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The Watchman: MSNBC Makes Mess of Democratic Debate Webcast

Regardless of format or bitrate, ad type or placement, live or on-demand, streaming or download, in the end the final measure of success for online video is the experience it enables users to have while watching.

The Watchman is a column about just that topic, giving first person insight into how the decisions content owners make regarding the presentation of their streaming media impacts the quality of this user’s experiences watching online video and how they ultimately increase/decrease my willingness/ability to keep watching.

My name is Geoff Daily. I’ve been a contributing editor for StreamingMedia.com for the past three years writing about the business of online video, and now I’ll be sharing with you the chronicles of my journey into a world where the only video I watch is that which has been delivered over the internet.

Last night I had my first moment of regret over having recently canceled my cable service in order to rely solely on Internet video.

I was eagerly anticipating tuning in to what was likely the last presidential primary debate between the Democratic frontrunners. I had done the same for last week’s debate on CNN.com and had a great experience watching live video for over an hour. This week did not deliver on that promise.

As I tuned in for the start of the debate on MSNBC.com, I was immediately greeted by the vagaries of online video. It was choppy, with movement starting and stopping at random. It was buffering constantly, providing the complete opposite of the all-important goal of an unbroken viewing experience. Its audio fell out of synch, with the video lagging far behind the audio. And even that audio was marred by strange metallic noises that faded in and out.

Long story short, it was an altogether unwatchable experience.

Now, it’s important to note that this was my first truly bad online video experience in quite some time. I’d even begun to foolishly convince myself that the day of robust, reliable internet video had arrived. So when I began encountering these problems, I assumed first that the problem must be local. I spent the next ten minutes closing and re-opening my browser, switching between Firefox and Safari, checking my connectivity, and power cycling my cable modem. Nothing worked.

My browsers weren’t hanging. It didn’t seem like a Mac issue. I had oodles of bandwidth available. And it had nothing to do with my cable modem. It just wasn’t working.

I know mine wasn’t an isolated experience as I searched the blogosphere to see if others were sharing similar fates and found many posts, in particular this one from Dan Rayburn’s Business of Online Video blog. He put up a post early on in the debate raising this issue that quickly garnered a string of comments from people like myself from around the country lamenting over the poor quality of the live stream.

Luckily one commenter astutely found and shared a link to another live stream of the event, this one from WKYC, a local NBC affiliate in Ohio. While it was only streaming at 200Kbps, it had something the major cable network didn’t: It just worked. So from that point on I was able to enjoy the last half of the debate.

But this isn’t just a story about some stuttering video. MSNBC made a series of missteps that ruined the online viewing experience.

Right off the bat they got their advertising all wrong. Each time you accessed the stream a pre-roll video ad played. Playing a pre-roll before allowing access to a live stream means missing bits and pieces of the debate every time I closed and opened the window. And since I was doing that frequently in a futile attempt to resolve the playback issues, I had to repeatedly sit through pre-rolls while live video was playing that I wanted to watch.

Making this even more bizarre was the fact that during the commercial breaks built in to the broadcast, the online version didn’t serve up any ads; it just went to a placeholder screen. That was inconceivable to me as at that point I would’ve been happy to have ads play. And it’s not like I was going anywhere as I was fully invested in watching what was coming up after the break so they had a captive audience.

Adding insult to the injury of stuttering playback was the fact that MSNBC’s player offered a button to blow up the video window to full screen. Offering me that ability is meaningless if you can’t deliver a quality viewing experience in a smaller window.

Further exacerbating this situation was that there were no alternatives given on MSNBC’s website to this poor quality video. Because it was so bad, I would’ve gladly switched over to an audio-only feed if it meant being able to listen to what’s being said without it stopping to buffer every few seconds.

My guess is this was a case of greater demand for capacity than there was supply, but I don’t consider that to be an excuse. MSNBC should’ve known a lot of people would likely be tuning in online as the debate was only available nationally on MSNBC, which doesn’t reach 100% of cable subscribers (like Rayburn, who has FiOS TV), let alone the people who rely solely on broadcast or only have basic cable.

Additionally, it’s not like it’s impossible to deliver live video to large audiences. CNN.com did it flawlessly a week ago, and making it even worse is the fact that a local broadcast affiliate was able to succeed where MSNBC failed.

But on the bright side, despite MSNBC's shortcomings it's good to know that streaming has at least evolved to the point where smaller content providers can produce positive online video experiences. And hopefully the lessons learned here by MSNBC will lead them to refocus their attention on the user experience before attempting their next major webcast.

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