Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of online coverage of the 2013 Tour de France from NBC and ITV4 (UK)

I watched the Tour de France online again this year. (My reporting on the Tour from last year). In order to compare NBC's coverage in the US with that of French ITV4, I subscribed to NBC's US coverage ($29) and also watched ITV4 via an English proxy server. Both used the same video feed, but differed in several ways -- lets's look at some of the main differences.

Video players and interaction

The NBC player ran in its own Silverlight window as shown here:

Zooming in on the controls, we see (from left to right) that the user can share a link on Facebook, Twitter, etc., adjust the speaker volume, rewind 15 seconds with a single click, see how far behind the live stream they are on the timeline, jump to the live stream, reveal running commentary (tweets) and links to highlight videos and go full screen.

I preferred to leave the running commentary and links to highlights hidden, but here is a screen shot with them revealed:

NBC used what seemed to be the same player in the 2012 Tour de France, and you can see a more complete description here.

The NBC experience was far better and more interactive than that of ITV4. ITV4 emulated watching TV, merely displaying a live video stream inside a Web page. As you see in this screen shot, the user could only stop/watch the live stream, adjust the volume or toggle between full screen and windowed mode.

NBC clearly has a better, interactive video player.  It may be that ITV4 just streamed the live stream because there was a large fee for the right to archive it.

Streaming performance

My laptop has 8GB of memory and a solid state drive and my cable service is typically 15 Gbps, but my three year old CPU/graphic controller is not up to the task of watching full screen video on a TV set, so I did most of my watching on the laptop screen.

When I tried to go to full screen on a TV set, the CPU fell steadily behind, whether I was watching NBC or ITV4 or using Chrome, Firefox or Internet Explorer.  NBC would begin at its maximum speed of 2.5 Mbps, but it would automatically step down to 350 Kbps, then start dropping frames.   ITV4 did not display their speeds, but they seemed to be about the same and the results were also the same.

This is a temporary issue.  A fast laptop would probably be able to keep up with either and future versions of the player software will be more efficient.

Current status presentation

As shown here, ITV4 provided a nice race status display below the video window. Scrolling down further, you saw the overall standings and standings within categories like mountain climbing and sprinting.  It was convenient and easy to access.

Since the NBC player runs in a separate window, one had to open the video player and a Web browser side by side, as shown here, to achieve the same functionality.

Aligning and sizing the two windows was a bit of a bother.  Since one could scroll down and see pretty much the same current status information on both, I'll give ITV4 the edge in convenience.

Ancillary content and archives

NBC had a lot more ancillary content than ITV4.  They had more prepared material and, since they archived the video, a much richer selection of replays.  Ancillary content was organized as shown in the tabs below.  For example, the Track tab showed the positions of the groups of riders on the course on a Google map.  

NBC easily wins the archive comparison. They saved preview videos and full stage replays for each stage along with 213 stage highlight videos and 37 historical and human interest "tour extra" videos. ITV4 archived only a three minute highlight of each stage and ten short tour extras.  

That is the good news on NBC. The bad news is that they deleted last year's archive shortly after the race and will probably do the same this year. The BBC and NBC also deleted their 2012 Olympic archives.

Amazon taught us the value of "long tail" content years ago, but these guys don't get it. The cost of keeping an event archive online is very small and they are erasing history.

I guess it comes down to money -- couldn't they cover the the costs with ads or access fees? Perhaps the problem lies with the Tour organizers.  I assume NBC had to pay a fee for the right to archive the live stream, which was used to provide the ancillary material and the interactive player described above.  If that is the case, the Tour should keep the archives online.


ITV4 drove me nuts with commercials.  (Since I cut the cord a few years ago, I have really come to hate commercials).  You see the same ads every time you load their Web site.  I was surprised to see that the Nintendo Wii was a major sponsor in Europe, but I really got tired of seeing the same stupid ad.

But, that was minor compared to their commercial breaks during slow times in the race.  I counted one time -- they ran nine straight commercials without a stop, which seemed interminable.  (Since both NBC and ITV4 share a video stream, NBC cut to historical or informative videos during the long commercial breaks).

NBC had fewer ads.  Like ITV4, they played two commercials when you first came to the site.  One was a Microsoft ad favorably comparing a Surface tablet to an iPad.  It made the Surface look good, but, after seeing the same ad over and over, it became an irritant.

NBC also had banner ads above the video screen at times, but they were less obtrusive and frequently turned off.  I hardly noticed them, which also makes me wonder how effective they are.

The ads were much easier to take on NBC, but they were irritating, especially so in view of the fact that NBC charged $29 for the event.

That's my summary of the experience.  It is clear that both the technology and the business model are evolving, but the bottom line for me is that I prefer to pay NBC $29 to reduce the number of commercials and to get interactivity and archiving.  Being able to pause, have breakfast and resume where I had left off was enough to sell me.

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