Monday, 12 March 2018

Feeling Groovy - Live streaming production


It takes more than a camera and a internet connection to create a successful live-streaming production.

Whether it be for marketing purposes, as a supplement to traditional broadcasting, to increase access to live events or just for fun among individuals, live video is adding another component to the way information is communicated. 
But live streaming is not as easy as you might first imagine. Even the simplest content has an aspect of risk when it comes to live video. Any errors in the stream are difficult to hide given the live nature of the content, and most viewers won’t wait around if you have to cut the stream for even a few seconds.
The constituent parts include production, connectivity, encoding, CDN and delivery services. There are other elements too which many streaming media companies can provide including bespoke online video players and stream analytics.  

These days there’s really nothing acceptable about a sub-broadcast quality stream for which the main equipment is indistinguishable from a standard TV outside broadcast. For standard shoots Streaming Tank – whose clients include i24News and Eurosport - use Sony EX3s, Sony PMW-300 and Canon C300s; and for larger, more complex events it has access to larger ENG cameras and capabilities for 4K capture. For bigger productions or locations with poor network signals, it even runs its own outside broadcast truck which adds access to a Dawson Tooway satellite as well as integrated connectivity, vision and sound equipment including BlackMagic Design’s ATEM Television Studio live production switcher and a BlackMagic HyperDeck Studio recorder. Streaming Tank use a mix of in-house kit and expertise plus external partners and freelancers to put together a video production service to fit the event; from lean 1-3 camera solutions right up to complex, dynamic shoots required for stadiums, festivals and outdoor events.

If you already have a video and sound team in place you may want to utilise connectivity solutions as a standalone service to get the onsite video stream from venue out to the internet.
“In the simplest set up this means having our own engineers on-site with our encoders connected to a stable broadband connection but that is not always possible so we work with a number of alternatives,” says Jake Ward, Business Development Director at live stream specialist Groovy Gecko.
These options include Satellite bandwidth: streaming media producers with expertise in IP over satellite can set up a broadband connection on site which is good enough to stream your webcast with full redundancy.
Satellite/Fibre acquisition: When the video signal is already being uplinked to a satellite or transmitted over fibre to BT Tower, producers can bring the signal down into a partner satellite acquisition centre and encode your webcast from there.
Mobile multiplexing: For webcasting on the move or in difficult environments then backpacks are the best option. LiveU’s units for example, merges together multiple 3G, 4G and wireless signals and outputs a high quality video stream that can be acquired at the streaming provider’s hub and encoded for your webcast. Smaller, lightweight units such as the LU200 permit camera ops to wear them and move easily. And more robust models like the LU500 can bond up to 8 network connections, while being combined with the LiveU extender and providing up to 20Mbps.
Streaming media producers will also partner with a CDN, or several of them for redundancy, to deliver the live stream anywhere in the world.
“Quite often, we’re working with a production company, they give us a TX, their live output from their camera mix and then it’s fundamentally being split (for safety reasons) into two or more encoders and those encoders are encoding that stream into a suitable video format,” explains Ward.
“Maybe we’ll add in other interactive elements like live polling on Facebook Live (perhaps showing a graphic that demonstrates that live poll). Those live streams. once they’re complete, are sent to what’s called a publishing point. That’s the point on a standard CDN, something like Akamai. It’s going onto the client’s own page, or more commonly these days a publishing point on something like Periscope or Facebook live or YouTube.
“Of course, you can run a very simple low stream off a single server that a company may be hosting but as soon as that hits a certain limit everything’s going to start to fall apart. From a CDN point of view, we use people like Akamai, which delivers a considerable portion of streaming and the internet so if that goes down and fails to work we’ve all got much bigger problems.”

How does a CDN work?
Content Delivery Networks are made up of a large number of server farms around the world joined together by ultra-fast connections. When a file is uploaded to a local server for viewing on-demand it is rapidly duplicated across all the CDN’s servers. If you upload a file in London once it is replicated, a user in New York will have it sent to them from a local server in New York.
This means that there are many copies of your content on servers around the world and that ensures 100% availability. For example, if servers in London was unavailable then users in London would be served their file from Frankfurt. There may be a negligible drop in performance but the file would still be available.
With a live file, the principle is the same and this means that we are able to offer almost unlimited capacity when streaming live. Each live stream is replicated across all servers so again the user has it delivered to them from their ‘nearest’ server.
This means when you webcast live with us, users don’t get messages saying the live feed is over capacity or fail to connect which ensures each user gets a truly great experience.
One advantage of working through a CDN is redundancy. “You have the output you want to broadcast going into two different encoders then publishing hopefully through two different internet connections to two different places on the CDN,” says Ward. “That means that if something on the CDN goes down and you’re publishing through London, and London has an outage. Your signal is still being sent via Bristol, via a different internet connection.
“On CDNs that seamlessly falls over, the audience don’t know that they’re suddenly on a secondary stream, the stream just continues as it was. Facebook and other social platforms only have a primary stream in, so we’ve done a lot of work to create a secondary work flow to enable that. For security purposes most of the social networks are looking at adding a primary and secondary stream which will have seamless cross over.
“If a live stream of a major brand goes down then it’s really serious. It really is not just looking at the technical solution, it’s looking at the areas of risk. You have to sit down in a planning meeting from a content point of view and a technical point of view.”
Most often, the issue with bandwidth is purely making sure it’s strong enough to handle a high quality stream. “Many clients tend to forget about the importance of a strong internet connection when it comes to getting live content offsite,” says Ward. “They also assume that a strong internet connection for things like web browsing means that it will be the same for live streaming, but this isn’t the case. They may have a speed of 100mb, but when a whole building full of people are draining the bandwidth, it often gets squeezed to considerably lower. We get around this when handling a stream by physically sending an engineer to test a venue’s broadband signal, regardless of what they tell us beforehand.”

Then there’s the added worry of the rise of live 360° video in 4K. On one hand, shooting 360° footage in 4K is clearly beneficial for the medium, increasing the quality and therefore viewer experience, but it requires more bandwidth. But you’ll want to ensure the average viewer is able to enjoy a stream even without a 15mb connection. Part of this involves degrading streams for those who lack the bandwidth to stream 4K.

Copyright permissions
Whilst most people can appreciate the importance of getting the right permissions to use copyrighted material, many are not aware of both how long this process can take, and how sensitive social networks are to any form of copyright infringement.

Both Facebook and YouTube have sophisticated monitoring systems to detect copyrighted material, and if something isn’t cleared properly, you can bet they will know about it. YouTube offers a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy, but Facebook is stricter. The site will automatically kill a stream in under 10 seconds if it detects any copyrighted material which we do not have the rights to use. 
“The problem is, these systems are so sensitive that even a copyrighted piece of music played accidentally or by someone else in the background could take a stream off air,” says Ward. “I’ve had situations in the past where the clients nailed this down, we’ve nailed this down, everything is copyrighted. But someone has driven past in a car playing a radio track, and I’ve got a strike on YouTube. Copyright is really a big issue at the moment, often not looked at by the brands and not cleared properly by the brands. It takes time. Facebook takes five or six days to clear a music track for use on a stream. If you’re trying to do something really quickly, you may hit problems.”

At the end of last year, Groovy Gecko live streamed the Virgin TV BAFTA Television Awards 2017. Interviews from the star-studded red carpet were delivered directly into Virgin Media’s Facebook page, in interactive 360° video. This allowed the viewer to look around the red carpet as though they were on it. The viewer could alter their view onscreen by physically moving their mobile device or using a mouse on a computer/ laptop.
“The beauty of a 360° stream is the amount of freedom it gives to the audience,” says Ward. “This makes for a highly interactive and immersive experience, far beyond that of a static, non-live stream. By combining the effect of live video and the 360° feature, viewers had extended access to an exclusive event and got to follow the celebrities as they walked the red carpet.”
After only an hour, Virgin Media’s stream had attracted around one and a half times more viewers than the live stream on the official BAFTA Facebook page which did not feature 360° interactivity.
“This suggests our 360° video was much more attractive to viewers than a simple live stream, which would simply not have afforded the same type of immersion for viewers,” says Ward.

StreamAMG deliver Championship football
StreamAMG take charge of the live web streaming for a string of European soccer clubs including Shakhtar Donetsk and AC Sparta Prague as well as institutions such as sessions of the UK Supreme Court and the European Council which unites a single video feed with 32 audio feeds.
It works with a growing number of Championship football clubs including Derby County to stream home matches internationally. In all these cases, StreamAMG is taking the produced feed and passing it through its own low latency encoder Lola. “We have two installed on-site at each football club we work for – a primary and a back-up,” explains Duncan Burbidge CEO StreamAMG. “We get handed the SDI feed from the OB supplied by the club. We take in that single SDI feed and create MPEG Dash and HLS versions and apply a DRM (digital rights management) licence within Lola.  We might also provide a personal stream for the club owners (Lola can handle 18 streams at once).”
All this activity is monitored remotely from StreamAMG’s network operations centre in Stratford. The feeds are ingest to the NOC from satellite and fibre links either direct or via BT Tower along with ISDN (all audio comms still use this old school telephony) before being rebroadcast via CDN.
“The ability to monitor all encoders simultaneously is a big plus,” says Burbidge. 
We’re doing HD standardly at 1080p. We could go UHD at 4-6 Mbps but we are not seeing demand for it. UHD would get more expensive and, given the kind of money you can generate from advertising and payperview, a big chunk would taken out by bandwidth required for UHD.”

Live social
The functionality of live social platforms has enabled brands to move away from simple live videos being delivered from a smartphone to professionally produced multi-camera interactive streams.
At the outset it’s important to consider what types of content will work best as live social streams. The important thing to remember is: just because something is happening live, it doesn’t mean that it should be a live stream.
There are only three reasons why content should be live:
1.    The event or content delivered via the live stream is of such importance to your target audience that they’ll want to watch it as it happens – for example, a major new product launch or a unique live event.
2.  The content of the live stream allows the audience to interact with the video content in a way that you wouldn’t normally be able to do, such as asking a well-known expert a question.
3.  Content delivered over social but connected to traditional broadcast channels. For example an advert on programme on TV which directs users to view a live stream for more interactivity.
“The data we’ve gathered from producing hundreds of live video streams for Facebook Live has shown that if content does not come under one of these three categories it is unlikely to deliver a large viewership,” says Ward. “Therefore, it should simply be delivered as on-demand content, as this reduces risk and allows the content to be more precisely crafted.”
Regardless of the content or topic of the video, Groovy Gecko suggests that, contrary to commonly held belief that social content should be short, with live social streaming, longer content is actually much more effective.
“The core audience who have liked and engaged with your brand page, are more willing to watch content for longer periods of time if it’s interactive, or can deliver a unique live experience,” suggests Ward. “Additionally, the nature of sharing and liking of live video posts means that longer streams work more effectively. Live streams also feature more prominently in user’s timelines when they are live.”
Groovy Gecko data suggests that streams that last over 20 minutes reach a much larger proportion of audiences.

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