Major League Baseball fans can tweet all they want in the hope of catching the attention of their favorite baseball personalities. But only the Chatting Cage, a collaboration between the league and sponsor Edward Jones, gives baseball fans the opportunity to pose questions and speak directly via reliable, live video chat with the game’s biggest names.
“Video call-in is what makes the Chatting Cage a special opportunity for fans and players alike,” said Chris Lundberg, senior coordinating producer for MLB.com. “We get calls from all kinds of fans, from kids asking All-Star hitters for tips to break out of a slump to adults with thoughtful questions based on their lifelong passion for the game. The Chatting Cage brings MLB and its fans closer together.”
Stability of video chats had been a thorn in the side of producers. Last fall, the MLB.com team sat down with The Video Call Center to discuss a different approach — a complete live video call production solution built around VCC’s patented video caller management system, Caller Queue.
The Video Call Center solution offered MLB numerous video call options. Callers use popular calling apps they already have on their devices such as FaceTime (native on iPhones), Web-RTC-based Gruveo (built into Android) which only requires a browser, or Skype. The VCC has patented reliability-enhancing technology to further stabilize and improve call quality, and according to the company it has achieved success with 99.3% of all calls the system has fielded for commercial customers.
NEW HOME, NEW TECH
As the 2018 season approached, the Chatting Cage team prepared to move from its original home within Manhattan’s Chelsea Market to the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J. With the move came the opportunity to revisit the technology and workflows used to create the show’s unique fan interaction.
“Changing technology and workflow for the show presents a variety of challenges at any time,” said Lundberg. “Having to make the shift while moving facilities probably could have been insurmountable. Along with the technical team at MLB Network, the VCC were great partners and, despite the tight timetable, we were able to successfully launch to air on time.”
With project management assistance from the VCC, system preparation began Feb 14 and by March 6, the Chatting Cage team was in rehearsal using the system. VCC’s interface system provides flexible connectivity for broadcast facilities, which helped smooth the transition. For example, VCC was readily configurable for embedded audio used in Secaucus instead of unbalanced AES3 needed in the Chelsea facility.
One of the challenges faced when bringing live video callers to air is the fact that there’s no crew at the caller’s end. While the video feed of players comes from MLB Network’s award-winning Ballpark Cam, a network of in-venue cameras, fans are using phones, tablets and laptops from wherever they happen to be.
The show’s call screener, Segment Producer Marissa Morris, serves as gatekeeper and the first person with whom every caller interacts. Morris trained with video call production experts from the VCC who went over different techniques to ensure calls are the best possible in terms of video and audio presentation. “They taught us that small changes can have a big impact,” said Morris. “Asking a person to move closer to a window or to use headphones in a public place makes a huge difference.”
To join a show, callers first enter the online Caller Queue, the VCC’s cloud-based caller management platform which has been custom-branded for MLB. Callers provide basic identifying information, the question they wish to ask, as well as specify their preferences regarding video calling apps. The Caller Queue permits the call producers to see all the candidates for air, what devices they are on, what topic they would like to discuss, and select them for air.
After reviewing the information, Morris uses the VCC text chat feature to introduce herself and set expectations about when she will call the fan. Text chat is a new feature, integrated into the VCC platform at the request of MLB.
A few minutes before the fan joins the live show, Morris will call them via their preferred app. If the chosen app is problematic, Morris can quickly reconnect via another option. Crop marks on the laptop help her work directly with the fan for ideal framing.
“In the past, we had only one option for video chat,” Lundberg said. “If an issue popped up in making the caller’s camera work with the system, or the connectivity wasn’t great, our only choice was to move on to the next caller.”
VCC call computers are in racks alongside other MLB production equipment. Outputs are fed to a monitor in the control room so operators can QC visuals at air time. But, when it comes to running the show, all that is needed is a laptop.
ON THE FLY
Having four VCC call computers online makes it far less stressful for Morris to juggle large volumes of callers. “We have the option to have four different fans fully vetted and ready to go,” he said. “Having choices means we can bring in a caller who is relevant to what is happening at any moment in the show, rather than relying solely on chronological order. And while we have yet to experience an unresolvable technical issue with a caller, we always have a fallback option.”
When the show’s drivers bring a caller to air, the show visually shifts to a three-up screen that includes the host, guest, and the fan. VCC’s Call Manager Pro system automatically clears all the interface buttons and return video windows normally displayed by calling apps, so all viewers see is distraction-free video. After the question is posed, the show switches to a two-box for the response, with the option to revert to three-box if follow up is required. Morris explains to the fan what they will see on screen, so they aren’t surprised when their video feed vanishes.
“The Chatting Cage has been on MLB.com in various forms for several years, even prior to when I joined the show,” said Lundberg. “The VCC platform along with the helpfulness and experience of their call production team has made this the best iteration yet. The result is a completely unique opportunity to grow the connection between MLB, its teams, players and fans.”
Evan Sirof is president of Marcomm-on-Call.