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Streams of Thought: MLB's Foul Bawl

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Wedging new technologies into old legal models sometimes yields interesting results. Streaming technologies are today’s equivalent of trying to retrofit the phone system into the telegraph.

One technology that’s garnered quite a bit of interest across the board is placeshifting. We’re all familiar with timeshifting, in which various devices allow consumers to decide the time they want to watch something (and skip the commercials). Placeshifting, on the other hand, takes place in real time, but allows the consumer to view the live content at a different location.

While placeshifting is more beneficial to the broadcaster—commercials and programming are viewed the way the broadcaster and advertisers requested—some content owners have objected to placeshifting because it (potentially) infringes on agreements that have nothing to do with broadcasting. For those of us who don’t live in a city with a major league sports team, especially a Major League Baseball team, the blackout agreements that have caused the MLB Advanced Media group to rise up in anger against Sling Media’s placeshifting technology, the Slingbox, may seem a bit arcane.

Because MLB owns the content, the blackout agreements were put in place at the request of team owners to create an area around the ballpark that is "blacked out," or receives no television coverage. The thought is that the local fans will visit the ballpark because they can’t watch a broadcast, and the concept’s efficacy has been debated—and expanded—over the years.

Ignore for a moment the fact that WTBS, the Atlanta TV station owned by Ted Turner’s company that later became know as "the Superstation," began placeshifting when it went national on cable and satellite almost 20 years ago and boosted the Atlanta Braves to national prominence. What MLB Advanced Media is objecting to in Sling’s technology is the inability to prevent those in the blackout zone from seeing the game video. The only surefire way to limit user ability to see the same in a blackout area is to ban the Slingbox—and cable TV and satellite and terrestrial broadcast.

For its part, Sling is taking MLB’s cries of "foul" in stride. "We’re allowing more people to see more baseball, with all the same commercials, and stay connected to their teams," said Blake Krikorian, Sling Media’s CEO. "How is that bad? It’s additive to what they’re doing. They’ve paid for our device and they’ve paid their cable bill."

The issue MLB Advanced Media brings up is further exacerbated by the fact that the organization itself has very good technical, production, and broadcast skills. Good enough, in fact, that I and others in the industry have noted that the group is beginning to produce and deliver broadcasts for groups like Tennis.com’s coverage of major tennis events. You’d think that they would understand that the benefits to MLB of placeshifting outweigh the perceived drawbacks.

At least one major league sport has taken a contrarian view: The National Hockey League (NHL) has chosen to embrace placeshifting. The NHL and Sling Media have signed an agreement that allows current and future Slingbox customers to share segments of NHL programming online with friends, family, and others, creating a viral marketing opportunity for NHL teams.

"Having the most tech-savvy fans of all major professional sports—who also tend to be early adopters of new technology—makes offering NHL content through Clip+Sling a natural fit," said Keith Ritter, president of NHL Interactive CyberEnterprises, in a press release. "This partnership expands the visibility of our NHL games online and we are excited and proud to be the first sports league to offer this service to our fans."

According to a posting in the SlingCommunity.com forum—an official outlet for Sling Media—the agreement also covers Sling Media’s upcoming Clip+Sling technology, which is currently in a private beta.

"Clip+Sling is a feature that will be built into Sling Media’s SlingPlayer software, giving Slingbox owners the ability to record and share portions of content with just a few short clicks," the post notes. "While customers will need a Slingbox to create and share clips, the clips posted to Sling Media’s forthcoming video destination site will be accessible by anyone."

The blog goes on to note that NHL clips posted to this site will be searchable and categorized by the league and by clubs to help users better navigate content. But even more interesting is the fact that the NHL itself—in a move completely antithetical to the stance taken by the MLB Advanced Media group—will also make its own long-form and short-form content available on the video destination site.

Let the games begin.

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