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Unconventional Video

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The 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles was the first national political convention to feature both live and on-demand streaming. What was then one of the first large-scale demonstrations of an exciting new technology is old news today. In 2000, users were restricted to one of three bitrates (28Kbps, 56Kbps, and 128Kbps) delivered in what were then the three major streaming formats (Real, Windows Media, and QuickTime). This time out, users streamed both HD and SD video at bitrates of up to 2Mbps using Microsoft’s new Silverlight 2 player and the Move Networks plug-in. The pristine, full-screen HD video available to those with sufficient bandwidth was an impressive reflection of continuing advances in streaming technology. But other, less visually stunning advances are the ones powering video streaming’s burgeoning impact on the political process.

The Technology Players
The Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) chose four primary partners—Level 3, Microsoft, Move Networks, and Vertigo Software—to deliver and store all of its high-quality HD and SD video. The DNCC employed its own producers and a 12-camera crew—distinct from the network TV pool feeds—to originate video for streaming through the Silverlight player on its own website (www.demconvention.com). While data from the 2000 convention flowed through an OC-12 pipe at 622Mbps, the data flow from Denver’s Pepsi Center and Invesco Field required an OC-192 pipe with a bandwidth capacity of 9.6Gbps. "We built fiber into two facilities, which involved digging up roads in Denver," notes Maria Farnon, VP for product delivery in Level 3’s Content Markets Group. "It was an enormous project, probably 40 people at Level 3 and more at Microsoft and Move." Production and data transport facilities were housed in three trailers at the Pepsi Center.

The DNCC video feed traveled from the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field through Level 3’s Vyvx network (as 213Mbps HD ASI video) to two off-site IP encoding facilities (one primary and one backup), where the video was encoded using two HD and two SD encoders (Level 3 defines HD quality as anything 1Mbps and greater). The encoded video was then published to the DNCC website via Move Networks’ publishing system. Level 3 has provided network TV broadcast services at multiple national political conventions through its Vyvx network, and delivered both streaming and broadcast video this year. Level 3 was also responsible for all caching on the DNCC website, as well as providing CDN services through its extensive network of edge servers.

Move Networks’ unique technology breaks the encoded video into "streamlets" to minimize start time and buffering and to maximize video quality. Move also enables adaptive streaming, which optimizes the streaming bitrate to match the end user’s available bandwidth. Move Networks has contributed to much of the high-profile streaming in the past year, including the Olympics on NBCOlympics.com. "The quality of their stuff is incredible," says Aaron Myers, director of online communications for the DNCC and a veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns. "We saw that going in and said, ‘That is the experience we want to replicate.’" The DNCC also made a latency/quality calculation. "There’s a bit of a delay on the live video," notes Myers. "But it’s a pretty small delay (up to 3 minutes) for the quality that we get."

The Silverlight 2 player on the DNCC website was designed by Bay Area-based Vertigo Software. "They were fantastic every step of the way," says Myers, "from understanding our needs as we planned this down to having a sizeable staff in Denver to make sure that everything was well-presented during the convention itself." The player allowed users to choose from multiple camera angles. When streaming live, the player offered users a choice of English or Spanish. (The gavel-to-gavel Spanish-language translation was a first for any national political convention.)

Like the Olympics in Beijing, the Democratic National Convention highlighted the respective advantages of streaming versus broadcast. For events targeting a mass audience, such as the Olympics gymnastics and swimming finals or Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in front of 40 million television viewers, broadcast is still the medium of choice. (One can only imagine the bandwidth and infrastructure that would have been required to enable 40 million simultaneous streams.) But for niche sports such as Tae Kwon Do or archery, or for viewers to watch speeches by their local congressperson, streaming is the way to go.

The DNCC website offers 330 video-on-demand (VOD) clips of everything from high-profile speeches to obscure caucus meetings to speeches made at the 2004 convention. The DNCC planned to upload Spanish-language VOD clips in the weeks following the convention. Users can easily copy links to any of the VOD material and embed them in a website or email them to friends. All told, the site houses 6.1TB of video. During the convention, the DNCC also distributed daily video through YouTube and iTunes and was the most popular podcast for the week on iTunes.

Controlling the Message
Clicking on the "Watch Convention Videos" link on the DNCC website automatically plays the video of Obama’s acceptance speech, the one video that the DNCC most wants viewers to watch. In fact, the whole purpose of the DNCC’s streaming effort is to manage, control, and distribute to the widest possible audience the Democratic Party’s political message. The effort on the part of both political parties to control their messages is being challenged this year more than ever before by a newly empowered wave of video-based citizen journalists (VBCJs)—enabled by advances in smartphone and other consumer streaming technologies—which is swamping the web with game-changing reportage.

The game changed for good in August 2006. Republican George Allen was leading in the Virginia Senate race when, at one of his political rallies, he called Indian-American S. R. Sidarth a "macaca," which is a French colonialist pejorative for native Africans. Allen’s mother was of French Tunisian descent. The problem for Allen was that Sidarth worked for Allen’s Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, and was videotaping the exchange. Within weeks, the video was streamed online and broadcast over the air. Largely as a result of that video, Webb narrowly defeated Allen (by less than 0.05%) and the Democrats seized control of the U.S. Senate by one vote. That incident marked the first salvo in a battle between political campaigns determined to control their messages and VBCJs equally determined to expose inconsistency and hypocrisy, i.e., the truth.

Inspired by that moment and enabled by advances in small form-factor video streaming, VBCJs and videographer/journalists working for both new and traditional media outlets have flooded the web with politically oriented video. YouTube is still the dominant distribution channel for all online video, including that which is focused on politics. Nielsen’s VideoCensus estimates that YouTube captured 51% of the online video market in June 2008 with 4 billion out of 7.9 billion views. comScore gives YouTube 4.2 billion views during the same period, or 39% of what it estimates to be a bigger market. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, estimates that 13 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Virtually all candidates and their supporters now stream video through scores of YouTube political channels. In addition to the candidates’ own channels, other popular nonpartisan political channels include You Choose ’08 and Veracifier as well as YouTube’s politics blog, Citizen Tube.

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