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Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
When you see mayors or researchers or pundits from Philadelphia perched in a chair while on live, national television, they’re often depicted in front of a picturesque view of the city showing its vast skyscrapers and old structures.
But as you may have guessed, those guests aren’t sitting on the edge of the South Street bridge overlooking the city. They’re in a tiny room on the second floor of a building down a Center City alleyway with a screen behind them that can change based on who is front of it or what they want to be shown.
Welcome to the behind-the-scenes at VideoLink, an office located near 16th and Delancey streets where local celebrities go to be filmed for live TV shots, whether it’s for CNN, Fox News, ESPN, MSNBC or many, many others.
VideoLink, a company that’s been around for upwards of two decades, has a location in Philly that’s hosted everyone from noted sports analysts talking about football to university professors debating on CBS to a family whose daughter beat cancer and is being interviewed on Fox and Friends.
Former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell posts up at VideoLink for eight hours on Election Day so that he can be ready to go live on MSNBC for analysis throughout the day. VideoLink employees call it “Rendell’s election headquarters.”
George Tekei, the actor most widely known for his role in “Star Trek,” was in the office a few weeks ago. Talk show host/actor/wrestler/ex-Partridge Family kid Danny Bonaduce used to frequently film segments at the VideoLink office in Philly.
While Billy Penn was touring the office earlier this week, we couldn’t check out Studio One — it was in use by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who films his show First Take from the Philadelphia office when he’s in town.
Production manager Becky Goodling says VideoLink has three studios where filming takes place. Most of the live shots — the most common shots — are filmed in two smaller, “insert studios.” That’s where Stephen A. was filming in while we were there.
Here’s what they end up looking like on TV:
And the inside of the studios look like this:
That backdrop isn’t a green screen in these rooms, it’s actually a monitor that can display high-resolution photos ranging from generic colored backgrounds to shots of the city to sports-related backdrops. With the click of a remote, Goodling can change where it appears the interviewee is:
In addition to the two insert studios, VideoLink also has a separate “large studio” that’s used mostly for filming panels and roundtables, specifically if they’re meant for the web only or are multi-camera productions. Those panels are filmed in front of a green screen so the backdrop can easily be adjusted.
Also kind of adorable: In the corner was this bookshop. Ya know like, when someone is in front of a super smart-looking bookshelf because they’re soooo academic?
Goodling, a 27-year-old Ithaca grad from York, Pa., said VideoLink isn’t affiliated with any network specifically, and has used almost all major TV stations and networks as clients. The news-to-sports ratio is somewhere around 75 percent to 25 percent, depending on the season.
And while VideoLink doesn’t control the content of the production, how busy they are can depend a lot on the news of the day. On busy news days when analysts or “Philebrities” — as they call them — are in and out, VideoLink will shoot upwards of 12 to 14 live shots in a day. Other, slower days may only see four or five.
The group’s affiliate office in Baltimore (there are others in Boston and D.C.) produced about 92 live shots in the last week and a half as protests over the death of Freddie Gray coated national media coverage.
VideoLink employees post up on control rooms while live shots are going on in order to frame the shots, check audio and video quality and communicate with the networks that are airing the interviews.
In addition to coordinating live shots out of the studios, VideoLink also has what it calls a ROCC, or a ReadyCam Operation Center. This area controls more than 200 remote cameras across the country that are owned by universities, companies and even individuals that are kept on-site so they don’t have to come into VideoLink to be on TV.
Some of those clients range from Penn to Pepsico to the Mayo Clinic, all that have in-house cameras since they’re frequently being featured on television as expert resources. That ReadyCam control center looks like this:
Goodling said most people have no idea that a place like VideoLink exists — but that’s part of what makes it exciting.
“I wanted to get into local news, but now I’m doing almost entirely the technical and engineering side,” she said. “We really just facilitate. But still, every day is a little bit different.”