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Day in the Life: ABC News' head of live video talks wrangling six livestreams, tech issues
While some publishers are struggling to figure out how to produce one live video, imagine planning six feeds for the the around-the-clock news cycle. Then add the constant technical hiccups and throw in breaking news.
That’s the challenge for Sarah Amos, ABC News’ ep of live products. She oversees all of the network’s live video on its digital platforms, ranging from “Good Morning America’s” daily Periscope show to coordinating what’s being shown on ABCNews.com’s live video hub.
“ABC News is the the only place doing a true multi-stream experience for digital,” Amos told Digiday. “It’s a cool space to play in because there are a lot of different elements.”
Amos’ main task is directing what’s streaming on ABC News’ website, footage that’s into two different types of formats. The first is raw coverage, encompassing press conferences, affiliate feeds and even live animal cams. The second is producing anchored coverage hosted by ABC News journalists, which doesn’t have a set schedule because it only occurs during breaking news.
“Cable news has gotten trapped in this very set world of five stories of what we’re going to do and then people know what to expect,” she said. “We want live video to be organic and unpredictable.”
Still, that unpredictability often leads to problems when it comes to beaming live video due to bandwidth issues and the risk of interrupting broadcasts.
“Every day is a challenge to make sure you have the signal and that all this new technology is working properly,” she said. “It’s a fun challenge because it’s given us flexibility in our storytelling and our creativity when it comes to telling a story.”
Here’s a journal of a typical recent day in her life, edited for clarity and length:
6:15 a.m.: My morning is a blur of emails, Slack, the ABC News app, other news apps, WABC and Good Morning America, combined with making myself presentable for the office and making sure that our dog, Avon Barksdale, is fed and walked.
7:15 a.m.: I catch the top of GMA before I jump on the subway, my usual routine unless we are doing a livestream in conjunction with the show. If that is the case I am at the live desk before it begins to make sure everything goes smoothly. We usually do one or two live streams with GMA every week, it’s a great chance to show the behind-the-scenes, or stream extra summer concert songs.
7:20 a.m.: On the train I start emailing our team ideas for live streams we should do that day and flagging stories that we want to stay on top of. The beauty of having a multi-live stream platform is that you don’t have to prioritize one story over another, you can really give your audience the choice. A few of stories we are already looking at include the shooting in Baton Rouge, Clinton and Trump on the campaign trail, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, the heat in the Northeast and the New York City street corner dedication for photographer Bill Cunningham.
8:00 a.m: I grab breakfast in the cafeteria, a new habit I am trying since my staff always admonishes me for forgetting to eat during the day, and then head up our desks. My team is split between two buildings, so I usually find myself wandering the halls with my laptop and phone depending on where I am needed at any given moment.
8:50 a.m.: As I am heading up to our 9 a.m. division-wide editorial meeting, my live stream operator lets me know that the stream we were supposed to get from the running of the bulls has been bumped until tomorrow. I’m bummed because I was excited to see that event get underway, but with live streaming you quickly learn not to get attached to any story until you actually see it up and running. Days can be unpredictable so we are big on having backup plans for our backup plans.
9:30 a.m.: Sit with our editorial team as we continue to work on setting up streams for today and working on futures and convention coverage. We are planning 24/7 live streams for the full weeks of both the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Officials and community leaders in Louisiana are holding a press conference about the shooting in Baton Rouge, so we have that livestream going on in the background.
9:50 a.m: I head over to the live desk side of the building with one of our correspondents visiting from D.C.. I always find taking folks over to the live desk to actually see how all our streams get monitored and published is a great way to understand what goes into a multi-stream platform. Timing ends up being perfect for me to be over there as an email has just gone out giving a heads up that the president will be making a speech on Afghanistan. Unclear what the content of the speech will be just yet, but I want to make sure our live stream operators are good to put up the event and also put up any special report that could be done by the network.
10:30 a.m.: Full team meeting with editorial, control room and live desk staffing. Chance to talk through the next few months of coverage and see if folks have any questions. Because live streaming is such a new space for media companies the way we do things is constantly evolving as new platforms like Facebook Live emerge and the tech gets better and better.
11:15 a.m.: Meeting cancelled, which is great because it means I get to hang out in the control room for a live stream we are doing with Rick Klein in D.C. about the “veepstakes” and where things currently stand for both the choice Clinton and Trump will be making.
11:30 a.m.: Meet with our [executive producer] of digital, Dan Silver and the team behind our livestream series “Strait Talk with Matt Dowd and LZ Granderson” to talk convention planning and some fun ideas we are hoping to execute in the months leading up the general election in November. Matt and LZ have been major voices in ABC News’ political coverage this election cycle and the great thing about our platform is it gives us a chance to showcase their personalities beyond what folks are used to seeing on the more controlled broadcast environment.
12:15 p.m.: Use my lunch of chicken burger and french fries as a comfort food crutch while I chat convention coverage budgets and travel plans. Also check in on a coordination email chain about what we plan on natively streaming on Facebook today. Our social team has been very aggressive with simulcasting our live streams when it makes sense on a variety of ABC News Facebook pages and vice versa. It’s a great way to foster audience interaction, grow our live brand’s reach and give us more options on how and when we go live.
12:5o p.m.: Catch the tail-end of the livestream our reporter Charli James is doing from the Bill Cunningham dedication. Signal was a bit choppy for a minute there at the end, but held together. Often we find that if the content is compelling, and there is a good reason that the quality of the signal might not be perfect, people will stick with you and wait for the quality to come back.
1:00 p.m: Working with our control room staff on graphics and elements for the conventions. Even though everything we do is unplanned and live, we still want to make sure we are conveying additional context and information as needed. I take our hosts Mary Bruce and Amna Nawaz through some of the new elements we’ve built. Since we have so many live streams available we like to have different navigation techniques to help cue viewers as to the different options available to them. We also are always thinking across all devices so I spend a lot of time comparing how our graphics look on OTT, desktop and mobile. We are going for a clean look that can work on everything.
2:00 p.m.: Meeting with larger digital team about convention plans. We work as one cohesive unit when it comes to how we produce content as we see every idea as something that can be packaged across video, text, social, live, etc. We plan as a group to make sure everyone has what they need and that our coverage can be as comprehensive and multi-faceted as possible.
3:00 p.m.: As usual the afternoon becomes a blur of meetings, email responses and Slack chats. The only consistent factor through these next few hours is my growing obsession with our live stream of fans watching the Portugal vs. Wales EuroCup game. We are just live streaming a crowd of thousands watching the match. It is totally mesmerizing to watch the reactions on people’s faces and try to guess what just happened in the game.
4:00 p.m.: We have our weekly operations meeting. Honestly, one of my favorites in the week because I always feel better with at least a basic understanding of how all the tech that is getting our content live operates. Today’s meeting is focused on the conventions of course. We talk everything from graphics, to stream quality to closed captioning. We want each live stream on our site to provide a user experience that works by itself or as part of a larger ecosystem. To make that happen we need to make sure every stream is working individually and that our plan to create a curated-for-the viewer-experience that combines all the streams, is solid.
5:00 p.m.: I run the daily team meeting. A chance for the staff to get together, go over anything from today, go through questions, plans and ideas for tomorrow and talk about any big issues. With a staff that includes a control room, editorial and live streamers, it is so important to make sure everyone is communicating and on the same page.
5:30 p.m.: I am trying to keep to the practice of answering every email I get within 24 hours. I find the end of the day is the best time for this, and today is no exception. Our desks are right off from the set of “World News Tonight with David Muir,” so I get some evening mood lighting and just tear through as many outstanding questions and projects as possible. I also catch up on live streams I didn’t get to see live today, like puppies with Bob Dole.
6:30 p.m.: My husband also works here at ABC News, so we usually jump on the subway together after the first 10 minutes of World News. The subway ride home usually begins with anything that happened in our day and by the time we are crossing the Manhattan Bridge we are debating dinner.