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The future of live entertainment is here – are you on board?

Virtual audience engagement has never been as important as it is today. In the always-on digital era, viewers flock to interactive and dynamic content experiences. And even in the midst of a pandemic, content creators need to produce immersive live events that activate audience participation, wherever viewers are watching.

By Andreas Jacobi, General Manager, LTN Command, LTN Global

Digital audience engagement will remain a fundamental component of live entertainment in the long term. But right now, it is what can make the difference between a good show and a great show, and in some cases, it’s the only way for a show to go on.

Audience engagement strategies that go beyond the studio are nothing new. For example, sports call-in shows are a tried-and-tested format: engaging with virtual participants is central to the content. Without any fans dialing in, there is no show.

But, in 2021, audience engagement has evolved. Virtual audiences are now a critical component of sports and entertainment content creation, as studio audiences and stadium attendees tune in from home (or on the go with mobile devices). The ability to acquire, aggregate, and manage hundreds of live fan feeds is critical to creating engaging content and achieving higher ratings. To bring in audience members from remote locations, broadcasters require innovative fan engagement workflows and state-of-the-art solutions to ingest and manage content on a revolutionary scale.

Obstacles in current workflows

Nearly all of us have become all too familiar with video chat platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the past year. They offer straightforward ways to invite people to contribute to live content, leveraging SDKs and backend services to integrate feeds into broadcasts.

Enterprise video chat systems were not designed for high-stakes live television events, or to ingest thousands of feeds. They do not offer the reliability needed and often downgrade video quality. In addition, ingesting many feeds can prove costly. Delivering a seamless live show requires far more powerful solutions.

Virtual participants engage with a show from any number of unique locations, and the best contribution method for each environment requires individual support. For example, live feeds transmitted via a mobile network from an area without wired connectivity can suffer from poorer video quality, unless supported by a reliable video transport solution that ensures the best standard of delivery possible.

If producers want to enrich their live content, employ in-studio multiview displays, access participant metadata, and maintain the highest-quality video in their programming, they must be able to aggregate feeds in a reliable, secure environment with bandwidth redundancy. And to do this at scale, aggregation platforms need to be able to ingest as many or as few live feeds as necessary without incurring costs on a per-feed basis.

Activating a digital audience

Without studio audiences or stadium fans to create a dynamic, live atmosphere, content creators need solutions that deliver more authentic and engaging experiences, as opposed to relying on canned laughter or pre-recorded crowd noises.

So, what does virtual audience engagement look like on the big stage? The Draft is one of the NFL’s flagship events of the year. Last year, without in-person attendees, the NFL pivoted to engage with fans virtually (in real-time) to deliver an audience experience that felt like the real thing.

Almost 500 fans participated in the NFL Draft, contributing live feeds into a routing interface where producers could easily organize fans by the team they support. A live branded mosaic of these streams ran on screens behind NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, showing 15 fan feeds at a time. Behind the scenes, producers were able to quickly pick and choose which live feeds to pull into the show from the aggregation platform’s landing page. On set, Goodell was able to seamlessly interact with the fans via talk-back functionality.

The 2020 edition brought in the highest-ever Draft ratings and was the most watched sporting event during the pandemic at the time. The virtual Draft showed the industry how to deliver a compelling live show by leveraging new fan engagement technology: and set a precedent for future hybrid events. Other flagship entertainment events such as last year’s Emmys demonstrated the ability to activate and engage with a fully digital audience, except this time, it was Jimmy Kimmel interacting virtually with award winners such as Mark Ruffalo and Zendaya, rather than Goodell and a feverishly excited NFL fan base.

The hybrid future of live entertainment

Even as spectators make the long-awaited return to stadia, broadcasters and content creators are looking at ways to enhance the viewer experience and extend programming through virtual audience engagement before and after the main event.

For example, if a sports network can extend showtime with a post-game fan engagement segment, it can create higher-value ad slots. By having a better understanding of the viewer personas most likely to engage in this type of programming, advertisers can target their audience with more precision.

Remote production workflows with virtual audience engagement were borne out of necessity during the pandemic. But the new face of live entertainment is more dynamic, interactive, and compelling than ever before. Broadcasters will continue to leverage innovative technology that provides viewers with more rewarding experiences, boosts engagement, and unlocks more relevant audiences for advertisers.

Expanding the depth and quality of live contribution increases audience participation, no matter the geographical location, and enables broadcasters to enrich and future-proof both their content and their show formats. Virtual audience engagement has ushered in a new era of content creation and consumption.

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