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How Discovery, TLC and Tegna Are Bringing Live Internet-Video Calls Into On-Air Broadcasts

What’s the best way to stream video from remote locations to live TV, without deploying specialized equipment in the field?

One solution comes from the Video Call Center, a 10-person company based in Palisades, N.Y., which has developed a system to let TV producers bring in live feeds from off-the-shelf smartphones and laptops over the internet — from as far away as Alaska and the Philippines. The company, founded in 2012 by former NBC exec and Wall Street analyst Tom Wolzien, recently began working with Discovery Channel, TLC and Tegna to bring video calls into their live broadcasts.

Discovery Communications is using the VCC video-caller platform to produce and deliver new live-to-air audience participation segments for Discovery Channel reality show “Alaska: The Last Frontier” about the Kilchers, a family that lives in the remote community of Homer, Alaska (pictured above). Viewers are invited to call in to the show, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, with a few selected to ask questions of the Kilchers, who connect in remotely from their homestead in Homer. The first two-minute Q&A segment aired Oct. 1.

“VCC provided this great little technology to connect our viewers with hosts – we don’t need a live truck or elaborate accouterments,” said Mary Clare Baquet, VP of creative and production for the Agency, Discovery Communications’ in-house production unit. “We wanted more interactivity with our viewers, and this was a really good solution.”

Discovery-owned TLC also is using the VCC’s system for the “tell all” aftershow for the “90-Day Fiancé” international dating series, which pairs U.S. citizen with someone from overseas. The American half the couple is on-set at Discovery’s HQ and speaks to their future spouse through the VCC connection. The two-hour special, “90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days” is scheduled to premiere Oct. 30 on TLC.

In addition, broadcaster Tegna is using the VCC system for “Daily Blast Live,” its millennial-targeted daytime news and entertainment show that premiered last month on 36 Tegna stations and live via Facebook and YouTube. The show produces seven live, half-hour feeds Monday through Friday, and viewers are encouraged to participate in the show’s conversation using the VCC call-in system to share their reactions and opinions on stories.

After the mass shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month, “Daily Blast Live” (styled as “DBL” for short) was able to get a live interview with a survivor on the air – before any other news crews were able to travel to her home, according to Larry Thaler, CEO of VCC.

“Through our technology, you can put anybody with an email address or phone number on the air,” said Thaler. “The premise is: Everybody is walking around with a remote broadcasting system in their pocket.”

Thaler, who joined the VCC in early 2016, had founded consulting firm Positive Flux in 2009 after working at NBC for more than two decades, including serving as VP of distribution technology. He first met Wolzien when the latter was a producer for “NBC Nightly News.” Wolzien came up with the idea for the VCC when he was a sell-side analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.: “He was trying to create the TV version of talk radio,” Thaler said. Wolzien is the majority owner the VCC, which also has received outside funding from Tegna.

The VCC’s system works with a variety of apps, including Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype and WebRTC. Callers participating in a live video session don’t need to download an application, and VCC’s live operations team optimizes the quality of the feed for the conditions in the field. To date, the VCC platform has been used to produce almost 500 live programs for broadcast TV and web distribution with more than 5,000 callers and an overall on-air video call reliability topping 99%, according to Thaler.

“When I see Skype calls on any of the news networks, they tend to not look very good,” said Thaler. “There’s an art to this and science to this, and we’ve gotten very good at this.”

The VCC says its pricing is based on three factors: what services the company is providing; frequency of usage (number of episodes); and the nature of the audience (national vs. local, broadcast vs. online). Discovery’s Baquet said the VCC has been “a cost-effective solution” and that the company has been open to negotiation, but she declined to discuss pricing details.

The VCC, which has patents on workflow and assistive automation related to bringing internet calls into a live broadcast, can be integrated through traditional control rooms or operated by a show’s host without a control room. The company also is a Facebook Live media solutions and broadcast partner.

Pictured above: Discovery Channel’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier” stars Eivin and Eve Kilcher, joined by their kids Findlay and Sparrow, talk live with a fan on-air via the VCC’s internet call-in system.

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