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Live Streaming

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP). 3/15/2012 7:39 AM Eastern

Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).




Figure 1. The UFC sells pay-per-view access to UFC fights.

Interested in broadcasting live over the Internet? Think you’d like to use a service for this, rather than develop this capability in house? Well, you’re in the right place; in this article, I’ll describe the live streaming process and identify factors to consider when choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).

Briefly, LSSPs are the simplest and cheapest way to start live broadcasting because the service provider pays all of the infrastructure costs and provides all of the necessary system components, from live encoding tool to embedded player. As your audiences get larger and your broadcasts more frequent, you may want to cut over to your own live streaming server with a totally custom player, or investigate other, less integrated services from content delivery networks or other third-party service providers, but LSSPs are a great place to start.

I just spent a lot of time working with service providers Justin.tv, Ustream, Livestream, and European-based Bambuser, so I’ll pull examples from these experiences to highlight key points in the discussion. Though the first three are among the largest LSSPs in the U.S., there are many other service providers out there, so use this discussion to identify the features important to you and to guide your evaluation, not to choose between the four service providers that I discuss.

As an overview, let’s discuss the broadcast process. Your first consideration is where the broadcast will play, which can either be the page the LSSP creates for your broadcasts on its site, called the channel page, or on a player embedded into your own and/or other websites. We’ll start by covering the types of features to consider when comparing the channel pages and embedded players offered by the various services.

Once you have the channel page and player set, it’s time to broadcast. You accomplish this by connecting your camera (or a webcam) to your computer and running a program that encodes your audio/video stream and transmits it over the Internet to your service provider. From there, streaming servers hosted by the service provider distribute the video to your viewers, whether they’re watching from the landing page or an embedded player.

Most service providers offer a browser-based encoder and/or traditional applications for encoding and transmitting your stream, or you can use third-party programs like Telestream Wirecast. Many service providers also allow you to broadcast from mobile devices; I’ll cover features such as these during the second half of this article.


Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).




Figure 2. Livestream’s new longitudinal event experience.

PRELIMINARY QUESTIONS

Before you start considering an LSSP, you should ask yourself two key questions. The first is are you looking for eyeballs or just the technology? One of the great values of sites like Justin.tv, Ustream, and Livestream is that they are destination sites for viewers seeking live and on-demand entertainment—Justin.tv for the gamer crowd, and Ustream and Livestream more for general audiences.

Like posting on-demand videos on YouTube, broadcasting on these sites can bring you plenty of viewers. If you’re looking for these eyeballs, then you want to choose a site that matches the demographics of your target audience. Since most viewers will watch the broadcasts from your channel page on the LSSP site, you also should focus more on the features of the channel page that the LSSP provides rather than the embedded player. On the other hand, if you’re primarily looking for live streaming technology to leverage within a player embedded within your own website, you care more about the features of the embedded player.

The second question is can you live with advertising on your channel page or even on an embedded player? All the services offer advertising-supported free versions of their services with some limitations discussed below. This may be acceptable to many smaller broadcasters. If you’d like to drop the advertisements, note that all the listed LSSPs save Justin.tv offer for-fee “white label” versions without the third-party advertising. With Justin.tv, you can’t offer an advertising-free view of your videos to your viewers.

Figure 3. Justin.tv’s access limitations

CHANNEL LANDING PAGE

The channel landing page is the page on the LSSP website where potential viewers go to watch your live and on-demand broadcasts (all services archive live broadcasts for subsequent on-demand viewing). The features of this page should be your next considerations.

If you’re seeking to monetize your content, you should ask about the monetization capabilities offered by the site. These can vary from a share of revenue for advertisements shown on your site to pay-per-view or subscription access to videos. This is illustrated in Figure 1, which shows the UFC broadcasting pay-per-view fights on Ustream. Also on Ustream, you can pay $0.99 to learn how to bake cakes from the Cake Boss Buddy Valastro or $4.99 to watch Ron Volper tell you how to increase sales in the new economy. All LSSPs have different monetization offerings and different LSSP/producer splits, so investigate this issue early in your analysis.

The next consideration is the experience you’re seeking to deliver to your viewers. Figure 1 is the current prototype: a video player with social media links, a related library of content on the right, and a social stream, consisting of chat, tweets, and other content on the right.

Though Livestream’s current offering is very similar to Figure 1 with its beta product, the company is attempting to change the paradigm with an event-oriented longitudinal presentation that includes pictures, video, and chat from before and after the event. This is shown in Figure 2, a long page full of pictures, chat, and comments with the actual concert just another stop in the stream. Realtime viewers can watch the band as it sets up, then watch the concert, and then share in the post-concert cool down and break down. On-demand viewers can share in any or all of the experience.

Imagine a training session hosted by your organization, or the Sunday sermon. Under Livestream’s new paradigm, the live video is presented with pictures of the rapt audience, the guest speaker chatting with the CEO after the discussion, and tweets and comments from remote listeners. The experience is much more rich and nuanced, for live and on-demand viewers.


Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).




Figure 4. Would you buy a used car from this man? Jan Ozer pouring over embedding options from Bambuser.

ACCESS PROTECTION

That’s the Livestream vision, anyway. Whether it’s the old or new paradigm, when you create your channel page, there are lots of switches to set, lots of controls to configure. Most, but not all LSSPs let you customize your landing page with personalized headers, logos, overlays, colors, and other options. Beyond these appearance-oriented issues, the next concern for many enterprises relates to access to content.

For example, Justin.tv lets you password protect your videos, prevent others from embedding your content or exporting your content to YouTube, and sets other restrictions. Most LSSPs offer some versions of these; some also let you identify which URLs can embed your videos for more fine-tuned control.

Another potential cause for concern relates to viewer comments and chat. Some LSSPs allow you to moderate all comments, so you can prevent spam or negative comments from appearing. Regarding chat, some LSSPs let you select multiple moderators to monitor chat, while others let you block certain words or even certain chat participants. If you have concerns about how potential viewers can access and use your content, investigate each LSSP-candidate’s capabilities in this regard early in the process.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND OTHER CONTENT

All LSSPs provide links to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter so you can easily post a link to the video broadcast when you go live. For those seeking closer ties to these services, Livestream also integrates Facebook and Twitter chat into its live presentations as an adjunct to its own native chat facility. That way, comments posted via Facebook and Twitter appear on the channel page and on its viewer’s walls or pages, increasing the potential buzz around the event.

It’s also useful to consider what visitors to your page see when you’re not broadcasting live. In this regard, all LSSPs present libraries of previous broadcasts that your visitors can select among and play. Ustream lets you create playlists of videos that appear when a visitor opens the channel page, so you can control the experience. Going one step further, Livestream lets you build sophisticated presentations from previous broadcasts, uploaded on-demand files and even files imported from YouTube, to create rich presentations to engage your viewers.

If you’re selling products on iTunes or Amazon, one great feature offered by Ustream is the ability to use “extensions” to post links to these products under your live and on-demand videos. Folks watching the video about your brand new widget can then click on Amazon and buy it, another feature you can use to help monetize your video.

So far, all the features discussed involve the channel page on the LSSP’s site. For many broadcasters, the features of the embedded player are much more important. So let’s spend some time looking at this.


Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).




Figure 5. Livestream’s Procaster application enables multiple file encoding and distribution.

EMBEDDING

Embedding a live video stream from an LSSP is very similar to embedding a YouTube video into a website. You can see this in Figure 4, from LSSP Bambuser, which does a nice job allowing me to embed a compact player into my own website with access to my video library and social media links. On the right, you see there are two configurations, expanded (shown) and integrated, and that you can customize the size of the player. Then you copy the embed code shown just below these options, and paste it into the HTML in your website.

Bambuser does a nice job with its embedded player because its target customers are those who primarily want to use the embedded player, not the channel page. Sites like Ustream and particularly Justin.tv, who see their primary value in the ability to deliver eyeballs to your channel page, offer a different range of options. For example, Justin.tv offers only a simple video player without access to other content, while Ustream lets you include libraries of content in your embedded player, but when you click to play these videos, you jump back to your Ustream channel page to view them. Livestream does a nice job straddling both fences, with a well-featured channel page and embedded player.

In addition, some sites, including Livestream and Ustream, let you embed video playback into your Facebook page or wall, which is great if you’re trying to draw viewers to your Facebook pages. Many others simply let you post links to the video in Facebook, which viewers click to view the video on your channel page.

PLATFORMS

The final playback-related consideration involves which platforms the videos play on and at what cost. Of course, all LSSPs offer Flash-based playback on desktop computers for both the channel page and embedded players. Once you consider devices, however, compatibility is all over the map, and may be different for the channel pages and embedded pages.

For example, one of Bambuser’s major value propositions is extensive mobile support for both playback and broadcasting. However, while its channel page played fine on my iPad, the standard embedded player didn’t even appear on my iPad; the company is working on an HTML5 player that will display on any HTML5-compatible devices including iDevices. Another example is Justin.tv, which charges $4.99 for its iPhone player and $9.99 for its iPad player, without which their videos won’t play on these devices.

The permutations are too complex and fluid to present in a features table. When choosing a provider, you need to decide whether the channel page or embedded pages take precedence, if either does, and identify the target platforms that you care most about. Then, you should sign up for free accounts at the LSSPs that you’re considering and test the playback compatibility across the relevant matrix of player and platform.


Live Streaming

Mar 15, 2012 11:39 AM, By Jan Ozer

Choosing a live streaming service provider (LSSP).




BROADCASTING

There are several concepts to understand when it comes to how to broadcast your live events, and how to choose an LSSP based upon broadcast-related features. First, all LSSPs offer simple, easy-to-use browser-based encoding tools that are built around the Flash Player. However, because the Flash Player uses an older codec called VP6, as opposed to H.264, the quality output by the browser-based encoder is usually subpar. That’s why you see the faint blocky pattern in Figure 4, because I produced this clip using Bambuser’s browser-based encoder.

Second, all LSSPs can use third-party tools for encoding, like Adobe’s free Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder and Telestream’s popular Wirecast, which offers TV-studio-like features like multiple camera switching and the ability to create titles and display disk-based video files and graphics, and costs $500 or more. To ensure seamless communication between these third-party applications and their service, most LSSPs let you download XML configuration files that contain your server address and credentials. You import this into your third-party tool and your connection is set.

Third, if you want to access features like multiple file streaming, which presents multiple files for the viewer to select between à la YouTube, you may need to use a different tool. For example, Livestream currently offers user-switchable streams and will soon transition over to fully adaptive streaming, where the system automatically switches streams to match the viewer’s bandwidth and playback horsepower. However, you can’t use Livestream’s browser-based encoder to deliver multiple streams, you have to use its desktop encoder Procaster, which is free and available on both Windows and Mac platforms.

Finally, most LSSPs offer mobile apps that let you broadcast from your mobile phone or webcam-equipped tablet. Some of these are free; some cost $10 or less in the relevant app store.

Looking at these broadcast-related features, it’s clear that the ability to distribute multiple streams is a critical feature for many organizations, particularly houses of worship, which have to serve streams to viewers across a range of connection speeds. So one issue to discover early in the process is whether the LSSP that you’re considering can produce multiple streams. All of the services that I interacted with, save Justin.tv, were either currently producing multiple streams or would implement this capability in 2012. Which encoder do you have to use to produce these streams? Most should be able to use Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder, but it has a limit of three simultaneous streams, which may not be sufficient.

To a degree, the ability to use third-party tools like the Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder and Wirecast does level the LSSP playing field, but there are some highlights to mention on the broadcasting side. First, Ustream offers a limited-feature but free version of Wirecast to its customers, as well as paid versions with a more robust feature set. If you’re looking to polish up your videos, these are worth a look. Also, Livestream’s free Procaster has the ability to stream both video and computers screens, making it a great option for producers wanting to share their desktop view.

COST

All LSSPs offer free, advertising-supported versions of their services, though there may be some limitations. For example, Livestream doesn’t support HD broadcasting with its free service, and limits the monthly data transfer to 10GB. Beyond that, all LSSPs present their various plans on their websites; compare the cost per viewer hour, which varies substantially.

For example, Ustream’s lowest cost plan is $99/month for 100 viewer hours, about a $1.00 an hour. In contrast, Livestream’s cheapest plan is $350/month, but includes 3,000 viewer hours, for a cost per hour of less than 12 cents. Obviously, you’re not going to pay $350/month if all you need is 100 hours, but as your stream counts increase, you’ll find cost per hour a convenient metric with which to compare services.

GETTING STARTED

From here, the best course is to narrow your focus to two or three LSSPs and then try their free services. The more time you invest up front identifying your unique requirements, the smoother these trials will proceed, and the more effective they will be in helping you select the best service. This includes determining if you hope to monetize your videos, how you need to protect the content, whether you want a single or multiple streams, whether you care more about the channel page or embedded page, and which playback platforms are critical to your live streaming offering.


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