Facebook Live: Lessons in Livestreaming for Small Publishers
TL;DR: Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong — so be ready for anything.
I learned a lot about Facebook Live last month. As part of the Center for Cooperative Media’s ongoing effort to pull back the curtain on Facebook’s new digital publishing features, I went down to Rutgers University on May 8 to livestream the Bernie Sanders rally for Muckgers.
Simon Galperin and I showed up at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, NJ several hours early to test our “equipment,” which consisted of a plastic tripod from Best Buy and a Samsung S7 Edge. We were the first ones there, so we managed to secure a spot right in the middle of the media rafters. We set up our tripod next to the in-house production crew and all the big network players sent to the cover the event that day.
At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. We got in without a problem, snagged a great spot with a decent view of the podium, and managed to find an open outlet for our extension cord — but it wasn’t long before we ran into our first speed bump.
Lesson 1: Square is the New Black
Unlike our presidential elections, it seems a third party has won the battle battle between portrait and landscape video. Square video seems to be the go-to format when it comes to social video. Forget the fact that you can cut square video out of landscape video in post. Facebook says square, so square it is.
Lesson 2: Check your connection
My brother is a student at Rutgers so I know I have free Wi-Fi waiting for me whenever I visit, but this was no ordinary visit. They were expecting up to 8,500 people at this rally, most of them students, which is a network challenge even the state’s largest university has trouble meeting.
Then there was the “SKPress” network, the dedicated WiFi connection for official Scarlet Knights media events. It seemed to work fine at first, but it slowed to a devastating crawl once the networks started to arrive.
We couldn’t upload videos, and we even had trouble uploading more than one high-resolution photo at a time. The only option we had left was to put our faith in Verizon and hope the connection would be strong enough to keep the live feed up and running.
This also meant that we would be using our mobile data to stream the entire two-hour speech.
As expected, we ran into connectivity issues as soon as we started streaming. The feed kept cutting in and out, and people were already starting to complain in the comments. Luckily, Facebook allows you to be simultaneously logged in to your publication’s account from multiple devices. So, while Simon begged his phone to hold it together, I took to the comments to reassure our viewers and keep them from abandoning ship.
Then came the text messages. Simon’s girlfriend, apparently unaware that we were using his phone to stream the event, began updating him on her day and what she wanted for dinner. This caused even more of a strain on the video connection while I scrambled to remind her that we were busy.
The bottom line, do everything in your power to make sure you have a strong, reliable, and exclusive internet connection before you agree to livestream an event — especially a large event with a high turnout. Also, make sure you tell your friends and family to wait until you get home to discuss any grocery or other personal issues.
Lesson 3: Turn up the volume
One of the biggest challenges when livestreaming any event is the audio quality. Whether you’re using YouTube, UStream, or Facebook Live, the issue remains: livestream audio is usually shit.
We weren’t able to patch the official event audio feed into our phone, so we were forced to rely on the built-in microphone on the Samsung S7 Edge we used to broadcast the video. Luckily for us, the audio from the podium was blasted over the Rutgers Athletic Center’s PA system. Because it was so loud, we were able to pick up most of what was said without much interference or distortion.
When it comes to smaller events, however, you’re going to want to be keenly aware of where the audio is coming from, how loud it will be, and how it sounds to your viewers. As with any experiment, I recommend doing a few tests from different spots around the room where your event is being held.
Lesson 4: Keep it under an hour and a half
We hit peak viewership around an hour and 25 minutes into our broadcast. Senator Sanders seemed to be coming to the end of his speech, and we had anywhere from 400–450 live viewers at any given point. The comments were rolling in, and our connection was holding strong.
A few minutes later a timer appeared on the screen of our broadcast phone and started counting down from ten. Apparently, Facebook only allows you to broadcast for an hour and a half at a time. We had no idea this limit existed.
All of a sudden, we had less than ten seconds to figure out what was going on, notify our viewers, and hope that we would be able to start another broadcast as soon as the first one cut out.
Luckily, we managed to notify our viewers that we would be back up and running before the first broadcast ended. We started another broadcast as soon as the first one died, but by that time the speech was coming to an end, and our viewership took a huge hit.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t our only issue. Simon must have accidentally hit a button as we frantically reacted to the sudden countdown timer, because the source video from our first broadcast — the single-most successful piece of content we have ever produced — was nowhere to be found.
Although we both blame ourselves for deleting the video, there is actually another possibility as to why the footage might have been taken down.
Lesson 5: Beware of the background music
One of the dangers of live broadcasting is you can never really know what’s going to happen on the air. Whether it’s a passerby jumping into the frame and yelling obscenities or an anchor swallowing a bug, it’s impossible to account for every eventuality.
The same goes for copyrighted material — especially music — making its way into your broadcast. This is particularly relevant when you’re broadcasting from a campaign event, where they like to fill the downtime with a handful of Bon Jovi songs and other anthems of American exceptionalism.
If copyrighted content makes its way into your livestream, your content may be subject to a DCMA takedown request by the owner of the copyrighted content. Real-time takedowns are already happening and, even though you may not be livestreaming entire movies like the assholes in this article, your content is also being scrutinized by Facebook’s “Rights Manager.”
Conclusion: Murphy’s Law rules the day
As with most journalistic endeavors, Murphy’s Law should always be taken into account: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Still, I found it to be a fun and interesting learning experience. And with all the money Zuckerberg is dumping into video — especially live video — publishers of all sizes should at least be testing the waters.