The Current State of Live Video Streaming

As I’ve got some time on my hands since being laid off from Ustream, I thought I’d take a look at the current state of live video streaming on the web. I will concentrate on the three most popular free services, Ustream, Livestream and Justin.tv. I’ll focus on core service features, ad support and removal, social network chat integration, desktop broadcaster applications, mobile integration and revenue. I’ll also touch briefly on the 800 pound elephant in the room, YouTube.

Core Features

Ustream, Livestream and Justin.tv are all similar in that anyone can broadcast full-motion live video for free on the Internet, using a Mac or PC, to millions of viewers. They’re also similar in that you can archive any broadcast for playback later, as well as embed any live broadcast or archived broadcast on to your own website. All three platforms also have interactive chat features and easy ways of sharing a live broadcast over Twitter and Facebook.

Livestream

Ustream

Justin.tv

Free, If You Don’t Mind The Ads

All three streaming platforms provide free ad-based video streaming services with the ability to archive any broadcast for future viewing. This means that when a viewer watches a live broadcast, they will see pre-roll video ads, in-player bottom banner and pop-up ads, bottom text ads, banner and sidebar ads. Watching a recorded archive broadcast will also trigger similar ads. This is a primary way streaming platforms are able to offer free streaming.

Here’s the way the platforms differ. Ustream offers unlimited streaming to as many people as can you can get to tune in. There are no restrictions on broadcast length or number of viewers. Livestream also offers unlimited free streaming, though you must go through a verification process to allow more than 50 concurrent viewers and to be listed in their directory. This is a mechanism Livestream uses to limit potential piracy. Justin.tv also allows unlimited streaming and does not require any sort of verification process. Justin.tv seems to host a lot of unlicensed content, though they do respond aggressively to DMCA takedown notifications. By contrast, Livestream and Ustream take a stated zero tolerance approach to unauthorized copyrighted content and have content monitors and automated systems to implement this policy.

Paid Option, If You Do Mind the Ads

The platforms differ when it comes to broadcasting an ad-free experience. Livestream’s premium service allows you to opt out of having ads served on your content (or plug in your own ads and monetize your content). As a premium Livestream broadcaster, anyone who views your content can do so without seeing ads. Livestream charges $350 per month to broadcast ad free, for up to 3,000 viewer hours (# of viewers x average # of hours watched = viewer hours) and 1TB of archived content. You can also pay $1250/month for up to 15,000 viewer hours monthly.

Not to be outdone, Ustream just rolled out their ad-free broadcasting service. Ustream offers three tiers of service to remove ads, also based on a monthly subscription fee. Each tier includes an increasing number of viewer hours. At $99 a month, Ustream is now the cheapest option to conduct an ad-free broadcast, as long as you don’t go over 100 viewer hours. Ustream charges an overage fee of 50 cents per viewer above that, which decreases with their $499 (4,000 hours) and $999 (9,000 hours) tier plans. Ustream also offers a paid, ad-free, white label service called Watershed.

Justin.tv also allows for an ad-free viewing experience, but throws the onus on the viewer to buy a Pro account for $10 a month. Justin.tv Pro account users will see all Justin.tv broadcasts without ads. If you’re a broadcaster, you can’t pay to have your content ad-free for your viewers, such as Ustream and Livestream do.

Chat and Social Stream

All three platforms have a real time chat feature, while Ustream and Livestream also have what they call a “social stream.” The chat features on all platforms are embedded to the right of the player and are essentially modified IRC clients. On Justin.tv the chat feature can be minimized by the user. On Ustream and Livestream, the chat feature can be switched on or off by the broadcaster.

Ustream’s Social Stream
Ustream social stream

The social stream allows viewers to post status updates to social networking sites while watching a live broadcast. Ustream’s social stream is an aggregated stream of updates from Twitter, Facebook, Myspace and AIM usually appearing to the right of the video player. A user logs into any or all of their social network accounts to post an update, which embeds a short URL back to the live broadcast channel page in the update. Status updates appear in real-time as they come in.

Livestream’s Social Stream
Livestream social stream

Livestream also has a social stream, though currently they only support Facebook and Twitter. The Livestream social stream is broken out into seperate tabs for each social network, rather than aggregated into a single stream like with Ustream. Similar to Ustream, the user logs into their Facebook or Twitter account from the broadcast channel page to be able to post updates.

The social stream is quite an ingenious way of driving engagement and traffic to a broadcast. Moderately popular broadcasts can quickly go viral as viewers post updates to their networks, thereby bringing followers into a broadcast.

Desktop Broadcast Apps

A differentiator among streaming platforms is the desktop broadcaster application. Using a desktop application to live stream is generally more robust, results in better quality and offers more features than using a platform’s web based Flash broadcaster (which can often crash because, well, it’s Flash).

Ustream Producer

Ustream has Ustream Producer, a Mac and Windows based application created by Telestream, the developer behind Wirecast. Producer is actually a slimmed down, custom branded version of Wirecast that is designed to only work with Ustream’s platform. Producer comes in two flavors, free and $199. The free version allows you to broadcast from a single camera, either a webcam or external standard definition DV camera over firewire in 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios. The coolest thing about the app is that you can mix in canned pre-recorded video clips, photos, audio and even virtually capture the desktop from another computer on your network. The $199 Pro version does all this with the addition of being able to switch between multiple cameras, add overlay graphics and bottom third titles. The Pro version also has a number of presets for higher quality streaming, though does not let you specify your own custom bitrate, frame rate or encoding format. One thing to note, Ustream claims that Producer Pro supports source input from HDV cameras, which is true. What is not noted is that you’ll need to pay an additional $99 on top off the $199 you’ve already shelled out for Pro to use your HDV camera. A work around, is to put your HDV camera in SD mode and you’ll avoid this, but of course, be limited to SD resolutions.

Livestream Procaster

Livestream has its Livestream Procaster application, available for Mac and Windows. I’ve only used the Mac version, though it appears that the Windows version has some additional features not yet available in the Mac version, such as VP6 encoding and custom aspect ratios. Procaster, a free app, is comparable to Ustream’s free Producer app. Procaster, which only works with Livestream, makes it super easy to broadcast from a single camera to your Livestream channel. Your camera input can be a webcam or external DV or HDV connected firewire or USB camera. HDV is supported natively, no costly plug-in needed. Procaster let’s you set a broadcast to auto-record, allows you to switch between a camera and your desktop using several 2D and 3D transition styles. Similar to Ustream Producer, Procaster lets you choose between several presets for encoding & broadcast quality. Unlike Producer, you can also specify completely custom bitrates, frame rates and resolution.

That’s essentially where Procaster ends. There is no multi-camera option, or ability to drop in lower third titles. For this functionality, you would need to purchase something like Telestream’s Wirecast ($449). Wirecast is platform agnostic, will work with Livestream, Ustream, Justin or your own CDN or Flash Media Server. Wirecast will also let you record a full resolution DV copy of your broadcast to a local hard disk, while also streaming.

Justin.tv does not have a custom desktop broadcaster application, though as mentioned above, works with Telestream’s Wirecast as well as Adobe FMLE.

Mobile Broadcasting & Viewing

All three platforms have free mobile applications to broadcast and/or view live streams for iPhone and Android devices. They differ in some subtle ways. Ustream’s Broadcaster application allows anyone to broadcast live and interact with the social stream over wifi or 3G. It works fairly well, though if you’re in AT&T’s notorious horrible coverage areas, you’ll get a rather choppy experience. Ustream also has a separate Viewer app for viewing live broadcasts, so long as they are being broadcast in H.264/AAC or with Ustream Producer.

Justin.tv has a combined broadcaster and viewer app for iPhone and Android. Like Ustream, you can broadcast over wifi or 3G and send a tweet out when you go live. You can also interact with viewers in the chat from your device while broadcasting. The viewer side of the app has an extensive list of current live broadcasts which you can easily click to view.

Livestream does not have a mobile broadcaster app, only an iPhone app for viewing broadcasts. Another option, don’t bother getting the app and just point your mobile device’s browser to Livestream’s mobile site. Broadcasts are in HTML5 (encoded as H.264/AAC) and will play natively on an iPhone (and presumably Android devices).

Where the Money Is

If you take a look at the front pages of Ustream and Livestream, you’ll likely see promotions for upcoming broadcasts with notable brands, music artists and red carpet movie premieres. These events represent real revenue and currently Ustream and Livestream have a lock on this. Justin has declined persuing premium content revenue partnerships and is focused on user generated content, including lots of video game playing. Both Ustream and Livestream have, or are opening, LA offices to go after these premium entertainment deals (though based in SF, I was part of the LA media division at Ustream).

Also, pay-per-view (PPV). There’s a lot of potential here, if someone’s able to get it right. Currently, only Ustream has dabbled in a PPV service with a Dane Cook event back in January. Just recently, Ustream announced a PPV service they’re calling Open PPV. This will give approved broadcasters a way to monetize their channels. For some reason, many people are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money to watch people beat the crap out of each other.

The YouTube Factor

It’s no secret that YouTube has been building out live stream infrastructure and to date, successfully broadcast a number of highly trafficked events. Recently, YouTube experimented with four content partners in doing a week long series of live broadcasts.

YouTube - playbiennial_s Channel-5

A feature that YouTube has in their live player, that the other platforms don’t, is dynamic adaptive bitrate live streaming. What this means is the YouTube player is able to sniff your bandwidth and adjust itself according to how big your pipe is. If you’re viewing from a nice fat cable or fiber connection, you’ll see a high resolution, higher bitrate video. If you’re viewing from a crappy wifi or slow DSL connection, you’ll get a lower bitrate viewing experience that works with the slower connection. It’s similar to the experience you get while watching Hulu or a streamed Netflix movie. Why the current live streaming platforms have not adopted this, is a mystery, as adaptive bitrate streaming is nothing new. Adobe supports live dynamic adaptive bitrate streaming in Flash.

It may be too early to tell whether YouTube is going to roll out live streaming to the masses or whether they will continue to cherry pick select events and partners to work with in the future. Even if YouTube does not roll out en mass, they’ll likely be a formidable competitor to Ustream and Livestream’s premium content partner businesses.

The masters of live streaming at NewTeeVee Live

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  • http://docpop.org DocPop

    Wow, a fantastic round up of livestreaming services. Thanks so much for all the info!

  • http://benmetcalfe.com/blog/ Ben Metcalfe @dotBen

    Totally shocked to hear you got laid off last month, I’m so sorry.

    From reading between the lines it sounds like you were two months short of your 1 year cliff and so you have lost your options YET the company has retained you on a consultancy basis. I find that *utterly disgusting*, shame on Ustream. In all the situations I’ve witnessed where an employee has 9-to-11 months service the founders have given them the option to vest their pro-rated options despite being shy of the cliff.

    And I’ve worked as a consultant for startups from start-to-finish and still received options as part of my package — so for them to keep you on as a consultant but not let you continue to vest options at least until your cliff is appalling especially as you had a leading role in the establishment of the company too.

    Onto more technical but perhaps less emotionally charged things, the reason I’m guessing that YouTube has capitalized on dynamic adaptive bit-rate streaming is that their master live stream is probably always HD/etc and so the adaptive stream makes sense. I’ve seen some of the best live streamed video from YouTube on a good connection.

    For most of the master videos on UStream, Justin.TV and Livenation they are probably much lower quality to begin with (esp with DSL and even some cable connections having slower upload than download speeds, etc). Even if some level of adaptive bitrate can be achieved the advantage is probably minimum which is why it isn’t there.

    I think YouTube are having massive problems with monetizing their (archived/on-demand) content right now and I can see this being a massive barrier to them launching an open streaming service to the general public — why create more cost that isn’t able to be monetized effectively.

    • http://eddie.com ekai

      Thanks Ben. I can’t disagree with your assessment, though consulting work has not been forthcoming since being laid off, so I’m not sure what to make of it.

      As for the adaptive bitrate streaming issue, I don’t think it has so much to do with quality of the master source as shooting & encoding in HD is only marginally more expensive than SD. I would hazard to guess that the bandwidth costs of streaming higher bitrates is a bigger issue, though I don’t see why this couldn’t be a premium feature.

      Is YT really having that hard of a time monetizing their content? I thought the opposite was true.

    • http://twitter.com/option12 luke lathrop

      the dynamic stuff works by encoding a stream at each of the quality levels, and using some logic on the player to select the stream. your highest quality is based on what you shoot in, but you dont dynamically use just a piece of the encoded video. As far as I know all 3 of these providers can do dynamic streams, but it might require custom players to actually use it.

  • http://www.david.nu David

    You missed Bambuser.com :(

  • http://from-stage.com/facebook/ From Stage

    Great review :-)
    One thing you missed: justin.tv doesn’t offer its own desktop application for broadcasting, but it’s the only platform which supports QuickTime Broadcaster – a real blessing for Macintosh users. QTB gives you total control over stream’s encoding and quality, which is great advantage over the programs from JTV’s competition.

    the From Stage project: http://from-stage.com/
    My archive: http://archive.from-stage.com/

    • http://eddie.com ekai

      Interesting. Not having looked at it, does it encode in H.264/AAC? I can see this being more useful as HTML5 video adoption increases.

      • http://from-stage.com/facebook/ From Stage

        Yes, it can encode the content using H.264 for video and AAC for audio. It offers very fine control over parameters: for H.264 you can set the resolution, framerate, key frames, quality and the data rate limit. For audio: the sample rate, bit rate, quality, mono/stereo, even packetizer’s parameters.

        The best part: QTB is a free download from Apple :-) I love it, however it behaves very nasty when you miscalculate the parameters and it tries to send much more data than the link can handle. It will choke and eventually get nonresponsive, you’ll have to kill it, so double test everything before the real broadcast. Saving the parameters in presets helps a lot when you stream events from locations with different net link speeds.

  • http://claes.com @claes

    Bambuser!

  • Eric

    Thanks for posting this Eddie.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic detailed overview of live streaming services from @ekai

  • http://blog.offbeatmammal.com Offbeatmammal

    an alternative to using someone else’s infrastructure (where you have no control) is to use IIS on a Windows machine (even Win7) and a copy of Expression Encoder – http://expression.microsoft.com/en-us/ee426915.aspx

    the results can be pretty good, and if your project gets into the sort of traffic where you need a CDN it’s not rocket science to enable that

    • http://eddie.com ekai

      you are kidding, aren’t you?

      • http://www.madmonkeystudios.co.uk/ George Raven

        no, its just a geek thing

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  • Edcanto

    Great article, brother! But I have a question for you, once you worked in the industry: what about the professionals who film and broadcast from the location? Do you think they make money? I guess there is a big need for professionals in this area, right? Especially because it’s not like just taking a camera and filming… You gotta know something about video production as well… Thank you!

    • http://eddie.com ekai

      Absolutely! Production services is the world I swim in and I always bring in or work with professional shooters, PAs, audio engineers, editors, producers & directors. I think what we’re seeing is that live streaming is another application for film & broadcast professionals to do what they do. If you have production skills AND encoding/streaming skills, you’ll be set when the robot overlords take over.

  • http://emanuelkarlsten.se Emanuel Karlsten

    How about bambuser?

    • http://eddie.com ekai

      What about it?

      • http://emanuelkarlsten.se Emanuel Karlsten

        you missed it? Or skipped to mention it? Why? Its as good, even better, as many of the above mentioned.
        /proud user

        • http://eddie.com ekai

          First paragraph: “I will concentrate on the three most popular free services…”

          There’s a ton of streaming services out there. I chose to focus on the top 3 based on traffic & users. Feel free to do your own post on all the rest and send me the link!

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  • http://www.streamingarage.com MikeRotman

    Great review. We currently are streaming all our shows through ustream- but always looking for new revenue streams for our live shows.

  • http://www.streamingarage.com MikeRotman

    Oops- and what about stikcam? Basically we have a 5 camera entertainment network with Tricaster.

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