The Hugos and the UStream Fiasco

As reported earlier, I was up at 1:30am this morning to help Kevin and Mur Lafferty host the live webcast of the Hugo Awards. As usual, we were doing text-based reporting via CoverItLive. In addition Chicon was streaming the video live through UStream.

I should note in starting that this is the first time I have actually been impressed with the video quality on UStream. It was watchable. If only it had lasted. But, as most of you probably know, UStream pulled the plug on us during Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech for BDP: Short Form.

And no, that wasn’t because Neil said That Word again. Nor was it because of an unscheduled wardrobe malfunction by Amanda. The feed was pulled for copyright violation. Specifically Chicon had shown clips from the various BDP: Short Form nominees, and UStream deemed that to be in breach of copyright.

One immediate effect of that was that the audience Kevin & Mur had jumped from around 600 to more than double that, so thank you UStream for sending people our way. More on that later. The other immediate effect was a storm of protest on Twitter.

Lots of people were muttering about “fair use”. Actually, folks, that should have been irrelevant. When Kevin and I ran Events in Glasgow in 2005 I spent a lot of time emailing Hollywood studios to get permission to use the clips. (Many thanks to Craig Miller for his invaluable professional assistance with that.) Chicon should have done the same thing, and should have included information about the webcast. So unless something went badly wrong behind the scenes (I have asked Kevin to check, but whoever updated Wikipedia says permission had been granted) UStream pulled the feed because we showed clips that has been provided to us by the studios for the express purpose of being included in that feed.

How could this happen? Well, like all other social networks, UStream views its content providers as disposable. There are millions of them, after all. I’m pretty sure that the account Chicon had with them did not rate contact with an actual human being. A software system will have detected that we were showing material that was under copyright and pulled the plug automatically. It was late on Sunday night, the day before one of the biggest public holidays in the USA. The chances of reaching an actual human being who could reverse that were practically nil. It is, I’m afraid, a hazard of using services like UStream.

Back in 2005, before UStream existed, Kevin and I were very keen to webcast the ceremony. We talked to providers, got costings, and put a proposal before our management (Vincent Docherty and Colin Harris). Based on the costs, they said no, which we expected. I did try to get sponsorship, but none of the publishers were interested so the idea was dropped. I’m sure that the same technology still exists. It is probably cheaper now, and cheaper in the US than in the UK. I suspect that Chicon could have got it done for under $5k.

What’s more, I know that they had some sort of video link set up between Chicago and Atlanta so that Dragon*Con attendees could watch the Hugos too. So I suspect that a lot of the technology that they needed was already in place.

Future Worldcons will need to consider this problem. It may be that there is some sort of paid account you can get with UStream that will allow you to clear a webcast with them beforehand. If not there will be other services that do let you do that, you just have to pay them.

In the meantime we’ll probably continue doing the CoverItLive feeds, if only for the benefit of people who don’t have the bandwidth to watch streaming video or who, like the visitor we had from China, are unable to access Twitter in their country.

Even that, however, has problems. CiL now charges for shows that exceed a certain level of viewership. Kevin cleared the budget for the expected audience, but when the UStream feed went down the floor of new people blew us past our pre-paid limit and Kevin tells me that about 250 people were unable to log on. Our apologies for that. We’ll hopefully be better prepared next time.

Also I think next time we’ll drop the automatic inclusion of the Twitter hashtags. It overwhelmed our coverage last night. I would have done it myself except I’m still in bad odor with a lot of people in WSFS so I needed Kevin’s permission, and CiL’s private message system that allows webcast staff to communicate between themselves went down half way through the show.

All of this would, I suspect, be a lot easier if individual Worldcons were more willing to cooperate with the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee. However, most of them are deeply suspicious, even with no involvement from me, and that makes Kevin’s life very difficult.

10 thoughts on “The Hugos and the UStream Fiasco

  1. Actually, the folks at Dragon*Con were watching the UStream feed, so when UStream pulled the plug, it affected the show at D*C, especially the Hugo nominees who were attending D*C.

    The Worldcon Events teams of the past two years have been working relatively quietly with the HAMC — specifically me — to use some of the shared resources like the Worldcon UStream account. We’ll be investigating further in the coming days and weeks to see what can be done. I wouldn’t be surprised if that in the future, we have to kill the live feed before showing the clips, even if we have permission to show them to our audience. It seems likely to me that permission to show at the ceremony and permission to “broadcast” over UStream are different animals.

    1. I’m sure that they are different animals, but a) Chicon should have asked for permission, and b) even if they had permission the UStream bots would still have pulled the plug.

  2. It may be as dangerous, but Youtube is also an option. They do live webcasts, and will surely do more of them a year from now. Explaining the nature of the cast to Google should be able to preempt a similar move.

    In any case, with current technology, this absolutely should not cost thousands of dollars.

    From using CiL in the past, I remember they had the option of adding selected twitter feeds to the cast. That may be a better solution than the hashtag.

    1. I’m sure they’ll look at alternative providers. How much you pay depends on how much control you want. The cost isn’t the tech, it is the human time needed to understand your project.

      You are right about CiL. In the past the Twitter tag was useful in getting involvement. From now on I think I’d use the official Worldcon feed, Locus, and a few nominees.

      1. The Twitter tag was good initially, increasing atmosphere, until the Ustream debacle triggered the storm. I was following & enjoying both immensely until then.

        I like the idea of taking selected Twitfeeds only for future coverage; Twitter’s now big enough that taking raw hashtags overwhelms. Thanks for your efforts: it gave a good sense of the event. (Still bummed to have missed the rest of the stream; thought John Scalzi did a great job as MC)

  3. I was responsible for selecting ustream as the provider for Renovation. I wanted to use a commercial provider like Akamai, which would have cost less than $2K, but they didn’t have a mechanism to limit the number of viewers to match our budget. I’m going to offer to do some of the legwork of finding an appropriate provider for LSC. I don’t think we need to resort to blocking the clips from the feed.

    1. That’s great to know, Peter. This is most definitely the sort of thing where expertise needs to be passed on from year to year. Even if people like you are not in direct charge of the activities, you can still provide invaluable advice.

  4. For those following this issue: Ustream have issued an apology here which makes the facts clear. As a result of this error, they have temporarily withdrawn their automated monitoring software, so it is clear that they are taking this incident seriously and accept that they were at fault. (Indeed, the fact that they are taking this step shows that they understand the damage of this very public failing).

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