NBC throws one away

NBC tried to go long in promoting its TV Everywhere offering by using a free live stream of ysterday’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks to showcase its over-the-top chops. But like Seattle in its final, goal-line possession, the network might have been better keeping it on the ground. Instead of a showcase for TV Without the TV, as NBC’s marketing pitch had it, the live streaming experience was mostly a showcase for the limitations — both technical and economic — of over-the-top broadcasting.

superbowlliveextra400According to a tweet from NBC Sports PR, the live stream drew an average of 800,000 viewers per minute, up 52% from last year’s game, peaking at 1.3 million concurrent viewers during Seattle’s baffling final possession, up 18% from last year. But the strains of delivering all that traffic (via Akamai) were evident.

The stream was choppy throughout on Comcast’s 50Mbs platform (although speed tests showed I was something closer to 30Mbs during the game), and the limited number of digital commercial spots NBC had sold made for maddening repetition of the few there were. (Note to Sprint: promoting your data rollover plan during a live stream could have been really clever targeting if that live stream had been available on mobile devices. But NBC’s live stream could only be viewed on PCs and WiFi connected tablets, leaving the spots a bit wide of the target.)

The biggest complaint with the Super Bowl live stream, however, was its extensive lag behind the live action. In my own side-by-side tests, the live stream via my PC’s browser was running a good minute behind the broadcast, while the NBC Sports Live Extra app on my tablet was nearly two minutes behind that. At one point, the broadcast had come out of a commercial break, gone through a complete series of downs (three and out plus a punt by Seattle) and gone into another break while the stream on my tablet was still languishing through the previous commercial break — an entire possession behind the live action.

The delay wouldn’t have been so bad had NBC not, inexplicably, stuck a real-time score widget in the corner of the screen, which provided regular spoilers to the lagging stream. The delay was also problematic if you happened to also be following the discussion of the game on Twitter on a second screen, as many of those inclined to watch the game online probably are inclined to do.

The network did provide a “go live” button that allowed you to vault ahead if the stream fell too far behind the score but at the cost of missing the intervening action. Those who availed themselves of the “go live” feature also reported occasionally being abruptly hurled back in time without warning to watch the same action over again.

I watch a lot of live sports online so I’m accustomed to some lag behind live (although not typically three minutes) and occasional glitches in the stream. I’m also used to chunks of “Your game will resume shortly” dead air during unsold commercial breaks. I put up with it because I have no other option and am generally grateful for the access. But the whole point of yesterday’s exercise with the Super Bowl was to provide a lead in for NBC’s prime-time TV Everywhere lineup for people who are not regular sports viewers, whether online or off.

NBC claims that “engagement” with the live stream was nonetheless high, averaging 84.2 minutes per viewer during the game. But that’s probably as much a reflection of the relative closeness in the score throughout the game than an endorsement of the quality of the streaming experience.

So far, the network has not provided any data on how many who watched the game online stuck around for the evening’s lineup. Those are the numbers that will tell us if the whole thing was worth it, or not.