Weighing a Change in Webcast Providers

Three times in 24 hours, I got asked about using Adobe Connect for our Daily Office webcasts instead of the company we currently use, called GoToMeeting. I didn’t know Adobe provided such a product, so I investigated.

In price they’re about the same, which confirms our earlier finding when we comparison-shopped; Adobe’s a little more month-to-month and a little less with a 12-month contract. (Both are about $50 a month.) So how do the services differ? What more could we get for our money?

GTM limits us to six streaming webcams, as you can see in this now-familiar screen-grab from a few days ago.

Our Webcams,png

Adobe offers “unlimited” streams, depending on how many participants are allowed per plan (25). When we have 15 participants, we’d have 15 images. So there’s one improvement.

And we’re told (I have yet to see this) that with Adobe we could watch videos together instead of individually. On GTM the audio and video don’t sync from one machine to the next and we get these awful echoes and distortions. They’re so bad we have to make people watch individually, after our webcast ends. That’s no fun, it isn’t a shared experience that way.

On one of our earliest webcasts I had put together what I thought was a seamless multimedia experience, including audio, video, stills and the spoken/written word, where every element of the prayer service connected thematically to all the others. Those are rare and they always excite me; I ended up ecstatic that day, only to find out later that what I experienced as the video played was not what everyone else saw and heard. For a time I was devastated by that. My great achievement was for naught!

(“Course reading,” where we read books of the Bible in a comprehensive, sequential way, seldom yields thematic unity, though the lectionary authors tried very hard to achieve that whenever they could, and succeeded more often than a more mechanistic scheme would have done. Certain books of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles logically go together, and the Episcopal Church has an excellent Daily Office lectionary.) As the curator of each day’s service, I always want to put together the prescribed words with the best illustrations and music I can find. Maybe 10% of our services achieve this ideal, but that day ended up a terrible disappointment; I’d even bragged about it to Bishop Cate before I found out the audio was a terrible mess.

I have favorite works of art I match with various holy days. I run this one, "Madonna of the Roses" by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1903), every year at Christmastime.

I have favorite works of art I match with various holy days. I run this one, “Madonna of the Roses” by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1903), every year at Christmastime. Not only is it beautiful, it has a spiritual maturity we don’t find in other Nativity scenes. This child seems fully conscious of who he is, even though he’s just a naked baby – yet he doesn’t have his chubby baby fingers raised up in a blessing no infant ever gave. It’s his gaze that accomplishes this.

Rectors of physical churches do the same kind of curation, selecting music that advances the worship themes of the day. Generally, though, they have only 52 Sundays a year to program, where the lections are always The Bible’s Greatest Hits, while I have 365 days a year to compile – 730 services Morning and Evening, with vast long stretches of repetitive “B side” text. Thank God Howard Galley made the “begats” optional!

I don’t know that better video reception is worth making the vendor change by itself, but if Adobe’s telling the truth in its sales pitch, that and the full range of webcam faces make two distinct advantages.

Here potentially is a third one: rather than having all six (or 25) webcams displaying at once, each with their same-sized little boxes like that screen-grab, Adobe offers the “host” (technical producer – me) the chance to zoom in on a single speaker who has the floor at any given time. If Pam is reading the Second Lesson, do we need to see the whole array of faces or just look at her? The same with the final blessing; let’s say Gwen is pronouncing it and making the sign of the Cross over us. That should be our visual focus, not (as sometimes happens) Susie’s cat jumping up to show her behind on camera, while Adam reaches for the Kleenex and blows his nose.

Those human elements often add to our fun – webcasts are invariably less formal than being in church – but at times I suppose they could be distractions. If the ability to enlarge a single speaker helps us focus on the worship of God, I’m for it. We all are, that’s why we gathered.

Adobe doesn’t make newcomers download software before joining a meeting; Flash player and other Adobe products are already integrated into the service. I don’t know for sure, but I think there may be some newbies who get waylaid by the GTM software – even though it’s a good product, every customer still has to learn how to work it. I don’t know that I’m a master of it yet, and we’ve been at this seven months now.

I do not like that so many participants feel they’ve had to improvise ways to follow the text with an additional device, beyond what we’re showing onscreen. A person should be able to tune in and not have to do anything but sit, watch and listen. But because the webcast originates on my computer, I don’t know how you all experience it. I’d thought during my road trip to Texas I’d see it as you do, but Clint just hooked me up to his laptop and I was back to running the show like always.

Children have always wondered what’s inside the TV box, and adults are still fascinated by what’s behind the scenes; well, I’m inside that TV box, and I want to know what’s happening in your office or living room!

Finally, there’s another aspect of our current practice on GTM that makes me a little uncomfortable; it happens every day during the individual intercessions, supplications and thanksgivings. We can’t anticipate who’s going to speak next, so we often talk over each other accidentally. Then we back up and say, “No, you first,” and it just ends up a little ragged. Does someone’s prayer get pushed aside this way? Can’t let that happen, but maybe it does. Afterward the Officiant has to guess when everyone’s done with their spoken prayers; Clint almost always guesses right but sometimes no, we’re not done yet. But if the producer had that technological ability to focus on one person instead of the whole group, we could take turns, while also listening better to each individual prayer. All we’d need to do is this: As the Officiant introduces that section where prayers are invited, each worshiper could just type “me” in the chat box, and I as producer could activate each person’s webcam in turn. Each member would know, when her face came up, it’s time to talk. When she’s done she could nod, then it’s on to the next person. When I come to the end of the “me’s,” including everyone who got an idea for prayer as they listened to others, Clint wouldn’t have to guess when to conclude the extemporaneous section.

We don’t want to be rigid about it (“all right, everyone queue up”), we want to make sure everyone’s heard. So the zooming factor could be Adobe advantage #4.

These are my thoughts. I will ask Clint specifically to look this over and investigate when he gets a chance, and as always I invite your feedback too. GoToMeeting will charge our account again in a couple of days, but I hope a month from now we’ll have a clear plan for the future. Please leave comments below if you have any ideas.++

On "Star Trek," the USS Enterprise wasn't even a scale model, just a picture on a piece of cloth.

On “Star Trek,” the USS Enterprise wasn’t even a scale model, just a picture on a piece of cloth.