A Buyer’s Guide to Live Streaming Services

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Of course, if your goal is to embed the video on your own website and attract viewers there, you care more about the embedded player than the channel page. While most services deliver roughly the same experience in both places, YouTube Live does not, specifically not letting you embed a player with comments or a playlist of other content into your own website. If you’re trying to attract and retain viewers on your own website, this is a definite negative.

Looking to Monetize Your Video?

There are multiple ways to monetize your video, including inserting pre-, mid- and post-roll advertisements into the streams or charging pay-per-view or subscription fees. Services differ significantly here, so if you have a monetization model in mind, check early to ensure that your candidate services support it. If you plan to push viewers to your own website, make sure the monetization model works on embedded pages as well as the service’s own channel page.

Looking to Maximize Your Video?

Most producers are truly live only a few hours a week, but some services, such as Ustream, allow you to create a continuous channel feel with their Live Playlists feature. Ustream also allows you to upload videos to your Ustream channel, to fill out your channel, and to syndicate your live content to YouTube, to maximize your eyeballs. While you can download your videos from other services and upload them to YouTube or elsewhere, Ustream’s integration saves a couple of time-consuming steps.

Where Do You Want the Video to Play?

This is a big one. At this point, most corporate video producers want their videos to play on computers, as well as iOS and Android mobile devices. When evaluating a service, make sure both the channel page and the embedded page plays on all these devices, and note whether your viewers will have to download and app to make this happen.

If you’re streaming to consumers, OTT and similar platforms are a plus. Here, Livestream plays on Roku devices, while Ustream has apps for smart TVs from Samsung and other vendors. Beyond embedding in your own website, you may also want the video to play within environments such as Facebook or Twitter, which not all services support.

Looking for a Free Service?

If you’re looking for a free service, be sure you understand the different trade-offs each vendor makes with its service. With Ustream, for example, the free service is advertising-supported and has a limit of 480p SD video, while Bambuser limits its free service to 50 viewing hours a month. In contrast, Livestream goes in a completely different direction, requiring viewers of free content to log in with their free Livestream accounts. There are never any advertisements, restrictions on video quality, or viewing limits on Livestream, but if you’re concerned that your viewers may not want to sign up for a Livestream account, this may be a significant limitation.

Are You on a Tight Budget?

The unique curse of streaming video is that if your live event truly goes viral, it could break the bank, leaving you with a huge invoice for additional viewing hours and no means to pay. In this regard, it’s significant to note that all Livestream plans are totally inclusive; the various plans are differentiated with features, not with viewing hours, and there are never any overages. In contrast, virtually all other services differentiate their premium plans with features and viewing hour limits, with overages when you exceed the plan limits. The key exception, of course, is YouTube Live, with which you never incur any charges.

Are You Broadcasting Out of Tight Spaces?

By this point, most, but not all, services support adaptive streaming, where multiple streams are made available to viewers to match their playback platform and connection speed. This is a highly desirable feature, particularly when delivering to mobile viewers. However, one major difference is how the service produces these streams.

Justin.tv, Ustream, and YouTube Live can all transcode an incoming high-quality stream into multiple files, reducing the outbound bandwidth requirements at your live event and simplifying on-site encoding. In contrast, Livestream producers must encode all streams at the event, which means you need a sufficiently powerful encoder to produce the streams and enough outbound bandwidth to get the stream from the live event location to the service.

Walled Garden or Open Toolset?

All live streams start with an encoder. Most services offer a browser-based encoder, which typically uses the encoder in the Adobe Flash Player, which is easy to use but produces inferior results. Many services also offer their own free desktop encoder, such as Livestream, or free, limited-feature versions of Telestream Wirecast (Ustream, YouTube), which simplify connecting the encoder to the service. In contrast, Justin.tv doesn’t offer its own encoder, which makes getting started a touch more complicated, though not rocket science by any means. There are also several free live encoders available, including Adobe’s Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE), so Justin.tv’s approach won’t cost you any more.

Beyond these free tools, Livestream has created its own mixer/encoder program (Livestream Studio), and on-camera encoder (Livestream Broadcaster), and a plug-in for the NewTek TriCaster, while refusing to extend support to tools such as Wirecast and FMLE. This has created somewhat of a walled garden around Livestream service. According to company officials, Livestream pursued this strategy to simplify integration with the service, and to ensure that their technical support staff could effectively support their producers during the encoding stage. Of course, if Wirecast, FMLE or a similarly unsupported tool is your encoder of choice, you’re out of luck.

Ustream has taken a different tack, providing a free, tightly integrated desktop encoder and pursuing tight integration with other tools, which is similar to the approach taken by YouTube, while other services, such as Bambuser and Justin.tv, should work well with any encoder. While on the subject of encoders, if you think you’ll be broadcasting from tablets and smartphones, be sure to check if your candidate services supply these encoders.

When Does Live Support Start?

When things go wrong with a live event, you have a short time to get things right, which makes telephone support essential. No service provides free support for its free service, but it varies on which plans get free service. For example, Justin.tv’s phone support kicks in with its entry-level $39-per-month plan, and Ustream’s phone support starts with its $99-per-month Silver service. In contrast, you’ll have to choose Livestream’s Premium service, at $399 per month, for phone support, and Bambuser’s standard service ($329 per month). At this point, there’s no mention of phone support in the YouTube Live help offering, which may be the single largest disadvantage of YouTube Live.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook.

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