I realize that this is probably not the wisest thing to say on a site that’s half-owned by one of the largest streamers of live online video on earth, but I watch pirate video feeds. There, I said it. I feel better having admitted it. Hey, why are there suddenly cops at my door?
I earned my pirate badge relatively late; I didn’t have my first illegal online feed experience until January of this year. The reason for my foray to the dark side was, I thought, a good, upstanding one: MSG and Time Warner were fighting over rights fees, as cable providers and networks are wont to do, and they’d taken Knicks games off the air just as Linsanity was beginning. I generally follow the letter of the law — honest! — but not only am I a Knicks fan, I also write about them professionally. I needed to watch those games. So I did what I had to do. I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed, either. As far as I’m concerned, MSG and Time Warner pushed me into it.
Now, the minute MSG and Time Warner came to an agreement — in large part because of Linsanity’s massive popularity — I immediately went back to watching on television, and not out of any moral imperative. Watching the games on the pirate sites (ones I won’t mention here; I don’t want to get shot) was an unpleasant experience: The feeds were choppy and inconsistent, all the sites had nasty pop-up ads and you never knew which site was going to work on any given night. I suppose, once I discovered that I could watch Knicks games for free, that I could have canceled my cable, but the experience of watching the games on television was so superior to the pirate feeds that it was well worth the money. (Plus: I couldn’t bear losing “What Not To Wear.”) As a consumer, I chose to pay for higher quality rather than take an inferior product for free.
Which brings us to the Olympics, and NBC, and the widespread complaints about the network’s live online streaming. There have been conspiracy theories that the constant problems with NBC’s streaming is by design, that the network is just trying to force you into watching on television, but from my experience, screwing up is usually a matter of accident rather than design. NBC just didn’t quite get this right, and considering that the network requires viewers to confirm that they are cable subscribers and therefore allowed to watch the Olympics online, it’s no wonder that people are furious. When you combine the streaming frustrations with the time-delay complaints, NBC’s most loyal, wanting customers — the ones who actually want to watch dressage live — are the ones who are the angriest. And they’re the ones who are finding ways to watch the BBC feed instead. (Including, shhhhh, me.)
We’re always hearing that online video is ultimately going to take over for our televisions, that it’s The Future, but I feel like it has been The Future for about 10 years now and we’re still all spending half our evenings digging around our couch cushions for one of our six remote controls. That’s the main reason why NBC’s feed has been so bad: Right now, there’s no major impetus to make it seamless, because the real money comes from television.
It’s not like NBC can’t stream well, as if no one else is doing it. ESPN’s ESPN3 streaming product has worked smoothly for me for a couple of years now, and — sniveling suckup alert! — I’ve been an MLB.TV subscriber for six years and have zero complaints. (OK, I hate that Fox ruins my Saturday MLB.TV games, I hate that I can’t watch the postgame shows and I hate that the blackout rules seem arbitrary and idiotic. I always have complaints.) The NCAA tournament feeds — run on MLB Advanced Media servers, by the way, as are ESPN’s feeds (and yes, I’ll stop now) — were perfect last year.
So why is NBC having so many issues? Brundrett theorizes that it’s just simply a demand issue, that more people want to watch the Olympics than a random Rays-Mariners game or whatever is on ESPN 38. NBC streamed the Super Bowl last year and had few issues, but most people were watching that game on television; to watch the Olympics live in the U.S., you have to watch online, which means more demand and slower load times. Also: NBC decided to partner with YouTube for these Games, and as big as YouTube is, it’s still relatively inexperienced at live streaming, at least when compared to MLB Advanced Media.
Put all that together — the intense demand because of the time difference, YouTube’s occasionally choppy feeds, the annoyance of having to show your grandparents’ birth certificate just to verify that you’re a cable subscriber — and it’s little wonder that so many people are finding ways to avoid NBC online all together. I never watch pirated ESPN or MLB feeds because the real thing is better than anything you’d find on the black market. It’s like iTunes: Apple realized that rather than trying to shut down every illegal download on the Internet — which is, of course, impossible — it just needed a superior product that was available in a more organized and efficient manner … and that people would pay for that.
Which brings up the ultimate question: What obligation does NBC have to make all these feeds as good as they can be? If the network had, say, charged 20 bucks to stream these Games, there’d be a bigger problem (and probably lots of refunds). It’s clear that NBC sees its online feeds as an addendum to its Olympics coverage, not a vital piece. There are a lot of consumers, including me, who disagree. But, so far, not enough to make NBC change anything, even if it could. This may be a different story in four years in Rio, when more events will be live in primetime, when there will be less online demand. But right now, NBC’s obligations and priorities remain elsewhere. So at least the network’s not charging for its online product. But know that when it can, it will.
And the fact that it’s not charging for it makes me feel a little less guilty for watching the BBC feed. Now I just have to close all these pop-up windows …