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Twitter and the NFL: Business as Usual Isn’t Good Enough

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On Sept. 15, Twitter delivered its first Thursday Night Football game. The most surprising thing about it was that the Buffalo Bills kept it close, though they ended up losing to the New York Jets.

Once you got beyond the fact that you were watching the NFL on Twitter — whether via Twitter’s mobile app or via a connected device like the Apple TV or Fire TV — there was nothing special about the experience. As Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn wrote, the streaming was handled by Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM), which is the industry leader in live events. You’d expect the stream quality to be good, and it was. Both on LTE at a restaurant and on Wi­Fi at home, I found the stream started quickly, looked great on my phone and my 42-inch flat­screen TV, and didn’t run into any major hiccups.

I didn’t get the chance to compare the stream directly with the CBS broadcast feed, but Rayburn did. He said the streams were about ten seconds behind broadcast. We’re getting to a point where that kind of latency is not going to be acceptable — in fact, the need for lower latency was the talk of this year’s IBC conference in Amsterdam — but today, I’m betting most users accept it as the difference between broadcast and OTT.

On one hand, the fact that there were no major problems with the stream indicates that, again as Rayburn wrote, these kinds of events are simply business as usual for companies like MLBAM. On the other hand, the very fact that it was on Twitter means this wasn’t business as usual at all. Despite the degree to which video has become a part of the Twitter experience, whether it’s short clips or user­generated Periscope feeds, Twitter still doesn’t feel like the “go­to” place to watch a live major sporting event in its entirety. That’s a mind­shift that the company is going to have to create, and it’s going to have to do so by giving users a compelling reason (that goes beyond convenience) to watch the game on Twitter. I’m guessing most of the viewers of that first game were either simply checking it out for the novelty of it or had no other way to watch, so Twitter was the only option available to them at the time.

In the Apple TV Twitter app, you had the option to watch the game full­screen or with a Twitter feed alongside. But it wasn’t necessarily your Twitter feed; as far as I could tell, that wasn’t an option. Instead, you got a feed of tweets from anyone who used the proper hashtag (like #NYJvsBuf). And the experience watching the game on mobile was the same. The ability to set your preferences to show only your own follow list, or a curated list of football pundits, might give you a compelling reason to watch the game on Twitter. Otherwise, it’s a worse experience than watching the game on broadcast or cable and checking Twitter on your phone, because you’re not getting commentary on the game from the people you care about.

Again, business as usual. But if platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat want to become real OTT powerhouses, they’re going to need to offer something unusual, something that broadcast and cable can’t provide. You have to figure that Twitter knows this, and you’d hope that its plans include giving viewers more control over their feeds while they’re watching the game.

Delivering a high­quality stream to a few million viewers (as of this writing, Twitter hadn’t announced any user numbers) is a decent first step. As an OTT advocate, I’m happy that it went off without a hitch. But until the experience is better than broadcast and the latency problem is addressed — if you believe the hype at IBC, it’s going to be addressed very soon — it’s nothing to celebrate.

[This article appears in the October 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Business as Usual Isn’t Good Enough."]

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