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                   Tuesday, April 21, 2009 - 12:30PM

Thoughts on live video streaming

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
25 Years of Storm Observing
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I finally got the basic setup configured for streaming - a webcam, a laptop, Windows Media encoder, a streaming server account, and an aircard connection. My first test stream, which was during the Building 82 implosion on March 28, seemed to go off without a hitch. However, I am not optimistic about doing much streaming during expeditions this season, if at all, for the following reasons:

  • Cost outlay for good performance. At last check, a good cellular amp/antenna setup was running upwards of $400. Without an amp, cell connections are too unreliable for streaming. Last year, I had trouble keeping a static webcam image uploading every 30 seconds - I can't imagine a video stream working well at all. That is, unless I shell out the bucks for an amp. That amounts to spending a good amount of money, for a:
     
  • Small audience. I'd be curious to hear how many people are actually watching a particular stream at any given time. I can't see more than a handful for anybody, unless you happen to be the only observer on a huge event. Too many streamers, not enough people who care enough about storms to watch. 5 people watching my stream isn't enough. I do appreciate every viewer or web visitor I have, but at what cost? Some of the early-season events where only a few storm observers are out seem to have better audiences (30-35 viewers on each stream). For all that's involved though, even that seems like a small number. It's like putting on a Broadway show or producing a short film for 10-20 people a day - just not worth the effort in my mind.
     
  • Adding another task to attend to during the expedition, on top of everything else. I'm lucky to get my primary video camera and my DSLR covering a storm without worrying about keeping a third camera properly framed and focused.
     
  • Nothing worth streaming for 95% of the expedition. Even on my best tornado days, my total 'tornado viewing time' averages maybe 10 to 20 minutes per event. Someone is going to have to watch my stream all day, including the hundreds of miles of driving and hours of waiting, to see those fleeting few moments. Who is going to sit at their computer all day waiting for that brief moment in time?
     
  • Prospect of overloaded cell towers during the height of storm season, including even those who bought the expensive amps. This issue is a 'biggie' that I wonder about. During peak storm season, there are hundreds of storm observers in the vicinity of storms, with potentially dozens attempting to stream video simultaneously. Will providers start implementing technology to limit bandwidth if mass streaming starts routinely affecting network performance?
     
  • Too much competition to realistically expect to recoup costs via stream sales, or garner a worthwhile audience. If 20 other storm observers are streaming the same scene as I am, why would anyone tune into my stream?
The first thought about streaming sounds fun and a nice feature for this site, but then I think about what I have to spend to make it work well, and what I need to do during an expedition to keep it running (adjusting the camera, monitoring the cell connection). I have to keep reminding myself and everyone else that unless you're a Timmer, Samaras or a Hill, no one really cares that much about your observing activities except close friends, family, other storm observers, and maybe a small handful of people who may keep up with you on your web site. During storm season, most other storm observers are going to be *observing*. Your friends and family aren't going to sit and watch your stream even if they did have the time to do it. Neither are most of your web readers. I just can't see the cost and hassle being worth the effort. There is *no* profit, or even breaking even, with tornadoes for the majority of storm observers. There never has been, and the chances that there ever will be don't look good. I can see many enthusiastic storm observers blindly spending the money on a nice streaming setup, dreaming of financial success, without thinking if the business numbers will realistically work.

I could be wrong, but I see streaming as largely a tool for the more successful segment of Plains-based storm observers who already have established local TV connections. For the rest of us, I can't think of it as anything else but yet another time-consuming, costly and unecessary fad that sounds fun, innovative and interesting, but in the end, doesn't have any real benefit for anyone involved. For me, it would boil down to spending $500 on amps and antennas so that 3 people could watch me drive down the interstate for 5 hours, and *maybe* have 10-15 people watching when I saw a tornado. I doubt that the streaming would bring in the additional $500 in sales to cover its cost, over and above what I already have available through my current arrangement with a breaking news video agency. Again, unless you're a storm observer with a TV show or existing station contract/relationship - which 90% of us don't have.

All told, I think that streaming is a very cool technology that has some potential for a select demographic. All I'm suggesting is to be realistic in ones reasons for making the decision to spend money or effort to stream. In reality you're probably not going to get much notoriety, viewership or income from live streaming. As I've said before - in the end "nobody cares", so do it only if it's for your own enjoyment.

That said, if I'm sitting waching a slow-moving, cyclic tornadic supercell - and my other cameras are set up and rolling - and I have a spare minute to start a stream - you may see a few live shots from me on here. I will probably add a static live video link on here during the Plains trips, the only thing is that visitors will just have to keep clicking on it to see if the stream is active.

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

Dan, Consider also the benefits that streaming has toward improving the integrated warning process - providing live ground truth to the NWS forecasters that are making life-saving hazardous weather warning decisions.
- Posted by gstumpf
www.MaximumSignal.com amp: $250 Yearly account at ChaserTV: $40 Number of people watching streams on CTV: 200/stream on storm days (avg) Ease of use on CTV - very! Dan, I think you would be surprised at the amount of media who watches the live streaming sites. We have been thrilled at CTV with the amount of viewership we have from both buying media and public. In addition, you have the stream for embedding into your website. Greg makes a good point; NWS is VERY aware of the streams. We have regular positive feedback regarding ground-truth info from under the meso. I believe SS has experienced the same positive results from media and NWS, further indicating it is highly useful. You mention that 95% of the expedition is road-time with nothing going on. There are armchair storm observers out there who eat that up! I compare it to the people addicted to MS Flight Sim. They will take off on one coast and virtually fly to the other coast in real-time, sit at their computer and watch the flight for the duration. Armchair storm observers are the same. These folks, in addition to media and NWS is your audience. If you are on a good storm and are keeping track of your camera and using a well traveled site like ChaserTV or SS, you will see 300-400 viewers at one time. It's really weird but it's a fad that is growing strong very quickly. Of course I invite you to check out CTV services. We are happy to set up a test account for you if you like. Take care.
- Posted by Steve Miller OK from Moore, OK
Greg and Steve, thanks for the comments. The NWS/public safety benefit is a good point. I wonder if it would ever be possible to obtain any funding (via grants or otherwise) for storm observers/spotters (and streaming service providers for that matter) to get up to speed with streaming equipment for that purpose. That way we wouldn't have to rely on our own pockets or the uncertainties of commercial means to fund the equipment. $300 isn't much in the grand scheme of things for some, but considering how much a season costs in fuel and other factors, it's a chunk of change. Every little bit would help. There was a time not long ago when I knew that money I spent (or borrowed) for equipment would be recoverable, but today I'm much more reluctant.
- Posted by Dan R. from Charleston, WV
Dan, I agree with you. I have always seen streaming as a waste of time unless someone wants to pay me a lot of money for the footage. Why should we fund other peoples entertainment. Today was a classic streaming cluster funk where there was a ton of people streaming but nothing interesting to watch. If I want to watch people bust hard, I can always look at some of my old video tapes. Granted streaming is useful for verifying what is happening on the ground but for something to make money off of, nope, unless you own the streaming service and can get a ton of people to pay you for the service like UStream and Mogilus. I do have to wonder if the lack of tornado reports today from scudnado being reported as wedge in the past is due to the live cameras. Streaming is a cool toy but beyond that, I've only heard networks complain about it since the feeds are not reliable. Unless we were doing something else like the other ideas I kicked around with you, I see the streaming weather footage as a money pit.
- Posted by DKiesling from Minneapolis, MN

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