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Affordable Streaming: How to Look Like the Pros

The ability to stream over IP with NDI means that your studios, talent, and equipment for streaming productions no longer need to be in the same physical space, shrinking your travel, manpower and cabling budgets.

With the advent of more cost-effective streaming devices and services, virtually anyone can deliver their live production to a mass audience. However, if you want people to view your program and continue to watch it for an extended period, research shows that it needs to look professionally produced. This presents some challenges for the independent producer working on a budget. The good news is that there are new products and technologies that allow content creators to deliver “network-quality” productions that will capture and retain an audience without robbing a bank.

Software-Driven Production

At the most basic level, affordable streaming is currently made possible by multi-functional software-based live production systems from various companies. Proprietary hardware-based solutions from traditional broadcast manufacturers don’t offer live streaming and by the time you add up all the required accessories and devices to match the feature set of software solutions, you end up spending a great deal of money. Whichever solution you chose, it should have a good track record, market share, and a price-performance ratio that makes sense for the type of work that you do.

The Great Leveler – NDI

One of the biggest contributors to leveling the playing field for producers wanting to do high quality production for less money is NDI (Network Device Interface), NewTek’s free IP video protocol. Now three years old, NDI has been adopted by over 1000 companies, creating an entire ecosystem of products that work together seamlessly over standard IT networks. NDI requires no configuration to connect, so you just plug in and go to work. This kind of freedom and empowerment is rare in the video industry, allowing users to put together streaming productions using a wide variety of technologies that are both economical and tailored to the needs of the project at hand.

Unlike traditional analog or digital video signals that only go in one direction, NDI is bi-directional, meaning that every video source also becomes a destination and all devices on the network can communicate with each other. This changes video in a big way, making it easier to do more with less. Moving video across a facility, campus, or even across country is now possible on local/wide area networks or services that move NDI over the public internet. This means that your studios, talent, and equipment for streaming productions no longer need to be in the same physical space, shrinking your travel, manpower and cabling budgets.

The Rise of the PTZ

Another notable change in the production landscape lately is the availability of high-quality and affordable PTZ (pan, tilt, zoom) cameras. While they have a fixed base, PTZ cameras offer much of the same flexibility as robotic cameras at a fraction of the cost. They also eliminate the cost of a camera operator and can be put into areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Better sensors and lenses are even making PTZ’s the cameras of choice for traditional broadcasters. Many of today’s PTZ cameras also offer NDI®|HX video output (a high-efficiency version of NDI), which offers video, audio, tally, control, and in some cases POE (power over Ethernet) on a single network cable. This provides savings on cabling and a reduction in the complexity of production systems.

Getting Extra Mileage from Legacy Cameras

Even if you have existing fixed cameras, there is new technology to keep them in the game for years to come. Some live production systems offer the ability to do ‘’pan and scan” across the camera’s field of view to effectively create a “virtual PTZ” camera. This works best when you are using a 4K camera in an HD production. In this case, you can zoom in to at least quarter screen resolution without losing quality. Producers can create multiple camera shots from a single camera input or zoom and pan to create moves that add production value.

There are also portable converters that will convert SDI and HDMI baseband video signals from cameras into NDI® at the source. These converters offer video, audio, tally, POE, and in some cases return video or intercom. They typically include a camera-mount and some models even offer wireless connectivity over Wi-Fi, allowing operators to move freely without any sort of cabling – great for sporting events or areas where it’s difficult to run cables.

Add Some Sizzle with Graphics

The one thing that will make your streaming production look more professional than anything else is great motion graphics. There are three trends in graphics for video that are advantageous for producers of streaming productions – improved graphics functionality inside production systems, more affordable real-time graphics applications, and HTML5 cloud graphics services.

Having graphics as an integral part of your production software is a huge timesaver and eliminates the need for separate graphics applications. This internal graphics functionality has been getting better and better over time and allows users to work from pre-defined templates, replace text and images, and create links to live data. Manufacturers have tried to either make simple user interfaces or use common tools like Adobe After Effects to author graphics.

More affordable standalone graphics apps have also been coming to market with feature sets that rival top real-time broadcast systems that cost 10 or 20 times more. Most of these applications have NDI output, which combines fill and key (alpha) into a single stream, making it easy to integrate with other NDI-enabled production systems.

Newest to market are the HTML5 cloud-based services that give users tools to compose graphics from any computer connected to the Internet and deliver a URL that has composited graphics for overlay onto program content. Many live production applications can now render HTML5 content in their graphics buffers providing yet another way to add more dynamic visuals to streaming productions.

Streaming Services Galore

Once you’ve optimized your production budget and are ready to produce your show, the next question is, how do you want to deliver content to viewers? Most production systems can generate one or two live streams, but to get to a wide audience you need to use a streaming service or CDN (content delivery network). It seems like there is a new service almost every day. The most interesting ones offer the ability to deliver a single stream to multiple services or destinations. They have different pricing models but generally have some sort of subscription model based on time or amount of streaming. It’s important to shop around and the one that is the best fit.

There have never been more tools available for producers to create professional looking streaming content than right now. Advances in software, video transport, connectivity, optics, graphics rendering, and more, make it possible to deliver the same level of programming that viewers expect from top tier broadcasters and production companies at a fraction of the cost. By moving to a software-centric, IT, and IP-based approach to production – streaming video is also more scalable, flexible, and attainable than ever before.