[A longer version of this article by Hannah Rudman was first published in Arts Professional magazine, issue 222, 19.07.10]
A webcast is a media file distributed over the Internet using streaming media technology to distribute a single linear content source to many simultaneous listeners/viewers. A webcast may either be distributed live, or on demand. Webcasting used to be defined as “broadcasting” over the internet, but that no longer quite fits: many webcasting platforms now offer tools that encourage online audience interaction – with the live event and with other onliners.
Webcasting is not web or videoconferencing, which is designed for many-to-many interaction. Nor is webcasting the technology that delivers NTLive! or the Met Opera into cinemas around the country – this is simulcast technology, which uses satellite systems to deliver a live broadcast to digital data projection screens. Simulcasting produces an exquisite aesthetic (millions of colours, 5:1 surround sound) but requires a completely different level of production and delivery for this quality to be guaranteed. It is therefore extremely costly and out of range for many cultural organizations. Neither is webcasting the technology behind the BBC’s £125m iPlayer, so its important not expect the same result.
Depending on your choice of recording device, upload mechanism and software/service, webcasting can either produce extremely high quality events online, or result in a very poor experience.
Free livestreaming services such as Bambuser or Qik mean that mobile phones or laptops can be used as the camera and microphone, 3G or wifi is enough bandwidth for uploading, and anyone can watch the result on a website. However, like Skype, these services being available without glitch is dependent on a great number of criteria outside your control.
The most significant influencer of the end result is the choice of content itself. Artistic content should not be cheaply or simply streamed – especially if the quality, aesthetic and uninterruptible liveness are essential to the integrity of the artistic product. The content choice must work on screen. Like live audiences, online audiences must be offered the opportunity to interact and engage with the content, and each other (with NTLive this happens explicitly through the audience coming together in cinemas).
Good webcasts encourage an interactive experience through offering simultaneous chat services. The emotional depth of the experience can also be enhanced if the sound and visuals are of a high enough quality on the online viewer’s screen (watching fullscreen a camera close up of a performer/presenter’s face, listening to sound through good speakers or headphones is engaging).
The main benefit of webcasting is that it increases the reach and scale of an event and its content. AmbITion Scotland webcasts have consistently attracted audience numbers of a further 50% in addition to audience numbers at the event. AmbITion’s live events were free, and so was access to the webcast, but had AmbITion charged for the live event, a small (iTunes sized) fee for access to the webcasts could have been considered.
The impact of the content and event is extended. Interaction and sharing the experience with an online network is important, and this in turn increases the emotional impact of a webcast event. Online audiences can participate in their own chat stream: we’ve seen contact details and ideas swapped, as well as insightful and thoughtful comments and on-topic questions emerge. Moderating/facilitating the chat keeps it from turning into a backchat channel.
Recording a live webcast creates an instant legacy – the content becomes available on-demand immediately, creating a rich content resource. Webcasting is also an environmentally sustainability method of extending an event and attracting audiences from further afield.
Webcasting has implications on the live event. Live audiences need expectations set around how webcasting will affect their experience: cameras, microphones, technicians and computers will be in the room; questions will be invited and floored, asked by people “not there”; there may be pauses in the agenda as the technology is set up or tweaked. Speakers/performers need to give their permission to be webcast, and need to acknowledge the online audience through their spoken and visual communication with the camera.
Webcasting is an emerging technology, and the marketplace for it is nascent. Systems are improving iteratively (the quality and service from webcasting and broadband providers is better than a year ago, it will be better next year). But people and the planet are better off with the new technology – webcasting is a good, sustainable technology, and it’s here to stay. From July, Envirodigital’s webcasts will calculate carbon emissions avoided by audiences participating online.