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10 Best Practices for Live Streaming Production

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6. Live Streaming With Closed Captions

One question guaranteed to come every time I’ve done a panel about live streaming is what are some tips for closed captioning. Based on the rules from the FCC, “live and near-live video programming must be captioned on the internet if it is shown on TV with captions on or after March 30, 2013.” The FCC defines “near-live” as a program that is performed and recorded less than 24 hours before it is shown on TV.

Government agencies are also required to provide captions. Of course, producers may voluntarily caption to benefit deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers as well as to gain search engine optimization benefits for future archive viewing.

If you need to provide live captioning information, make sure your encoder can handle it. “Pretty much all of the enterprise-level encoders,” Fertig says, “will allow accepting captions embedded within the SDI (video signal).” That signal can then be sent to a streaming CDN or server. Lower cost encoders may not be able to pass the caption data.

Streaming providers Livestream, Ustream, and YouTube all support closed captions to the desktop, phones, and other devices.

7. Pre-Event Testing Is Not Optional

There’s one piece of advice every streaming expert will agree on: You need to test, test, and then test some more. While pre-production tests before you get to the event site with your gear can help discover problems in advance, conducting an onsite test is your first priority once your gear is set up.

Fertig says you need to “test with the actual gear, from the actual location, with the actual subject matter.” Testing individual parts of the system is fine, but he stresses it’s best to do an end-to-end test “with your actual bandwidth and your actual source signal, with moving images from live cameras and audio in sync.”

Viacom’s Armajani also stresses the need to “test with real content exactly as it will be on the day of the show.” Testing with just a test pattern can lead to problems. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen somebody test with bars and tone only and validate the test as a success,” Armajani says, “only to find themselves switching to a live feed that has audio problems or other signal problems.”

During the test, confirm the stream is working to all your end user devices, such as desktops, iPads, phones, set-top boxes, and any other planned distributions.

Knowing how to determine whether the test is a success is important. “Don’t just look at your page and say, ‘I see content, it looks good,’” Arnajani says. During the test, try switching to your backup plan or path, confirm analytics are working, and test the ads if you have any.

These can be done on specific test pages. But for some events, producers use the actual public live pages for testing. This makes the test more realistic and may build interest with a viewer who happens to be watching the stream early. Of course, you need to make sure the test content is worthy of public viewing.

TechCrunch used dedicated internet bandwidth to live stream Disrupt Berlin. Courtesy Jon Orlin

8. Start the Webcast Early

The time before an event starts isn’t just for testing. You should always start streaming well before the actual event starts.

Haot recommends “going live with a countdown and music or a background live shot of the venue or event as early as 6 hours before the event. Promote the player and URL from that time or before if you can.”

Fertig agrees. “We always recommend people go live as early as you can afford to go live,” he says. “I guarantee at least a chunk of your audience will show up three hours early because they don’t know how time zones work.”

This is one place where a television mentality is the wrong approach. “The big mistake we see people make,” Fertig says, is when people think “the event is going to start at 7 p.m. so at 6:58 p.m. we are going to have our web guy embed the player ... because we don’t want it to look sloppy. So then what happens is people go to the page and say, ‘I don’t see a player here, I don’t know what’s happening’ or maybe they just see a black player.”

Instead of black, Mangum says another option is to use a custom-branded slate that says something like, “Stay Tuned. (The Event) Begins at 6 p.m. ET.” Using an animated, moving slate is even better because it can confirm the stream is working to both the producer and the viewers.

Still better, Mangum suggests, “If you have the ability to offer the online audience a crowd shot via a jib, use that until the show starts. This provides a social experience for the end user, making them feel like ‘one of the crowd.’”

If you use a countdown clock, Jack Ferry, an independent director and producer, suggests a technique using your show’s stars. “Ten minutes before the show,” he says, “we would have them sign into their YouTube accounts and start commenting with the commenters to get them to that countdown clock, so the audience didn’t feel like they are just staring at a number ticking down. It gave them something to do and got incredible engagement.” So when the show began, viewers were already watching rather than just starting to trickle in.

If you do use a slate or countdown clock, remember to trim it off for the video on demand archive.

You should plan on going live long before the event, perhaps with a slate like this one that lets viewers know they’re in the right place and when the event will begin.

9. Don’t Fade to Black and Stop

When the event ends, don’t just fade to black and call it quits. Streaming service providers such as YouTube, Ustream, and Livestream offer the ability to program a replay into the player after the live stream ends.

Yahoo’s Mangum says, “It’s a good idea to switch to an end slate when the show is over” with a call to action such as “Follow us on Twitter” or come back at a certain date for the full replay. For Yahoo’s big events, they will run a replay immediately after the event from video captured by an AJA Ki Pro.

Livestream’s Haot suggests posting edited highlights if you have the resources.

In many cases, the number of viewers watching the replays and VOD versions will greatly exceed the live audience.

10. Have a Plan B

Finally, it’s important to know what your Plan B is, or what what happens if X fails. The more backup planning you do, the more you reduce your chances of failure and the quicker recovery will be.

Certainly, budgets affect how much backup you can afford. “A Plan B can simply be having two encoders pushing to primary and backup entry points on the same network,” Armajani says. “Or splitting the primary and backup entry points to different networks and/or locations.” You can “even have multiple CDNs to ensure even greater redundancy.”

Don’t overlook any part of system. “For a major production, the first thing you need to do is backup everything you can, starting with power,” Mangum says. “If your primary power fails, you’ve got nothing to work with, your event is dead and you’ve lost not only money, but you’ve also been impacted at the brand and customer level.”

While many backup solutions require more spending, there are some things you can do that cost nothing. Ferry suggests one last resort option when you don’t have the money for lots of redundancy: For a YouTube webcast, Ferry says, “we had a social media person who was there (on-site) who was active in the comments and could put things up on the screen explaining what was going on.” If there was a problem with the webcast, at least the audience “still felt like they were connected to something and someone was working on it behind the scenes.”

Ideally, your next webcast won’t need to rely on this solution, but it’s good to be thinking this way. As we’ve seen, getting video after it’s been captured by the cameras to the end user involves lots of pre-event decisions, equipment and infrastructure. By following the best practices discussed here, you should be better prepared to webcast a successful show.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Streaming Media as "Best Practices for Live Streaming Production."

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