COVID-19 is Changing Television, Possibly Forever

The inside story of how Live with Kelly and Ryan puts on a streaming show

Call it too much time on my hands, stuck-at-home-itis, or my obsession with how technology not only changes lives but how it’s often used to fill in gaps we never saw coming.

Live TV in the age of COVID
Lifewire / Tim Liedtke

Scroll back 45 days to a time before the Coronavirus, before a series of seemingly unrelated letters—COVID-19—became a forever part of our daily discourse. Life was on a predictable path. Technology was everywhere, but it also had its time and place. We used it more as a tool, not a lifeline.

The pandemic changed that. With millions of us working from home for the first time, we rely on technology to, if we’re lucky, keep us employed and connected. We collectively experienced the almost universal adoption of Zoom (and the backlash) and even the tech-averse learned new digital skills without which they might be cut off from friends, family, and co-workers.

Even our news and entertainment has changed, and not subtly but in distinct and highly visible ways.

Live stream TV
This is how live TV looks today.  Live with Kelly and Ryan

Live from The Basement

As I watched Saturday Night Live’s first show in over a month, a not-live compilation cobbled together with webcams, video conferencing, and Bluetooth headphones, I thought, and not for the first time, that this is really the AirPod’s moment. If you’re not watching Netflix (actually even if you are—check out the Tiger King and I special), you may be tuning into local and national morning news and entertainment shows like Good Morning AmericaThe Today Show, and Live with Kelly and Ryan and marveling at the Bluetooth headset’s ubiquity.

Since mid-March all these shows had one or more hosts broadcast from home. I’ve done my share of Skype news interviews from my home office, but these broadcasts are different. Instead of pre-recording, chopped up, and neatly packaged interviews, the hosts were on live (often for hours at a time) and so were their remote guests.

I’ve done enough television to know that this is something new, different, and possibly very difficult. I wanted to understand how these shows are doing it, why they’ve made certain technology choices (why AirPods?) and why what they’re doing today probably wasn’t even possible a decade ago.

Live with Kelly and Ryan
Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest wear AirPods and use multiple screens to stream Live live.  Live with Kelly and Ryan

As Live as Live Gets

Since 2012, I’ve been a guest on Live with Kelly and Ryan, a national morning show shot in New York City and beamed from coast-to-coast (West Coast sees it on a delay). I usually go on to demonstrate the latest gadgets and software, but now I was marveling at the show’s own use of technology to live-stream what is often referred to as Live with Kelly and Ryan "homemade edition" virtually every single weekday.

On March 20, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered everyone except essential workers to stay at home. Three days later, the show broadcast its first live-streamed show.

In a real-world case of “Stars, They’re Just Like Us,” show hosts Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest, along with Executive Producer Michael Gelman (and the rest of the show’s crew) started following stay at home guidelines while trying to figure out how to put on a show.

“The challenge was, here, on very short notice, we realized we’d have to produce these shows remotely,” said Gelman, who’s been executive producing the show for 32 years.

'We were putting on our live show; many others are doing taped.'

On the positive side, the hosts and everyone else associated with the show already had a lot of advanced, albeit consumer, tech in their homes. Most had iPhones, iPads, laptops, and headphones.

While some in media have gone to Apple asking what, in this new reality, they can do with all these devices and usually walk away with helpful tips and tricks, Gelman did not turn to Apple for help. He did speak to some people about how they’d been doing live streams and watched other shows to to get a better idea of how it’s done.

Even so, this was “quite a risk.” First of all, they were modifying consumer technology to work at a professional level and enterprise software to accommodate broadcast. In addition, “We were putting on our live show; many others are doing taped.” In other words, if something went wrong, Gelman and his team couldn’t simply stop the show and say, “we’ll fix it in post.”

Tools of a New Trade

I asked Gelman to walk me through what he described as his “Command Center.” I’d seen photos on Instagram, and it looked like a mess of screens, which, in a way, it is.

“I literally have eight devices going at the same time,” he laughed. There’s: 

  • A laptop running Microsoft’s Skype video conferencing system that lets Gelman see the hosts and a guest if there is one
  • One iPhone is dedicated to an on-going FaceTime with Kelly Ripa
  • Another iPhone is dedicated to FaceTime with Ryan Seacrest
  • There’s an iPad running Bluejeans, an enterprise level video chat system
  • Another iPhone that connects to the Control Room
  • One more iPhone so Gelman can text and make calls during the show.

The hosts each have a laptop running Skype, which serves as their main video feed into the show. They are experimenting with higher-quality Web cams, which might improve the look of the show. They also have iPads and iPhones running the other side of Gelman’s FaceTime conversations, which is how Gelman virtually stands off camera with notes and stage direction. For stream stability, the host laptops are connected to a wired Ethernet network.

“I’m using Wi-Fi, but I have a strong mesh [network] system,” said Gelman.

Many of the show’s guests are on iPhones and Wi-Fi, and the image quality is varied. In addition, it turns out that the stories of over-taxed broadband networks are not apocryphal. “As people wake up, we can actually see [the Wi-Fi] slowing down throughout the show,” said Gelman.

About Those AirPods

I’ve noticed that the hosts are usually wearing a pair or one AirPod, which have become, more or less, the official Bluetooth earbuds of the pandemic. Part of this is accidental.

First, everyone already had them. There are, however, a number of technical and aesthetic reasons. Wireless earbuds look better on camera. “You don’t want to be tethered if you don’t have to,” said Gelman.

The sound from the AirPods is decent. In fact, on that first day of Live with Kelly and Ryan at Home, Ryan used his AirPods and Kelly relied on her laptop microphone. The sound quality difference was stark.

Now the show asks every guest to put in some kind of headphone. Most guests have used AirPods. The hosts appear to be using lower-profile AirPods Pro, but many guests still have AirPods 1 or 2.

'This is real as it gets.'

On this and other shows I’ve spotted some people using just one AirPod. I wondered if they were using it like a show hosts’ IFB, where they get secret instructions from the director. Gelman told me that while that’s 100% plausible, it’s not something they do on their show. “Generally, we don’t like to do it, interrupt them in their ear.”

Turns out the single AirPod is a precaution. These tiny devices are rated for 2 hours of talk time (five hours for music playback) on a charge. If the show is just an hour (less if you count commercials) why would that be a concern? Like other shows, Live with Kelly and Ryan is not just the 60 minutes you see on air. It’s the hours of planning and rehearsal that happen before the show and the work that often continues for hours after.

“We did find that sometimes …. they only have a certain battery life. So, at one point, when there seemed to be an issue, we’d have them wear one and charge the other,” Gelman told me. This way, if one AirPod died during the show, they’d simply switch out to the fully charged one, while placing the other AirPod back in the case to recharge.

Gelman said it works best, though, when everyone wears both AirPods.

Michael Gelman
Inside Gelman's Command Center, which he runs with the help of his daughter, Jamie. Live with Kelly and Ryan

Somehow, it Works

I asked Gelman if this is the toughest challenge he’d ever faced as the show’s long-time producer. “It was very unexpected and has been challenging but has been surprisingly trouble-free.” There have been glitches like grainy video, just OK audio but, “We haven’t had any disasters,” said Gelman, who added he was “knocking on wood.”

What they’re doing isn’t easy. I’ve been joining a handful of these shows in their new Skype streaming format and have had intermittent luck with my AirPods and my laptop. To be fair, I tried mixing Windows with the iOS friendly AirPods. That’s a mistake I won’t make again. Live’s hosts pair their AirPods with Macs.

In some ways, the challenge of streaming Live each day with the hosts, control room, producers, and Gelman all in separate locations, plays to their strengths.

Live with Kelly and Ryan
A live entertainment show means live musical acts, too (that's singer/songwriter Max on the right). Somehow, Live with Kelly and Ryan is making it work. Live with Kelly and Ryan

“We’ve always done a kind of guerilla television, down and dirty, get it on the air, more into the reality of putting on a show. This is real as it gets," he said.

Putting on this daily realer-than-real show is clearly a point of pride for Gelman and his team. “We took the challenge and rose to the occasion very quickly.” So quickly that, after a previously scheduled break, they never missed a show.

With people gathering around the familiar like a warm campfire, ratings have been strong. “The audience is very appreciative that we’ve been part of their morning routines.”

So What

I often wonder, when the Pandemic and stay at home orders end, which parts of our lives will return to business as usual? Will I go back into the office every day? Will we consume mass quantities of toilet paper and napkins? Will we ever shake hands again? And I do wonder about television. The COVID-19 pandemic forced shows like Live with Kelly and Ryan to find a new way to get on air and deliver the show to, at least for now, a somewhat captive audience. 

Will they put aside the tools they’ve used and skills they learned to return to broadcasting as usual or will a new day bring about a broadcast-livestream hybrid that’s as comfortable going on air from the kitchen as it is from the studio? Guess we'll be tuning in to find out.

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