Live webcasting is no longer the domain of large entertainment or sports events and the enterprise. As webstreaming equipment and services become more available and less expensive, the use of webcasting is growing among government agencies and small companies. It is a means for live events to be viewed by constituents, employees, or clients.
Because “the production side is getting easier and easier,” webcasting is growing, says Steve Ellis, the president and CEO of Broadcast Pix, which produces live video production systems. And the costs of the equipment and cameras are now affordable, he says.
In addition, the U.S. government is supporting the use of webcasting by local governments in the form of a pilot program that involves a cable provider and six communities in just as many states. The Federal Communications Commission and Comcast are sponsoring Project Open Voice, which seeks to determine if using public, educational, and government (PEG) channels to stream programming will “address the questions of diverse demand for local content in different communities and the variety of ways to deliver it,” according to the website.
The six communities participating in Project Open Voice are Peterborough, N.H.; Medford, Mass.; Philadelphia; Hialeah, Fla.; Houston; and Fresno, Calif.; and they are working with providers, community leaders, nonprofits, and independent producers to develop online and on-demand platforms for all of the project’s partners to use freely, according to the FCC.
Project Open Voice places emphasis on local programming, says Gretjen Clausing, the executive director of PhillyCAM, a public access channel that is part of the pilot project. Project Open Voice enables organizations such as PhillyCAM to have its own channel through the POV website, and the public access group “saw it as another opportunity and platform” for locally produced content to be viewed, she says.
Of course, most producers engaged in webcasting aren’t transmitting enough content to qualify for their “own channel[s].” Rather, they are transmitting content that might last a few hours at extremely low budgets, according to corporate officials whose businesses provide services that help town, village, and school boards, as well as small companies, conduct webcasting and reduce the worries involved.
Webcasting vs. Webinars vs. Web Conferencing
However, those who are interested in webcasting need to understand what it is and what it is not, says David Glassman, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Onstream Media, which provides streaming services. Webcasting being confused with a web conference or a webinar is common, Glassman adds. “People don’t understand those distinctions, and that is an important distinction because those functions have different logistical requirements depending on what you’re looking to accomplish,” he says.
Webcasting, or webstreaming, is usually a large-scale event with set start and end times. It is streamed with live audio and video; has a set agenda and registration; is moderated or controlled; can attract thousands of attendees; has customized branding; is highly scalable; has extensive reporting and post-event analytics; and features social medial integration, according to Onstream.
Web conferencing typically has a small number of viewers; is collaborative; has no or limited branding; has limited scalability and post-event functionality; is conference-centric; and usually features two-way audio and video.
Webinars are planned, self-service events; can accommodate hundreds of viewers; have two-way audio and video; feature branding options; provide extensive reporting and analytics; and offer social media integration, according to Onstream.
Preproduction Is Key
Now that we’ve distinguished what a webcast is, the focus shifts to how it is achieved. That starts with preproduction preparation, say providers of products that help support webcasting. All the providers of such products say preproduction is the key to a successful webcast.
Setting the transmission line of the webcast is the first step, says Corey Behnke, head of global production and services for Livestream, which offers hardware and software tools that support webstreaming. In most cases the webcast is going to be over the internet, despite the existence of alternatives; therefore, in order to avoid problems when transmitting a webcast over the internet, it is important that a dedicated line be used for a webcast and not a line that is being shared with another organization, according to Behnke.
In addition, when Livestream is conducting the webcast for a client, there are some computer ports that the webcasting organization needs to have open, he says. Those are Port 80, Port 1935, Port 443, and Port 53. Once those ports are secured, those conducting the webcast need to plug the line into a laptop—they will want to use hard line Ethernet—and when the connection is made to the Ethernet line, users might have device programming and configuration at their command, which means the system will automatically access the internet, he says.
Should the system have device programming, the user will get an IP address that the device being used is locked to, Behnke says. However, in some instances the user will be provided with an IP range. This guarantees you are on, but the system is likely not going to set up the device programming, and the user will have to type in the automatic settings from the computer. Once that is complete, the user just needs to plug in a laptop and run a speed test on it. He can go to speedtest.net and have Ookla Speedtest run a test, which will say how fast the upload, download, and ping time are, he says. “Basically it’s testing how fast you’re getting to the ISP.”
Such a speed test is only the beginning of the tests needed to ensure that a webcast goes smoothly. Alden Fertig, a product marketing manager and an expert webstreamer for Ustream, which provides a cloud platform that can be used for webcasting, says those wanting to conduct a webcast need to “test, test, test” either at the venue or in a substitute location.
“It’s best if you can set up in the actual venue and test your equipment there, if you can get there several hours before the production or even the day before, the earlier the better,” Fertig says. “But if you can’t, the next best thing is to set up the equipment at an office and test it, and then travel to the venue and test whatever can be tested at the venue,” he says.
David Thompson, senior vice president of marketing for Ustream, says he has a theater background, so his version of “test, test, test” is “rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.” That means checking out the internet connection, as well as the audio and the staging of the room well before the webcast. In addition, for those who have never worked on a production for broadcast, that also means “learn, learn, learn,” he adds.
Ustream will help a webcast producer learn and then rehearse the production, Thompson says. But before that service is provided, Ustream asks the client, “What are your goals?” and “Who is your audience?” Those questions are asked because the producer’s goals, as well as the audience being sought, are what determine the levels of production that will be invested in the project, he says. That will determine how “buttoned down” the producers want the webcast to be in terms of how the broadcast looks, he says.
The services provided by Ustream include helping a producer use her laptop’s browser, and the built-in webcam, to conduct her first broadcast online, which is a rehearsal for the actual webcast, he says. If it is a client’s first broadcast, he is advised to conduct it himself and send it to a friend or colleague. “The reason for that is to help them become comfortable with what it means to go live,” Thompson says. That is when the producer can experiment with aspects of the production, including image quality, he says. The producer might use the built-in webcam, or a higher resolution USB camera. Whichever is used, the reason to experiment with Ustream, or any other service providing webcasting services, is to get comfortable with how easy it is to go live and to set up your channel. Then you can prepare for the more difficult aspects, he says. “So getting comfortable with broadcasting is step number one.”
Like Thompson, Chris Knowlton, vice president of product management for Wowza Media Systems, which produces streaming server software, believes the organization that wants to conduct the webcast needs to establish what is to be accomplished by the webcast. Once that has been determined, the producers can decide on the quality level of the transmission, he says.
The stream can range from low-resolution video to high-definition streams, Knowlton says. However, for small government agencies and small companies, the quality of the transmission usually ranges from low to medium resolution. “That’s good enough for most companies, especially [for] the talking-head webcast,” he says.
Once the quality level has been determined, the producers need to decide the size of the bandwidth, Knowlton adds. If a webcast has 1,000 viewers, reaching all of the viewers impacts the size of the stream, he says. Therefore, if the webcast has a stream of 1Mbps, the user would need to support 500Mbps to stream across the network, he says. That can be challenging for many systems, so the producers have to determine if the system’s infrastructure is “data-intensive,” or if the system’s infrastructure is “distributive.” If it is distributive, the traffic can be distributed across subsegments of the network. This ensures that the network does not get clogged at points, which risks causing the failure of critical data operations because there is insufficient bandwidth to process the video, he says.
Another thing for producers to think about is if they want to use traditional streaming to deliver the content even if it is one bitrate and flat, Knowlton says. The question is, does the system have enough bandwidth, or should adaptive streaming over HTTP be used to ensure viewers “get all the goodness of watching something” even if the system used has low bandwidth, or an older computer that does not play back video well is used. “You still get something, even if it’s at a lower bit rate,” he says.
Behnke adds that it is up to the producer to take the lead on the webcast. “If you do your due diligence, you’ll get the stream out. If you don’t plan ahead, and don’t test them, that’s when you can get into trouble,” he says.
As long as a webcast producer has a computer with a good internet connection, an account with a service provider, and a USB external camera on a stand, he is “ready to roll,” especially if the event being streamed is in a relatively contained area such as at a long table with the event’s featured participants—for example, a school board—all remaining within a confined area, Thompson says. “As long as they don’t move around a lot, you can just point and shoot and stream,” he says. Such a production can be inexpensive because it does not require a camera operator as long as the participants are aware of the need to stay within the camera’s field of vision, he says. “That is incredibly low cost production.”
However, if the production has a bigger table and room, along with an audience, and the producer wants to be able to switch shot, or camera angles, then a camera operator is likely going to be needed. Or, the producer can acquire software that enables a single user to manage multiple camera inputs. That way, one camera can be pointed at the board, and another at the audience, while the person operating the camera can use a computer to switch between however many cameras are being used.
While Ustream provides system-operational software, Broadcast Pix provides systems such as Flint, which can help organizations that want to conduct a webcast to do that, Ellis says. For small entities that are webcasting meetings, or local events, the producer needs to have a system that enables one person to control the cameras, he says. Flint not only is outfitted with the tools to plug in cameras—many of which are equipped for remote control—but it also enables those cameras to be switched using a touchscreen, he says.
But there is more that a single operator should be able to do during production, Ellis adds. The operator should have control over graphics such as PowerPoint, or the names of the board members prestored in the system. That requires the producer “to think through the process” to ensure that all the elements such as the audio, the microphones, and “the simple things that are taken for granted in the television business are actually completed,” he says.
While those are the basics to be aware of, there are other aspects of webcast production that can increase viewers by turning “a boring, run of the mill” board meeting into a participatory event, Thompson says. “Before, during and after the event, the board staff who oversee the meeting need to emphasize that viewers can ask questions by email, or by Tweet, if the board has that capability, he says. “There’s any number of ways to make [a meeting] participatory, and that’s the key thing, to make it more than a passive watching experience,” he says.
Once the webcast is over, there are a few things the producers can do to improve future webcasts, says Wowza’s Knowlton. The first is to find out what the viewer experience was. That can be done by using a media player that enables a producer to collect statistics about who the viewers were, he says.
Having that type of feedback can be extremely useful as far as understanding the return on investment based on how many viewers were sought for a webcast, and how many actually watched, Knowlton says. There are also server logs that the information can be gathered from, he adds.
The second thing would be more the social aspect that involves getting feedback but conducting a survey of everyone, or having a “live page” during the event that solicits feedback from viewers on whether they are having a good experience, he says. “Ideally it’s best to have a survey of everyone.”
In addition, the producer needs to get the recorded version of the webcast up on the organization’s website as soon as possible, according to Livestream’s Behnke. “The video on demand after the event is invaluable from an analytic and sponsorship stand point,” he says. Livestream records a master version of the webcast that can be uploaded and enables viewers who might have missed part of the webcast, or who want to see it again, to do so. Because the uploaded version of the webcast is a high-quality version, “the post-production experience can be great,” he says.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Webcasting Without Worry.”