The popularity of viewing the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament online led CBSSports.com last Tuesday to release a quarter of a million additional “VIP” access passes to the public.
The move brought the total number of Web viewers with unfettered access to all 63 tournament games — including the tournament championship game, to 750,000. Fans without VIP March Madness on Demand passes still have an opportunity to watch online, but aren’t guaranteed viewing.
IPTV Update spoke with Jason Kint, senior VP and general manager of CBSSports.com, about the success of the online, on-demand offering, how CBS pulls it off and what the future holds for broadcast content on the Web.
IPTV Update: How many fans viewed games last year via NCAA March Madness on Demand? What are you anticipating for this year’s tournament?
Jason Kint: Last year was about 1.4 million. This year I think we’ll have up to 50 percent growth year over year. That was when we did our initial projection and what we promised our advertising partners. We’ve now announced distribution on ESPN.com, Yahoo! Sports, SI.com, MySpace, Facebook and many other Web sites that I think will really push the numbers this year.
IPTV Update: How does the on-demand aspect of March Madness on Demand work? Is this a pay service, or do you simply request the game you want to watch during the tournament?
Jason Kint: It’s the latter. It’s 100 percent free. You can watch any game you want live, and there is no registration required this year. In the past, the one thing we asked customers was to fill out a registration form and log in with passwords. We’ve now eliminated that hook into it. So it is absolutely free, and within one click, you can launch the player and say “I want to watch this game,” and you are in.
IPTV Update: What is your perspective on the current and future role of gateway devices that make broadband Internet available in the living room and will allow viewers to watch Internet content on their TVs? Do you have any feel for whether these sorts of devices will be an avenue people will use to access an out-of-market NCAA Tournament game on their living room TVs?
Jason Kint: I am very familiar with those sorts of technologies and that world. I would argue pretty strongly that if you are that fan, then you are subscribing to the package on DIRECTV to get the out-of-market games and you are watching them in their beautiful HD-quality format. Nothing that we do here is going to replace the TV experience.
IPTV Update: While the production for broadcast is the dominant aspect of CBS’s involvement today, do you think online distribution of the tournament and other NCAA sports will eclipse the television presentation at some point? If so, why? If not, why not?
Jason Kint: No. I can’t predict out beyond five years, but as far as the foreseeable future, we’re talking about a product right now that reached 1.4 million users last year, which is around one percent of the overall TV audience. So we are talking about a very, very small market, and the difference between the quality of the Web and television for a live event like this where the production qualities of television —especially HD television — have come along so far in the last few years, we’re not going to keep up with that.
IPTV Update: What is the bit rate that is devoted to a stream of a March Madness on Demand game?
Jason Kint: It’s 450kb/s this year.
IPTV Update: What was it last year?
Jason Kint: It was at 400kb/s.
IPTV Update: Will new encoding technologies allow you in the future to boost the bitstream, or is it more a matter of server bandwidth, or some other factor governing the size of the bitstream?
Jason Kint: You can always boost it up, and there is technology out there to continue to boost it up and make the quality better and better. Then you just have to balance that against the tradeoffs of allowing as many people as possible in a pretty friendly environment to go to watch the tournament. By a friendly environment, I mean that obviously with this many people watching this on lower bandwidth networks, or watching it at the office on Thursday and Friday, we need to balance that tradeoff.
IPTV Update: Do you have any idea of how many people actually watched March Madness on Demand at the office in the past?
Jason Kint: We don’t release that exact number, but we do know that one of the major benefits of what we are doing is to allow people to watch games on Thursdays and Fridays where they don’t have a TV. You can connect the dots, and that leads to the office. So, we know there is a large audience at the office.
IPTV Update: Are there any other production elements March Madness on Demand will make available via the Web — for instance, data feeds of scores and other stats for other games in progress?
Jason Kint: The experience includes a live scoreboard and live statistics. It includes the ability to go back and watch full games that already have been played at this year’s tournament and archived highlights from previous years.
IPTV Update: Can you describe what signal feed you are taking from CBS Sports for the March Madness on Demand presentation?
Jason Kint: All of the video that comes from the various sites is sent to the broadcast center in New York, and the video is a clean feed, without any graphics. We don’t use that because we want to have all the graphics. We want to have the scores and all the rest of the stuff that CBS puts on top of it, like the promotions. So, we actually take the feed from the broadcast center in New York.
I think some people have the misconception that we are getting the feeds from the sites. We are not. We get a feed from the broadcast center in New York, and that feed is directed to Major League Baseball Advanced Media.
IPTV Update: Two years ago when I spoke with you about this project, I think you said CBS was partnering with Major League Baseball to distribute the games via the on-demand service. Is that the nature of MLB Advanced Media’s involvement this year?
Jason Kint: We do a lot more of that on our own now. Now they do the encoding and the actual insertion of the ads over the ad breaks. Anything beyond that is handled by us, including the player. Akamai is our distribution partner for the distribution of the live video.
IPTV Update: Do you watch this through your own proprietary player or an existing media player? Or, do you make it available for a variety of existing players?
Jason Kint: We use Windows Media, and it’s shown through our player. So that feed goes to Major League Baseball Advanced Media and then when they encode it and handle the ad insertions, it goes to Akamai for distribution.
IPTV Update: How have local CBS affiliates reacted to the distribution of games via the Web in their local markets?
Jason Kint: We went to them first before we decided to do it, so we worked together with them to get their cooperation as well as that of our other partners in broadcasting the tournament. From the CBS level, it was decided that this was additive and not cannibalistic. With a lot of this viewing happening at the workplace and getting a lot of people involved with the tournament early on on Thursday and Friday, it would be good for everybody.
IPTV Update: I believe ABC’s Web distribution strategy of its entertainment programming makes one ad spot available per show for local affiliates to sell so they can share in the Web revenue. Is there a similar opportunity for CBS affiliates to participate in revenue generation with March Madness on Demand?
Jason Kint: No, not at this point. We have separate national advertisers that we have sold out for on the player.
IPTV Update: Is there anything else you would like to add about the project?
Jason Kint: What’s interesting and unique is the developer platform that we’ve rolled out that teaches sites how to access and immediately go into a specific game. So where that gets interesting is if you think about our big bracket game that we are running on Facebook where we will have 3 million plus people playing a bracket game, next to any of the matchups in that bracket you will have a link that says “Watch Game Now – Watch Live.”
You will be able to immediately turn it on. So if you think about how you can insert video and broadcast type content straight into communities where they are consuming their content and spending their day, you can actually bring the video to them. I think that is a particularly interesting innovation, and we will see more and more of that.
IPTV Update: Can you give me a little more detail on the relationship with Facebook regarding the brackets?
Jason Kint: What this exact partnership was they had a bracket game last year that they operated that had several million people playing it. This year, that bracket game is being operated by us. It is the official CBSSports.com bracket game, and we expect a much larger audience as a result of our operating it and marketing it.
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