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Streaming Media Podcast #34: NBC Talks About The Silverlight and Sunday Night Football

I recently spoke with Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media for NBC Sports & Olympics, about NBC’s decision to leave the Flash platform and adapt Microsoft’s Silverlight Streaming for all of NBC’s major sporting events, including Sunday Night Football, the Olympics and Wimbledon. After we mourned John Madden’s decision to retire, and expressed our best wishes for Chris Collingsworth, we started discussing the parameters of the Microsoft agreement, what it meant, and what it didn’t mean.

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Perkins Miller

Perkins Miller

Miller detailed that NBC owned many broadcast and film-related sites, and that most used Flash and would continue to use Flash. Only major live events will be moved to Silverlight streaming. The pages that carry these live events will be exclusively Silverlight for both video and statistics, with any Flash remaining on the page advertising related.

Miller made it clear that the decision to adapt Silverlight wasn’t based solely on the technology. He commented that it was a broad and deep partnership between NBC and Microsoft, involving many Microsoft components, from MSN for promotion, Bing for search, Zune and XBox for distribution. Clearly the favorable experience from the Olympics was a big part of the decision.

When I asked if he felt like Smooth Streaming’s HTTP protocol would be more efficient for NBC to distribute, Miller replied that "we feel like it’s going to be a more efficient way to distribute the video" but "the proof will be in the pudding and we’ll see how it comes out this fall as we deliver these profiles and see the amount of people consuming this high bandwidth video." When I asked if there were any "pain points" with their use of Flash for the previous NFL season, Miller said no, and pointed out that NBC is continuing to use Flash in many of their sites. He also reiterated that the Silverlight decision wasn’t a pure technology decision, as they were "able to get so much from the greater Microsoft team."

Regarding Silverlight’s comparatively low installed base, Miller said that this was "a concern," which NBC hoped to minimize by making the download and install as "efficient and light" as possible. He commented that for major events "where there’s a lot of exclusivity and a lot of demand, that users are willing to take the extra step and run through the install process." He also noted that the "vast majority" of users who visited the Olympic site installed the plug-in. However, he also cautioned that "I think it would be perhaps a different story if you were trying this on a day to day basis in the news business."

We focused a good bit of time on the player for Sunday Night Football, which was developed by Vertigo Software. At a high level, the player is designed to put the home viewer in the producer’s seat. Unlike many web-video players, which are streamlined to simulate the television experience, Miller wants the Sunday Night Football player to be a very hands-on adjunct to the television, as NBC’s research shows that over 90% of their viewers will also watch the game on TV.

The player will have four exclusive, web-only camera feeds, with a scroll bar that lets the viewers produce their own instant replays, including slow motion. Markers on the scroll bar will identify significant plays, like long gains, scoring, fumbles and interceptions so that viewers can immediately identify and review significant plays. Data will presented extensively to encourage the user to explore the event.

Regarding the Silverlight implementation, Miller detailed that the program will distribute 7 different profiles of up to 720p resolution. I didn’t ask for details about the maximum data rate during our short chat, but Miller commented that their statistics from the Olympics revealed that over 30% of viewers were connected at 1.5Mbps or higher, so it's likely that the highest bit rate file will be at least 1.5Mbps. Finally, Miller agreed to chat again after the season to discuss the new Silverlight experience.

Perspective
One of my goals for the discussion–which was set up by Waggoner Edstrom, Microsoft’s PR counsel–was to understand if the HTTP live streaming experience was more efficient than RTMP, or less expensive, or delivered a superior experience. Miller stated that while he and his team thought Silverlight would deliver all of these and more, that the proof of the pudding would be the experience itself.

He also made it clear that the decision to leave Flash was limited to live events, and that the decision to adapt Silverlight was based on a broad set of technologies and services that Microsoft could deliver, not just Silverlight vs. Flash. Let’s face it: Any time a company like NBC switches streaming technologies, it’s a mandate for the newcomer. Still, be careful what you read into this particular decision, at least until we chat with Mr. Miller after the season.

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