Live Streaming For Houses of WorshipApril 2, 2020
When Wowza asked me to write a blog post on houses of worship earlier this year, the word COVID-19 hadn’t even hit the public consciousness. And the idea that tens of thousands of churches, mosques, or synagogues would only be able to deliver their services via live stream would’ve sounded ludicrous at the time.
Yet here we are in late March, and non-physical delivery of public worship is now the reality for organizations across the United States. While there have been innovative approaches, such as drive-in church services, we’ve noticed an unprecedented interest in live streaming among the house of worship crowd.
Here are a few pointers to consider as we head into the Easter season, based on conversations I’ve had with churches large and small.
Moving Beyond Facebook Live
There’s a tendency to stream church services to Facebook Live because it’s so easy to use directly from the Facebook app on a smartphone. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but remember that not everyone in your congregation has Facebook, and even those that do may have given up social media for Lent.
As such, consider offering the stream on several online platforms. One large church, which has both interns and full-time employees whom I taught in a college media program, is pushing its scheduled app development for Roku and Apple TV up a number of months.
With the ease of use that both Roku and Apple TV devices deliver, I’ve also heard of churches donating these streaming devices to nursing homes, so that those who are confined during lockdowns can still worship in place.
Casting Your Stream Up on the Big Screen
In addition to reaching users without social media accounts, by moving beyond Facebook as a sole streaming location, churches are reporting a growth in communal worship. My local church, Preaching Christ Church in Kingsport, Tennessee, posted a number of pictures of people — many of whom live more than an hour away, outside the PCC physical footprint — watching the streams on their big screen living room televisions.
This large-screen viewing can, of course, be accomplished with an HDMI cable connecting a laptop to your living room flat panel, or even by “casting” the stream from a smartphone to a Chromecast, Fire Stick, or one of the other boxes mentioned above. But beware of the frustration that parishioners will feel if they’re watching from a mobile browser and their phone goes into sleep mode.
Wardrobe Considerations for the Encoder’s Sake
Here’s a tip that many may not be aware of, especially if they don’t have prior broadcast experience: be careful what you wear.
In the past, encoders would choke on certain visuals, and still do to some extent. As codecs and encoders have increased in quality to the extent that they rival broadcast encoders, a new issue is emerging that’s plagued broadcast for years: the moire pattern.
An example of this happened on Sunday when my newlywed wife and I (who had to live stream our own wedding last weekend, due to gathering restrictions) were watching our church’s 9 a.m. stream. Our pastor, who is fully blind at the age of 35, was wearing a checked dress shirt that his wife picked out.
It’s a great shirt, but the encoder hit the moire pattern issue, which made his shirt appear to swim in rainbow hues for a significant portion of the sermon. The rule of thumb for broadcast applies here, too: pick solid colors (preferably not white) and avoid subtle patterns. Your encoder and your audience will thank you for it, and you’ll also save a bit of bandwidth.
When Live Is Not Live
Regardless of whether you use YouTube, Facebook, or another online video platform (OVP), most of these platforms now have pseudo-live options that can be scheduled to play “live” at certain times.
While these were originally developed for online indie movie premieres, a number of churches are taking advantage of the premiering feature to schedule multiple services (e.g., 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.), especially churches that have two different styles of service held at two different times.
This lets the worship team gather at a more convenient time, and in smaller groups, to record worship music for both traditional and contemporary services. And the minister can record the message at any time during the week.
Some churches, especially those with sophisticated streaming setups complete with graphics and virtual sets, are taking a hybrid approach to address “breaking news” centered on the fast-moving pace of change that accompanies more and more stringent self-isolation requirements. These churches prerecord the message and worship sections, but have a live introduction and closing portion, effectively live streaming even the prerecorded content through their video mixing and streaming devices.
Takedown, Shakedown: Music Copyright Concerns
Speaking of worship, a number of churches have mentioned to me (and even more have mentioned to Wowza) the concerns they have around the implications of DCMA takedowns on both their streams and their Facebook pages due to music copyright infringement.
This is a genuine concern, even for those churches that have a CCLI license, which gives them the right to perform songs in their church services. I’ve heard from churches that their streams have been taken down from YouTube, even when the worship band was performing a song (perhaps too perfectly?) and the headache that submitting the licensing documentation has required.
While it’s possible that your stream, channel, and even Facebook page could be banned — and there’s limited recourse to speak to a real person by phone or email in most of these instances — there’s good news between now and Easter.
First, several major CCLI sites have suspended licensing through April 12, Easter Sunday. Loop Community, which allows churches without a band to have singers sing to a prerecorded instrumental track, has also chosen to suspend its licensing, as has MultiTracks.
For countdown music, which has the actual band performing a song, or for videos produced by a house of worship that contain prerecorded songs, services like artlist.io already cover music licensing for video. But it’s still handy to keep your CCLI documentation available for any OVP that you’re posting your content on.
Our final tip in today’s blog is to consider equipment that’s dedicated to streaming, rather than relying on a smartphone or laptop to do your streaming. Just like there are issues that a parishioner would face trying to cast a live stream to their big screen, the same is true if you’re using your primary phone to live stream a service. Something’s bound to come up — from a phone call to a text message dinging — that will interrupt the stream.
Fortunately, there are a number of dedicated encoding devices, many of which use tried-and-true RTMP low-latency streaming, that can be preprogrammed with credentials for Facebook Live, YouTube, or other OVPs. Wowza sells one for professional-grade broadcasts, called the ClearCaster, and there are even some down in the $250 range that can take an HDMI camera input and stream it out to multiple OVP platforms. Make sure you choose one that has recording capabilities, preferably in a higher data rate than what you plan to stream, so that the content can be edited and uploaded in better quality for long-term on-demand streaming.