I received some new information from Comcast on August 22 about their issues with Extra Time. Click here to read that post.
For the most part, NBC Sports’ inaugural day of Premier League coverage went extremely well. The television broadcasts were smooth, the online streaming was high-quality, and most people who were able to watch the Extra Time overflow channels had few problems.
But there were a few issues with how pay-TV providers delivered Extra Time. Although NBC made all of the feeds available in high defintion, some providers – most notably Cablevision and RCN – scaled them down to standard-definition quality.
And then there was Comcast.
Whereas every other pay-TV provider distributed Extra Time as traditional TV channels, the nation’s largest cable provider took a totally different path.
Philadelphia-based Comcast chose to distribute the game feeds through its Xfinity On Demand platform. As I wrote last week, in theory it could be a good idea. Delivering live video of a niche product through means other than traditional channels can free up bandwidth for content that generates wider interest.
So it was a good idea in theory. It was a total disaster in practice.
Yes, that is strong language, but there isn’t really any other way to characterize what happened Saturday.
First, there was the matter of game feeds not showing up in Xfinity On Demand until 9:50 a.m. Eastern Time, just 10 minutes before the games were to start at 10:00. Because the feeds went live so close to kickoff, many fans weren’t sure if the system was working properly. Some feared they’d miss live action.
An even worse problem arose after kickoff. Say you started out watching Sunderland-Fulham, then wanted to switch over to West Ham-Cardiff City. When you did so, you got West Ham-Cardiff at the start of the broadcast, instead of live.
If you then switched back to Sunderland-Fulham, you ended up either at the point where you left off or at zero again. I heard from fans via Twitter who had both experiences.
Since the whole point of Extra Time is that you’re supposed to be able to switch around all the simultaneous live games, this was clearly not living up to what had been promised. Indeed, it wasn’t anything close to what customers of other pay-TV providers were receiving.
I spent much of my time at NBC Sports’ Stamford, Conn., headquarters on Saturday in the company of Jon Miller, the network’s president of sports programming. We have gotten to know each other fairly well since NBC Sports signed its MLS broadcast deal in 2011.
Miller picked my brain a few times about my views on NBC’s EPL coverage, and what I was hearing from readers. The entire NBC staff really wanted to put on a good show, and having a good user experience with Extra Time was a major part of the strategy.
So when I mentioned the feedback I was getting from Xfinity customers about On Demand, Miller paid attention.
A few minutes later, I noticed that Miller was standing a hallway on his cell phone, talking in a fairly strong tone of voice about what was going on. I promised him that I’d keep most of our conversations off the record as a condition of being able to speak frankly, but I can tell you that he has friends in high places.
That said, Miller doesn’t have any control over Comcast’s cable distribution side. In fact, NBC Sports makes sure to treat Comcast the same way it does every other pay-TV provider so that it doesn’t get accused of playing favorites.
Of course, they’re all in the same company at the end of the day. Miller knows that as well as anyone else.
Indeed, Comcast money fueled NBC’s three-year, $250 million rights deal with the Premier League. Comcast money helped build the state-of-the-art facility where NBC’s EPL studio show is based.
But there is an almost church-and-state separation of the content and distribution parts of the company. I’ll repost here the statement Miller gave me on Saturday about the relationship between the two sides:
It really isn't [connected]. It will be five years from now, but they [Xfinity] are treated just like DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner and everybody else. We have to go through the same things. We have to pitch them and sell them on doing this, and stuff like that. We operate as two completely separate entities when it comes to that side of the house.
There is separate management, separate protocols, you name it. In fact, I would say that because everyone here is so concerned about [interference], we bend even a little bit further just to make sure that there's no question about it.
You would still think, though, that Xfinity would want to be the poster child for distributing NBC’s content as widely as possible.
So when I saw a tweet from their PR department that you could watch all the simultaneous games online, I jumped on it.
That got a response from a customer relations staffer, and a back-and-forth ensued:
As you can see above, I accepted the invitation to continue the discourse off Twitter. Within a few hours, I got an e-mail from a PR representative at Comcast who I’ve worked with in the past. It was not the person who I dealt with on Twitter, but I'm going to leave the person's name out for now.
We talked for a while Monday morning, and here’s what I can tell you.
The big news is that it doesn’t look like anything will change soon with how Xfinity delivers Extra Time. The game feeds will still start at zero whenever you load them, and the feeds will still be delivered through Extra Time instead of as standard channels.
"The reason why we did it that way, so it starts from the beginning, is so that customers don’t miss a minute of the match," the spokesperson told me. "If we’re getting a lot of feedback that customers want us to join live, we’ll do that, but we don’t have any specific plans yet. We’re still gathering feedback."
I asked how "a lot of feedback" would be measured, and the spokesperson demurred. I asked again, and again I wasn’t given an answer on what specifically it would take to force a change.
One of the arguments that pay-TV providers often claim against putting the feeds on traditional channels is that there is not an infinite capacity to carry channels. I and others in the sports media industry dispute that, because these big companies have plenty of money to add more capacity.
And at the end of the day, all costs are passed on to the consumer. So if there’s a product people are willing to pay for, people will indeed pay for it.
So I asked some more technical questions about what it would take to add that capacity, or if it would be possible to use existing channels that aren’t running live programming at the hours of EPL games. There aren’t any games on the NHL Center Ice channels at 10:00 a.m. Eastern on a Saturday.
The spokesperson said it was not a subject for which I could be given an immediate answer, but that I’d be given information later.
I got that answer to a few other questions, which I can accept as long as I get the information at some point. Among those questions was how long it would take to change the On Demand system to allow consumers watch feeds truly live.
Another such question was how long it will take to roll out Extra Time to all Xfinity On Demand customers nationwide. Right now, the feeds are only available in certain markets.
It is true that this is the first time Comcast has ever run live content of this scale through the Xfinity On Demand platform. But to hear from a company of Comcast’s scale – and knowing some real smart engineers over there – I can’t help highlighting quotes like this one from the spokesperson I talked to.
What the team is looking into is how it’s operated on the on-demand platform, with joining it live versus starting from the beginning. That’s the type of feedback that the team is trying to get.
Right now the answer is we don’t at this point have plans to change that. As the season progresses and we continue to get more feedback, we might consider tweaking the experience to better suit our customers.
I don’t mean to come across as being totally in NBC Sports’ corner on this, but it’s hard to not be. I thought they did a great job from their end, and I said so in my behind-the-scenes story.
I also agree with Miller on the main point he made about viewers’ complaints, which is that they have to contact their cable or satellite provider and make their voices heard.
As he told me Saturday:
Every game is being delivered to every MVPD in high-def. Once it gets to that MVPD, it's up to them how they're going to make sure they distribute it.
And it's incumbent upon fans and consumers to tell their MVPD, "Hey, we know you're getting these games, and we want to be able to see them. Please make it easy for us."
It doesn’t do much to complain to NBC. Nor does it do much to complain to me, honestly. I appreciate hearing about your experiences and I’m happy to help spread the word about problems, but I can’t actually solve any of them.
So I asked the Comcast spokesperson what the best way is for viewers to make their voices heard. I was told that the company definitely pays attention to Twitter, and indeed, there’s a list of customer service accounts here.
There’s also a phone number, 1-800-934-6489, and there are other ways to contact the company here.
I will report back when I hear more on the technology questions that I raised above. For now, it seems like the best thing you can do is make your voice heard.