From Zero to Streaming in Ten Days

tinerstake-1012

By Scott Tiner

On Monday, Nov. 21, 2011, I got a phone call that would lead to a drastic change in my technical knowledge and the work that my staff and I do. The call was from our assistant vice president for advancement. The presidential search committee for my employer, Bates College, had met over the weekend and decided on a candidate for our next president. A public announcement was planned for Dec. 4. They wanted to keep the candidate a secret until the announcement, and they wanted to live stream the big event — 10 days and counting (including the Thanksgiving holiday that week).

We had done a simple single camera stream of a building dedication and live-streamed the construction of a new football field. However, for this event they wanted a multi-camera production along with graphics.

Our first task was to decide on the hardware that we needed. Multi-camera with live switching and graphics required an advanced device. We had previously used the Makito and Barracuda from Haivision. Both of these are excellent devices, but did not provide our need for live switching. We did some research first with our local providers. Only one had a TriCaster available and it was rented out at $1,000 per day, with staff to support it costing $100 per hour. Knowing that we wanted to rehearse the event in the days leading up to it, we determined that by purchasing our own TriCaster from NewTek, it would pay itself off after only three or four events. So, later that afternoon we ordered a TriCaster 300 and had it shipped overnight.

The TriCaster proved very easy to learn and configure. Within a day of its arrival, we were loading graphics and getting test streams running. The TriCaster is an extremely powerful device, even the 300 model that we have. NewTek no longer sells the 300, but does have a similar model, the TriCaster 40. In the past year we have seen and played with a few other broadcast switchers, some more expensive, some less, but I have found none to be as complete and efficient as the TriCaster. It is expensive, no doubt, but it will pay itself off easily using it just two to three times per year.

Our next real challenge was the staffing. We needed three experienced camera operators, along with someone to do the lights, projection and other staging for the show. It was obvious that unlike purchasing hardware, we could not provide this staffing in house. We simply did not have the skill, manpower or equipment in-house. We turned to our preferred staging partner, HPA Productions. They took care of hiring camera operators, set up the lighting and ran the projection for the event. If you are considering streaming for the first time, put a lot of thought into who is standing behind your camera. The best encoding hardware in the world can not make up for a lousy camera person. Most non-AV people think running a camera is simple — they do it every weekend at their kids’ soccer games. We know better. We know that a good camera person knows his camera and knows what makes the shot. HPA provided us a turnkey operation.

We decided internally that we would follow industry practice in how the events were managed.  So, we provided a producer from our communications office. The producer’s role was to call the show. We also provided a technical director, from our Classroom Technologies (or Media Services) group. This person’s role was to take care of all technical needs from coordinating with HPA Productions and contracting with a CDN to configuring and running the TriCaster.

I was the technical director for the event and it earned me more than a few gray hairs. However, the event went off without a hitch and the stream looked fantastic. We had over 1,000 people tune into the broadcast from over 18 countries. You can see the big announcement and the quality of the stream here:

Clayton Spencer from Bates College on Vimeo.
Or course, no good deed goes unpunished. While working through my supply of “Just for Men” hair color in the weeks following, I got another call. We were going to live stream commencement in the spring. Oh, and since we now have a new president, we need to prepare for her inauguration in the fall. To make matters even more interesting, our commencement speakers included Robert DeNiro, Gwen Ifil and Bonnie Bassler. I decided it was time to simply dispose of the “Just for Men” and embrace my gray.

See related  #DearVendor — Episode 2: Lessons Learned During the Pandemic

As I like to do after any major event, I convened everyone involved in the event in the weeks following and debriefed on the event. We learned a few things. First, our outgoing feed to the Internet had plenty of bandwidth. As many of you know, your upload bandwidth is different from your download bandwidth. What we did not expect was for our download bandwidth to top out.  There were too many people on campus trying to watch the event. To solve this problem we purchased a license for a Wowza server. Now when we stream, we take a feed out of the TriCaster and connect it to our Haivision Makito box. That box streams to our Wowza server and provides our stream for our internal customers. The TriCaster continues to feed our CDN, which serves our external customers.

We also learned a lot about proper communication amongst the producer, tech director and camera operators. We documented this work so that we now have standards in place so everyone knows what is happening, without confusion.  Finally, we learned that we needed appropriate time to setup, rehearse and test the equipment.  Rehearsals for any events are critical, and the more you have the better. Having done it a few times will help you with knowing what kind of time this will take, but also turn to your support people and let them help you with this.

In my view, this is another one of those situations where a strong relationship between AV companies and educational institutions is critical. Many companies would not want to work with a school that had its own TriCaster, hardware, tech director and producer. They would ask, what can we do if all that is already in place? The simple answer is — a lot!

You can sell us the TriCaster or other encoders as a turnkey solution. We have our TriCaster in a rolling Gator rack with a Mackie mixing board and custom plates for external connections. We did this on our own, because no one offered it to us as a solution. How about a service contract on the equipment? Perhaps that contract could even include a TriCaster expert on hand during live events in case of problems. As mentioned previously, we needed camera operators along with people and equipment to run the cables and troubleshoot any issues with the setup.

Finally, you need to contract with a good CDN. We chose Mirror Image out of Massachusetts and have never regretted it for a minute. Their prices are extremely fair, shockingly fair actually.  Along with that (and most importantly), the company’s customer service is superb. My calls and emails were responded to so quickly that I actually wondered at times if I were their only client.  Of course, I am not. They simply know that customer service is every company’s bread and butter.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my knowledge and job responsibilities have changed dramatically. Streaming continues to grow in our college. We did go on to successfully stream commencement and the inauguration. Things have gone so well that this fall we have recently taken over support of streaming our athletic contests. That’s a story for another day.

As an extra Christmas treat for you real techies out there, check out a time-lapse video of our set-up and tear down of the presidential inauguration set:

The Extended Cut: Inauguration Transformers from Bates College DMC on Vimeo.
Scott TinerI continue to welcome your comments, questions and discussion. Send them via email, TwitterLinkedIn or in the comments section. Last month we had some great feedback, and I wrote a follow up article that is posted in my rAVe blog.Check it out. We will do the same this month if we get feedback and questions. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Scott is very active in the field, having presented at both regional and national conferences. In 2011, he was appointed as chair of the Technology Managers Council of InfoComm. Scott can be contacted viaLinkedIn, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/stiner or via email at stiner08@gmail.com