Sorry, NFL Games Streamed Free to TV Won’t Become the Norm
Next year, CBS will broadcast the Super Bowl for the first time since 2013. When it does, it will send the game not just to its traditional television viewers or its mobile app, but to Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, and Xbox One, all for free, with no authentication required. For a very specific subset of sports-loving cord-cutters, Christmas has come early.
The most common complaint about cutting the cord is that you can’t reliably watch sports, or other marquee live events like the Oscars. Workarounds like antennas or streaming television packages like Sling TV can be either clunky or unreliable. And previous adventures in bringing big events online for the masses have been hamstrung by a variety of limitations. ABC required cable subscription authentication to watch the Oscars, despite originating on a broadcast network—that is, as an event ostensibly viewable for free. NBC made last year’s Super Bowl available without authentication, but only on mobile apps and on the web. The network also streamed its Sunday night games on mobile apps, but required authentication for those. CBS has streamed AFC playoff games in the past with no authentication required, but only on mobile apps. It gets confusing.
This year’s Super Bowl—along with a Thanksgiving NFL game, and another played in London—will suffer no such streaming restrictions. You won’t need to prove you have cable or buy an ungainly antenna to view it. You’ll simply need to open the CBS Sports app on the set-top box of your choice and hope you bought enough dip.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach with our streaming rights/offerings, and we always want to make sure we offer the best user experience for each event,” says CBS Interactive spokesperson Annie Rohrs.
That’s a huge relief those who have abandoned live TV altogether in their quest for streaming liberation, and who weren’t planning to watch the Super Bowl at a friend’s house or bar. That’s likely a minuscule fraction, though, of the more than 100 million people who tune into the biggest game in sports every year. Which means, says streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn, that we shouldn’t read too much into it.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal at all, frankly,” says Rayburn, who argues that most people already have access to CBS either through cable or an antenna set-up. “It’s nice that it’s available on things other than apps, but if you’re in front a of a big TV to begin with, why wouldn’t you watch it on broadcast?”
The Question of Quality
In addition to audience size, there’s the question of quality. ABC’s Oscars telecast, Sling TV generally, and several other recent prime time streaming attempts have been marred by sputtering feeds and dropped connections. So far, the only seemingly bulletproof provider of live streaming services is MLB Advanced Media, whose evolved infrastructure allows it to power everything from professional baseball games to HBO Now with minimal hiccups. CBS will be relying on its in-house CBS Interactive Advanced Media group to handle the stream, which will likely be facing its toughest challenge yet.
Besides, Rayburn points out, offering a splashy one-off stream like the Super Bowl may help CBS more than it helps its viewers. Not only does the network benefit from the PR push (“free” is a powerful word), it gets to collect all kinds of valuable data about streamers, generally, as well as presumed cord-cutters, in particular.
“Keep in mind that traffic to the live event last year was extremely small,” says Rayburn. “But CBS gets to see from a statistical standpoint how many people consumed the content over which devices, what was the quality that got delivered? It’s an awesome way to collect data and analytics of what’s actually taking place.”
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up
Knowing which platforms prove to be the most popular helps CBS know where to focus its streaming energies in the future, and using the world’s largest sports spectacle helps it test how it serves streaming ads—which are different from broadcast—at some scale.
“It’s more advertising feedback than anything,” says Rayburn. “They can figure out if the advertisers were happy, or what they’d what to see… It’s really a great way to collect real-world advertising information and hear back from advertisers for an event that has a lot of exposure.”
As for broader implications, don’t get your hopes up. The NFL specifically has broadcast contracts set through 2020, meaning you won’t see much more than one-offs like this until then. More generally, significant change in online streaming likely won’t come until services like Sling TV—or the rumored Apple equivalent—become more reliable and, in turn, more widely adopted.
Still, for anyone who thought your messy breakup with Comcast meant you couldn’t host the Super Bowl this year, take heart. You’ll be able to catch the big game on your big screen TV, no strings attached. Well, except for that HDMI cord.