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SXSW Designed a Comprehensive NDI Network to Fill its Production with Fresh Content

NDI condenses and speeds up live production and streaming at South by Southwest

One way to measure the social, cultural, and financial impact of South by Southwest--known colloquially as SXSW--is to look at the numbers. The show brings in nearly 13,000 individual hotel reservations, which average five days each, to the city of Austin. Film festival attendance is more than 73,000. Music showcase attendance is north of 159,000. If you combine all the events--including all SXSW Conference & Festivals, SXSW EDU, and SXSW Gaming--the total attendance is more than 417,000.

But a number that tops all of those is the subscribers on the SXSW YouTube channel, at just more than 195,000. SXSW videos can easily tally into the view ranges counted by tens- or hundreds-of-thousands. Some even reach into the millions.

This demand for video is seen both in pre- and post-show videos, as well as during the event--making the live video product a critical component of the show ever year.

And every year the SXSW show producers seek ways to improve the live stream experience for the viewers. Heading into 2019, the production had a straightforward--but not necessarily simple--goal: condense and speed up production.

“We needed to get our content from several locations into one place for master control streaming and so our editors could get to it quicker and create interstitial content faster than last year,” said Stephen Light, SXSW Head of Commercial Content. “This way we could keep audiences better informed, engaged, and tuned in longer.”

The challenge of this approach was the massive area the production needs to cover. Live feeds from five different rooms across four different buildings located in downtown Austin would need to be directed to a master control set up in a small conference room located on the sixth floor of the Hilton Austin Hotel--directly across the street from the bustling center of all the action: the Austin Convention Center (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. The massive area the production needed to cover

The closest location was a keynote room located downstairs at the Hilton. Two more rooms were located at the convention center. The fourth room was located at the Fairmont Hotel--three city blocks away. And the fifth room, being used for one-on-one interviews, was located a full five blocks away at the JW Marriott Hotel.

Adding to the challenge: The team’s setup time was just 24 hours before going live.

A solution needed to be found that would eliminate the traditional roadblocks with such a deployment. Massive cable runs and outside broadcast trucks would be far too costly to implement on such a scale. But the successful deployment of a promising network protocol designed to transfer video might be able to solve the problem, alleviating the cost, complexity and risk.

Designing the Network

Light had heard of NDI, NewTek’s free-to-use network protocol solution for transferring live video, audio, and metadata across standard networks. However, the team had yet to implement it in a real-world deployment. The team hired Network Architect Cliff Skolnick of RightRound LLC--a team that specializes in providing Internet connectivity anywhere--to set up a multiple-NDI-stream network.

“We built a network with many different pieces working together, which is a real strength of IP-based technology,” Skolnick said. “We did not share the existing SXSW network with NDI, but instead built a parallel network to carry the video to isolate the large amount of SXSW Internet traffic from NDI traffic. The only interconnect was for management and monitoring purposes.”

The team used layer 1 copper or fiber across most of the installation, installing their own switches to ensure control of the network from end-to-end.

“The solution was to use RightRound gear with venue fiber and copper at all sites except the Fairmont, where we used the house network to carry the signal from the pool roof to the meeting room,” Skolnick said. “The 5 GigE radio links used licensed Siklu EH-5000 radios from Alpha Omega wireless to transport NDI signals across streets. The EH-5000 full-duplex radios operate in the 71-86GHz ‘W-Band’ where there is plenty of RF spectrum to establish a line-of-sight, 1250 MHz-wide 5GbE duplex connection. The radios also provided Forward Error Correction.”

The team used a 1 GigE signal per channel as a guide when building the network. An upgrade to 5 or 10 GigE technology was utilized if there was a need to carry more than one channel.

“Another key element was monitoring and flexibility,” Skolnick said. “Monitoring revealed a 10 GigE copper solution to get the signal into one meeting room was unreliable. We quickly moved to find a fiber path and installed single mode fiber between the IDF and the roof the same day.”

Creating the Stream

“We wanted the ability to publicly stream content from any one of several rooms where crews were on-site,” Light said. “We also wanted to provide simulcast sessions to overflow rooms at the site, and to ingest all of the connected feeds for streaming and postproduction in Master Control.”

The team utilized NewTek TriCasters in four of the five rooms across the four different broadcast locations (Figure 2, below). Each output feed was connected via NDI and transported at 1080i60 video back to Master Control. On multiple occasions, the editors in the control room were receiving simultaneous streams from all five NDI feeds.

Figure 2. A TriCaster-equipped studio

This allowed for a mix of live and post-production content, which in turn allowed for constant action on the SXSW stream. This allowed audience retention as the stream remained fresh with new content. In all, 104 hours of unique content from SXSW 2019 was streamed on YouTube over the 12 days of events.

“Our conference rooms featured one-hour sessions with 30-minute breaks in between,” Light said. “During the breaks, we were usually streaming a live interview at a fourth venue. Live streaming started with the SXSW EDU conference March 4 through 7, and continued with SXSW March 8 through 16. We had one public stream going nearly all the time on YouTube” (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. Streaming a live interview

The production team also put together 60-to-90 second highlight clips each day – a result of the NDI streams’ ability to not just provide live footage, but also improve time-to-ingest in post (Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. Editing highlight clips on-site

The workflow was made up of multiple Sony FS5 and Panasonic HPX2000 and HPX2700 cameras. Cameras that weren’t NDI native were connected to the local switcher and converted into TriCaster via SDI and NDI signal.

A ClearCom LQ2W2 allowed for communication between Master Control and site directors, engineers, and producers.

The result of the NDI-powered network was not only innovative in design and scope, but also stable and flexible. Producers were thrilled with the freedom provided by the multiple streams.

Setup time occurred under the 24-hour window, live or near-live content was streamed for 12 straight days across a broad city footprint without issue, and it was all done without running miles of cable or bringing in an OB truck.

The main objective--to condense and speed up production--was achieved.