Understanding The Four Levels Of Professional Livestreaming

I recently wrote a post on HDVideoPro’s blog in which I divided professional livestreaming into four tiers. For me, this exercise is an effective way to examine not only what livestreaming is but also who the clients are for this service and what kind of gear, skills and creativity you need to succeed at that level. It can also help answer which tier you’re currently at now or aspire to in the near future.

Tier 1—Small Business, Institutional Users: This sector is already using livestreaming to conduct meetings, round tables and discussions. There are teachers as well now utilizing livestream teaching for their students online. This market is already saturated and well served by all of the free or low-cost livestreaming commodity services, like Skype, Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. I’d also lump social media content creators into this category.

Here’s one example of livestreaming on a professional level. It’s a still photo of the interface I used from Vimeo Livestream Studio at a shoot we produced and livestreamed for Vanguard University, Costa Mesa, California.

By and large, this is a DIY sector since few people on this level have the budget or are spending much money to livestream. They mostly sit at their computers and talk to others in groups online. Production values are low to nonexistent, although there are exceptions to the rule, of course. Many people at this level also use low-grade, built-in webcams on their laptops, iPhones or low-cost external webcams.

There’s very little business opportunity here for a production company or freelancer.

Tier 2—Basic, Low-End, Logistically Simple Live Multi-Camera Production: This type of client may want to hire someone to livestream their event, such as a wedding, funeral, graduation, a band’s performance, school presentation or event or low-end corporate live event. This level of production can be accomplished with a small one- or two-person crew using some simple camcorders or even PTZ remote cameras running into a laptop or a small, inexpensive switcher like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. There is definitely a business opportunity here, and with volume operation (shooting a lot of these low-end projects), one might expect to at least survive with these sorts of professional livestreaming projects.

A live panel discussion with various subject matter experts and physicists from all over the world, streaming from our vMix Call system.

Tier 3—Mid-Level Corporate/Institutional Livestreams: In this tier, you transition from what most people think of as “livestreaming” and, instead, produce live television over the internet. The clients have higher budgets but exponentially higher technical capability requirements, too. Rather than a simple Tier 2 project with two to three cameras with a PowerPoint livestream, for instance, this type of client may ask for much more involved scenarios and requirements in the production.

For instance, one of our Tier 3 clients is a production company that produced a high-end feature-length documentary film. It wanted us to help livestream the film on YouTube Live in 4K resolution. The film was also produced in a Cinemascope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Once the film had finished screening, we transitioned to a live five- to six-person discussion panel, with remote streams from India, the UK, Canada, New York, Los Angeles and Australia. Each of the panelists in the 4K-moderated discussion was placed in their own box on-screen, with an animated lower-third title.

As each person took turns speaking, we utilized DVE transitions to move the boxes around like tiles. The titles animated, too, and followed each panelist. This production was unique because it was entirely remote. Also, each panelist “signed in” to our system using their own laptop or tablet. Each panelist used headphones with a lavaliere microphone.

We have to “train” each talent who uses this approach since we can’t be there to shoot their livestream in-person. We have to get each person to frame themselves and their shot carefully. We work with them to find soft, large lighting sources in their home or office by tweaking blinds or shades to utilize the window light in their location. The end result doesn’t look as refined as we would make it if we were there in person shooting, but it looks and sounds better than the average Zoom or Skype call.

Celebrities like Joel McHale are a great draw for fundraising auction livestreams. This is a shot of McHale as host during the LA Zoo’s 2020 Beastly Ball we produced and livestreamed.

Each Tier 3 project has its own unique requirements. We’ve produced livestream fundraising auctions that have raised over $1.2 million in less than two hours. We recently produced a virtual lunch gala event for a Major League Baseball team and its fans. To execute at this level, we use a crew of at least three to six people and sometimes more if we have remote video crews on location. We have a complex, customized livestreaming studio with a virtual green room where remote callers can gather in standby, speaking with and receiving direction from the producers of the livestream and us. We also have sophisticated audio mixing capabilities and can support up to eight remote call-ins at once, combined with up to 10 live cameras if we are streaming from a live-shoot event.

Tier 4—Sophisticated, Multi-Camera Productions For High-Profile Clients, Studios And TV Networks: Working at this level is indistinguishable from high-end broadcast TV. Often a mobile truck with potentially up to 30 to 40 cameras may be utilized. This level of production would often utilize crews of anywhere from 10 to 100 crew to execute. This tier includes events like music festivals, huge, lavish stage productions, big sporting events and the like. Tier 4 projects will often have budgets that are in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. At this tier, the livestreaming part of the equation is brought in as an adjunct to the live broadcast or simply receives input from the broadcast’s master output. But occasionally, the livestreaming team operates independently from the broadcast, such as when our team was hired to produce the Facebook Live stream at the NAACP Image Awards Red Carpet in Hollywood. BET broadcast the awards ceremony, but we livestreamed the Facebook Live from the red carpet.

Livestreaming Tools For Every Tier

Now that we’ve defined each of the four tiers of professional livestreaming, it’s time to talk about the gear:

Tier 1 Gear: Since this is the DIY tier, really any platform is used. Most likely it will be Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype, which are the most commonly used platforms. People in this tier generally don’t know technology and most often use the laptop or phone camera as their webcam. This tier is largely about meetings and basic business communication. Generally, this tier user will end up with poor-quality audio, poor-quality video, largely because of not having the right tools to improve poor-quality audio and video, because this user values convenience over quality. 

Some of the more popular Tier 1 tools and brands include Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Webex, laptop cameras and mobile phone cameras.

Camera operator Damian Christie manning two of our Sony PXW-X70 cameras during a livestream for Vanguard University. We own 12 camera packages, each in groups of three, with three of the same models, for various client requirements, from lower end to high end to remote control PTZ cameras. We utilize the best tool for each project.

Tier 2 Gear: Moving up to this level is generally where most beginning livestream producers and production companies are. Generally, if you are charging clients for your services, you would need at least a two- or three-camera basic video production package. This package could typically be lower-end video cameras or mirrorless cameras, various tripods, lenses, lighting and some basic sound gear as well. When it comes to the livestreaming aspect of this user, recently we have seen a lot of people using the inexpensive video switcher/livestream systems like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. Tools like OBS and Wirecast using computers are popular options as well.

The popular tools from Tier 2 include Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini, Mini Pro, Mini Pro ISO, laptops with OBS or with OBS and Wirecast, DSLRs or Mirrorless Cameras, consumer video cameras and PTZ remote cameras.

This is our associate producer station for remote livestreaming. Our AP is responsible for greeting, training and coaching each remote livestream person in and out of the virtual green room we constructed. The AP is also responsible for audio routing and mixing as they take people out of the green room to go to air.

Tier 3 Gear: This level is generally where you’ll require higher-end tools in order to execute what the client wants to accomplish. Generally, Tier 3 clients will require better-quality cameras, lighting, more sophisticated miking capability, more people on a livestream screen at once, motion graphics, high-quality titles, more sophisticated audio mixing capability, remote livestream capability, integration with live social media and third-party feeds (we’ll explore what this means later), instant replay, ISO recording and higher video and audio recording and streaming capability.

Popular Tier 3 tools might include some of the following types of gear: Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio Pro 4K live production switcher, custom desktop computers with Vimeo Livestream Studio, custom desktop computers with vMix Live and vMix Call, pro video cameras (Sony FS7 MKII, Canon C300 MKII or higher); higher-end PTZ remote cameras; larger, more capable lighting packages; more sophisticated production sound packages and teleprompters.

Tier 4 Gear: At the Tier 4 level, the livestreaming events have become really big live events. So you’re generally dealing with a stage, a live audience, PA systems, stage lighting, etc. As stated, at this level of production, you’re at a live television production level with a huge crew, big budgets and large resources like mobile production trucks.

The tools commonly used in this highest Tier 4 might include NewTek TriCaster; NewTek Tricaster Elite 2; Blackmagic Design ATEM 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K; Blackmagic Design ATEM Constellation 8K; pro video cameras (Sony or Panasonic Broadcast CCU cameras or higher); B4 mount servo zoom lenses; large jib arms; remote motion-control cameras for dollying back and forth in front of the stage without impeding eyeline for fans; larger, more capable lighting packages; more sophisticated production sound packages and teleprompters.

Our technical director, Gregg Hall, occasionally TDs and directs simple remote livestreams solo. Once the projects and run of show become more complex, with more guests, more motion graphics and effects cues, we budget for an associate producer, then a sound mixer to fill out the crew.

Crew Positions In Each Tier Level

For me, knowing what type of crew you have and the number of people in them are the most obvious determining factor in deciding which tier of livestreaming you want to work in or aspire to:

Tier 1—Mostly For DIY Types: Most often, the “clients” at this level are doing the work themselves, although they may need some assistance from in-house IT.

Tier 2—A One- Or Two-Person Crew: The most common type is the one-man band at this level of livestreaming. But unfortunately, livestreaming is an endeavor or workflow where NOT having a second or third crew person can cause your livestream project to fail.

Here’s what’s problematic about doing it all alone: If you’re responsible for camera, lighting, framing and monitoring/mixing audio and your livestream encounters any problems with the actual streaming, you must drop everything to locate and troubleshoot the issue. While you are troubleshooting the connection issue, nobody can re-frame shots on talent, mute and unmute mics, etc. So, I strongly recommend that you never livestream for paying clients solo. Instead, always insist on a budget that lets you hire a second crew member.

Tier 3—A Two-To-Six-Person Crew: I just worked on a fundraising auction livestream for a charity that had a five-person crew. This was a four-camera shoot, three locked-off (sort of) cameras on three talent and a single PTZ camera capturing a shot of a DJ about 100 feet from our main stage. We had a director/TD, sound mixer, DP/camera op, teleprompter op and a production assistant. And, overall, I really felt this crew worked well.    

Tier 4—A Six-To-20-Person Crew (Or Larger): These kinds of livestreams will vary a lot in crew size because the livestreaming company often is hired as an adjunct to the regular event live production company. The production company may have as many as 50-100 crew for a large live event. For other projects, the livestream company might be the production company as well.

Our main system, vMix Call, has functions and displays that allow the operator and webcast engineer to see the speed and signal strength of each remote livestream feed. VMix Call is one of the few robust remote livestreaming solutions on the market.
Behind the scenes at our livestream four-camera fundraising auction for the Children of Armenia Fund. Note the amount of grip, camera, teleprompter and other miscellaneous gear involved.

A Few Important Factors In Creating Successful Livestreaming Webcasts

Now that you have a sense of what’s involved in each of the four levels of livestreaming video, I’d like to discuss several random aspects of livestreaming that might help you in the field. The following thoughts are all considerations and challenges you’ll have to face, so I hope they might help minimize any problems you have with livestreaming in future projects. 

Invest In A Webcast Engineer: I would never try to livestream professionally for clients without a webcast engineer. Their sole job is to monitor the stream and the livestream encoder and spot problems with the stream as they occur. They then have to act quickly to fix or bypass the issue, causing as little interruption to the livestream as possible. But if you want a webcast engineer on your production, you should know that it will cost you some money, usually at least $500-$1,000 per day. Try to budget for this. In fact, insist on it.

Require Rehearsal Days: Time and time again, we have had clients who try to scrimp by not budgeting for a rehearsal day. Yes, it’s more money. And there are a myriad of excuses for NOT having a rehearsal or at least a technical rehearsal—like the talent or the venue aren’t available. But remember, if you don’t have a rehearsal, you’re forced to produce a one-shot, complex endeavor like a livestream without a rehearsal/tech rehearsal! And that’s a recipe for failure. Don’t go into livestreaming professionally unless you are willing to insist on this.

Managing Your Client Expectations: This is probably the single biggest factor in building a successful livestream business. All livestreams are at the mercy of their internet connections and service. The bottom line is, you want to give your potential and existing clients a feeling that they have made a wise decision entrusting their livestream event to you and that you have a Plan A, B and C in case there are technical issues.

It’s also important, though, that your clients understand that livestreaming is highly dependent on internet speeds and stability, items that are beyond your control. Livestreams do occasionally freeze, stutter or shut down. It’s how you react with your Plan B and C that really matters, but clients should know that every livestream event carries a risk of total shut down at any time.

Manage Your Own Expectations: After close to a year of producing livestream events, I am happy to reflect back on what I have learned. The single biggest takeaway is that livestreaming looks deceptively easy. Compared to traditional production, livestreaming is just as, if not more, difficult to get right. In regular production, often, but not always, you have multiple chances to get everything right. In livestreaming, you only have one chance to get it right. In many ways, it’s higher pressure and more stressful than regular production.

The other expectation is that pivoting to livestreaming is cheap compared to regular production gear and resources. We’ve only touched the surface, and while some of the gear used is less expensive than that fancy new Canon C500 Mark II you’ve been eyeing, you have to learn about CDNs, the ins and outs of setting up livestreaming resources for your clients on many different platforms.

In most cases, your Plan B and or C is going to involve buying a $3,000 to $4,000 wireless router that also needs two to three ISP services that cost between $100-$200 per month for each service’s high-speed wireless. You will have to open accounts with various services, like Cloud Switching and AWS, and you have to then become talented at estimating how much streaming services will cost for your clients who don’t want to use any of the free services because of image or security needs and need their livestream on custom or secured web pages.

Our fundraising auctioneer hits his mark during a fundraising livestream auction update. We have seen a lot of opportunities in fundraising and auctions with livestreaming during the pandemic. I predict that many of these online fundraisers will stay online long after the pandemic fades.

And Now…How To Chase Those Livestreaming Opportunities

The takeaway is that livestreaming presents some potentially amazing business opportunities.

 Here are my thoughts on the short term: As long as large gatherings of people aren’t allowed to assemble in person, there is certainly an immediate need for all levels and tiers of livestreaming. Plus, even when the pandemic ends, I predict that a lot of successful livestream projects that have been initiated due to quarantine will continue.

And I’ve seen firsthand the potential of these opportunities. For instance, our company, webcastandbeyond.com, has, in the past few months, produced three livestream auction fundraising events that have raised $560K, $975K and $1.2 million for our clients. But what’s even more exciting than the amounts raised is that all three livestreaming events smashed the clients’ previous live-event fundraising goals! So I don’t expect these clients to stop livestreaming their events since they seem to be increasing their fundraising amounts exponentially. Additionally, there has been much written about how quarantine and lockdown have proven to many businesses that working and running at least some large companies remotely costs far less and yields as good or sometimes better results than having a large corporate HQ.

However, these opportunities don’t come easily or inexpensively. And at this stage, success can be elusive.

Take the idea of spending money on one project. In some cases, production companies pivoting to livestreaming experience some happy surprises: They sometimes forget that because there is little to no post-production in livestreaming, the overall budgets, income and profit can be significantly lower. But what it also means is that you end up spending your money in other ways that you hadn’t counted on. For instance, I’ve found that to make decent revenue with livestreaming, you still need to be hustling with search engine optimization (SEO) and requests for proposal (RFPs) as well as negotiations constantly. In fact, you need to be engaging in these types of endeavors every day.

And, as I’m sure you’re aware, all that time and effort amounts to money. So, be aware of and keep track of where and how you’re spending your money, no matter what tier you’re in.

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