Wednesday, September 15, 2010

U Ctrld Katy

Two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, the Executive Producer of the Scott Mills Show came to me and said "we want to put Katy Perry in a room for an hour, streamed live on the Internet, and for the audience to be able to tell her what to do. Can we do that?". Sure, I said, when? "On Thursday". Oh, OK then.

Well it wasn't exactly like that - we'd been thinking of Katy Perry ideas for several weeks, since her management had come to us and said "lets do something other than just a straight interview - Katy's up for most things". Various ideas had come and gone through the process of feasibility and approval, and I'd had wind of the U Ctrl idea a few days earlier, but it was only on the Tuesday morning that it was green-lit by Katy's management, meaning we had 48 hours to make it happen. The first things that go through my mind on an occasion like this are the following.

Where will we do it?

It obviously has to look right (in this case a big white space, like off of Willy Wonka), but it also has to be easy for Katy and Scott to get to (within 10 minutes of the radio station). We toyed with the idea of dressing one of our meeting rooms at Radio 1 Towers, but ultimately decided this would look crummy, and besides we had only 48 hours to build it (in fact less, if you consider the time needed to then rig cameras etc). Wherever it was we also had to consider the need for a strong upstream internet connection to get the thing online. Which brings me to the next point...

How will we stream it?

Our technology plan for streaming is well established - we designed it two years ago when we live streamed from Scott Mills' house, and it's done well or us all that time. It involves a video signal, an audio signal, an AV-DV converter that turns them into a combined Firewire signal, and a laptop running free Flash Media Encoder software to upload the stream to the BBC's Akamai accounts. To do this, we need a 1mbps upstream internet connection, with little or no contention.

Thankfully, we found a cracking location just around the corner from Radio 1, which had everything we needed. As a post-production studio, it was used to handling large files, and had something insane like a 40mbps upstream connection. It also had a small but perfectly formed infinity cove studio
with a lighting rig. So, we could put Katy in a room, film her, and put it out online. But the last piece of the puzzle...

How will we the audience control Katy?

We have a number of tools at our disposal for this - our Facebook pages, our Twitter, our SMS system, and a chat product called Cover It Live that we've used for more than a year now. The problem here was not the tools, but developing a human process to filter the good stuff out of those various sources (it's fair to say we were expecting a lot of, ahem, unusable suggestions from the audience).

We devised a system where three members of the team would select good suggestions from the audience, and filter them into a shared Google Document - sorting the wheat from the chaff. Scott's producer Emlyn was then the final filter, sorting through the wheat to decide what would get put into the... cake (sorry). He then published chosen instructions to the 'auto-cue' facing into the studio, as well as the Cover It Live window online. I hawked this diagram around all day Wednesday to help explain it to people (made using Popplet on iPad - show off, I know).

A note on Cover It Live - we decided not to use this for audience input, just for reflecting output. We felt that having a constant flow of suggestions alongside the video, with only some of them being carried out, would be quite distracting for the viewer. Having the audience input in a different place to the performer output was a peculiar user journey, but important to create a meaningful presentation.

Build-up and prep

We announced U Ctrl Katy on that Tuesday, on-air and on all our social spaces. During that time we deliberately encouraged people to think wildly about what they'd have Scott and Katy do. Obviously, during an hour-long broadcast we couldn't materialise props etc out of thin air, so this time was important to let us know that kind of things we'd need to bring to the party. My favourite here was the Potter's Wheel - a listener called Marshall Line on Facebook suggested that Scott and Katy should recreate the famous scene from Ghost.

We also knew that an hour of two people stood in a white room wasn't going to be completely sustained entirely by audience suggestions, so we planned a few other surprises like balloons, paints, swingball etc. During the show, we gave the Facebook and Twitter audience advance notice (5 mins or so) that these props were going to be brought out, to give them time to offer suggestions for instructions.

How did it go?

Well... you really had to be watching it to completely get the surreality of it all. Several people described it to me as like "being inside somebody else's weird dream". We served a good number of video streams - not our highest ever, but good for the time of day. Here's the highlights video and the photo gallery.

The main thing we learnt about this project is about volume! We received more than 7000 suggestions during that hour - that's two every second. Inevitably that led to some disappointed people. Some people even suggested it wasn't live and we'd made it all up - I can assure you it very much was live, which a read-out of my heartrate would have attested. In particular, a popular movement toward the end for Katy to put a shoe on her head wasn't picked up by the process, and was used by the doubters to 'prove' that it wasn't live. I wish that one had got through to us in the studio, but it didn't.

There are undoubtedly better ways to flow that data, perhaps using some automation/aggregation technology, a central control panel, etc. But given we had 48hrs to develop the whole proposition, I'll forgive us not getting this perfect the first time.

Where next?

I'd love to do it again. In a way, I think it's a shame that we started with one of the biggest stars in the world (though, that's clearly at the core of the audience appeal) - I like the idea of a series of U Ctrl, building up through the chart until we have people controlling Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, R-Patz. Whether anyone else is as open to doing it as Katy though, remains to be seen.


Higgypop said...

Interesting, I recently ran a similar event with McFly - it worked really well but without having any established video streaming technology I opted for Justin.TV which worked fine and also logs the chat. We basically sat them down in front of a webcam with some branding behind them. I also set up a couple of HDD cameras which I used to edit together a highlights video. I agree, the most difficult problem is aggregating, sorting and publishing listener's comments. I looked at CoverIt Live but it didn't really work for me, Justin.TV's own chat is good but difficult to moderate and when the chat is busy it's too fast moving. A custom built webchat tool would be the best option. (Sorry long comment but is of interest as I also would like to do more chats.)

Martyjw said...

Interesting ideas and its great to read up how it was all put together quickly. Helping with a couple of webshows when the dawn of webcam streaming websites arrived i feel the main problem is transmitting the same feelings in the studio to the audience. Quite tricky when you haven't got a large crew, but then again that's what a webcam/webcast isn't for. Il be honest over time watching i got bored. Watching I felt the problem is where it felt like It changed from a webcam/webcast to a low budget live Tv production, separate from radio. The only link i felt with radio1 was Scott and the stream being on the radio1 website, it didn't have a radio1 feel. If there to do with radio1 they should be at radio1, it gives the 'webcam' feel. Anyway i agree your choice of not using Cover It Live for submissions, Ctrl Katy would be even harder to Ctrl ;) Don't know if this is possible but have someone be ctrld just inside/outside the radio1 building who has a mobile camera attached/with them? DJ's/Callers give tasks for them to do, keeping volume of people limited? Sort of like one celebrity did on the BeckyCam week although i can't remember who it was but they had to find something. i understand however the risk assessment in putting something like that together and all other details needed. But still a great experiment Sam! Can't wait for the next stream whatever it is.

p.s Scott Cam is still by my favorite stream R1 have outputted online :P

John Barness said...

Thanks for sharing.
It seems to be a very interesting idea to put a star into the room to be publicly controlled. For me, It is similar to the situation when the group of people works on the same project like it was described in virtual data room review.

Unknown said...

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