Diary of a Sports Cord Cutter: Zero Rating

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard | 11.5.2016

A week or so ago Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch did his first ever Periscope live broadcast. While he couldn’t talk about specifics (partially because A) why would you and B) Dish was entering a quite period for it’s next earning release) he did point out that Sling TV sees new users every month but a major event like the Olympics triggers bigger pops in the user base.He also mentioned that he didn’t think that going to a ‘zero rating’ was a good idea.

With the recent announcement of AT&T purchasing Time Warner and another AT&T subsidiary DirecTV launching their OTT option this month with a ‘zero rating’ it makes you wonder which path we’ll go down.

‘Zero rating’ is when the backbone provider (AT&T, Century Link, Verizon, etc) allow certain types of content without having it content against you’re bandwidth limit. Now T-Mobile already does a version of this but in their case the content provider (Netflix, MLB, MLS, etc) have to except a lower quality stream in order to keep other content moving through the pipe. In AT&T’s case, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, they say this will increase competition because anyone can pay DirecTV to have a ‘zero rating.’

So what does this mean to you and your ability to watch the Nebraska at Ohio State game on ESPN via an OTT application? Well it means that you have more options to watch the game depending on your device and application. It also means that there is a chance, however remote, that you could not have the ability to see the game.

Being a sports cord cutter for about a year now, I have come close but have not reached my data limit with my ISP. It would be nice if commercials didn’t count against the data cap but that is a technological innovation that isn’t very sexy to build. Not sure how many customers hit the 300GB limit most ISP’s are putting on their user but I would presume that it’s not a lot.

If AT&T wants to go down the road of having outfits like Netflix, MLB and others pay them so consumers won’t have their data caps maxed out then I think they are in for a rude awakening. There is nothing stopping AT&T or their subsidiary DirecTV from raising the price on the content provider and the customer in the name of meeting quarterly earnings. I would venture a guess that this is there plan.

Why is someone like Lynch against this, because it’s not a sustainable path. ‘Zero rating’ is essentially an end run around net neutrality. It would make, by default, the ISP’s the revenue winners in this future of video viewing. It puts the ball clearly in the backbone company’s court and invites a ‘pay to play’ model down the line.

Now back to that Nebraska at Ohio State game. If the backbone companies are able to initiate this ‘zero rating’ then if you are a Verizon customer, there is a chance that Disney (ESPN’s parent company) didn’t want to pay Verizon’s fee and therefore you cannot watch the game. I think that chance is slim but well within this model is a lower quality stream. In other words you are in the back of the bus viewing wise and there would not be much you could do about it.

‘Zero rating’ is not a really fair model for the user or the content providers or distributors. The backbone companies like AT&T are going to make their money because they are a necessity to modern living and they have the ability to put on caps which could also lead to revenue grow however inconsistent that may be. This is not the business model of the future. New models need to arise and they will as more consumers cut the cord, but the ‘Zero rating’ is not it.

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A Breakthrough For Streaming Live Sports?

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard

The fact is that sports have been live streamed online for a long time now. So is DISH Network recent announcement that it will live streaming ESPN and ESPN2 via Sling TV for $20 really that big of a deal? Yes and no.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Currently there are a few legal ways to live stream ESPN platforms. All of them come down to having your subscription authenticated at some point and if you are a DirecTV subscriber you are SOL until later this year. 

With Sling TV you won’t need to have a cable or satellite subscription. Your experience won’t be the same either but at least you can spend a mere $20 a month vs $100 plus for a bunch of cable channels you’ll never watch.

F1 RACE IN BAHRAIN
Live streaming of the F1 race in Bahrain on NBCSPORTS.COM

NO!!!!!!

The fact of the matter is that the cable or satellite companies are going to get their money somehow. That ‘somehow’ is going to be with the data-usage fees. The country’s biggest cable provider, Comcast, currently gives you 300 GB a month with a $10 charge for every 50 GB over that. Seems like a lot until you add in the multiple devices per user and services like Netflix and Xbox One. Add Sling TV to the mix and you’ll be over the limit after the first weekend of College Football.

Live streaming has also been hindered by the experience itself. Bandwidth is not unlimited. If your neighbor is streaming a movie, your kids streaming music or playing online video games then your basketball games streaming quality will go in the toilet. With a cable or satellite subscription, everyone can watch without a signal downgrade. It also isn’t as reliable as your traditional connection. Just ask those trying to stream the Rose Bowl on the Watch ESPN app. 

While $20 is cheaper than $100, when you add that to the Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and future HBO App subscription, your spending close if not more a year.

Conclusion

The fact is that this is a long time coming. While a lot people were hacking their way towards this solution for years it will be nice to get it without the hassle. This application for only $20 a month is a good first step but it’s not the solution. Others will follow and  this service, along with it’s consequences, will make people more aware of issues like net neutrality. Eventually we’ll see more applications like Sling TV but it may be a ways off.

DirecTV, Not For Sports Fans Anymore

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard

DirecTV use to claim in it’s advertising that ‘if you’re a sports fan, you gotta get DirecTV’. That may have been the case two years ago but it isn’t now. DirecTV in fact may be the worse place for sports fans.

For a lot of people, it doesn’t get better than DirecTV if you’re a sports fan. They have NFL Sunday Ticket and that alone is worth it. NFL Sunday Ticket mind you is $330 for the ‘Max’ package.  For some, this is worth every penny. For others, that’s a pretty good chunk of change.

Watch ESPN

While DirecTV has NFL Sunday Ticket it doesn’t carry the Pac-12 Network nor does a DirecTV subscription give you access to ESPN3, FoxSportsGo or the Pac-12 Network online. In other words, if you are not sitting in front of the TV connected to your DirecTV receiver you are S.O.L. when it comes to viewing sports.

But wait, they have an app right?

Yes they do and you cannot stream any sports channels outside of your house. In fact you cannot stream any ESPN channel at all. Basically, if you’re a sports fan, the app is a glorified remote control and a pretty dumb one at that. God forbid you go into the next room and try to watch a Mountain West game on your tablet!

DirecTV app

What this comes down to, as usual, is money. DirecTV makes enough to not have to worry about digital stuff or something as ‘niche’ as the Pac-12 Network. They also make enough to not have to worry about giving their customers what they really want, the ability to truly watch what you want wherever you want. Probably all the more reason that they do not run the campaign anymore claiming’ if you’re a sports fan, you gotta get DirecTV.

 

Relying on the Dedicated Fan

By Brad Hubbard | @bradhubbard

MLS recently announced a new TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision. Besides the money (MLS is looking at $90 million a year give or take) the two major points of the deal are 1) the Sunday night block of games on ESPN & Fox and 2) the digital rights.

MLS TV Press Conference

MLS is now going to get a Sunday night block of games. One on ESPN at 5pm EST and then one on Fox Sports 1 at 7pm EST. This will finally provide some regularity to MLS’s schedule.

Now for the bad news.

MLS and the networks believe that this will increase viewership for MLS. But it is asking a lot of the viewer. It may not seem like a lot to ask a viewer to change the channel from one channel to another but why should the viewer do all the work?

This is not ground-breaking or abnormal. Viewers have been conditioned over the years to flip around for the games or shows they want to see. But it’s getting beyond the pale. The NFL makes viewers jump between five channels, the NBA four, and the NHL between three during the regular season and four during the playoffs. Let’s not forget the NCAA Tournament that has games on four channels or the UFC which makes users jump from an online channel to a cable channel to a pay-per-view channel in a matter of hours.

You get the feeling that you’ll watch the first half of a game on one channel and then have to click over to another to watch the second half.

The digital rights are going to go to ESPN. This apparently is still in the works because it’s still pretty vague in the media reports.

Right now MLS has THE best digital deal. You can get MLS Live for around $60 a season and watch any out of market/non national TV game on any device from your Apple TV to your phone.

Now ESPN is getting that.

That means that DirecTV customers, who cannot get certain content on ESPN3 or the Watch ESPN app, are in big trouble. That’s 20 million subscribers MLS is leaving in the dark. Add that to the brilliant TV deal the Columbus Crew cut this off season and less fans will be able to watch games.

While the TV deal is a windfall for MLS a good portion of fans have good reason to be sceptical. ESPN and FOX do not bat 1000 however they will hopefully kick the ball off at the scheduled time unlike NBC Sports.

 

How ESPN (and others) Screw College Football Fans on DirecTV

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

One could argue that ESPN was all about the College Football fan. No matter the game, ESPN seemed to carry it on one of its many platforms. Now, ESPN has taken a step backwards. It has let an old TV mindset takeover and in the process screw the College Football fans in the digital age.

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Last season, it was a College Football fanatics dream. If you were on DirecTV (which a lot of sports fans are because of NFL Sunday Ticket) and had an internet connection (pretty standard in 2013) you could watch multiple games at one time via DirecTV and ESPN3. On DirecTV you had your main games you flipped between, your XBOX 360 had another game or two via ESPN3 (any game on ESPN3, ESPNU and even ESPN2 was accessible), and yet another game via ESPN3 on your laptop. This year, unless you are a TV and internet customer of the cable provider (Comcast cable and Comcast internet for example) you can only get games shown exclusively on ESPN3. If you do have this, you’re in great shape. If you have DirecTV, we’ll you’re hosed.

Unable to play via XBOX 360

Why was something available last year and not this year? Probably because contracts got renegotiated at some point between last season and this season and with all of the conference realignment going on that is probably a safe bet.

But why would ESPN, the profit center for Disney, backtrack on showing games? Isn’t showing more games, and selling more advertising a great way to make money? Is ESPN really worried about people the digital world cannibalizing the TV profit? What is this, 2006?

In ESPN’s defense, they are not the only one who do this. The Big Ten Network does not allow you watch a game online if it is being broadcast of the Big Ten Network (as we’ve been told by the DirecTV customer service rep).

The bigger questions still remain why? Why treat TV and online separate when as recently as last season they we’re considered almost equal? Why must you have a TV and internet subscription to watch games on laptop, XBOX or tablet? Why isn’t an internet subscription enough? Why limit your customer base to those who have a cable TV subscription? By cutting out the DirecTV customers your losing 20 million people in the US. 

Could DirecTV help? Sure but their iPad app is…well horrible. You can only watch certain channels and only within your home. That’s like buying a car and only being allowed on certain streets.

There are answers out there. The short-term one is Slingbox. This device will make a comeback but not without a price. You’ll need another DirecTV receiver in another room. Kind of a bummer and a lot more money.

The long-term answer is for ESPN, the Big Ten Network, NBC Sports Network, and Fox Sports, to come up with a digital answer…not to say that they don’t already have one.

For example, when ESPN3 shows CFL games, there are ads during the commercial breaks of the broadcasted game. Yes it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison but not really. Why can’t ESPN, FOX, NBC and others run different ads online as they do on air? It’s not like they aren’t doing it already.

What is really sad is how unprogressive ESPN and others have become. They are taking steps back instead of forward and giving credence that the ‘any device anytime’ line is really just lip service.

What happens now is that fans will use pirated streams to watch the games. Nobody wins there. If the folks at Fox Sports, NBC, and the Big Ten Network (partially owned by Fox by the way) were smart they would flood the digital space with live, free streaming and sell the bejesus out of it. It’s a white space that can be stolen right from under ESPN’s nose. Then again, maybe this is another reason why the digital world will never overtake TV.

Not Mastering their Domain

By Brad Hubbard @bradhubbard

The Masters is arguably the biggest golfing event of the year. Like March Madness, it is one of the sporting events that crosses over with sports fans and bleeds into the business day during it’s first 2 rounds. The Masters, like March Madness, makes everything available online but The Masters waits to air content on TV.

The Masters

When The Masters started it was immediately available to watch at masters.com. The same content was not available on TV even though DirecTV had been advertising 8 channels of coverage. DirecTV did not begin broadcasting golf until 3pm Eastern when ESPN began their coverage. Golf’s biggest star, Tiger Woods, had already teed off and was several holes into his round by the time The Masters was available on TV. Doesn’t really make a lot of sense especially when you consider that The Masters is not an official PGA event. It is by invitation only. The Masters sells it’s own advertising and makes it’s own TV deals. In other words, they can almost do as they please.

The Masters has limited commercial time. They do have some massive sponsors though in AT&T, ExxonMobile and IBM. One would think that showing more golf would drive up the viewership and the price for ads. The have very subtle and elegant ads online so you know they have thought about this. The revenue on TV vs online is substantial so why not start the broadcast on TV at the same time as online?

Part of the reason maybe the broadcasters themselves. When they have pre and post shows they can sell ad time during this and they get to keep it all. As mush as we hate to hear the so called ‘experts’ yap and over analyze we’re probably stuck with it for now.

The Masters does make the entire event available on virtually every device you can think of so the fans can watch when they want and where they want. Yet The Masters doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t push the envelope. It is in a position where it has enough credibility to be truly innovative and dictate to the TV folks that every second of every round has live coverage. This is truly a unique position. Time will tell if they ever take advantage of it. Considering that only last August did they finally extend memberships to women I wouldn’t hold my breath.