Live Streaming Services and the Democratization of Media Production

The live streaming of the production of media content has, in recent years, become a widespread facet of the digital media environment. With the ability to offer not only a video feed of the content being created, but also a potentially ongoing interaction with the creators of said content, live streaming has the potential to greatly affect the ways in which media is produced and consumed. While a close examination of the effect of live streaming can be applied to essentially any form of media production, this essay will focus primarily on the analysis of the live streaming of video game content through various platforms (such as Twitch.tv and YouTube gaming). The primarily consumer-focused nature of video game content and the relatively low cost of streaming video game play as compared to other forms of media make it an excellent case for an exploration of the potential effects of live streaming on media production. When analyzing the overall effect of live streaming on the democratization of media production, there are two primary modes of democracy to be considered: the first being the classic theory of public decision making, and the second being the more recent concept of equalizing participation in which anything that is open to public debate has the possibility of being influenced by public opinion.

Benefits of Live Streaming Services

Few to no technical skills are required to live stream. Most services simply require users to provide a title, description, category, and video file. Once the video file is received by the service provider, a distribution copy is created and stored on a server. It is this server that the audience is connected to when they view a live stream. For services that rely on advertising revenue, it is often the only form of media that viewers are exposed to, due to DVR systems that allow users to skip advertisements in prerecorded television. Interaction between the audience and the content provider can occur through a chat window or video stream. The simplicity and interactivity of live streaming make it a very attractive option for content providers looking to engage with audiences in participatory culture. A case study on live streaming services used in an online music community, the Sound-In, found that the services increased online collaboration among community members and allowed for more intimate sharing of thoughts and music.

Live streaming services offer several benefits over traditional media, including increased accessibility, cost-effective production, and real-time interaction with the audience. Wang and Wang (2010) argue that digital media has changed from a push system, where content is distributed to passive audiences, to a pull system where users interact with and generate their own content. This concept is known as participatory culture. Since a majority of user-generated content is produced and consumed on the internet, live streaming represents a practical method for content creators to engage with their audiences in real time.

Increased Accessibility

In terms of media content, LS also provides greater accessibility to information through opening up a variety of channels through which content can be accessed. Traditional TV and radio broadcasts are at a set time and date and must be taped for later use if they are to be viewed by an individual who is not available at the time of broadcast. Tape time-shifts are becoming less common as the price of storage and the availability of content through the internet make it more feasible to simply search and access content through various on-demand platforms. LS is no exception to this trend, as many platforms save broadcasts on their servers so that users may access them at any time in the future. This eliminates much of the anxiety of missing a broadcast while increasing the shelf-life of content for content producers. Additionally, many podcasters have opted to transition to doing live broadcasts in which recording is done in the absence of any viewers in order to boost interactions through live feedback and questions from viewers, and also to save time otherwise spent on editing and post-production. These podcasts can be seen as simply another form of LS, with the added benefit of time flexibility given that there is no set broadcast time.

Accessibility is likely the strongest and most immediate affordance of LS technologies. As previously mentioned, access to various forms of communication (i.e., chat, webcams, microphones) is asynchronous, meaning that users can gain access without the fear of being put on the spot or having to reveal personal details about themselves. Because of this, lurkers are given far greater access to information. Lurkers are individuals who frequent an online community of some kind but do not participate by posting or using other available communicative tools. Such people make up the majority of users in many online groups and are the individuals for whom access is most restricted by synchronous forms of communication.

Cost-Effective Production

Cost-effective production: The majority of live streaming platforms provide their services to the public for free, or at the very least at a very low cost. Services such as Ustream, Livestream, Twitch.tv, and Google+ Hangouts On Air are all free. These platforms also provide storage for video on demand (VOD) of the live stream. However, if more storage or a higher streaming quality is desired, a premium service is available for purchasing. This can be seen as a benefit for up and coming media producers who may not have the funds for expensive video equipment or broadcasting on cable television. These services allow for easier entry into the field of media production without the worry of a sunk cost. For higher education institutions, live streaming services are also viable for breaking the barriers of production into media studies or communication courses. With the low cost and ease of access, students can apply theories of media production and audience communication in a real-world scenario without the risk and logistical troubles of public access television. Another factor in the cost-effective production of live streaming services is the minimal post-production time and cost. Because the event is being streamed in real time, there is no waiting period for mixing and editing the video with the possibility of having to redo certain parts. This is beneficial for live event coverage such as sports, news, or music festivals. It also can serve as a learning tool for media production students to compare and contrast on-site video editing versus live directing. High-quality live-streamed videos can also negate the need for post-event video editing and DVD production. With content readily available online, DVD sales and distribution can be bypassed, saving more time and cost for the content producer.

Real-Time Interaction with Audience

For example, many concepts such as the critical density of the universe or the nature of the cosmological constant are foreign to individuals who may be amateur astronomers trying to get a grip on the modern understanding of the cosmos. To this end, most professional astronomers will agree that the more effective way to teach is to utilize the question and answer method. Live streaming services provide a method for lecturers to give tutorial presentations on the computers of their viewers. Such services usually have a chat function that allows viewers to ask questions privately, and sometimes the video presentation is integrated with the lecturer’s own audio, webcam, and a synchronized slide show. It is also possible to have public talks using the internet, where the lecturer will field questions with the chat function and pause the presentation at times to address inquirers. All this is quite useful for anyone interested in learning more about astronomy, as it is both direct and interactive.

Regiomontanus believed it was possible for a person to possess their own star, and so he set about creating a mathematical system to locate and track stars that wasn’t dependent on identifying the stars with astrology. His planetarium was quite advanced and considered one of the most significant contributions. It was intended as both a system for calculating the positions of planets, which had deep astrological significance, and as a teaching tool to demonstrate the way in which the new astronomy could be used to calculate planetary positions. Planetariums from around 1514 still exist. One is a collaboration with Walther, now in the collection at Krak√≥w, and the other a later somewhat modified version also by Regiomontanus himself. Today, of course, we associate planetariums with visual and audio simulations of the night sky, such as those used by live streaming services using computer simulations of real-time production. Evidently, it was quite a leap for the citizenry to learn to understand the change in astronomical systems from Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, and today it is still a complicated subject: cosmology and the language of astronomy have changed quite a bit in this half-millennium since Regiomontanus. One major limitation today, however, is when we attempt 21st-century public outreach with modern cosmology, in an audience that may not be so well versed in physics.

Challenges of Live Streaming Services

Many of the emerging live streaming software programs and platforms have been financed on a trial and error basis, rendering their initial designs to be technically inferior when compared to legacy workflow solutions. There have been case studies which have shown that some of the bigger network television initiatives to live stream events have been discontinued due to content becoming an excessively delayed feed to the end user or the stream becoming unavailable as the network traffic made the hosted events unavailable to the viewer. The use of consumer grade live streaming services and not infrastructure designed for the task is a common underlying factor that contributes to these types of issues. A recent example of this would be the Twitch TV broadcast of Blizzard’s Heart of the Swarm exhibition which had made use of a free to license streaming software that was susceptible to numerous crashes throughout the duration of the event, leaving both the live podcast and recorded VOD in a less than desirable state for the viewer. The well-established video game live streaming site “Own3d” is another example, having closed its doors at the beginning of 2013 due to technical problems that would have been cost prohibitive to fix with their revenue stream from live video platforms. While the case studies provide proof to the fact that subpar technical performance translates to the loss of professional live streaming services, technology trial and error still has an effect on the individual level. An aspiring eSports broadcaster looking to develop their skills as an online commentator could find their growth stifled by inconsistent software performances which often lead to unpreventable scenarios where basic troubleshooting can leave a commentator role with a dead air space during a video broadcast.

Technical Limitations

Live streaming suffers from similar lower bounds in that live television is broadcast at a higher quality than most people can effectively stream back into their homes. A study showed that there is a noticeable drop off in users if start-up delay is greater than 30 seconds. This places a hard limit on the quality and bit rate that can be used in live streaming events. High start-up delays also result in greater potential for the fragmentation of the audience. If two viewers are tuning into the same live event from different locations, a start-up delay of several seconds may result in the two viewers being at different points in the video. This makes it difficult to create a social experience around live TV on the internet compared to traditional television.

A study showed that in 2001, 57% of UK internet connections were still dial-up, and the average connection speed had actually decreased from the previous year. Although there was an improvement in the situation in more recent years, this problem persists in a different form. With each new leap in video quality comes greater file size and bandwidth requirement. Although any video can now be streamed through flash video players, there is still a great difference in streaming a 240p video compared to a 1080p one. The ability to stream at 1080p or higher is still not a viable option for many video producers due to the fact that the audience received a buffering video is likely to switch off.

Technical challenges have always been a constraint to the democratization of media. Anderson argued that the evolution of the internet was a key driver in the creation of a democratized media platform, yet the potential for this platform to be realized has always been limited by the capabilities of the technology at hand. Online media platforms have traditionally been plagued by connection speeds which are not conducive to large video file downloads, resulting in a move away from streaming services.

Quality Control

The major difficulty faced in keeping to a high level of quality is the unpredictability of the internet. An internet connection is what is known as a “best effort” service. This means that the network will always try its best to transport data from one point to another, but there are no guarantees. When it comes to streamed media, packet loss is the biggest problem. If the internet is likened to a road network, then packet loss occurs when the data being transported fails to reach its destination and is said to have been “dropped”. This can occur due to many different factors, for example, network congestion or noisy data lines. Dropped packets are the cause of many stream quality impairments, as will be seen later on.

Quality control in this instance means delivering a consistent and reasonably good level of service to the end user. Unlike traditional streamed media, live events such as sports, music concerts, and corporate presentations happen only once. Once an event is underway, there is no opportunity to loop back and re-broadcast portions of it that may have been incorrectly transmitted. If the portion of the event being broadcast is of a lesser quality or fails altogether, then the viewer is likely to switch off. Consequently, the streaming media provider has little margin for error.

Impact of Live Streaming on Media Production

Real-time internet-based broadcasting systems. Webcasting and live streaming service providers have dramatically impacted how individuals are creating media and sharing it with others. This impact can be seen in two areas: how independent content creators are empowered to be the new generation of storytellers and how webcast and live streaming have irrevocably affected traditional media channels. Independent content creators have always been keen to bypass traditional gatekeepers of media, be they the government, corporations, or other organizations that have wielded a disproportionate amount of control over media. The traditional definition of a content creator encompasses filmmakers, musicians, artists, and writers. The democratization of media and the ability for virtually anyone to become a creator has been the rallying cry for public access to the internet since 1995. What this movement failed to realize was how traditional bandwidth restrictions would limit the ability for individuals and small organizations without considerable resources to reach an audience. Webcasting and live streaming have provided a platform that truly allows for the free flow of information. A platform where any content creator can capture the hearts and minds of their viewers. It is not simply that live streaming provides immediate global access to a media event; it is that it can provide an ongoing resource for individuals to freely express themselves. This is an essential element in keeping the public engaged and empowering creators. Live streaming offers something much more powerful than traditional static web pages. It is an ongoing journey for the audience to interact with the creator and follow their progress.

Empowering Independent Content Creators

The first technological barrier to entry was the high cost of video production and editing equipment. At the turn of the millennium, a good digital video camera would have set an aspiring producer back a considerable amount. In the mid-2000s, dedicated digital video capture cards and professional-grade video editing software were still quite costly. The plunge into HD only increased these costs for higher resolution equipment and storage media. However, in the past 5 years, there has been a significant decrease in the cost of good video equipment and editing software. It is now possible to shoot high-quality video on a low-cost DSLR, and high-quality video editing software can be purchased on a monthly subscription basis, rather than an outright purchase. Live streaming servers and live video production hardware have always been costly, traditionally only being of interest to professional producers and large corporations. The dawn of affordable live streaming services changes the ball game here.

The abundance of affordable and accessible live streaming services has given rise to a new generation of content creators. The evolution of web 2.0 and a considerable increase in broadband speed has given power to everyday users by making the internet a platform for video and media sharing, in comparison to its humble beginnings as a static information repository. Traditionally, video and media content production was an expensive and highly technical process, unattainable to the everyday person due to technological barriers and access to distribution.

Disrupting Traditional Media Channels

Live streaming falls into the large and diverse category of new media. Generally speaking, new media refers to a non-linear form of communication. With the explosive growth of the internet, many forms of new media are digital. This is in contrast to old media, which consists of linear traditional forms of communication. What this means is that new media is interactive and allows users to have a certain level of control over the delivery of the message. Live streaming is essentially video of an event being sent in compressed form across the internet and displayed by the viewer in real time. Even now, webcasting is used by some companies as an advertising tool. New media provides the live streamer with the potential to reach a worldwide audience.

It is often confused with the term “legacy media”. Traditional media is a form of mass communication. It encompasses the means to distribute messages and reach a large number of people and can exist through a plethora of vehicles: newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and film, amongst others. In this context, the tangible form of message deliverance is media. Thus, media production refers to the methods by which media is created and subsequently distributed to a wide audience.

This is an interesting topic. Not as in the content, but the fact that the word “disrupt” is used in this context. It gives an insight into the way traditional media views live streaming and modern media. Disruption implies that there is some form of invasion into a space that was previously not adapted to accommodate new technology. From here, we need an understanding of what traditional media is.

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