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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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    In other, more succinct words - your job; which you're not very good at or we'd be able to hear people outside the studio, and nearly every link wouldn't be followed by - "we appear to have lost them."

  • Comment number 2.

    "On Friday there was a total of 135,134 requests for the live stream."

    Ah, well that's about as close to audience numbers we're likely to get as transparency is an foreign to the BBC. So if you're getting 135,000 views of a live video stream of Wittertainment on a Friday on this website presumbly you have many more visitors to the website over the course of the week.

    5Live only has 20,000 odd followers on Twitter.

    Further evidence that Twitter and Facebook (a pathetic 9000 'friends' on Facebook) is given misplaced prominence and the blog is woefully and wrongly neglected, quite aside from the moral and financial imperative that the BBC has equity in its own development.

  • Comment number 3.

    Where is Nick Cosgrove going? His departure is a loss to the station, at least he doesn’t dumb down the money news to Newsround levels, shame that can’t be said about all the money news reporters.

  • Comment number 4.

    @Ryanw
    Regarding your point about social media, I was very clear that we put the content on the 5 live site first and then push it out to our social media platforms and partner sites:

    "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"

    In every case this is done with the aim of driving traffic back to the 5 live site from these platforms. Almost nothing that appears on them isn't already available on the 5 live site at the point at which it is posted to those platforms. To reiterate that point: when content is added to those platforms to promote and increase audience to the 5 live website, nothing is being done at the expense of our core offering on the 5 live website.

    You've stated that we have 20,000 followers on the @bbc5live account. The current figure is in excess of 27,500.

    Simply stating follower numbers is not a particularly strong measure as it gives no indication of engagement, nor does it encompass the value of mentions or retweets which make use of the network effect to increase our reach.

    But if we are to take it as some indication of potential reach and interest then the 60-odd accounts owned and run by 5 live presenters, programmes and staff are followed by in excess of 1.7 million. Going on some figures from last year (https://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2009/jun/29/twitter-users-average-api-traffic%29, on average a twitter account is followed by 126 accounts. Very few of our accounts individually fall below that threshold. Why shouldn't we try to make use of that potential to increase the audience to 5 live and our website?

    The same applies to Facebook where the value comes from people commenting, Likes and sharing. Since April 2010 we have doubled the numbers of Fans for facebook.com/5live. Given that this page has never been mentioned on air, I would argue that this growth is organic from within facebook via recommendation and network effect. We have recently refined our focus to ensure that as far as possible, every post on social networks acts to drive new and existing audiences back to the 5 live website as the primary destination for consuming our content.

    If we look at pages and accounts that are mentioned on air, both Victoria Derbyshire and 5 live Breakfast feed in to on air content and have built an audience who do contribute to 5 live in a valued way both through voices that might not otherwise get heard on air and in providing stories. Again, very little that is placed into those Facebook spaces is done in the absence of an equivalent call to action on air or access route for contact via the 5 live website.

    The comment generated is pulled in to our 5 live Connect page which curates the best of the audience input across platforms and points of contact.

    In both the case of twitter and facebook, one of the goals is to amplify the noise around 5 live content and to drive audience back to 5 live's website and on air listening. That's why we tweet and post links to content on the 5 live website in the 5 live accounts managed by the interactive team and encourage our followers/fans and related 5 live accounts to retweet/share those links.

    Between them Facebook and Twitter rank among the sites referring the highest volume of traffic back to the 5 live website every month, thus increasing audience to our core offering on the 5 live website. In a digital environment where the role of peer recommendation and networking, I don't think we can sit back and expect people to come to the 5 live website simply because it is there.

  • Comment number 5.

    "But if we are to take it as some indication of potential reach and interest then the 60-odd accounts owned and run by 5 live presenters, programmes and staff are followed by in excess of 1.7 million."

    Over 1.3 million of these are Richard Bacon's. If the BBC is claiming these presenters accounts surely the views expressed on them should not reflect any political leaning and presenters should be held accountable by BBC management for their tweets?

    The over reliance by presenters on contributions by text and twitter results in lazy dumbed down content for programmes.

    "Almost nothing that appears on them isn't already available on the 5 live site at the point at which it is posted to those platforms."

    This blog is very much neglected with news about guests on programmes appearing on Facebook which is often never published on the 5 Live website. News about presenters and the station rarely appears on here and if it does it is long after it has been in the Guardian.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    Its a very interesting article - I had never really appreciated the amount of extra work needed to provide a live video stream alongside the standard radio OB. I think for programmes such as this film review, where demand for tickets far outweighs the supply, such a facility is great for those who fail to secure tickets.

    I was going to ask how much the online stream adds to the cost of the OB, but even if it doubles the cost, I think in some cases, especially for the film review programme, this is money well spent.

    On the other hand, I do think it would be nice if you could offer the entire two hours of video as catch-up viewing on the website, alongside the edited reviews of each film. A lot of people download the audio podcast when they miss the live broadcast, and surely a number of these would enjoy watching the entire show as well as listening to it. Do you have the ability to put the whole thing online and allowing the public to choose whether they watch that or the edited versions?

  • Comment number 8.

    @ Dom,
    I’m not claiming all these accounts as BBC "property". What I am saying is that these accounts have a significant potential audience that we can reach for a very low investment in effort and resource.

    The ones that are official BBC outlets for programmes, strands or presenters are complied in line with BBC guidelines. We do encourage BBC staff who are using twitter in a personal capacity to make a disclaimer to this effect and not to include BBC in their username if it is a personal account.

    There is a view that there is no need to include a disclaimer on a personal account as they are not claiming to be speaking as the BBC in their personal space on a third party site and that people viewing this are capable of differentiating between an official BBC output and a personal one.

    Perhaps a good example here is the difference between @bbctms and @alisonmitchell. The former is an official account that Alison manages as an addition to TMS when she is involved, the latter her personal account where she muses on her passion for cricket and her other interests. I believe the vast majority of our audiences are capable of differentiating between the two types of account.

    With regard to guests on programmes, we aim to include information on guests on the schedule in each programme’s page as far in advance as possible.

    For example today’s Wittertainment carries information about Anton Corbijn and David Arnold: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00v6fyk

    We know that this is a popular part of the site and when audiences are searching we want them to come to the show page as the destination where they can listen to the show rather than having to make a further click to listen. Some guests aren’t arranged until very close to the time the programme goes out which makes it difficult to announce them in advance. Where this happens we aim to update the billings to reflect the guests once the programme becomes available on iPlayer.

    If we were to use the blog for guest information, it would draw away from its central purpose and also result in a duplication of effort and resource for information that we are already trying to make available in a more appropriate place elsewhere on the site.

    @Dr_Bean
    Yes, theoretically we could put the full two hours video online, but given the processing time it would take we believe that given the likely numbers who will sit through the full two hours, it doesn’t serve audiences well to devote effort to this as they can already listen to the programme in full online or download the podcast. Also video is currently restricted to UK audiences on the 5 live site, so many who are unable to watch the live stream would also miss out on the on demand video.

    At some point in the future, maybe we will be in a position to offer the full show as on demand video with very little extra effort which would be great, but as it stands, we’re focused on reaching the biggest possible audience with highlights which we know there is a strong demand for.

  • Comment number 9.

    There's me thinking it was a radio station.

  • Comment number 10.

    "Regarding your point about social media, I was very clear that we put the content on the 5 live site first and then push it out to our social media platforms and partner sites"

    Alex, I am afraid that is a absurd statement. There are countless example of exclusive Twitter comments or information shared first with your paltry Twitter audience.

    "In every case this is done with the aim of driving traffic back to the 5 live site from these platforms."

    This is also a spurious claim. If this was true, "in every case" you would have a link back to the 5Live site from "these platforms". You dont.

    "You've stated that we have 20,000 followers on the @bbc5live account. The current figure is in excess of 27,500." I stand corrected or put another way 0.45 of 1% of your 6 million audience.

    "The 60-odd accounts owned and run by 5 live presenters, programmes and staff are followed by in excess of 1.7 million."

    I'm glad 5Live is claiming ownership of these accounts. Perhaps you might like to reminder "5 live presenters, programmes and staff" of the BBC editorial guidelines when they tweet too. And as other have said the overwhelming majority of the followers is for one "big personality".

    "Since April 2010 we have doubled the numbers of Fans for facebook.com/5live."

    Doubled to 9122, or put another way representing 0.15 of 1% of your 6,000,000 listenership.

    "Every post on social networks acts to drive new and existing audiences back to the 5 live website as the primary destination for consuming our content." Can you give some examples? It is clearly incorrect to claim "every post on social networks acts to drive new and existing audiences back to the 5 live website as the primary destination for consuming our content." Very few link back to the 5Live website.

    "In a digital environment where the role of peer recommendation and networking, I don't think we can sit back and expect people to come to the 5 live website simply because it is there." I agree, but it might be a nice idea to (a) tell people about it sometimes instead of twitter et. al. (b) make it easier to find things on it.

    Seems like 5Live use statistics when it suits and ignores them when it doesnt.

    The thrust of your post that 5Live does not neglect the website and all the social media activity and every post on these networks is designed to drive traffic back to https://www.bbc.co.uk/5live is absurd.

  • Comment number 11.

    Well I, for one, was quite interested to hear how the whole outside broadcast thing works. It sounds like a complex operation, so it's not surprising that it might go wrong sometimes. But certainly from my listening, it usually seems to go smoothly.

    What's the bee in people's bonnets about the 5 live website versus Twitter/Facebook? Even if people are tweeting or facebooking on top of their usual duties, what does it matter? It takes about 10 seconds to write a tweet. What can any of us achieve usefully in that time? It's nothing to get upset about. If more people see the film reviews, for example, because they stumble upon them on YouTube or Facebook, then that's all to the good - isn't it? It's such a puzzling attitude people seem to have. If it spreads awareness about the station and puts it in people's minds to tune in, in the future, it sounds good to me.

    It's really easy to hurl stones at people from the safety of a blog. But these are real people who deserve a bit of common courtesy. Comments like "your job; which you're not very good at" are just plain spiteful, especially because the BBC person, Alex, is bound by his (her?) job to remain conspicuously polite at all times in these exchanges, however vociferous the replies get.

    How many of us open up our own jobs to such wide public comment? If someone in a public sector job, whose taxes we pay for, makes a little mistake, or some equipment fails on them in a fairly minor way - a computer crashes at the local surgery for example - only a handful of people notice. Maybe dozens. But if an outside broadcast goes a bit wrong on the BBC, tens of thousands of people hear it. Suddenly it's open season for the broadcaster to be slagged off by every Tom Dick and Harry, almost none of whom (and I know I count myself in this number) would have the foggiest idea about how to stage a radio or TV programme!

    Sorry, just felt I had to sign up and say that. Let's be civil to each other! And Alex, thank you for explaining how your job works for us.

  • Comment number 12.

    It seems that the hawkish comment always relies on harking back to the past and fear to deal with security issues. Whenever has the past been a model or example of a way to deal with a future conflict, or fear a way to respond to threat.

  • Comment number 13.

    Thanks for the interesting blog Alex. You can chalk me up as one of those who's interested in the full two hours of video for this kind of special event. I'll look forward to the time it's easier for you guys to produce and publish the programme in this format.

 

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