Curiouser and Curiouser

Last week I ran the gauntlet of the NBC’s TV Everywhere authentication and streamed the NFL season opener online. (Sorry about those hits, Cam.) This week I streamed Twitter’s first live NFL broadcast from the same Starbucks and walked away concluding that CBS was the big winner.

How did that happen and what does it tell us about the future of TV? Two things.

1. Live Streaming Major Sports Events Works Well, But is No Threat to Legacy Sports Providers
Remember the days when tech skeptics said you could never stream a live NFL game online because it would ‘break the Internet’? I do. Remember those same days when tech fanatics said that video streaming would take over the world and ‘kill TV.’ Yep, me too.

Yet both groups turned out to be totally wrong. Seems Internet streaming works just fine, thank you.

The quality of Twitter’s Thursday night NFL stream was really nice – looked just like TV. Considering that the company has no actual video streaming technology or experience, this is a rather surprising statement. The simple truth is that broadband video delivery today (even at the scale of a live NFL game) is now a commodity, widely available to anyone with the desire and checkbook to do live events. Twitter obviously bought the ‘white glove’ service from its CDN and other technology vendors, and the results showed. This reflects well on the maturity of the entire video streaming ecosystem, and opens up possibilities for other non-traditional video providers (consumer brands, retailers) to do large live events online.

This level of streaming quality must be a huge game changer for the NFL, right? Football fans dancing in the streets? Hardly. Despite a fairly significant promotional effort by Twitter and the NFL itself, and the lack of any authentication requirement (I’m looking at you, NBC), the overnight ratings suggest NFL fans were not terribly impressed. About 16 million viewers tuned into the game across all legacy and digital platforms (CBS broadcast, CBS online, NFL Networks cable broadcast, and Twitter live stream). Of this, Twitter’s average stream count throughout the game was just 243,000, roughly 1.5% of total viewership. The total unique viewer count was higher (2.3 million watched at least three seconds), but this only indicates that Twitter users mainly just sampled the game for a few minutes out of curiosity and then went back to whatever they were doing. These numbers are way down from Yahoo’s 2.3 million average stream count (and 15.2 million uniques) for its NFL Europe broadcast last October. The difference, of course, was that game was exclusively offered online.

The bottom line: today’s quantum viewers are basically platform agnostic. If content is exclusively available online (i.e., the Yahoo NFL game), they’ll watch it online. If content is available everywhere (i.e., the Twitter NFL game), they’ll watch it on whatever platform is most convenient, which for a live NFL game on a Thursday night happens to be the set-top box hooked up to their living room TV (and not Twitter).

2. Twitter is Not a First-Screen Experience, But CBS is
Second-screening during sports events is real. For years, TDG has chronicled the rise of Twitter and Facebook as dominant platforms for real-time conversation about TV shows, including dedicated reports on second-screen sports apps and social TV.

Against this backdrop, the Twitter user experience for last Thursday’s game was just short of bizarre. Yes, the launch page for the game had some #TNF tweets running down the side. The video window was tiny, however, and you couldn’t really see what was happening. This meant that anyone actually watching the game for more than three seconds (including me) had to go full-screen on the video player. In this mode there were no visible Tweets whatsoever. Huh? Think about this. Given that Twitter itself built the user experience, the only logical conclusion is that even Twitter knows that people don’t want Twitter as part of the first-screen experience. As Donald Trump is so fond of saying on Twitter, “sad…really, really sad.”

The unintended beneficiary of Twitter’s stripped-down user experience was clearly CBS, which provides the broadcast production team for Thursday Night Football when NBC isn’t doing it. The look-and-feel of the game (logos, graphics, sound effects, stats, etc.) as well as the on-air broadcast team was all CBS. More surprisingly, and unlike NBC, CBS retains all of the in-game CBS promotional content in the stream – kudos for this clever move. Almost every time there was a brief break in the action (for an injury, a penalty, or in some cases a punt), the commentators segued to a quick promotional clip for fall CBS shows. NCIS and Bull were in particularly heavy rotation.

The bottom line: Twitter is paying millions of dollars to the NFL in order to distribute and promote CBS-branded content. Maybe Silicon Valley guys aren’t such geniuses after all.

Innovation often makes for strange bedfellows. So far, the partnership between the NFL, CBS, and Twitter looks like a clear win for the NFL and CBS. The benefit to Twitter, if any, is much less clear.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.