Multisite Church Video Equipment – 3 Workflows and their Tradeoffs

Multisite churches have experienced an explosion in growth over the past few years. Particularly after the 2007 economic crisis, many churches have found this to be a more responsible way to grow. If you know that your Church has an engaging presence, it can make sense to distribute that model. In some cases, this can even take the form of working with surrounding churches that were failing. After all, a great teaching pastor can be one of the most crucial elements of success for a church.

There are several flavors of multisite. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the largest churches in the country and also many smaller churches. Each has different needs and requires slightly different equipment. In each scenario, the cost gradually increases, as does the difficulty of implementation. For example, in the largest church campuses that I designed the budget just for the encoding and transmission equipment was more than the entire AVL budget for some of the other medium sized satellite campuses. It’s not just money. A big consideration is staffing.

With that in mind, here are x Multisite Church Video Equipment Examples:

SneakerNet

Still the simplest alternative, you just record the service on physical media and carry it to the other campus. Aside from the hassle, this is the most cost effective method for a Church that is just starting down this road. While you could just use a computer drive or DVD, I prefer a solid state drives. A HyperDeck is just so cheap, that I can’t understand why anyone would risk a BluRay… yet I still see it.

Another question with sneaker net is the delay period. Fewer and fewer churches seem to be comfortable with a week delay between services, and I understand their sentiment. In a world where the news travels over Twitter in a matter of minutes, who wants to be an entire week behind on a message. The typical solution here is to record a Saturday evening service at the main campus for replay on Sunday mornings.

Obviously the Saturday night strategy has drawbacks. Any references to the time of day or day of the week and you’re “busted”. Also, many Churches hold youth services on Saturday evenings and the programming is entirely different. Still, if you’re able to overcome all of these hurdles, the only drawback is the inconvenience. Getting past this inconvenience brings us to our second Equipment setup

FTP Transfer

If you are ok with the delayed broadcast concept, but not the legwork required for SneakerNet, the next option is FTP transfer. Depending on your requirements and bandwidth, this could still require transcoding, but it eliminates the physical commute.

There are commercial quality devices on the market that will automate the transcode and then upload to a DVR at another campus. This solution is typical for point to point. If you want to do multisite this way, you would probably upload to the cloud and then have the satellite locations download from there.

Simulcast

The most technically challenging method is to run services simultaneously. This gets progressively more expensive and more technically demanding as you get closer and closer to real time. This method requires encoders/decoders and a time slip DVR.

The encoders/decoders will vary greatly in their cost, based on the acceptable latency and buffering. If you are doing an hour delay between your main and satellite campus playback, requirements are not very strenuous. You have a large buffer and plenty of bandwidth. Change that to a 2-10 minute delay and we are in a different world. Move that to real-time (At least real-time enough for communication) and we are in another universe… both in terms of cost and staff coordination.

In terms of cost, the most inexpensive solutions tend to be software based. In many cases, these are running the exact same codec for the same video quality, but you don’t have the reliability of a broadcast quality hardware solution. That may be less than a 1% difference in uptime, but that 1% is going to feel pretty important in the middle of a service. If you can’t afford a robust hardware solution, make sure you have a back-up plan… and make sure it’s rehearsed.

In terms of hardware, I’ve used solutions by Streambox, Haivision, Teradek, and others. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for, but once you’ve spent some time in network configuration, you should be pretty solid.

At the extreme end, I’ve also used Riedel MediorNet for real time multi-campus operation over dark fiber, but I think this solution is too costly to be practical for most Churches.

Although this article is about equipment, you need to pay close attention to staffing as you start to decrease this time window. Simulcasting puts heavy technical requirements on campuses as you get closer and closer to real time. Many satellite campuses don’t have the same technical prowess as their main broadcast campus.

Back to the equipment, we need DVRs for this solution. These will need to be able to record and playback at the same time. If you are doing 2 feeds (IMAG + Virtual Pastor), you will need twice as many channels. I have used 360 Systems several times in the past and I know that Haivision came out with a DVR solution about a year ago (though I have not used it).

Other considerations include the video arrangement. Some options are lockdown shot only vs Broadcast Campus (lockdown shot + IMAG), vs single static shot. There are a few variations. The biggest consideration is, again, cost and complexity. This time, the compromise is how well the audience connects with the message.

While the variations above have received a fair amount of attention, one aspect that has not received its fair share of attention is audio. Audio immersion is lost when played back through the sound system at the typical satellite campus. The solution is a multichannel audio system with the pastor panned to a center channel and ambient audience microphones fed to additional surround speakers. We’ll have to save examination of everything in these last two paragraphs for another article, though.

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