The Week In Review: Sports’ Online Video Movement

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April 16, 2012 – 12:03 am

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MLBAM Hits Three Million

Is this the year that digital video comes to look much more like cable TV and broadcast? In a general sense, probably not. But there will be some special examples that do blur the lines more than ever. And as we've seen in January's first live streaming of the Super Bowl by NBC Universal, sports programming is where the dividing lines between old and new methods of distribution and advertising are being erased most decisively.

Case in point: the apparent success of Major League Baseball Advanced Media's (MLBAM) app strategy. The MLB's digital business arm's "baseball everywhere" strategy, that allows users of its At Bat app to purchase "season passes" to watch games on their mobile devices, has been in the works for years. But the important pieces, particularly the ability to insert advertising into live streams has only been truly effective since late last year.

Now, just a week after the opening of the 2012 baseball season, MLBAM says its At Bat app surpassed the 3 million download mark. Pretty impressive for a week's work. But it's even more impressive when you consider that it took about four months to reach that point last season.

The MLBAM has even more noteworthy numbers: since Opening Day, the mobile app has delivered a daily average of over 800,000 live audio and video streams, an increase roughly double last year's comparable daily average. Read the release.

Of course, that doesn't tell us how many complete games were viewed or what sort of engagement levels there are, but traditional TV can't offer those answers either, right?

Last summer Auditude, now owned by Adobe, was selected by MLBAM to build a rich media ad serving platform for inserting live ads. A number of other premium content owners are looking closely to see how that effort shapes up. Certainly, the MLBAM is betting heavily on video ads as a substantial revenue driver.

While MLBAM is still a long way off from taking ad revenue and viewers away from the traditional side, that is no where near the point – the company views itself as offering something complementary for fans. Which is about right, but when you consider that the free At Bat app costs $15.99 a month or $109.99 a season to watch games, is a lot cheaper than cable, the argument that cable subscribers would not "cut the cord" because they couldn't do without the sports coverage that only cable access confers.

That doesn't mean that everything is gold when it comes to the At Bat app. As Mediapost's Mark Walsh notes, at least one app reviewer complained about full-page ads alongside each in-app news posting, while someone else wanted to know why box scores were not included with the free content.

If anything, the success of MLBAM's streaming options - not to mention the March Madness digital video effort by Turner and CBS Sports last month - should push MSOs and individual cable channels to more quickly expand the TV Everywhere model before its too late. Still, if you can pardon the tortured sports pun, we're still in the early innings of streaming premium video.

Discovering Engagement

It's one thing to be a brand that has recognizable access to premium content like the MLB. But there's a lot of premium content out there waiting to be discovered as premium – or so content creators and their advertising supporters would perhaps content. Either way, the media landscape has long been fragmenting and ability of video to get seen depends major backing from a large distributor (e.g., heavy promotion as a YouTube channel partner) and/or a clever social media campaign.

There are a number of other video content networks offering to boost views and their attendant ads. One of these companies is digital video analytics provider Ooyala, which has introduced a new set of content discovery tools that it claims will enable publishers to dramatically improve monetization of multi-screen video.

The new tools are in "pre-release with select customers" – it's not saying how many or who – but claims the technology is already driving a "4X increase" in consumer engagement, which it defines as longer viewing periods and higher completion rates. Read the release.

"Typically you get to the end of video on a publisher's site and what happens? A black box. With Ooyala's new discovery tools, publishers can serve up a series of videos that are tailored to each viewers taste," Ooyala CTO Sean Knapp told VentureBeat's Ben Popper last week. "We have a huge data set, 200 million viewers, to learn about what people like. But unlike a platform like YouTube, we only serve up the next video from a specific publisher."

As VentureBeat mentions, Ooyala's white label service doesn't necessarily power unknowns; it works with ESPN, Rolling Stone or Victoria's Secret, among others. But online has a way of leveling the playing field. Ooyala says its data covers two billion "analytics events" daily, and that provides it and its clients with detailed insights into viewer behavior and video trends. Its content recommendations are focused on offering videos that are meant to be locally, personally and socially relevant.

To a large extent, the battle among Ooyala and its rivals will depend on who not only has the better analytics, but who has the better content. In many areas of the web, the notion of "customization" and "personalization" are terms that seem like splitting hairs, but there's an important difference.

The popularity of Google News and social readers suggest that people want custom content most of the time. But the truth is, users just don't want to work too much to have it. There is only so much that today's algorithms can predict. And much of the data is looking back, even if it's looking back a few minutes ago. For example, if someone has just watched a few comedy videos, do they want more of the same or something different?

The answer is… well, it depends. The nature of online is serendipity. Users often are most engaged by the things that they don't know they were looking for in the first place. That allows Ooyala and its brethren to steer users to surprises. But at the end of the day, users will only stick around for something better, more interesting than the last thing they saw. And that is a big challenge even for big data.

But Wait. There's More!

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April 16, 2012 – 12:03 am

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