A year ago I wrote a frustrated critique of the CBS television network's online coverage of the US national college basketball tournament, which we fans affectionately call "March Madness" even though half of it happens in April (link).
In the tournament, which includes 65 teams, there are often four games underway at the same time, and they start at around 9 am on the west coast. It's an orgy of basketball, but often a painful and frustrating orgy because inevitably your team ends up playing during work hours, or its game isn't even carried on local TV.
Enter CBS, which for the last two years has streamed video of the games over the web. I was furious last year when one of my team's games was blacked out on the web stream. CBS cut off access to it online because it was also being broadcast on local TV; contract problems between the local stations and the network prohibited streaming a local game. As I pointed out in my post, the time you most want to watch the web stream is when you can't access a TV. So CBS was preventing the most important use of its web coverage.
I was pretty steamed. I wrote at the time:
This mess is typical of the foolishness that often happens when old line media companies try to deal with the Internet. They spend millions setting up an elaborate technological tour de force but neglect to take care of the basics, like letting fans actually watch the games they want to see, and making sure all the features work. The lesson: The product you deliver through a website isn't a bunch of HTML and Java code, it's a solution to the problem of a user. Unless all of the elements of that solution line up properly, your product is a failure.
Okay, fast forward a year. Now it's March Madness season again, and this time I have to give CBS credit. They have lined up all the elements of the solution, and they've created a terrific product for their users.
Every game is being streamed live, with no blackouts and no exceptions. The video is a little grainy, but very acceptable when you see it in motion.
Look at the live feed of scores below the video window. You can switch instantly to any game where the score looks interesting. Plus, after the game is over you can go back and watch highlights, or even re-stream the whole game if you want to.
One of the annoying things about watching the tournament on TV is that the network cuts away from one game to give updates on others. So if your team gets a good-sized lead, the announcers will say "let's go to New York" and all of a sudden you're watching Gonzaga play Cornell. When you're watching the web stream, the announcers still say, "let's go to New York," but then they don't go anywhere.
It all gives wonderful empowerment to the viewer. Tonight I could watch USC choke like a dog with a bad hunk of meat in its game with Kansas State, and then pop out to catch Belmont almost upset Duke. CBS showed me the score and time remaining for each game, and I could decide what I wanted to watch.
There's also the obligatory boss button, which displays an amusing fake spreadsheet.
Not that I'd ever need it. Nope, no watching games during work for me. Unh-uh, we're far too busy.
Did I mention that the CEO of Rubicon reads my blog? Hi, Nilofer.
The business side of me admires what CBS has done with its advertising in its tournament coverage. Take a look:
This is what happens whenever there's a timeout in the game. The ad panel on the right is coordinated with the ads that you see in the video stream at left. So companies can make click-through offers or give more details on the things they're advertising. In this case there's a free sample offer.
The whole coverage of the tournament is free; apparently the ads are paying for everything. I hope CBS is making a bundle, because the feed on the web isn't just convenient -- due to the extra control it gives me, watching the tournament on the web is better than watching it live on TV. This is the first time I've ever said that about the web version of a broadcast television show. I feel like I've gotten a little glimpse of the future of video, and I really like it.