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What to know about Live Streaming

The month of January was Live Streaming month for me.   Coming out of 2009 everyone was asking the same questions around Live Streaming: What is it?  What do I need to make it happen?  Why do I need it?

The subject was so popular in fact that I sat in on half a dozen global customer calls around it, organised the LBDG to delve deep into it and wrote an internal memo about it.  Over the last 4 weeks we also had the privilege of streaming over Brightcove:

(I kept the list deliberately short as I want to focus more on what Live Streaming is rather than our successes - you can follow me on Twitter for the latest launches and events @cameronchurch)

So we're all doing it but what is it really?   To be rather simplistic Live Streaming is really the creation, encoding and delivery of the video content happening all at the same time.  All your viewers see the same content at the same time and the consumable feed starts the instant the cameras roll.    The and is the important piece.  You can have all your viewers in sync with a content feed and still not be a live stream (see my post on Simulated Live Streaming), which poses enough challenges but now add to that the need to have everything running in production at the same time and Live Streaming presents as a real game changer.

Live Streaming content production follows the same 4 major phases that traditional VOD production follows:

  1. Content Capture / Editing
  2. Encoding
  3. Upstreaming (or uploading)
  4. Distribution (or streaming)

The key difference is that in the VOD world the 4 phases are sequential and autonomous.   You can't start the encoding stage until the content capture stage has completed; and you can't start distributing the content until the upload is done etc.  This model has one fundamental advantage - each step has an inherent QA section built in to validate its output to ensure 100% success.  If the encoding screws up you go back and do it again and again until you get it right.  And only after it's right do you get to upload it.

In the Live Streaming world all 4 phases start at the same time and end at the same time.  Your room for error correction literally evaporates to almost nothing.  Not only that, in the VOD world each section can be owned by sources that are completely oblivious to the owners downstream.   Production houses manage the content creation and editing, pass it onto a digital company to encode and that gets passed up to the news portal where it's shown.   The editor of the news portal most likely doesn't even know the names of the people working the content shoot!  In the Live Streaming world everybody needs to know everyone else, because if something goes wrong you don't have much time to fix it and everyone needs to be involved in the triage!   And for the publishers who's brand is on the line?  Now you have to care about everything up stream of you.  Because if your stream goes down during that all important goal (or not as the case may be) then you'll have some pretty upset viewers and it's you they'll come after.  Not some no-name production house up the street that you employed for 2 cents on the dollar.

For broadcasters in the traditional television space this is nothing new.   Look at some of the most watched live events, sports and news, and you'll see that in the majority of the cases the cameras all the way up to the presenters are owned or in very tight contract with the channel.   And this was learnt the hard way by a vast pool of experience gained over the last 70 or so years television has been kicking around.

In the online world if you're going to do a live stream of an event then you need to make sure you understand the risks involved and do not underestimate the damage a disgruntled internet users can inflict on your brand and ad revenue (hidden in the ether fog with killer feedback weapons at their disposal).  You need the best to help guide you through this.  More so than ever you need experience, because in the Real Time Web you seldom get a second chance.

What's worrying is doing a search on Binggle for Live Streaming the number of players in the space looking to capitalise on this general ignorance is frightening.   Hopefully I can help dispel some it with some pointers to keep in mind, but when in doubt seek out an expert!  Our partner ecosystem is full of them.  (Feel free to ping me in you need a recommendation).

The Setup

Simply put any live broadcast needs the following base level equipment:

  • A capture source: camera, web camera, vision mixer etc
  • An encoding tool: Adobe's FMLE, Procaster, Wirecast, Hardware boxes
  • A stable internet connection (more on this in a second)
  • A streaming server
  • An online video platform (BRIGHTCOVE!) to program and distribute to the world

Out of this list the most important piece is always the one people overlook most.   A stable internet connection with ample upstream capacity.  It's simple math: if you're wanting to stream at 500Kbps your internet upstream better be able to hit that number consistently!   Too often people forget this point and think that if they have any old ADSL link it'll be fine but many consumer internet packages come with well below 500K for an upstream - SO MAKE SURE YOU CAN STREAM FROM YOUR LOCATION!  Otherwise come the day it won't work, then what will you do?

The Checklist

Every project needs a checklist and so here's mine for a live stream. 

  • Equipment check - do I have the cameras, cables and operators that know how to use them?  Don't forget Sound!   get good radio mics if you have a presenter
  • Site survey - go to the site before hand, check internet, shooting angles etc
  • Event timing - what time of day and the date, if something goes wrong (forgot a cable?) will shops be open in an emergency?
  • Viewing estimates - who's going to be watching and for how long?
  • Content profile - what type of content are you streaming, what bitrates do you need?  Sports need higher, news lower - a good average for in browser is 500Kbps for video
  • Hosting page / player - where is the streaming going to be viewed: get it out on Facebook, syndicate it etc.
  • Announcing the stream - don't forget to tell everyone is happening.   All this hard work needs to be reward with viewers!
  • On the day start the stream early - ramp in your viewers, give them some time to settle and prepare for the stream.
  • Encourage interaction, this is the Real Time Web after all so get in Twitter, Facebook, Polls, Comments the lot - get your viewer involved!

Live Streaming isn't so far from the VOD would be does offer new and fundamental challenges.   It shouldn't be shied away from but should be approached pragmatically.  

When in doubt ask the experts!!!!

Don't forget to let us know about your live streaming endeavours, we'd be more than happy to do a shout out.


-- Cameron Church