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In-House Higher-Ed Streaming at UPenn’s Kelly Writers House

University of Pennsylvania IT and Multimedia Manager Christopher Martin discusses streaming operations, use cases, and workflows for UPenn's Kelly Writers House, both in-house and on the road.

The Upgraded Writers House Rig

Figure 5 (below) shows how we’ve streamlined our setup. This has made production easier, but also enabled us to deliver a better end product.

Figure 5. The new streamlined setup

We now have three Panasonic HE-40SW PTZ cameras controlled by an RP50 remote camera controller. We manage it all from our main control desk at the back of the room. This is a nice alternative to having three separate camera operators.

For redundancy’s sake, we run all three of the PTZ cameras going through a Blackmagic HyperDeck Studio hard disk recorder that can record each signal of video just in case anything goes wrong later in the chain. We’re also bringing in more and more people via Skype and Google Hangouts to be a part of the actual live stream when we’re doing interviews, or just including additional guests that way.

The quarterback of the whole system is the Blackmagic ATEM Production Studio 4K, which allows us to switch between our camera shots. It takes our audio from our Mackie mixing board. We also decided to get the Control Surface because sometimes it’s nice to have those physical buttons. You could do camera switching through the rack unit, but we wanted to have the Control Surface.

I find it’s a little bit easier for students who are new to this technology to see that physical Control Surface and see the changes as they press physical buttons. All of that gets mixed and goes through another HyperDeck Studio, so we have a recorded version of the mixed program feed. We decided to separate out from our previous setup our recording and our encoding.

The Mac Pro was previously doing both jobs. We separated that out so that the Mac Pro isn’t pushed quite as hard. It’s not that the Mac Pro can’t handle the load, but it’s a little nicer to offload those things, especially as encoding standards get higher and more pressing on computing power, so it gives us a little more flexibility and leeway.

We’re still using Wirecast, which has been rock solid for us for many years. These days, we usually stream to YouTube or Facebook Live, if not our own Wowza Media Server, which we’re still using for some use cases.

The Traveling Kit

As I mentioned earlier, we also have a road kit (Figure 6, below). We’ve taken this everywhere from London to the west coast USA to Canada, and it works really well because for the most part, the cameras are a little bulky. These are the same Sony cameras from our original setup, which are a little bulky.

Figure 6. The Kelly Writers House road kit

The kit also includes Roland’s compact V-1HD video mixer. This is a very simple mixer. It allows you to switch easily between four inputs, and it fits in a backup.

Finally, we use the Matrox Monarch HDX to encode and save our feed to disk. It's a lot of storage and that's actually one of the challenges that we're having is where to store all of this recorded data in an effective and cost-effective way.

Finding an Audience

One of our biggest issues--one I see as nontechnical--is making sure you actually have a live audience watching your stream. You're producing this beautiful product, bus is anybody watching it?

That takes a lot of work on the part of whoever has entrusted you to deliver the stream. So while it's not a technical issue per se, I think it falls to us, as producers, to engage with clients during the consultation process and the early planning stages on how you’re going to market and promote the stream. Are you planning to send out emails? Are you considering Facebook cross-posting?

At the Kelly Writers House, we still send out physical calendars through the mail to potential viewers. We spend a lot of staff time making sure there’s advance knowledge of these events among interested parties, so that people are actually watching, and also people assigned to manage your viewers’ interactions on social media. Is there someone on your team who can manage the live comments that are coming in on Facebook if you’re using Facebook or YouTube? Is there someone responding to your viewers’ questions?

Making sure these roles are filled helps not only with the Facebook algorithm seeing that you’re actually responding to textual comments; it also improves the general overall viewership experience.