Since its inception in 1995, Real Networks, Seattle, has been one of the leading pioneers of the streaming media market. It dominated during streaming's glory days in the late 1990s and survived its crash in 2001. Today, the hype that once surrounded streaming media has been replaced by an appreciation of its value as a practical tool for corporate, educational, and entertainment settings. In that context, Real continues to play a leading role in pushing the technology's growth.
In addition to its array of codecs, media players, media delivery, and media management products, Real offers an array of services for those interested in streaming for promotion, education, training, communication, and entertainment — in other words, Web streaming. In fact, says Matt Deichman, general manager of operations and services for Real, the company has one of the largest broadcast operation centers in the world. “We probably do more live events over the Internet than anybody else in the world,” he says.
Among other things, Deichman oversees the development of Real's subscription platforms, such as Rhapsody, SuperPass, and RealArcade, which serve as a collection of various kinds of streaming content, as well as the development of such private label subscription offerings for organizations like the National Football League. He also oversees the development of stand-alone partner products, such as those offered by NASCAR, CNN, and ABC News.
In addition to providing streaming products and services, Real uses those services for its own corporate events. Geoff Walker, director of events for Real Networks, is responsible for planning all types of Real corporate events, including trade shows, conferences, product launches, sales meetings, and holiday parties. For 90 percent of those events, he says, Real captures audio or video streams for webcasting or on-demand purposes.
Recently, SRO sat down with both Deichman and Walker to discuss the value of and the challenges involved with using web streaming for live events.
SRO: When someone contacts you with a desire to stream a live event, how do you determine what kind of services they need?
Deichman: It can work a number of ways. One thing we offer that is unique are program managers who can guide you through the steps of doing live events within our infrastructure. They'll talk to you about what is required for connectivity, personnel requirements, the types of shots you want, and the action cameras you may require. They'll talk to you about whether you'll have a production crew on site, or whether you need us to contract that out on your behalf. They'll talk about whether you'll need a satellite truck to uplink your video, or whether you just need a phone line to capture audio. And they'll talk to you about whether you just want to webcast the event or archive it for on-demand access after the event.
SRO: What criteria do you use to decide what kind of services are necessary?
Deichman: It all depends on the event. The first thing to determine is whether this is an event you can effectively deliver via audio or video. After that, we look at what kind of information you want to get across. Is it a CEO doing a corporate broadcast, so all that's required is a video of a talking head? Or is it the introduction of a new product offering, in which case, you might have a physical presentation video experience, as well as some PowerPoint slides that need to be synchronized with certain steps in the presentation. We can add supporting video and text-based information to a presentation, and we can provide a chat capability so people online can participate interactively. So there is a tremendous amount of opportunity. You can also have people register for the event, which would enable you to gain information about them and better understand who your viewers are.
SRO: Once someone decides to add streaming to their event, do they need to make any adjustments to how they produce the event itself?
Walker: I come from the sports event world, where I produced halftime shows. In doing that, we had to think about how much of the show was going to end up on television, and how much was geared toward people in the stadium. I think that very same way when I'm preparing for an event involving streaming, because I want to make sure that people in the room are getting what they need out of the presentation while also providing a good experience for people online. And sometimes, that can be a very different thing.
Among other things, I will think about what my venue is like. Is it appropriate for a video presentation? Do I have proper stage and set and lighting to make this look like a polished broadcast event? We've learned through experience that just putting a camera up in front of a panel with a black drape behind it looks horrible, and people tend to not get whatever message you are trying to deliver. I'll also think about whether there are going to be videotapes or multimedia elements that are going to need to be streamed into the presentation. And I'll think about finding the right balance between having speaker interaction with the local audience in the room versus their interaction with the online audience.
You also should ask yourself if you are already capturing and displaying audio and video within the room. If you are, then you only have to take a couple extra steps to add the streaming. But if you're really just using a panel, a podium, and a microphone, then it's more difficult from a budget perspective to add streaming.
In some cases, I've done events in a conference center where there were definitely some things we wanted to stream live or capture for on-demand, so we've set up one room to be a highly produced space, and then made sure all the key sessions end up in that room so they can be streamed, while the other tertiary events happened in one of the other rooms.
SRO: Do corporate events rely more on streaming than entertainment events?
Deichman: No. I'd say corporations are starting to come back to streaming now that marketing and training and other dollars are being freed up. But I think that the most progressive users have been those who want to monetize their digital-rich content. Sports leagues have been very powerful early adopters of that. The NFL, baseball, and the NBA are all clients of Real Networks. Other content owners that have been aggressive users of streaming are companies like ABC and CNN, for whom realtime access and dissemination of information is very crucial. The ability to reach a large audience during daytime hours is important for them.
Walker: And there are shows like American Idol that have a lot of content they want to make available to their fans. They use streaming as a mechanism to encourage people to go to their website, where they are able to play all kinds of clips — backstage clips, audition clips, judges' commentary, all kinds of different things. So from an entertainment perspective, it allows them to take what might have been outtakes or cutting room floor material, and monetize that through ad sales or sponsorships or subscriptions.
Deichman: Another thing you are starting to see from some folks like NASCAR is the ability to personalize the streaming experience. For example, NASCAR has 100,000 subscribers using Pit Pass, and a lot of them will have their computer right next to their TV set. And on their computer will be additional information, like driver-to-pit commands, which you can't get on TV. So with your computer, you can choose to listen to that dialogue for your favorite driver or maybe even select different camera angles for one of the top drivers. So content owners are getting smarter and are using cameras that are set up strictly for the streaming audience. And that trend toward offering a personalized experience is starting to drive consumers back into the computer. As new home devices come out that link directly from your PC into your home theater system, we'll even start seeing people come out of the den and back into the living room to make it more of a family experience.
SRO: What about highly staged one-off events like concerts and award shows? Are they moving in the direction of streaming their content onto the Web?
Deichman: We've done stuff for a few award shows, but because they are offered at primetime when most people are in front of their television, unless the production crew creates some differentiating advantage for the online audience, people are typically just going to watch on their TV. So, quite frankly, the numbers for the award shows we've done haven't achieved the numbers that we or our partners would have liked because it was just a live split off a TV feed that didn't add any extra value.
SRO: Can't they add value to their webcasts with backstage footage and things like that?
Deichman: Well, one of the problems is that they don't want to cannibalize their existing streams of revenue. If they over-promote a webcast component, it might detract from the TV audience, which, of course, affects Neilson ratings and advertising revenue. But as you see growth in online advertising and the development of other ways to monetize streaming, you are going to see more of that stuff. But at the moment it is kind of a Catch-22 situation.
SRO: What about concert events?
Deichman: We are starting to see an uptick in that, especially with Rhapsody and some of our music products. Sometimes, bands will use streaming for promotional value. They'll let you log in and get an archived version of a concert. In the past, we've worked with the Rolling Stones very elegantly. But not too many bands are doing live webcasts, with the exception of benefit concerts.
One of the problems is that bands don't want to stream because of concerns over piracy. As digital rights management tools develop, that is helping allay those concerns a bit. So some bands are starting to develop business models that would allow people to download an audio version of their concert for $2.95 or something. But to be brutally honest, when you get into music video, the content rights are so incredibly complex. Sometimes, certain bands don't own their own rights to the video of their concerts — those will be owned by the record company or the producer or whomever. And that further complicates the business model.
Finally, even with bands, concerns about cannibalization can be an issue. If they are doing a 75-city tour, they are not going to want to webcast all 75 of those because they may not be able to sell all seats in the various venues. What streaming is best for is exceptional, extremely compelling events that aren't replicated 75 times domestically across the country.
Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years.