The Challenges of streaming media


Larry Jordan# TV-Bay Magazine
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by Larry Jordan
Issue 91 - July 2014

Internet streaming. It sounds easy, but doing it is surprisingly difficult. I know, Ive been streaming live audio every week for the last seven years for my podcast Digital Production Buzz. And Im streaming video from my website for the last three years as part of my on-going software training.

If everything is working properly, watching or listening to a live stream is as easy as clicking a link in the Browser. But, if you are thinking about originating a live stream, or live playback of a recorded show, theres a lot you need to consider.

It starts with a program

streaming is a distribution method. Before you can stream, you need to create a program. This could be a simple as one person talking into a microphone, or a complex as a multicamera extravaganza.

However, basic rules of production apply. You may be streaming to the web, but you still need to watch audio levels, make good pictures and create content that an audience wants to watch. We are long past the day where simply streaming a signal will draw a crowd. The Internet is a very busy place, you need to find a message that other people want to hear.

At this point, you need to get the signal from your microphone or cameras or switcher into the computer.

Digitising media

Using the on-board camera or microphone on your computer is fine if you are talking to your mother, but not if you want to attract an audience. (Yes, images of cats diving into swimming pools on YouTube draw huge audiences¦ But is this kind of image and audio quality what you want people to associate with you?)

To connect a microphone or audio mixer to a computer requires an audio interface. These take analog audio signals using XLR or 1/4 jack connectors and convert it to a USB 2 digital media stream. (These connectors are common for professional audio gear. Consumer-grade RCA connectors can easily be converted to either format, should you need it.)

There is a wide variety of audio interfaces to choose from. Just looking around my studio, I use gear from: Steinberg, Edirol, Presonus, Alesis and Focusrite

Video interfaces start to get trickier, simply because the technology is more complex. Here you have two choices:

- Create a live program that people tune it to watch (this is similar to a broadcast television model)

- Record your program, post it to a streaming server and allow people to stream the recorded file to watch it whenever they want.

Experience has shown that, unless you are broadcasting something REALLY important - think the World Cup or major breaking news, no one wants to tune in live. Also, creating live programming is both hard and expensive; especially if you want to do it right.

It is far easier and better to create your program, record and edit it so that it is perfect, compress the file and upload it to a server than to attempt to stream it live and attract an audience.

Once the file is stored on a server, again, you have two choices:

1. Allow people to download the file. This allows them to store it locally on their computer and watch it whenever they want. This is easy and cheap, but gives you no control over what happens to your file once it is downloaded.

2. Only allow people to watch the file, without downloading and storing it on their system. This offers more security (but still is not totally secure), but requires an on-going Internet connection in order to watch the stream.

My company sells software training in two forms at two prices points: as a download and as a stream. This allows me to set two different pricing models, each with different upgrade options. I started offering downloads about five years ago. But it took me a year and a half to get the programming done to support secure, live streaming.
My key advice here is to ask yourself:
What do you want these programs to accomplish?

- How important is live?
- How do you want the program files used?
- How much control do you need over the distribution of the files.

If you just want to get them out there, post them to YouTube and be done with it.

Streaming software

Streaming has two sides:

- Sending the file UP to the streaming server.
- Distributing the stream to the world.

The up link is a single computer originating the file and sending it a single server. This server then takes that unicast and splits it into as many feeds as you have viewers, sending each viewer their own version of the program.

We have an older system that we are using for audio streaming, originating with QuickTime Broadcaster; which Apple has discontinued in more recent OS X upgrades.
Telestream Wirecast is an excellent, and current, software tool for streaming both audio and video. We are also experimenting with Google Hangouts as another way of originating the broadcast. My recommendation is Wirecast.

Theres also LiveCast and UCast, plus others.

Next, you need a host server for the stream. Again, you need to consider how many people are watching, as the more people that watch the more expensive your bandwidth costs are likely to be. Akamai is the 800-pound gorilla in this market, but they tend to be the most expensive and geared toward really large productions. A Google search will turn up many others.

The key is to have a sense of how many people are likely to watch, then use that to gauge how big a distribution network you need. Networks are available to support millions of viewers. However, most shows will only attract a few hundred users at any one time.

Content-distribution networks

Another option is a content-distribution network. This is a facility that is designed to take your stream and distribute it across the globe. Key questions you need to answer here include:

- Where is your audience located?
- How big is your audience likely to be?
- Will everyone be watching at once, or does your program have a long shelf-life?
- Do you need to support all browsers that are out there, or can you control which browsers people will watch this with?

Companies to consider are Amazon CloudFront, Akamai, LiveStream, UStream, and a flock of other content-distribution networks, which will appear on any Google search. Select a few of these and start a conversation well before you want to launch your program. This is an area where spending time planning can save buckets of aggravation and unhappy viewers later.

The perils of the Internet

Once you start streaming, and that digital file leaves your hands for the big world out there, headaches go with the territory:

- Not all web browsers support all web video or audio formats. Be sure your use a server-based media player that supports the key browsers used by your audience.

- Web latency means that files that start fine from your originating computer dont arrive in a timely fashion. Audio and video freezes or drops out. Be sure you have access to technical support to handle unhappy viewers.

- Not all viewers have high-speed access to the web. You need to have multiple versions of your program to support fast and slow Internet access.

- Mobile phones and tablets are a very special case. Dont assume they can watch your program unless you create files especially for them.

- Make sure you have fast enough Internet upload speeds to stream your program. Most ISPs provide very fast download speeds, but very slow upload speeds. You may need to upgrade your Internet connection to support streaming.

Summary

Streaming media over the Internet can be a huge win for your company. But it requires planning and thinking about what you really want to achieve. Then, it requires creating a compelling program that other people want to watch.

Once the program is done - assuming you arent webcasting it life - if you want the widest audience with the least amount of hassle, post your media to YouTube. You dont have a lot of control, but you also dont have a lot of headaches.

Audio streaming is fairly simple, but you still need a streaming server and a distribution network.

Recording a program and allowing people to download the file is dirt simple. Recording a program and allowing people to stream it via your own web servers will require custom programming. Webcasting a live program requires all the above, plus great marketing to attract an audience.

Web streaming isnt impossible, but it takes thought, marketing, and a strong understanding of technology to make it work. But when it works¦ its amazing!


Tags: iss091 | Steaming Media | Ask the experts | Larry Jordan#
Contributing Author Larry Jordan#

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