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A show for all seasons: The new world of live award event possibilities

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In this blog, The Switch’s Ian Dittbrenner looks at how the events of this year’s awards season have led show producers to innovate and reinvent

The successful live Oscars 2021 ceremony, with its international hubs and socially distanced seating in Los Angeles’ Union Station, marked the end of an awards season unlike any other – and one that looks to change the shape of awards to come. The fact is, the circumstances forced on the industry over the last year by COVID-19 have changed the media and entertainment industry’s approach and outlook on awards shows, creating a whole new palette from which producers of these events can draw up plans.

At first, it seemed the virtual award show would be an aberration – a poor relation to the live, single-location, big-stage traditional set-up that would only last during the temporary impact of the pandemic. The expectation from many in the industry was that what we would get was a poorly knitted together, amateurish mishmash of Zoom calls that we had to put up with in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19 and onset of social distancing, intense safety protocols and lockdowns.

Then something kicked in: the professionalism, talent, knowledge, technological proficiency, innovation and, ultimately, vision within the industry that took virtual and hybrid awards to an entirely new level. What’s more, it became clear that the impact of COVID-19 was far less temporary than first imagined – and also that leveraging remote and virtual elements could be a real strength.

The upshot has been an accelerated acceptance and adoption of new production methods that went from being viewed as a necessary evil to a workable alternative to a set of fresh approaches transforming the very form of awards shows. What we are seeing now is no longer a patched together work-through but a lasting shift in thinking with new set-ups, workflows and other processes that leverage the advantages of techniques and technologies that were already being pioneered – but previously in a much smaller-scale and limited way. Now we are seeing innovative uses of cloud-based production, remote production, streamlined mobile production and bespoke hybrid variations that combine all of these.

A new wave of change

As we prepare for a different look to each new awards show, we can see the thread that has led to new thinking and acceptance of innovations in the production and delivery of these events. A whole year of struggling with the pandemic, lockdowns, social distancing, travel restrictions, limits to people at public events and strict isolation and quarantine measures for those arriving in or returning to many countries has, in fact, freed many people from the idea that because things have always been done one way, they have to keep being done that way.

Award show organizers now have a whole plethora of options at their fingertips to bolster creativity and help them reach more audiences. Remote production tools have made livestreaming from a range of far-flung and virtual locations easier than ever. Cloud-based clipping and editing capabilities support the rapid delivery of real-time updates and highlights on social media. The result can be a rich mix of feeds from stages, soundstages, backstage, remote locations and even living rooms that marries live, virtual and as-live segments into a seamless flow. The tools used to overcome COVID also mean in-person availability, venue restrictions and geographic issues are no excuse for putting on anything less than a stellar show.

Innovation with specialist support

For producers and digital media managers of awards shows, operating feeds from dozens of prospective recipients and other talent sitting in remote locations around the world will never be an easy task. It requires a specialist approach and skill set. The need for innovative live production and delivery solutions was made very clear as the pandemic wore on.

The 2021 Screen Actors Guild Awards demonstrated that where there’s a will there’s a way, as SAG’s completely virtual event featured a social media red carpet posted from the homes of the actors showcasing their outfits – from bedrooms to backyards to blue gowns in the pool. The show itself comprised expertly stitched together pre-recorded segments that ran as-live on TBS/TNT, including humorous celebrity links, nominee clips, the announcement of winners, and the acceptance speeches. In place of the traditional backstage press area, a virtual media room enabled the winners to be interviewed about receiving a SAG Award – with The Switch supporting production and delivery for entertainment news outlets around the world.

Another great example of a truly innovative variation on the awards show driven by current circumstances was the hybrid production of the 2021 NAACP Image Awards, with the whole event being hosted and produced at The Switch Burbank. We transformed the entire studio facility for the show, with every control room and soundstage being utilized for various elements of the production. The awards, honoring the outstanding achievements of people of color in motion pictures, television, music, and literature, was simulcast across ViacomCBS Networks, including CBS, BET Her, VH1, MTV, MTV2 and LOGO.

The power of social media

Just as the shape of live awards shows has shifted to a much more fluid form, so has how audiences can take in all the action – whether beforehand, after or even backstage during an awards event. The impetus to innovate out of necessity has also helped push real-time social media highlights and sneak-peaks during a live show and the ability it has to make a certain moment go ‘viral’. The pandemic has been a catalyst for the use of cloud-based clipping and editing, making this an even more responsive and in-demand technology for live event producers.

We first saw the power of social media highlights on a global scale with Jennifer Lawrence’s now-famous stumble and sweet recovery at the 2013 Oscars, which almost instantly went viral. I have to say, reflecting on that moment in the production studio all those years ago, it’s amazing to think how far the technology for turning around this sort of highlight has come. This year we have seen social media clipping and editing hit new levels in its ability to instantaneously bring so much awards show action to audiences taking in the content on any device.

The 2020 Latin GRAMMYs put cloud-based clipping and editing for social media to the full test in March. The Switch supported the Latin Recording Academy’s livestreams and highlights across all its social media channels through our pioneering cloud-based production-as-a-service offering, MIMiC. Three dedicated editors, working in COVID-safe conditions at The Switch’s Burbank facility supported clip and highlight creation from the main performances, acceptance speeches and media center interviews. Plus, MIMiC’s innovative cloud-based workflow allowed 20 Spanish and Portuguese language social media editors working from remote locations to post real-time content throughout the virtual event.

The 2021 GRAMMYs then offered a clear illustration of how awards shows pushed the envelope with a rich mix of the live and the virtual, as streamed and social content bolstered the main broadcast. Supporting the Recording Academy, The Switch provided COVID-safe production and delivery of GRAMMY Live, which featured pre-show interviews, post-show reaction and other “backstage” experiences via Facebook Live and the GRAMMYs website. The Switch also remotely produced, under the Academy’s direction, real-time social media clips of the presentations, performances, acceptance speeches and other highlights. And, similarly, we supported the livestream of the Awards’ Premiere Ceremony on before the broadcast of the main show.

The awards season proving ground

Is the virtually enhanced awards show here to stay? For producers and media managers looking to plan future events both within and beyond the constraints of lockdown, there seems to little reason not to employ innovative virtual and hybrid approaches that have now been battle-tested and proven.

Travel issues, schedule conflicts, sheer distance, health concerns and other factors don’t have to be barriers to key appearances in awards events anymore. And the use of cloud-based tools to cost-effectively produce social media highlights and shoulder programming without compromising quality opens up even more doors and creative potential for the producers of awards events. The result is better and more varied live performances, a greater and richer array of reactions, high-quality feeds of all the backstage and behind-the-scenes banter – and, of course, wonderful human drama from at home and around the world.

Ian Dittbrenner is Executive in Charge of Production and Digital at The Switch