Webcasting: A technology that can reach audiences beyond the performance hall
By Sam Bottoni
Performing organizations, including the traditional orchestra, are beginning to experiment with ways to expand their audience and attract people of recent generations. However, these organizations must reach audiences in ways that preserve the integrity of the performing tradition while blending it with the culturally viable means of instant communication and retrieval of information at the click of a mouse. While many organizations are programming classical music’s “greatest hits,” to be experienced in the concert hall, this may not do enough to whet the appetite of young people who may be: a) unable to afford tickets to the performances, or b) intimidated by the unspoken “rules” of the concert hall (don’t talk, don’t text, don’t sneeze, don’t cough, don’t clap between movements, don’t get up in the middle of a performance, etc).
How can performing organizations with limited resources expand their influence beyond their season ticket holders?One of the ways organizations can begin to attract new and younger audiences is through the use of live and on-demand webcasts.
In a live webcast, the web audience is experiencing the performance as it is occurring in the performance hall.Thus, all audio, video, and additional content is being mixed and broadcasted in real-time.In an on-demand webcast, the content is first pre-produced and then uploaded for the web audience to experience at its convenience.There are advantages, disadvantages, and production considerations for both live and on-demand webcasts.
Irrespective of the ever-increasing popularity of on-demand content, including social media, home DVRs, and the availability of on-demand programming through major television networks, there is still an undeniable level of excitement one experiences when viewing live broadcasted content.
While orchestra broadcasts have been occurring since the invention of television, live internet broadcasting introduces an entirely new dynamic to the viewer experience. When a conductor speaks during a live broadcast, he or she is speaking directly to the listening audience, whether or not they are physically present. The live event may also feature a national or world premier, creating a greater incentive to tune in live. In comparison with television, webcasting also lends itself to interactive opportunities that can only be experienced with a live event. For example, in the orchestral world, this may include real-time discussions among viewers and members of the orchestra, members of the performing organization at-large, or other authorities on the music. Platforms encouraging such interactions include user forums, comments below the embedded player, blogs, or other existing social applications (twitter, facebook, etc.). This means of communication is extremely powerful in reaching new audiences in that it provides many types of interactions that may not be available to those simply viewing the performance in the hall. The online viewer is able to proactively ask questions and receive responses about certain aspects of the pieces, historical context, the venue, instruments, and the orchestra. Online interaction, which comes very naturally to those who have been raised with this technology, can be the vehicle to attract these younger generations and expand the overall audience.
With the many advantages of streaming a live webcast from an experiential perspective, from a production standpoint, preparing a live webcast requires a number of considerations. First, when preparing a live webcast, there will be a higher concentration of online viewers during the time of the performance. This requires a network infrastructure to support a large number of concurrent internet viewer connections. For organizations that do not have the network infrastructure required to stream to a large audience, there are a number of services that will host the event off-site. Essentially, these off-site services do all of the load bearing, ensuring the best viewer experience.
Assuming adequate connectivity can be achieved, planning a live broadcast requires strict timing constraints.With live broadcasts, the start time is crucial. If it is advertised that the webcast will begin on the hour, it is necessary that the start time is “spot on.” If a performance happens to be delayed by a few minutes, the audience in the venue is not likely to start walking out. However, to an online viewer, seconds feels more like minutes, and the viewer is only one click away from exiting the performance. One way of informing the viewer that the performance will begin on time is to provide a visual countdown. This countdown can be displayed either on the page where the stream is embedded or in the video itself assuming the stream has gone live early enough. Another method is the use of a live commentator, who informs the web audience about the upcoming program or the sponsoring organization.
In a live webcast, since two separate audiences are viewing the same performance, production considerations must include both the viewing experience of the web audience and the viewing experience of the venue audience. Live webcasts need to plan for the circumstance that, often times, there is certain content, both audio and visual, that is meant only for the venue audience. This content may include spoken announcements at the top of the performance and informing the audience of the broadcast.But in the majority of situations, the same content is to be displayed to both audiences simultaneously.As an example, some organizations display dynamic content in the performance hall, including vocal text translations and sponsorship acknowledgements. In the performance hall, this content displayed by way of projections or an LED style display. The content that is pushed out to the web audience during the live performance is usually superimposed on the live shot, occupying the lower portion of the video window, comparable to titles on the lower third of the screen during televised news broadcasts. This dual production proves to be challenging as certain content must be pushed into the hall and out to the web simultaneously.
While viewing a live webcast comes with the advantage of experiencing a live performance in real-time, on-demand webcasts offers the audience the advantage of conveniently being able to experience the performance anytime, anyplace, and anywhere.This convenience, coupled with the familiarity with on-demand distribution and the potential for social media interaction, gives on-demand webcasting of orchestral performances the greatest potential to attract and grow audiences of a younger generation.Along with its potential to grow audiences, on-demand webcasting also provides a number of production advantages. Some of the considerations that need to be made when live webcasting do not exist when preparing an on-demand webcast. For example, all of the additional content (titles, text, sponsorship, voice-overs, animations, promotional material, etc.) can be added in post-production instead of mixed “on the fly.”This allows a greater amount of resources to be allocated elsewhere, including score reading and camera switching.
For both live and on-demand webcasting, significant preparation is required to ensure quality of the viewer experience. An initial consideration for both types of webcasts is intense preparation of reading scores with camera shots in mind. In most cases, scores are annotated according to where the cameras should be at all times during the performance of the piece of music. During the performance, communication exists among the production department including the camera switcher, camera operator(s), and the individual calling the camera shots. The degree to which the score is annotated for camera shots is largely dependent on the equipment available to the department. For instance: How many cameras will be available? How many, if any, will be manned? How many can be controlled remotely? What is the extent to which each camera is capable of moving? How many cameras are fixed, or fixed with rotating heads? What type of camera switching hardware is available and to what extent can it be automated (slow pans, fades, sweeps, etc.)?
An important consideration for the type of camera shots is the size of the video window that the end user will be viewing. Since many people will be viewing the webcast in a small embedded window, tighter shots of the members on stage will tend to be more engaging than a wide shot of an entire ensemble. This same consideration is made when preparing additional content such as titles, logos, credits, piece descriptions, etc. The content should be readable in both the embedded window and when viewed in full screen.
Another consideration is the type and frequency of camera shots, given the typical online experiences of today’s younger generations.These generations that have grown up with the internet have become accustomed to viewing content in short segments and then quickly moving on to “the next thing.” These short “bursts” of entertainment have shaped the way that they socially interact over the web. Maintaining the attention of the internet audience will always prove to be challenging when broadcasting a substantial amount of content. That being said, the more visually engaging the broadcast can be, the better. Depending on the music, the camera shots should always keep moving, not remaining stagnant for too long. Exactly how long is often a creative decision based upon what the instrumentalists are doing at that particular moment in time and how the available cameras can capture that moment.For example, long solos can become more engaging for a web audience when an alternate camera angle is available, or, perhaps, a slow zoom-in or pull-out shot is used to provide a constant visual interest.
Along with considerations for the web audiences, the experience of the live audience must also be taken into consideration.For example, preparation concerning the physical placement and number of cameras are often decisions that bear upon the experience for the audience in the venue. Some of the most engaging camera shots can be attained by placing cameras on the stage, among the musicians. While wonderful for the online audience, this can serve as a jarring eyesore for the audience in the venue. Cameras on movable arms, called jibs, can provide both low-angle and high-angle shots to impress an online audience, but they can be obtrusive to those enjoying the performance in person. It is important to keep in mind that many patrons of orchestral, chamber, and/or choral music have been attending traditional performances for years, and for many organizations, webcasting is still a recent undertaking.Thus, although webcasting has the potential of attracting new and younger audiences, efforts should be taken to ensure the equipment necessary for production does not impede the experience of the audience in the venue.
An alternative to webcasting for organizations with less audio/video infrastructure is an audio only broadcast and/or podcast. While video may provide a more engaging experience, there are a number of benefits in providing audio only content. First, the method is substantially less costly and requires less personnel, training, and preparation.It also has less visual impact on the live venue audience. For on-demand audio only recordings, there is still considerable opportunity for social interaction, including the web application SoundCloud (www.soundcloud.com). SoundCloud allows users to upload audio files and embed a visually appealing player anywhere on the web. Users can then flag specific portions of the audio file and create comment threads based upon particular segments of a performance, providing a unique level of interaction for listeners to engage in conversations they might never have otherwise.
Every day new technological advances are being made. As quickly as the means for reaching a broader audience are established, the paradigm shifts once again. Performing organizations of today and tomorrow must keep their finger on the pulse of the needs and practices of their current and future audiences. These organizations must also exercise their resiliency, broaden their creativity, and strengthen their vision in a constantly changing world in order to survive and thrive throughout the seasons to come.