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For Thought-Provoking Video, Forget About Slick Production Values

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Twenty-seven years ago, before I started in the streaming industry, I worked in videoconferencing. This was long before the era of mobile phone video chats, FaceTime, and Skype, back when major players like PictureTel and Compression Labs, Inc. (CLI) touted their garbage can-sized codecs and arcane multipoint-call initiation procedures and encouraged corporations and institutions alike to send dedicated videoconferencing staff for multiday training on how to operate million-dollar videoconferencing rooms.

Videoconferences in semi-sterile operating environments were set up to mimic boardroom settings. The goal was to have participants at every location feel like they were either sitting across the table from one another (the bigwigs) or viewing from the peanut gallery (the non-speaking section behind the semi-circular tables).

The idea was to accentuate the perception of being there, without actually being there. After all, if people could walk down the hall to a room and feel like they were in the same room with other participants hundreds or thousands of miles away, it was a win for both the bean counters and for the videoconferencing participants who were “saved” from having to travel for face-to-face meetings.

And yet, it turned out that most users of our videoconferencing facility didn’t feel like they were “there” when it came to meeting with and trusting those at the other side of the “table” in a remote location.

One reason may have been the sterility—in our case, encrypted, electromagnetically shielded rooms in the middle of a physically secure military base. The rooms sported neutral color schemes consisting almost entirely of sound-deadening foam panels. And the bright but flat lighting—necessary for the codecs to properly compress in real time for transmission across 1.5Mbps ISDN lines—added to the almost sepulcher-like feel of the ultra-quiet room. The layout was as much about trapping sound in as it was about keeping electronic eavesdropping out. And yet, the bland, overly bright, and too-quiet setting made it difficult to think, according to more than one regular customer of our facility.

Another reason, though, was a bit more metaphysical: People like to spend time face to face with their colleagues. We now know that trust-building is based around a multi-sensory approach—including smell, physical contact, height ratios, and even voice timbre—which can often only be accomplished in face-to-face meetings.

So what does all this have to do with streaming in 2019? More than ever, face-to-face meetings are important, if even just for the initial interaction with a colleague or soon-to-be friend. This point is brought home to me each time I host an Almost Live interview at one of the Streaming Media shows.

The interviews take place in a fishbowl—in the middle of a busy exhibit hall. As noisy and chaotic as that can be, the reason to do it is as metaphysical as those behind the early videoconferencing rooms: Having an in-person conversation similar to one that would happen at a meetup of video professionals is one key to effectively capturing the current era of streaming.

Given how quickly the industry is growing, this setting is often the first time I’ve had a chance to meet an interviewee. As such, the interview process is a learning and getting-to-know-you experience for both the guest and me.

And yet, rather than go for polish and slick production through the use of multiple takes on a quiet soundstage, the team at StreamingMedia.com encourages and actively courts over-the-shoulder listening for this first-time meeting by making a permanent recording of each interview’s live stream available within just a few hours.

As I’ve rewatched select interviews from the past three years, I’m struck by how these conversations capture an era in which streaming is hitting its full stride. Whether it’s talking about failures in major live events or wins when it comes to OTT content deals, the goal is to make sense of where we are at the moment and to contemplate where we’re going as an industry.

[This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Capturing the Era."]

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