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Streaming the Grammys

Music fans who want to catch a glimpse of acts like Black Eyed Peas or Green Day rehearsing for their performances at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards, or who want to see what their favorite artists have to say backstage after they win Sunday night, will be able to check out exclusive footage online at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Web site. Via a partnership between NARAS, hosting provider RIS Technology, and Mirror Image’s content delivery network, the Grammys this year hope to top last year’s record of more than one million viewers over the course of the week leading up to and including the awards.

"At one point we were streaming 173Mbps on a consistent basis," says Megan Clarke, senior director of information technology for the Recording Academy. "We were able to support that kind of volume without crashing, though we did slow down, so we can’t know how many more people were trying to get to us but couldn’t."

But what was acceptable a year ago won’t cut it in 2005, Clarke says. "It’s fast and furious out there," Clarke says. "People’s expectations have been raised, and we can’t have those slowdowns this year."

Enter RIS and Mirror Image. Last year marked the first time the Grammys worked with RIS after several years of partnering with AOL. In addition to handling the hosting, load balancing, and security, RIS was able to deliver detailed demographic and usage info to the academy for the first time. Based on last year's usage data, the academy was able to tailor this year’s streaming efforts to maximize resources and, they hope, deliver a better experience to users.

"The academy wanted a better idea of what people were looking for when they came to the site" during awards week, says RIS president Christian Giangreco. "We helped them optimize their site and give them performance information after the show." This year, adds RIS chief technology officer Nate Johnson, the academy decided to try to generate more of an online buzz about the awards by posting more rehearsal video, which will become available beginning on Thursday, February 10.

The data from RIS helped NARAS assess what kind of video its three camera crews, three producers, and two editors should focus on. The editors are using a Blackmagic DeckLink SP to capture the analog video to Final Cut Pro on Apple G5 workstations, then encoding the video to Windows Media 9 and QuickTime 6.5. Producer Paul Madeira says viewers can expect a lag time of between 45-60 minutes from the time backstage interviews are shot until they’re available on the site. As for the rehearsal footage, viewers shouldn’t expect complete performances. "We just show about 10-15 seconds of each performance and mix them together," Madeira says. "Obviously, we don’t want to give the show away."

Additionally, RIS discovered last year that low-bandwidth users were even fewer than they’d anticipated, so this year editors will push only video encoded at 200Kbps and higher, according to Johnson.

Once the editors work their magic and upload the clips to RIS, Mirror Image’s global network takes over. By using Mirror Image’s $200 million global network, the Grammys hope to avoid the slowdowns users encountered last year. In the last year, the company has helped deliver major events like the X Prize and Golden Globes. "Our service is designed to make sure that live and on-demand content can be delivered to huge numbers of people simultaneously," says vice president of global sales and marketing Jeffrey Schutzmann, "no matter where in the world they’re trying to access the content from."

Schutzmann echoes the sentiments expressed by the Grammys’ Clarke that viewers are no longer willing to accept the glitches they tolerated even a year ago. "Streaming media is mainstream now, whereas three years ago it seemed like rocket science," he says. "It’s not the technology people who are asking how to do it anymore; they know. It’s the marketing people who are asking the questions now."

And when all is said and done, Clarke will work closely with the academy’s marketing department on working towards an even better experience next year. "We always need to look at who our market is and how to better target what they want to see," she says. "We’ll immediately look at the traffic information from this year and start figuring out how much we need to increase our infrastructure in the next year, before the 2006 awards."

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