Decarbonizing content production in media and entertainment
The current Covid-19 related restrictions for social distancing and limits on travel have required major changes to work practices. Yet even before the pandemic hit, content production was changing. Rapid advances in technology, combined with production companies’ need to cut costs, was prompting a move to more remote working.
During successive Covid-19 lockdowns, while some productions had to be halted, others adapted, further accelerating and amplifying the changes already underway. For example, the shift in broadcasting to Internet Protocol (IP) – a key step in digitalization and the transfer of data – was already in progress; yet a recent survey found that 71% of broadcasters had accelerated its adoption. A by-product of this change has been the significant environmental benefit, which must be sustained – and stepped up – if companies are to deliver on their net-zero ambitions.
Remote production of live news and sport
So, what’s shifted? Let’s first look at news and sport. Newscasters have presented programs from their own homes. Large outside broadcast teams have been replaced, or at least downsized, with more intensive use of centralized facilities. Formula 1 became the first sports production to deploy remote operations globally, fast-tracking a longer-term sustainability project to meet the health and safety restrictions of the pandemic. Premier League football is another good example: with much smaller crews filming at stadia, one central production hub can be across a number of matches all in the same afternoon.
Part of the enablement of this has been broadcasters’ move to IP. Remote teams can be covering one match, and as soon it is over, they can switch to the next using automated and templated workflows without the wasted travel time. And moving production into the cloud means that distributed teams can work even more flexibly in real-time.
While this kind of remote production does require energy for connectivity and processing power, the financial and environmental costs of a distributed team are significantly lower than those of driving outside trucks and crews to locations. Compute is almost always environmentally cheaper than travel!
Films and scripted content
Changes have been just as wide-ranging for scripted content production. In both film and TV, we’re at the dawn of a new era for virtual production – again accelerated by technology and the need for far fewer people on set.
Instead of building elaborate sets or moving teams to film on location, directors can employ advanced computer-generated imagery (CGI) to transport an audience anywhere on this planet – or others – all from the studio. CGI has itself advanced, thanks largely to the transition of gaming technology platforms and tools into films. Where before, graphics were overlaid onto green screen post-production, now actors stand in front of huge CGI backdrops, creating a faster and easier means of production. The most famous example of this is The Mandalorian, which has successfully re-created the Star Wars galaxy for its fans without anyone needing to set foot in a desert. In fact, we have got to the point where now a film crew can send out a drone to ‘film’ a location that is then recreated in high resolution virtually and used for filming in the studio. And this isn’t just a plan, it’s already being done!
This industry has implemented changes in a year that could otherwise take five or even ten years to take shape through the shift to remote production. But if we want to meet decarbonization commitments for 2023 and beyond, we can’t be complacent. The challenge now for any media company is to integrate what’s happened in the last 12 months, press forward with digital transformation, to measure and accelerate their journey.
Looking forward, the arrival of 5G will be another step change, with vastly increased connectivity – especially in locations such as sports stadia – further catalyzing new audience experiences and ways of working.
Historically, travel has represented the largest proportion of the media and entertainment industry’s environmental footprint. Part of the rationale for this has been the media’s power to influence public consciousness through storytelling. In other words, the industry’s carbon footprint has been seen to be offset by its social value in raising awareness of climate change. This calibration resets when remote and virtual production enables such leaps and bounds in decarbonization.
Navigating the net zero journey
In news, for instance, when you don’t require sophisticated camera moves, if you can now control the camera, audio and lighting remotely, then why employ an engineering and production team in far-flung locations? And, with such amazing forms of new creativity in film, maybe we are starting to see a return to the kinds of studio lots of the 1920s?
While the figures aren’t yet available on the effects of the last year on the industry’s carbon emissions, they will surely show a major reduction. Yet, there’s no room for complacency. As a recent BBC report outlined, the transition from broadcast to streaming actually increases the carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of the downstream usage of media industry technology (distribution and end-user apps) is far higher than the direct carbon footprint of a media company. Optimizing these elements in terms of energy usage should be the priority.
Broadcast IP Transformation Report 2021, Haivision
 Using Behavioural Data to Assess the Environmental Impact of Electricity Consumption of Alternate Television Service Distribution Platforms, BBC, September 2020