Wolk’s Week in Review: Fox Sports wins the streaming lag time Bowl, Will the NBA go to NBC?

Wolk's Week In Review

1. Fox Sports Wins The Streaming Lag Time Bowl

In tests performed by Jason Gurwin at The Streamable, the Fox Sports app managed to get lag time versus over the air (OTA) down to just one second, while actually beating out cable by a full 16 seconds.

This may seem somewhat trivial, but lag time has become a major sticking point in the transition of live sports from broadcast to cable.

For the uninitiated, lag time refers to the amount of time that broadcasts of a game actually lag behind the game itself. In prior years, certain streaming services were, at times, close to two full minutes behind the OTA broadcast. 

This creates a suboptimal user experience—your friends are texting you about a touchdown, while on your screen the teams are still huddling. The net result is to make fans skeptical about watching sports on streaming while creating negative word of mouth about the experience overall.

All of which makes the leagues far less prone to give the rights to their games to companies like Apple and Amazon that have no OTA or even cable outlet to pick up the slack.

And then of course, there’s gambling.

Why it matters

The additional revenue leagues can make from sports betting is a huge selling point for streaming. (Even if no one wants to say that part out loud.)

There’s a growing sub-sector of that called “micro betting” where people place bets on various events during the game, everything from who will win the coin toss to will the Eagles get a first down on this play. If there is a sizable lag in the time the play happens to the time it appears on the app, that makes micro betting impossible.

So there’s a real business interest in reducing lag time on top of the even larger interest in not turning off users.

I say even larger interest because access to live sports is a major reason people keep their cable subscriptions. The more users hear their friends say “yeah, I switched to YouTube TV but the game was like two minutes behind Comcast” then the less likely they are to give up that cable subscription.

Which is why we need to look at how Fox Sports pulled this off.

Because while Fox was a full 16 seconds ahead of cable, others were not so agile—YouTube TV was a full 56 seconds behind the OTA broadcast, something that must be keeping the NFL, which just gave YouTube rights to their Sunday Ticket product, up at night. 

The flip side of course is we now have proof that eliminating streaming lag time is eminently doable. 

Lag time is something we’ve been harping about since way back in 2016 (it even made it into our 2023 Fearless Predictions) and so, seven years later, it is good to see that the problem is, as we’d long suspected, not all that difficult to solve.

[Note the seven-year thing too. It’s further proof that nothing in TV ever happens quickly.]

What you need to do about it

This one is pretty simple. 

If you are a streaming service other than Fox Sports and you want to stream sports, you need to figure out what they did to get the lag time down to one second and then do that too. 

After which, you can trumpet your triumph to the various leagues and, more importantly, to viewers, as a key selling point of your service.

If you are one of the sports leagues or NCAA conferences, don’t sell your rights to anyone who can’t guarantee low lag time. 

You’re going to want all that gambling revenue, especially if the value of your rights starts to fall because streamers won’t have all those billions from carriage and retrans fees to pay you with.

That’s not nothing. 

2. Will The NBA Go To NBC?

CNBC’s Alex Sherman has a story this week on how NBCU is planning to make a big pitch for the NBA rights currently held by WBD, via their Turner networks. 

WBD has signaled they would not regard it as the worst thing in the world if those rights were to go to someone else, given the media company’s need to cut costs (among other things).

And NBCU once had those NBA rights and would (allegedly) like to get them back again.

The problem is that Amazon and Apple might want them to.

So what should the NBA do?

It’s an interesting dilemma.

Why it matters

The NBA is at something of a crossroads in terms of TV right now.

The regional sports networks (RSNs) that cater to the league’s most hardcore fans all seem to be moving to streaming (this despite the likelihood that Diamond Sports, which runs Sinclair’s 17 RSNs, appears headed for bankruptcy).

OTOH, ratings for the league’s 2022 finals were up 22% over 2021, and the league has the youngest TV audience of any of the Big Four US sports leagues (40something versus 50something, meaning “young” is relative.)

And unlike football, basketball, NBA basketball in particular, is popular worldwide, especially in places like China, with its billions of potential fans.

So overall, not a bad place to be.

WBD’s (likely) decision to give up the NBA makes sense in that the NBA—and sports in general—don’t really jibe with their current offering. 

While TNT and TBS have done a great job covering the league, sports seems like an afterthought in the greater WBD universe, which, right now, is struggling to make sense out of the combination of HBO, Discovery, CNN and Warner Brothers studios. So making a big push for sports and building a division around it is going to be yet another plate they're trying to juggle and better to let it go than to risk the whole thing crashing down on them. 

NBCU, though, does seem well suited for the NBA. They’ve got years of history, they’ve got a solid Sports division and they’ve got multiple delivery mechanisms—OTA NBC, cable NBC and NBC Sports and Peacock. All places where NBA games would not seem out of place.

This is especially true for Peacock, where the company has a shot at creating a respected albeit mass market product, something that is definitely not Netflix or HBO, with well-done entertainment programming that appeals to a much broader audience, along with news and sports, two things that also appeal to a much broader audience. 

Or, to put it another way, while I have no doubt that a large number of “White Lotus” fans actually do watch NBA games, there’s a gut disconnect in combining the two, something you don’t get with Peacock. 

So there’s that and it does provide a compelling reason to go with NBCU.

Apple and Amazon both offer their own advantages, though neither seems interested in the whole league package, just parts of it. 

Amazon has all that data about what we’re buying, data that can prove very valuable to the NBA, whose merchandise has worldwide appeal. The issue is getting people to tune in to Amazon Prime to watch, though I’m not sure Prime is any more difficult to locate than TBS or TNT, especially given the amount of time people spend on Amazon in general.

Apple is the outlier.

There’s a coolness factor that being associated with Apple brings, something that is very much on brand for the NBA, something that could help it bring in younger fans.

The downside is that it may prove too much for the older fans who make up the core of the league’s fan base and who may decide they can’t be bothered to download the Apple TV+ app. 

That’s a fixable marketing issue, but an issue nonetheless. 

Apple is also a global company with a huge presence in China (something Amazon does not have) so that’s a mark in their favor on that front.

Final note is that NBA rights for Apple or Amazon would mean an even bigger commitment to actual TV advertising for both companies, since those games are going to have ads. (No one wants to listen to announcers blather on during all those many two minute time outs.) And both have the ability to get creative with the way viewers interact with those ads.

Something else in their favor.

What you need to do about it

If you’re WBD, no one can blame you if you decide to let your NBA rights go. Sports is a huge commitment, both time and dollarwise, and this does not seem to be a good time for you to take on yet another huge expensive project.

If you’re NBCU though, this can really help cement Peacock’s brand and differentiate it from all the other SVOD services, so 100% go for it.

If you’re Apple and Amazon, this is a nice to have and a great way to expand your ad business, but you need to commit to it fully or risk driving fans off.

If you’re the NBA, you need to find a partner who can help you internationally, as well as in the US, someone who can help you to reach all of your various current audiences while establishing ties to a younger generation of fans.

That last bit is going to be tricky, given the length of your season, the length of your playoff season (!) and the trade rules under which half the league seems to be fielding a brand new team every year.

Just something to think about.

3. Odds and Ends

Something new I’m trying this week….ChatGPT Emptor: I was playing around with ChatGPT, asking it about a company whose products I like. It noted that the company had received favorable press, so I asked it to provide some links. It sent me five links, along with the titles of the articles. All were from mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal and ESPN. The articles sounded legit and the headlines fit the publications—the WSJ piece had a business angle, the ESPN piece referenced Major League Baseball. Only they weren’t. Legit, that is. None of the links it sent me worked, and a Google search revealed that none of the articles ever existed—none of the publications had ever written about the company. Point being, ChatGPT can easily fool you and has a long way to go. Though if you really want to get scared, check out Kevin Roose’s experience with the Bing beta chatbot falling in love with him.….The Continued Death of Creative Ad Agencies: It was telling how many of this year’s Super Bowl commercials, including the USA Today Admeter favorite from The Farmer’s Dog, were done in-house….Showtime Into Paramount+: While I like Showtime, it was a smart move in that there was never going to be a large enough audience to justify a standalone service and folding it into Paramount+ just strengthens both services and gives Paramount+ a whole library of shows from “Queer As Folk to Homeland” to “Billions” that will help draw in subscribers.

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. He is the author of the best-selling industry primer, Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry. Wolk frequently speaks about changes in the television industry, both at conferences and to anyone who’ll listen.

Wolk's Week in Review is an opinion column. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of Fierce Video.