By: Sara Levine
Live stream video technology is now a fairly popular media artefact that has been re-purposed by organizations, institutions, and individuals in order to broadcast various live events. Most recently, for example, Hulu gave visitors the option to watch The White House Correspondents Dinner as it occurred in real time. Hulu published it as a playable video afterwards, but for a few intervening hours viewers were able to tune in to the event as it occurred. The attraction of live stream video seems to be its “liveness”. Viewers are not actually present at the event, but the promise of live stream video is that viewers are going to have a similar experience to those who are sitting in the room with President Obama. This “liveness” quality seems to be derived from a remediation of broadcast television and the illusion of presence.
So, how does it work?
Live stream video requires an on-site computer setup that is able to compress, encode, and stream the content in real time. Alternately, this technology can be outsourced to companies who will do this technical work. The video content is uploaded through a designated “media server” that is given instructions from the web server to send out data to specific recipients. Streaming video does not use the typical protocols such as FTP or TCP. Instead, streaming technology relies on protocols that facilitate the movement of data in real time. These include real-time transfer protocol, real-time streaming protocol, and real-time transport control protocol. They are also necessary for providing an extra layer of protection so that the servers are not overloaded with traffic (“How Streaming Video and Audio Work”).
The sender-to-recipient interaction seems reminiscent of the Shannon-Weaver Model of communication (otherwise known as the “transmission model”). The video is transmitted over a live stream to the recipient through the internet where noise from interrupted connections and other errors may occur. In his article about video programming on the internet, John Meisel provides a diagram that breaks down the communication between sender and recipient (Meisel 55). This diagram indicates that the production process may not be as straightforward as sending data across servers and protocols. The content must go through broadband service providers twice before arriving at its destination. Furthermore, Meisel writes that “streaming live video is more demanding in bandwidth requirements (Meisel 54).”
Meisel analyzes this production process from an economic perspective as well. He points out that “a specific economic concern from a competition perspective is whether these broadband network companies will discriminate against application providers…that are creating video networks (Meisel 61).” In other words, broadband network companies may block access to their competitors’ content. In regards to live stream video, there are several different players that could be caught up in the production process. Hulu was probably given permission to film and stream the White House Correspondents Dinner. C-SPAN was also streaming the event, and so there may have been competition over viewers. Additionally, it is unclear as to whether these companies use their own streaming services or outsource to another company. Viewers also had the option of visiting websites that are unaffiliated with TV companies, such as Zap2It.com. Competition seems centered around whose stream is passed around the most, and perhaps which institution is providing the best quality video stream of the event.
Live Stream Video Functions to Consider
This technology is available to anyone who has a computer and a robust broadband connection. Consequently, there are a variety of institutions and individuals who are using this media artefact in order to broadcast content. However, there are certain functions that remain the same for everyone. The first is the remediation of live broadcast television, and the second is the concept of presence. Both of these are used differently by various institutions (which will be discussed later with specific examples), but they also seem to be deeply embedded within this medium.
Live Broadcast Television Remediated Through Live Stream Video
The concept of “live” production was introduced with radio programming. In “Live from Cyberspace,” Philip Auslander writes that the first use of the term “live” “comes from the BBC Yearbook for 1934 (Auslander 17).” Radio listeners were not able to identify the sources for the sounds they were hearing. Consequently, there was no way to tell if the broadcast content was live or recorded unless the announcer made the distinction (Auslander 17). Auslander posits that the term “live” came into being precisely because of this confusion between live and recorded radio broadcasts. This notion of live broadcasted content continued on into the mid-20th century with live television. It could be argued that live video streaming over the Internet is simply another iteration of live broadcast content.
Remediation is described by multiple theorists to be a process through which new media is born. According to Lev Manovich, it is “the mix between older cultural conventions for data representation, access and manipulation and newer conventions of data representation, access and manipulation (Manovich 13).” Manovich alternately calls remediated media “meta-media” or “post-media (Manovich 21).” If live stream video content can be considered “meta-media”, then its content might be a combination of more familiar broadcast elements and newer forms of Internet technology. However, sending data over the web was not invented with live stream video content; live stream video technology is re-using these elements. Bolter and Grusin write that “…streaming video…cannot merely improve what the Web offered before but must “reinvent” the Web…What is new about new media is therefore also old and familiar: that they promise the new by remediating what has gone before (Bolter and Grusin 270).”
Live stream video’s remediation of live broadcast content has created economic tensions. Bolter and Grusin posit that “it is a struggle to determine whether broadcast television or the Internet will dominate the American and world markets (Bolter and Grusin 48).” Video streaming providers such as Netflix and Amazon are producing their own content, but there might be another aspect of video streaming that puts the Internet in such a contentious position with broadcast television. That aspect seems to be an increase in the adoption of live stream video technology. TV audiences have the option to choose a different medium for watching live content.
The first live stream video was “a coffee pot in the Trojan Room of Cambridge University to an intranetwork of computer scientists” in 1991, according to J. Macgregor Wise (Wise 425). Once live streaming video became more widespread and accessible, the popularity of webcams seemed to increase dramatically. Anyone with a decent computer and broadband connection would be able to distribute live content to millions of others. Each user has their own audience, and can produce videos in real time for their audience to “tune in” to. Juhlin, Engstrom, and Reponen make the point that “there remains a challenge for the designers of these services to develop the concept in order to support people’s appropriation and thereby democratize a medium which up to now has been entirely in the hands of well-trained professional TV-producers (Juhlin, Engstrom, Reponen 42).” Millions of users can set up webcams to record extremely long stretches of time that Wise refers to as “longue durée (Wise 427).” Viewers can catch small chunks of “longue durée” and return to them at any time. This differs from broadcast television producers, who may use live stream technology to produce content that is separated by the beginning and end of an event.
Whether a single webcam continuously recording a litter of puppies or CNN coverage of a celebrity funeral, the live stream video content draws in viewers who want to watch this content happen live. These viewers are not physically present during the taping, but watching the broadcast content seems to satisfy this desire for presence.
Illusion of presence
When a viewer opens up a live video stream, she or he is watching the content from the point of view of the camera. In a study titled “Amateur Vision and Recreational Orientation: Creating Live Video Together”, Engstrom, Perry, and Juhlin call this process “mediated looking (Engstrom, Perry, Juhlin 652).” They write that “camera users act as proxy viewers on behalf of…the eventual viewer of broadcast content (Engstrom, Perry, Juhlin 652).” It is through this act of “mediated looking” that viewers feel the pull between being present within the broadcast content and sitting in front of their computer screens. This also describes the concept of “telepresence” as described by Wise. Wise echoes others in his belief that this feeling is not particularly strong in the case of live stream videos. It might be considered “low telepresence” or “popular telepresence (Wise 428)”. Therefore, it seems that viewers are not completely taken in by the illusion of presence.
Mark Duffett wrote in “Imagined Memories” about Paul McCartney’s “Webcast from the Cavern” as a major event in live stream technology. He posed the question that if the consumers of this webcast know that they cannot interact with other viewers watching the event or Paul McCartney, then “Why did they accept that Webcast-ing could reproduce liveness (Duffett 312)?” Duffett then makes the connection between reproduction of liveness with Benjamin’s concept of aura (Duffett 315). It is important to note that while Benjamin discussed loss of aura in terms of mechanical reproduction, he came to the conclusion that technologies such as photography and film had in fact divorced themselves from the concepts of ritual and aura. Instead, these works became “designed for reproducibility (Benjamin 256).” In the case of Paul McCartney’s Webcast, Duffett posits that McCartney’s event’s aura of liveness was reduced to a mere “marketing technique (Duffett 314).” In other words, the live stream video content was reproduced with the intent of redistribution in real time. The liveness of the content is then repurposed through this reproductive medium as a way to reach out to a wider audience. Does the online audience have a clearer view of McCartney than those present? Are there close-ups to his face? The streaming video provides a different experience of presence than the physically present audience because of its reproductive function.
Bolter and Grusin write that “the digital medium wants to erase itself…there should be no difference between the experience of seeing a painting in person and on the computer screen, but this is never so (Bolter and Grusin 45).” They call this concept “hypermediacy.” Hypermediacy implies that the medium should not be noticeable (Bolter and Grusin 6), but Bolter and Grusin point out that “technology still contains many ruptures: slow frame rates, jagged graphics, bright colors, bland lighting, and system crashes (Bolter and Grusin 22).” This concept is true for live stream video content as well. Producers of this content want the reproduction of liveness to occur as smoothly as possible, but there may be a certain amount of time lag for weak broadband connections and other disruptions that make the medium more visible to a viewer. The concepts of presence and liveness are especially vulnerable to these disruptions, and would most likely have a negative effect on the viewer’s experience.
On a final note about presence, Baudrillard wrote that “..the confusion of the medium and the message is the first great formula of this new era. There is no longer a medium in the literal sense: it is now intangible, diffused, and diffracted in the real…(Baudrillard 22).” While other thinkers (such as Benjamin) wrote about alienation in regards to video content, Baudrillard is commenting on a new era of diffusion. He attributes this newer concept to McLuhan, and goes on to posit that the medium cannot easily be separated out from the reality it captures. The borderlines between the concept of presence, the remediated broadcast function, the video screen display, and the actual content being recorded blur together in a live stream video. Viewers are experiencing liveness through this tangled form of hyperreality, and producers are using that remediated liveness as part of their intended message to the audience. These concepts can be explored more concretely through several specific case studies.
Live stream video technology can and has been used in a multitude of ways and by millions of different people. These case studies explore only a small percentage of the types of live stream videos on the internet. The first case study looks at how large institutions involved in news media use live stream video technology. The second case study is a discussion of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” exhibit at MoMA in 2010. The final case study analyzes live stream video on a smaller scale.
Paul Sagan wrote an article in 2010 called “The Internet & the future of news,” in which he provided numerous statistics about the growing number of people viewing online broadcast content. During President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, for example, “the Akami global content delivery network served more than seven million simultaneous streams…a number that rivals the audience for many televised cable channels (Sagan 122).” It seems that news media institutions rely on the remediation of live broadcast television in order to capture this audience.
There seems to be a remediation loop between broadcast television and the networks’ websites that host live stream video content. Bolter and Grusin used CNN’s website and televised newscasts as a specific example of this feedback between the two forms of media. “The CNN site is hypermediated…yet the web site borrows its sense of immediacy from the televised CNN newscasts. At the same time televised newscasts are coming to resemble web pages in their hypermediacy (Bolter and Grusin 9).” ABC News has seen similar changes, as demonstrated in the following images:
The first image is from a 1981 broadcast of the Royal Wedding, the second image is from the 2011 broadcast of the Royal Wedding, and the third image is taken from the ABC.Go webpage.
The website does seem to borrow from the immediacy and liveness of broadcast television, especially with two columns that point out “latest headlines” and “this just in…”. However, the contrast between the first two images indicate that broadcast television has been influenced by the internet in terms of formatting. The 2011 broadcast has a headline – “The Royal Wedding” – as well as a Twitter icon on the bottom of the screen. It could be argued that there has been a remediation of remediation at work over the past few years. In other words, the webpage became formatted to support the immediacy of news coverage, and then live news coverage in turn became formatted to support the immediacy of the webpage. So, how does live stream video fit into all of this?
Here is an image of ABC’s live stream coverage of President Obama’s Commencement Address at Ohio State University:
The formatting of the live stream video seems very similar to broadcast television. There is the headline on the bottom and the word “live” appears multiple times around the screen. Additionally, there is another window on the right side that gives viewers the option to read comments about the video. The multiple windows and columns layout seems reminiscent of the ABC webpage. All of these multiple remediations and reproductions of layouts seem to support Benjamin’s concept of creating reproducible media. ABC probably does not care much about the loss of “liveness” in live streaming an event like the President’s commencement address. The creation of this content was produced with the intention of reproduction. It can be embedded anywhere, watched on phones or tablets, and significantly expands ABC’s audience.
Many who are watching live news coverage are familiar with the feeling of watching live content without physically being in the same space as the camera crew. In the Ohio State University Commencement Speech, viewers watching the online coverage know that they are not having the same experience as those who are attending the ceremony. Online viewers are watching what seems to be a continuous close-up shot of President Obama, and are therefore developing a different memory of the event than those who were sitting in the crowd and watching him from afar. Most viewers are used to this type of live event coverage. ABC is simply remediating this coverage for the internet. However, live broadcasts of events occurring overseas may warp viewers’ senses of presence.
Bolter and Grusin wrote about news coverage during Princess Diana’s funeral. The funeral occurred in the middle of the night for most American viewers. Consequently, videotaped footage from the funeral appeared on one screen, and live footage of Princess Diana’s body being carried to its final resting place appeared in another window alongside the funeral. “This crowding together of images,” they wrote, “the insistence that everything that technology can present must be presented at one time – this is the logic of hypermediacy (Bolter and Grusin 269).” It was important for the news media to show both videos side-by-side because immediacy demanded that viewers be able to watch what they missed without neglecting the ongoing proceedings. This might have distorted viewers’ perspectives on the content of the videos because displaying multiple windows invites comparison. During the Royal Wedding in 1981, the broadcast replayed footage from earlier in the day and also displayed “live” footage of Buckingham Palace at night. This emphasizes the time difference, and also allows the news media to edit the footage in a way that fits the message that they would like to communicate to their viewers.
The Royal Wedding in 2011, however, was broadcast live both through live stream video technology and on television. This meant that coverage started at 4am EST or earlier. Many Americans woke up very early to watch the wedding live, and also threw parties to celebrate the event as it happened (“Americans Wake Early to Watch Royal Wedding”). This contrasts with the other two events because Americans might have felt an enhanced sense of presence by having to wake up early to watch the wedding. The camera angles and close-ups all continue to indicate that Americans are not actually present at the wedding, but the time zone difference may have increased the telepresence involved in watching the wedding live.
In 2010, David Hart – Media Producer for the Museum of Modern Art in New York – wrote on the official MoMA blog that “when the Marina Abramović exhibition was starting to come together, the staff in all the departments here struggled with how best to communicate the ideas in the exhibition online – since so much of the point of performance art has to do with being in a location, in a moment in time (“Live-Streaming Marina Abramović: Crazy or Brave?”).” The decision was made to stream the exhibition online, and Abramović’s work became available to anyone with access to a decent Internet connection. There were a variety of reactions to the live stream video of the exhibition, and many of these reactions were related to the significance of performance art. It seems that the live stream video coverage of the piece became a tool for MoMA to package and market performance art rather than, as David Hart wrote, “a great way to engage with art (“Live-Streaming Marina Abramović: Crazy or Brave?”)”.
The viewers who visited the MoMA website and spent time watching the live video might have experienced the performance art piece very differently than those who were at the museum during that time. Claudine Isé reviewed the exhibition on a blog post for the website Bad at Sports and asked: “What’s the purpose of streaming a performance – one which purportedly explores what it means to ‘be present’ in this particular historical moment – for the benefit of anonymous internet users who can engage with it only by staring at their computer screens for a few seconds at a time (“MoMA’s Live Streaming Marina-Cam Invites Everyone to Be Present”). In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that the live stream needed to be refreshed “periodically (“I See You: Marina Abramović live video-feed performance at MoMA”)”. Consequently, the viewers’ feelings of presence might have been considerably reduced through the medium of the live stream.
Performance art seems to challenge this idea of presence because of its finite duration. The other artworks in MoMA are present at all times, but a performance art piece is fleeting in comparison. The viewers in the gallery are aware of this, especially when they are sitting in front of the artist as part of the exhibit. However, viewers outside of MoMA are experiencing the performance through the streaming video medium. They are not present with the artist, and are viewing the performance from whatever angle the camera operator has chosen for the shot. They do not have as much agency in their experience of the piece as those in the gallery do. Additionally, they must refresh the feed of the performance if they want to continue watching. It could be argued, therefore, that the extremely low telepresence of this live stream has all but eliminated the aura of live performance art. If Marina intended for this performance to be recorded, then this live stream video could be considered a reproduction designed for reproduction. However, the decision was made by MoMA, who had their own ideas about how and why the performance should be distributed.
“I can’t imagine anyone watching for more than a minute or two,” Claudine Isé wrote, “which makes the Marina-cam little more than an online advertisement for the show itself (“MoMA’s Live Streaming Marina-Cam Invites Everyone to Be Present”).” Isé seemed to be questioning MoMA’s motives for broadcasting the performance using the “Marina-Cam.” If it was essentially a marketing strategy for the museum, then the museum’s attempts to distance themselves from the economics of the art world had been compromised. Pierre Bourdieu wrote about this concept of “disavowal (Bourdieu 261).” He explained that anything relating to monetary value is shunned because the art’s value is supposedly related to something beyond money. This “disavowal” can lead to events such as Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” exhibition, which may hold a significant amount of “symbolic capital (Bourdieu 262).” Symbolic capital functions as a sort of credit towards prestige in the art world, and usually results in some monetary profit (Bourdieu 262). Marina’s exhibition held a great deal of symbolic capital because of her fame in the performance art field. The monetary profits made by the museum may not have been openly discussed because the experience should be considered priceless. However, the remediation of this experience through a live broadcast seems to bring economic value back into the picture and reduce the symbolic value of the piece. Amelia Jones attended the exhibit and wrote an article about the concept of “presence” in regards to Marina Abramović’s decision to reproduce some of her previous works at MoMA. Jones wrote that “…market pressure inspires the range of methods that have been developed to ‘document’ the work and/or its re-enactments and thus to secure the work in its place in the markets of objects and histories (Jones 20).” Part of increasing the economic value of this exhibition involves treating it the same as any other exhibition, which involves a certain amount of sensationalist marketing in order to attract attention. One of the strategies MoMA used was to rely on the broadcast television function of the live video feed to promote the exhibit. Viewers were treated to “live” coverage of the exhibit in hopes that this would attract attention to MoMA.
The live stream video of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” may have had a significant impact on the way the art piece was received by the general public. The aura of the performance was almost entirely replaced by the video’s function as reproducible and remediated content. MoMA used these functions of presence and remediation in order to market and distribute the performance.
“Draw Friends” is a live internet show. Several cartoonists enter into a Google+ Hangout that is then recorded onto a live stream YouTube video. The cartoonists usually spend some time chatting with each other directly to camera, but most of the show is devoted to watching them draw after they turn on the “screenshare” function of Google+ Hangout. The host, Terence, will occasionally call out various themes or characters for the cartoonists to draw. However, the majority of the drawings derive from conversations the cartoonists are engaged in or projects that they may be working on at the time of the broadcast. Additionally, there is a comments window for viewers to communicate with the cartoonists, ask questions, and make drawing requests. After the broadcast, the video is archived on YouTube and the cartoonists post their drawings from the episode onto their blogs.
This online live show seems to be a remediation of broadcast television. There is a host for the show and a cast of characters who participate in activities as dictated by the host. Additionally, viewers are encouraged to tune in to the live taping as an audience in order to interact with the cartoonists. It seems as though the creators behind “Draw Friends” rely on the remediation of the broadcast television show in order to organize the more familiar aspects of live stream video. The concept of the show is somewhat similar to Bob Ross’ show on PBS, in which the content of the show was devoted to his artistic process. Both Bob Ross’ show and “Draw Friends” possess a certain amount of “longue durée.” These long stretches of time in which the artist is drawing may be filled with conversation, or it may be completely silent. Viewers can walk away from the video and return to it at a later time to catch another segment of the process. The remediation of broadcast television situates the live video chat as a show, and is organized to mimic the television format.
However, Bob Ross’ show was not broadcast live and there was no interaction between Bob Ross and his audience. The “liveness” aspect of “Draw Friends” is grounded in the interaction function of the broadcast. Viewers do not feel like they are in the room with the cartoonists, but instead are encouraged to feel as if they are participating in the Google+ Hangout in real time. Their questions and suggestions change the direction of the show as it is being recorded. Additionally, the title “Draw Friends” indicate that the audience is welcomed into the group of cartoonists. In this case, presence is not linked with a physical location. Instead, it is associated with another live medium: the video chat.
The “screenshare” function is an example of Benjamin’s discussion of the ways in which the close-up revolutionized the way people saw the world around them. Benjamin wrote that “…just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly ‘in any case,’ but brings to light entirely new structures of matter, slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them (Benjamin 266).” The camera angle on Bob Ross’ show usually cycled between a close-up of his movements over the canvas and a wide shot of Ross standing in front of his easel. However, the “screenshare” function that the cartoonists use eliminates the artist from the shot. Instead, viewers watch the cursor move across the screen and sketch each drawing. They are presented with the viewpoint of the artist rather than standing behind or next to the artist. This may affect the way in which viewers perceive art and cartooning. Perhaps the elimination of the cartoonist results in an objectification of the artwork because the human aspect of the drawing went unnoticed. On the other hand, this extreme close-up of the digital canvas may have revealed gestures and techniques that viewers may not have picked up on from any other angle.
The three case studies indicate the ways in which live stream video technology’s remediation function and alteration of the concept of presence have had an effect on the consumption of different media forms. News media are using live stream video technology to further enhance the hypermediacy experience. Live event coverage is now remediated on the internet alongside all of the other media artefacts people use to get their news. Consequently, this demand for immediate “liveness” may have affected the concept of “presence,” as evidenced by the example of the 2011 Royal Wedding. The art world has also been affected by live stream video technology. There is a difference between viewing art on a screen instead of in person, which visitors to websites like the Google Art Project may attest to. Similarly, performance art is perceived differently through the lens of a live internet broadcast. The ability to distribute this content to a wider audience is attractive to museums, but the unique characteristics of the art piece may have been lost in the process. Finally, live stream video has opened up new channels for individuals and small independent organizations to broadcast content. These videos can be short segments, internet shows, or they can be continuous rolling footage. These small scale live videos also capture moments that people may not have noticed. It remains to be seen whether live stream video technology will have a lasting effect on large scale communication networks, but for now its short-term effects are becoming more noticeable with every passing year.
Further Studies for Consideration
Here are a couple of related areas of discussion:
1. How can the producer’s perspective be further analyzed? How do they interact with the interface for live stream video technology software?
2. There are a large number of websites that allow illegal live stream video of television shows. These live stream hyperlinks are usually passed around social networks to people who cannot access a television show because they live outside of the show’s country. What are the implications of this illegal activity?
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