPro, DMNG APP, etc., has been a challenge, since all the new users needed to be trained (as he could only train them remotely) and increased remote technical support has become a new normal.

Emphasis on monitoring, as part of the remote technical support Kagisho had to offer indicates the added effort he had to put, as he considers this as the bigger part of this exercise:
  • “The firewall gets congested at times, as almost everyone is working remotely through VPN (Virtual Private Network) access, and when the SABC is receiving and sending larger files content, thus causing the bandwidth to have limitations.
  • I had to constantly monitor packet loss on the system.
  • I also monitor if all the field users are adhering to the SOP’s."
While many people struggle to work from home, Kagisho feels at home working anywhere, with his tools. For him, “working from home is similar to delivering an outside broadcast anywhere; it is a familiar territory." In his humble manner of expression, Kagisho says, “I forever remind myself that all I do is in the interest of the SABC and the public that we serve. The fast-paced environment in broadcasting keeps me on my toes, as I get to analyse patterns of imperfections. I need to know what could be causing a decline in picture quality (something that could deter viewers to flip to alternative channels). I analyse the performance of the bonded cellular networks, performance of the firewall, video drops and audio drops (I gather all this information to improve the systems). Remote training I offer serves to ensure a smooth broadcast. Now that I have been working remotely, I am helping to roll out the remote broadcast capabilities to other teams by providing remote training and also give technical support to the teams." He brags about his Internet Protocol (IP) broadcast skills that have been honed further during this lockdown period.
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