Putting together a live video outside broadcast
The words "...and you can watch it live on the website." is something you've probably heard a lot of recently. It always marks an important moment in the life of an Outside Broadcast (OB) for the interactive team. It means:
- a. The live video stream is working
- b. Nobody/nothing has been accidentally set on fire so far
- c. Someone has remembered to tell the presenter and guests that the online audience can see them
To the best of my knowledge, no one was set on fire in the course of Friday's live Wittertainment and the live stream worked for viewers in the UK.
Getting video live from almost anywhere in the UK for two hours takes a fair amount of planning. Sometimes we get several weeks notice, others it will be less than a day. We do this often enough that we've built up a pretty clear workflow to follow. It involves asking a lot of questions and finding answers.
- Can we get a suitable connection from the venue?
- Do they know we're coming?
- Is it a safe working environment?
- What equipment will we need to ensure that the end product looks good?
Some of those might seem like stupid questions, but no one ever lost money by over-estimating the potential for stupidity to cause disaster.
Can we get a suitable connection from the venue?
To stream video we need to be sure that we can get an upload speed of at least 512Kbps to ensure that when we push the video content up the pipe, the audience don't see the spinning wheel of death on our account. We've worked on building our relationship with the Broadcast Operations team so that our dedicated ADSL connection is ordered at the same time that they order the ISDN lines for the radio broadcast.
We're also reliant on them for the sound to go with our pictures and their experience at OBs is not just a calming presence but also a handy pool of knowledge to draw on when don't have the right cable connector or are trying to find where to plug in to a connection.
Do they know we're coming?
But of course they know we're coming, we're doing a radio show from there. Er...
A radio broadcast can require very little in the way of equipment, sometimes as little as one person and a small briefcase-sized piece of kit called a "Cubie" and a "BGAN". Producing live video tends to involve quite a few bodies and equipment.
We try to cause as little disruption as possible, but sometimes we will need to make additional arrangements with the venue to make the show work. On the Wittertainment OB, this involved liaising with the venue owners so that our camera positions didn't obstruct fire exits and access for the audience. It also mean that we took out Mark Kermode's favourite seat, which he didn't hesitate to point out.
Guests can be quite unnerved if they turn up "dressed for radio" to discover that there's four cameras and a lighting rig all pointing in their direction. So we like to forewarn them so that they don't shuffle in wearing their pyjamas and a duffle coat.
Is it a safe working environment?
Before we leave the office we are required by law to fill out a risk assessment for the broadcast. Some might call this "elf and safety gone mad" but that shouldn't detract from the important principle that we should minimise the likelihood of serious injury while working.
We always try to visit a venue in advance so that we can make a decision on whether we think we can safely broadcast from there. So I visited the Phoenix Cinema to see how wide the aisles were, whether we'd need or be able to rig additional lighting and check whether there were any particular hazards we'd need to be aware of.
For example, if we need additional lighting, then I need to make sure that we had someone on the crew who had the proper training for handling lighting of up to a maximum of 3 lamps totalling 2000W. They can get very hot and they can fall over, both of which can lead to people accidentally being set on fire.
Simpler hazards are things like, darkness, steps and drops. In my career I've walked into doors in the dark, been dangled over a 10 metre drop by my belt and fallen off a step ladder while filming, none of which could be considered a safe way to work. None of these incidents occurred at the BBC I hasten to add, but they are all ones I'm expected to make sure my colleagues don't have to encounter in the course of an OB.
What equipment will we need to ensure that the end product looks good?
The black box around which we've built our OB rig is the Sony AWS-G500E Anycast Station Live Content Producer, or Anycast for short. It allows us to pull in up to six video inputs, either from cameras, graphics or tape and then feed them to the various destinations as the mixed live output you see. Instead of needing the traditional satellite truck gallery we can effectively produce and direct coverage from a space no bigger than church pew - which is what I was perched on at the Phoenix - and do so at a considerable cost saving, amounting to thousands of pounds.
Plugged in to the Anycast will be camera sources, either from our stock of cameras or ordered in from the internal provider to ensure that it costs as little as possible.
In the past this has normally been Sony HVR-Z1 cameras, one of the most commonly used Digital Video (DV) cameras in the industry. It's small, lightweight and portable but has its limitations in terms of image quality. Pretty much anyone should be able to operate one which can be a godsend when you are trying to find camera operators.
I much prefer using the Sony DSR-450 which is commonly used programme making. Its higher quality lens means that we can produce a much higher quality picture. I've also found that the controls make it much easier for inexperienced operators to handle them confidently. We used four of them for Friday's OB, one with a wide-angle lens to capture the vaulted ceiling of the beautifully refurbished Phoenix cinema.
As mentioned previously, sometimes we'll need to rig lighting at the venue to supplement the house lighting. To do so we a required to have someone who is an "Electrically Informed Person" (EIP) who has completed a lighting safety course and demonstrated that they understand the lethal risks involved in working with electricity.
On this occasion the house lights at the venue meant that we didn't need additional lighting, but in the event that we did, I had two KinoFlo Diva-Lite 400W lamps at the ready and a set of BeBob lamps available. It's amazing just how much difference you can make to the quality of the output with some basic lighting, either from an existing source or from supplementary lighting.
So who is watching?
You've probably been asking this from the first paragraph, and it's a question we always ask ourselves before committing to live streaming. There's no point in spending ages resourcing an event if no watches either live or on demand.
On Friday there was a total of 135,134 requests for the live stream. It compares very well when seen against similar figures for live and on demand video across the BBC - it's considerably more than either Monday night's EastEnders or Mumford & Sons and Friends simulcast according to the overnight statistics.
The biggest audience for this content is on demand. Not everyone can take two hours away from their work on a Friday afternoon to tune in, so it's vital to make the best of the show available as widely as possible.
Research into online video tends to show that audiences aren't prepared to sit through a two hours but will watch a highlight of around ten minutes. So over the weekend we edited down the two hours to ensure that every film review is available to watch via the 5 live site and then pushed through our relationship with IMDb, the Mark Kermode Film Reviews Facebook page and the Kermode + Mayo Film Reviews Youtube channel.
These are vital platforms for growing our audience as it allows us to reach movie fans who aren't aware of Mark Kermode (yes, they do exist) and our movie reviews. Movie fans likely to look on IMDb for movie information far outweighs anything we can hope to get on the 5 live site, so if we can fish in that pond and lure them with some tasty bait then it's worth doing as it brings new people to the joys of Wittertainment.
A lot of people will discover the reviews in these spaces through search/discovery or recommendation. These are the sort of people who may not be regular 5 live listeners but who are movie fans, so the more of these we can acquire, the more value we can get out of the original production cost.
It means that our existing audience who subscribe through social media are given a reminder that there is new material waiting for them to watch. Given the minimal resource required to post links or upload content to these locations, this represents a simple and cost effective way to serve as wide an audience as possible.