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WHERE AI FITS INTO DOCUMENTARIES

Q&A Series

Megan Chao, VP of Development and Production at Birman Productions joins a panel to discuss the exciting AI technologies transforming reality TV and documentaries today. She offers her insights on the challenges facing the industry and what you should be thinking about as you peruse NAB Show.

Add the Core Education Collection: Create Series to your registration and get ready for the Unscripted Evolution: How AI is Reshaping Reality TV and Documentaries session to gain more valuable insight!

Core Education Collection (formerly NAB Show Conference)

What are the biggest trends impacting the community/industry right now?

Artificial intelligence has certainly been front and center for us working in various facets of media, and it has evolved at an accelerated pace.  The emergence of so many technologies, programs, and plug-ins have emerged to capitalize on streamlining and maximizing efficiencies in our workflows, but the long term impacts have yet to be studied or seen.

For documentaries, the ethics surrounding AI and its usage tolerances really challenges the basis of our work.  We have an unspoken agreement with our audiences that the projects we create and publish have been vetted for accuracy, in facts and portrayals.  We are contributors to historical record.  When documentarians begin to engage generative AI in the creation of their projects, without appropriate disclosures or transparency about their practices, we start to erode at that audience trust.  This becomes even more problematic when machines are learning from this published material, using inaccurate content to generate more content.  

Yes, while entertainment value is a key performance indicator in our work, for documentary and nonfiction program creators, programmers and distributors, we have the added and ultimate responsibility for protecting the craft from this threat to our human record.  If we think that social media is responsible for the proliferation of fake news, imagine how generated AI content will throw additional fuel on the fire.  As generative AI becomes more sophisticated, it will become harder to distinguish fact from fiction.

Additionally, we’ve been seeing an overall contraction in the marketplace, leading to layoffs, smaller budgets for projects, leaner production and post production teams, and fewer opportunities.  This has opened the door for the deployment of artificial intelligence by companies who are looking for cost savings and task efficiencies, and I think the implications have yet to be fully understood or clearly defined.

 

What challenges does the community need to overcome, because of these trends?

While we should absolutely celebrate and champion technological advancements, greater emphasis needs to be placed on the value of human creators.  People are the ultimate innovators, and we don’t want to squash that spirit or be suppressive in the ways that we work, especially if new, inspiring creations emerge.

This is not to say that nonfiction and documentary producers shouldn’t consider the ways that AI can help them.  There are so many points within the production and post production workflows where it’s eliminating mundane tasks, fixing errors from the field, or refining quality of output.  But I think we are at a crossroads, where it becomes imperative for best practices and guardrails to be more clearly defined and understood in the nonfiction genre, and perhaps overall for the media industry.  We need to put some of this social responsibility on the corporations that are developing the very tools that help us.  Conversations need to go beyond profit sharing and responsibility to shareholders, and need to, instead, foster the respect and appreciation for the creators who ultimately come up with the award-winning programs that drive viewers to consuming our content.  We need to continue putting pressure on entities working with us to uphold the ethics, morals and values behind our work.

 

What’s one thing you wish more media pros knew about?

I wish that media pros could truly understand the hoops documentarians jump through for their craft.  We are scrappy, multi-crafted individuals who have chosen a career of passion and dedication.  We’re unusual in that we can spend many years on a project.  But it’s a privilege to be able to tell the stories of people from all walks of life, past and present, to uncover new truths, break barriers, uplift communities and inspire social change through our work.  We don’t get the luxury of scripting what we capture out in the field or controlling the situations that contribute to our storytelling.  The pathways we take and the business models we employ to tackle this kind of storytelling takes many shapes and forms, and the sacrifices for the love of the craft can sometimes come at a greater cost, personally and professionally, than for those working in other genres.

 

What are the top 3 things that attendees should go hunt down on the show floor to expand what they just learned in your sessions?

Cloud-based workflows, automation in field production, and automation in post production.

 

What discussions should they be having with the exhibitors?

They should be finding out the ways that these technologies can help save them time and money, since time is money.  For example, if footage from the field from halfway around the world can be safely transmitted back to producers and picture editors at home base, they can get a jump start on familiarizing themselves with the content to start post production before the field producers return.  Or production and post production teams can collaborate from virtually anywhere with access to cloud-based technology.  Or if travel budgets are tight, directors might be able to conduct interviews remotely in a way that still feels intimate and personal.  So many solutions exist and NAB is certainly the place to experiment.