Stilgherrian Live Alpha: lessons from episode 1

Frame grab from Stilgherrian Live Alpha Ep 1

If you missed the first episode of Stilgherrian Live Alpha, it’s over at Ustream. That’s the program exactly as it was broadcast on Thursday night.

(Yes, I could have embedded the Ustream player in this page, but I didn’t because of point 3 below.)

I’m chuffed that a 26-person audience generally found it “entertaining” and “enjoyable” even though it was screwed up technically and the main feature interview didn’t happen at all. It felt much worse from where I was sitting.

Traditional media runs technical trials behind closed doors. Only when everybody is happy that it “works” does the new technology get used “for real”.

However I chose to make this public. With bleeding edge technology it’s useful to share experiences. It feels like extreme programming: just start building it, knowing that you may change things along the way, and learn everything in parallel.

So even though our program didn’t fly well — heck, it’s a flaming wreck at the end of the runway! — the black box flight recorder tells us many things…

First, though, remember the aims of this 8-week Alpha: it’s to assemble the toolkit of hardware, software, services, procedures and mindsets that can be used after that. What does happen after that may or may not be a 30-minute weekly program.

I assembled a toolkit with whatever was at hand. This first program has certainly told us which items need replacing! I appreciate the people telling me that the “set” (whatever was behind me in my office), lighting and camera angles need fixing, or the audio needs equalisation. Keep that feedback coming!

With that in mind, here are our many learnings:

  1. Ustream works quite nicely, in general. Good audio quality, and good image quality. (The low frame rate was happening on my old computer, so that can be fixed.)
  2. There’s lots to learn about the audio side. I need a better understanding of how OS X sound routing works, and how Ustream’s “co-host” function works. Time to do some RTFMing.
  3. The “grammar” of this medium is different. For example, a traditional pre-recorded TV program has 2 seconds of black before the program starts, so I did the same, and started recording during that black. However when Ustream generates the thumbnail image for the program website, it takes the first frame of the recording. That’s why the Stilgherrian’s video clips bin has a black rectangle. [I didn’t want this page to have a black rectangle either, so I chose a frame grab instead.]
  4. Trying to do everything new all at once is stressful. Even stuff I did know, like hosting a talkback show, I hadn’t done in 15+ years. When the audio screwed up and my guests weren’t available at the right time (not their fault), I was overwhelmed — and that’s why I was sounding so hesitant.
  5. I am on TV, not radio. I must not fiddle with my nose, because people can see me.
  6. I suspect I should resist the temptation to make things look slick. It doesn’t have to be “just like ‘real’ TV”. The aim is for immediate, salient content. That’s why people still found it entertaining when disaster struck: when I needed to fill time, I told stories and jokes. Narrative always wins out over fancy packaging. The time spent making graphics could have been better spent experimenting with audio routing.
  7. Does it need to be at a set time each week? Some level of consistency is needed so people know how to fit the program into their lifestyles, sure. But with modern real-time notification systems people can be told when things are on — and it’s all recorded anyway, even if they can’t participate at the time.
  8. Does it need to be a set duration or structure? Ditto lifestyle. But the program doesn’t need to fit into a slot in a TV channel’s rigid schedule. The Internet has an infinite number of channels! Programs can be broadcast whenever they choose. And if this program is about what’s happening in my world, then maybe the timing and content needs to adapt to that. Somehow.

For now, I’ll stay with the plan to do episode 2 this coming Thursday 15 May at 9.30pm Sydney time.

However the following week I’m at some tech conferences and maybe it’d be more appropriate to fit the timing around them. And then there’s Eurovision on Sunday 25 May…

4 Replies to “Stilgherrian Live Alpha: lessons from episode 1”

  1. I thought you wore the stress well, able to narrate and tell jokes without breaking into a sweat or leaving too much silence (oh, the nose thing was a nervous tick! :-). Stage presence perhaps? I am curious about your choice of location and camera angle. It is TV, after all and not radio. I think this has been a wonderful experiment and you should do more. Your point about content vs packaging is spot on. Content is king. Your point about having the live show at the same time every week is spot on also. Particularly for those wanting to participate. (I would liked to have attended but family life, ie children, got in the way) This is tv. As much as we perceive the Television medium will lose dominance, there are still so many sheep that will tune into CSI every week and have a routine built around it, I know I have been guilty when i need a slick US TV fix and let my brain stop working. However you have the point of difference that your episodes are viewable later as archives and portable too.

    P.S. Happy birthday for yesterday and please excuse my punctuation, I’ve had a nightmare day!

  2. @jay: In alpha mode, if something is a “known problem” that’s scheduled to be fixed later, no further effort is expended. Camera angle is one of those issues.

    When I get my new Macbook Pro, I’ll use the built-in iSight as the main camera rather than the Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000 sitting on a desktop tripod. The angle chosen was one where the tripod and cable didn’t get in my way, with little thought beyond that because I needed to focus on the audio issues.

    I’d framed the shot with me at the lower right so there was room for the talkback callers’ picture-in-picture on the top left. It was only when I reviewed the recording on Saturday that I discovered the callers didn’t appear! They were visible on my screen, and I didn’t know you guys couldn’t see them as well as not being able to hear them.

    I’m sorting that out with Ustream support this week.

  3. I have still yet to watch the stream, but I’m enjoying your thoughts on improving the program. I found point 5 all too poignant, as I used to do a lot of “stage work” in my youth. This was always our rule number 1: never touch your face, as it always looks like you’re picking your nose 😛

    I also quite like the point about the direction and time structure. I think exploring the inherent “looseness” of the format makes for much better viewing — if we wanted a “traditional media” show, they’d be easy to find. Have some fun! Get the shits and walk off the stage after the first song (well, figuratively speaking). The spontaneity is all part of the fun for you and the viewer.

    I’m making it a point this week to keep the time slot open to watch the live broadcast.. Did you ever find anyone to give you a redundant screen capture recording? I use ScreenFlick, and would be happy to help in this capacity. Let me know if you’re interested.

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