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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Live streaming graduation broadcasts – Our guide to making it happen

About five or so weeks prior to the first of our district’s three high school graduations, my team was tasked with live streaming all three events, which would take place in two separate locations.  The difficult part was that we did not have the equipment needed and we would have to piece together a mobile production studio very quickly, leaving little room for testing and training once all the pieces were received and put together.

While I have some background with A/V and video, putting on major events like this are a team effort, so I knew that we would have to get several people involved in planning and testing, leveraging everybody’s skill sets.
We initially conducted some online research and consulted our peers through a listserv to see how they broadcast their events.  We had come across what we thought to be a very cost effective video production switcher from Blackmagicdesign, called the ATEM Television Studio, which looked like it would work well as the core component for producing the live event.  Several people on the listserv confirmed that this is a great device and would work well for us.

One thing that became apparent quickly was that the ATEM only accepted HD video inputs through HDMI and through SDI, but all we had was a couple of older cameras that did not output in HD.  While we wanted to keep costs relatively low, we felt that investing in older analog technologies would be a mistake, so we knew we need to go the HD route.

We found a loaner HDMI camera from our high school campus and we used a very low cost consumer Sony HDMI consumer camera for testing.  We ordered several HDMI cables of different lengths and costs.  This is where we found our first major issue, and by this point we were several weeks into the process and couple of weeks from the first graduation.  We found that only the short (and low cost) HDMI cables worked with the good cameras, while the only camera that worked with the long amplified HDMI cables was the low cost Sony, which was really meant to be either used as a wide shot cut camera or as a backup camera.  We had also purchased a great new Panasonic HD camera, the G-AC90 AVCCAM HD handheld camcorder, and when it arrived, we tested it and it only worked with the short cable.  We knew we had an issue, as it would be necessary to have one camera at least 100 to 150’ away from our ATEM production studio.   We eventually stumbled on the solution in the recesses of internet forums; The Blackmagic Design HDMI to SDI Battery Converter was the key.   This device allowed us to hook up a standard short (or longer if needed) HMDI cable to our video camera, and connect some really long (and less expensive than HMDI) SDI cables to move cameras away from our ATEM.

The next issue we found was that we needed a way to bring in analog audio from the sound boards at both graduation venues and convert that audio to digital.  This could be done on a good HD camera like the Panasonic mentioned earlier or the Sony I will mention further into this write up.  But we wanted the audio separate from the cameras if possible, so once again the Internet saved us and recommended the Behringer Ultramatch Pro, which allowed us to convert analog audio from the events’ sounds board coming in on XLR cables, and then output digital audio over a RCA to the input on the ATEM.

Another choice we had to make was choosing a service provider for the live streaming of the event.  One of my colleagues looked at several services and settled on Livestream.com, since they had a plan we felt was affordable, and which offered predictable pricing, unlike some competitors who charged more based on how many people viewed the stream.  We had no idea how many people would tune in, and we did not want to overspend on the streaming.  Livestream.com also recommended and showed the ATEM as a product it certifies to work with their service, which we felt was a major plus.  A major benefit of the chosen Basic plan was that we were able to setup Livestream.com to send data to our free Google Analytics account, allowing us a very good view into how many people watched our events, and to also know where they were located.

Another one of my awesome colleagues assembled the aforementioned gear and some additional parts, which included:

The end result was our mobile live production studio pictured below:
Judson ISD’s mobile production studio

Our first streamed graduation was an event in our Performing Arts Center.  We setup and tested a day prior and all worked well.  But we knew from this that our low cost consumer Sony camera was not going to be sufficient long term.  Our remote stream test watcher commented on how much worse the video looked when we were using this camera.  We also pushed the Panasonic’s optical zoom to near its max on this event, so we knew that the next two graduations in the Alamodome would require a much larger optical zoom, so we went ahead and bought one more very good Sony HDR-AX2000 High Definition Camcorder.  Both this camera and the Panasonic produced fantastic pictures event in reduced lighting situations and both featured XLR audio inputs, which we knew we would end up needing as well.

Our team learned fast from our trials and from each successive graduation.  The events went extremely well, and the quality of the LIvestream.com broadcasts and our production looked very good.  We had a huge success of the events with over 3600 unique viewers, who spanned all 50 states and over 30 countries around the world.  We knew we had many military families that would be watching, but we truly did not anticipate this level and breadth of viewership.

There are a few things we learned from the process that we want to implement for next year.  One is having a much more powerful PC powering production, which will allow us to send a full HD and separate mobile stream.  We will be looking at a rack mounted might powered Intel i7 based PC with a rack mounted KVM to accomplish this.

We also found that we need to have a chat moderator watching the stream and chat as the live graduations unfold.  During one of the events, a couple of malcontents started saying inappropriate things in the chat, amongst the great comments like “I just watched my granddaughter walk the stage from here in Puerto Rico.”  We were able to ban these users form the chat, but next time we need to dedicate someone to this task.

Panasonic camera pointed towards ATEM production studio in the Alamodome


Live graduation unfolding in the Alamodome

Live Google analytics feed during a graduation