Live TV: On a Budget
A few months ago I was involved in the making of a live trainwreck of a TV show. We, a small group of no-budget podcasters, were trying to take on the TV networks by broadcasting live election coverage of the 2011 New Zealand General Election online in HD.
Until recently a project like this would have been very challenging for a number of reasons, but we found a couple of great tools to help us make it happen. While our show never quite made it to the technical heights we'd hoped, that was certainly through no fault of the tools we ended up running-- so let's go through it…
Photo Credit: Ben Gracewood, also shot with iPhone.
By day, I'm the Post Production Supervisor and Online Editor for a very popular local soap opera, and at home I'm a husband and dad -- there's not a lot of time for other activities, but what I do manage to do each week is take part in a podcast with some friends. We spend a couple of hours each week talking about things that take our interest. So when the idea of making a live internet TV show for the election came up I was strongly in favour. Being the only one with a background in TV I also immediately became the producer of the show.
When first thinking about the requirements of an internet video broadcast, it seems pretty straight forward. There are a number of products well suited to putting video online -- it can be as simple as a webcam, or as complex as multiple video sources via HDMI or SDI. However, attempting to do election coverage brings another level of complication -- graphics!
Photo Credit: Ben Gracewood, using an Apple iPhone 4S.
At the outset, the graphics was the thing I was most worried about. I'd attempted a similar show in 2005 on a community TV channel -- we were essentially unable to do any on screen graphics, especially anything complex requiring dynamic data processing. Back then, we decided to go with colour card and velcro. This time around, I was determined that we'd have some live and dynamic graphics to illustrate the results for our viewers.
On thing you will find when looking at these types of graphics systems is that they don't usually have pricing listed. This is because they don't just sell you a product, they sell you a solution. This is not an area of broadcasting that is flush with a range of products at price-points to suit all, especially if you need any sort of dynamic graphics. At least that appears to be the case until you discover CasparCG -- the reason they don't list a price is because their product is free. It costs nothing. CasparCG is an open-source project born out of an in-house development from Swedish national broadcaster SVT.
At the outset, the graphics was the thing I was most worried about. I found that the main thing that sets CasparCG apart from most other products is their approach to graphic templates. Click image for larger view. This photo and image below courtesy Morgan Nichol.
The Flash Consumer (input module in CasparCG speak) is also multi-layered -- it is possible to have many Flash templates running at once layered over one another and output as a single video stream. And Flash isn't all CasparCG does -- it also uses the popular FFMpeg library as a media player backend and can playout almost any video file and FFMpeg will deal with -- in theory CasparCG could serve as the basis of an on-air playout system. The whole system also features a very simple control protocol making it easy to create a custom controller or create a "glue" application to work it into existing systems. All on-air graphics on SVT are driven by CasparCG systems.
The second big technical challenge I faced in planning this live production was a video switcher. There are a few options available for this, and after researching the options available to me, I decided that the ATEM 1M/E switcher from Blackmagic was the best option for us. With 8 HD inputs, multiple keyers and a host of other features it seemed ideal. It's also incredibly inexpensive! For our production we were using a demo unit, but at only $2,495, I'd have no trouble justifying the cost for any budgeted production.
Ahhhhh yes, now we're talking...The ATEM 1M/E switcher from Blackmagic was the best option at $2495. Photo by Dylan Reeve. Click image for expando-view.
So, now with those big technical demands addressed we simply had to plan and develop for a 4-5 hour live broadcast in our (very limited) spare time. I used the .NET SDK provided by the CasparCG developers to build my own custom graphics controller application that would collect raw results data from the election organisers and manage the on-screen graphics. Our Flash developer worked with our designs and specifications to build a whole bunch of templates for us.
And here's where our finely tuned production began to fall apart. Unfortunately my local Blackmagic reseller couldn't get me the Extreme 3D card in time, I ended up having to borrow one from a friend only an hour before the show went live. While we had tested the data feed and our graphics systems we had never given them a really good run through together and never with the proper HD-SDI output setup.
Also, while we were very serious about our project we were also borrowing a lot of gear and calling on many favours from our crew. There was no chance for a trial run, and it wasn't until 2 hours before air that we even had most of the gear plugged in.
Our show went live at 7pm, but it wasn't until 9pm that we had our graphics working (the 1.8 version of CasparCG we were using had 1080i50 output disabled. This is not an issue with the new 2.0 release). In our rush to get started we also never really got to learn the ins and outs of the ATEM 1M/E switcher -- so many incredible features never got an outing. Multi-camera picture-in-picture for remote video links (we had a Skype connection for some guests), stinger transitions, graphic wipes, built-in Ultrascope signal monitors -- all amazing features of the ATEM 1M/E we never really got to use on the show.
We had a whole lot of fun with our show, and our audience enjoyed it -- the technology is amazing and the potential is huge, but if you're considering a project like this yourself (you should -- there's nothing like the buzz of live production) then I highly recommend getting as much practice and prep time as possible.
We had a whole lot of fun with our show, and our audience enjoyed it. Photo courtesy of Morgan Nichol. Click image for larger view.
The chaos of our show aside it's impossible to overlook the fact that for under $5,000 you could put together a basic studio control room that could rival that of many broadcasters. The hardware we had to review in the process of our show performed flawlessly. The ATEM 1M/E Switcher and Panel were solid, easy to confgure and delivered a great professional product for us. The DeckLink Extreme 3D was very easy to install, even in our 5-year-old XW8200 workstations, and worked without any difficulties.
CasparCG is an amazingly powerful product, effectively limited only by your ability to create templates to take advantage of it's abilities. We were limited to the 1.8 version because of hardware limitations (our old graphics card didn't support OpenGL 3) the new 2.0 version has made some big jumps forward, including support for 59.94Hz video output.
If you're looking to build up some sort of multi-camera studio system these products will form a very strong basis on which to work. For online broadcasting specifically the ATEM 1M/E's little brother the ATEM Television Studio offers many of the same features with 6 video inputs and dedicated H.264 encoded output (as well as HD/SD-SDI and HDMI) for only $995.