MLB's Web Video Puts Everyone Else To Shame

Today is Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, which means the first real game in more than five months for most players and fans. It’s also a big day for the league’s Internet division: MLB Advanced Media is pushing a full slate of games for the first time through its new MLB.TV Web streaming service — rebuilt almost entirely during the off-season.

With this new rollout, the league is raising the bar on how live television is distributed over the Web. While TV networks are still figuring out the best way to put last night’s sitcom online, MLB is about to stream a season of more than 2,000 live games in hi-definition with more features than any cable box.

Beyond pausing and rewinding live games as you can with a DVR, subscribers can watch up to four games at a time with “mosaic” picture-in-picture; select different audio channels, including synced-up radio commentary streams; and follow their favourite players (or fantasy team) as they play their games, including live video peeks. Nothing comes close.

There’s more to come: MLB’s excellent At Bat iPhone app — now the no. 3 paid app in Apple’s app store — could have live video streaming this summer, using a new streaming tool that Apple is building into its iPhone 3.0 software, says MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman. And Bowman is still working on a deal with teams and TV networks to introduce in-market Web streaming — something he says he’s been working on “since 1921, it seems.” Last summer, he said it was still five years out. Now, he tells us, “hopefully less.” (Local, in-market games are currently blacked out and can’t be streamed — to protect TV rights holders.)

We sat down for a chat with Bowman (pictured, left, in a staff meeting) late last week at MLB Advanced Media’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market.

SAI: A lot of video on the Web — especially anything live — is still lousy. When is the rest of the media industry going to catch up with the kind of stuff you’re doing?

Bowman: I don’t think they have a choice. They’ve got to figure out how to get it online. That ship has sailed and people want choices. [TV networks] have their own host of important stakeholders — just like we do at baseball — that they need to wrestle with — internal, external — all in the name of trying to serve customers.

I think they are going to have to move headlong. I think what will be discussed more thoroughly is what the model is.

Like requiring people to have an offline TV subscription like cable to watch online video, or something like that?

At a minimum, that will be it. But I think they may develop different levels. You get simultaneous viewing if you’re a certain kind of subscriber. A different kind of viewing if you’re not. Right now, with broadband, with your connection, you can have gradations — you pay more for faster speed. Who’s to say that can’t be replicated in a similar fashion — in terms of the range of content that’s available and also the timing of it?

Speaking of broadband, one cable company — Time Warner Cable — is testing plans that limit the amount of bandwidth subscribers can use every month before they have to pay a steep overage charge. That could affect your business delivering hi-def Internet TV. Is this going to work?

I don’t think that ever has a chance of happening. I think AOL tried that when they first launched, charging people by the hour. The notion that they’re going to start charging people based on bandwidth and regulating the bandwidth is going to be very hard for them to do. Bandwidth is just not consumed like gas. I think there will be lots of interested parties if they start to regulate access to the media.

You cut the price of MLB.TV by $10 this year to deal with the lousy economy. How are sales compared to last year?

Right now, on an apples-to-apples basis, five days out from Opening Day, we’re slightly ahead. There’s no question we’ll be ahead of 2008 by Opening Day. We’ve been pleasantly surprised both by the sheer numbers and that our returning fans understand the difference between the premium — the hi-def — and the basic subscription. I think we’re probably at two thirds at the premium level. Last year it was about 50-50. That may mellow out as the season goes on, but it’s certainly way above last year.

And how’s the advertising market looking?

We’re like everybody else; we’re working twice as hard to stay even. My own view though, is, that while some of the easy and logical companies — finance, autos — are certainly in a different spot than they were last year, they’re replaceable. People still want to advertise. Whereas last year we might have had 20 sponsors spending x dollars, this year, to get x, it might be 50. And that has all sorts of advantages.

The NCAA has been selling an iPhone app that lets people watch March Madness games live over wi-fi. Is that sort of thing on the roadmap for At Bat?

Apple’s working on a technology that will allow live streams. Fortunately, that technology overlays very well with how we do our live streaming. So when iPhone 3.0 is ready, we think we’ll be able to offer live streams. If there were a heaven and it came out in midseason, maybe we offer a game or two a day and that way we don’t drop the price for At Bat. We would love to do live games on the iPhone. I think people would watch. A whole game? Probably not. But 10 minutes?

A local software startup called Boxee has been running into trouble with Hulu, whose old-media corporate parents don’t want people watching Web shows on their flatscreen TVs. Any pressure from baseball or your TV partners to prevent your customers from doing that with live baseball games?

Nothing we can do about it. If someone hooks it up to a TV, they don’t get in-market streaming. I’d say that kind of stuff is good and it doesn’t substitute for anything. It is a small group of a small group that is doing that.

You are a Milwaukee Brewers fan. I am a Chicago Cubs fan. Think my guys will embarrass yours again this year?

Oh please. Let me say this. I remember seeing the Brewers in the World Series in 1982. I haven’t been to a Cubs World Series game!

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