NBC's 2018 Super Bowl goal: A glitch-free livestream

The network's daylong coverage of the Eagles-Patriots clash is a big test for its upcoming 1,800 hours of Olympics action.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
4 min read
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady drops back to pass.

NBC hopes its Super Bowl stream won't fail as Tom Brady chases history. 

Getty Images

The Super Bowl, one of TV's biggest events of the year, is happening again Sunday. But Rick Cordella won't really be watching.

As the head of NBC Sports Digital, Cordella will lead his team in streaming 11 hours of the big game and related coverage -- and they have to make sure it all goes smoothly. He's not taking any chances.

This year, he's prepared 19 backup feeds. Most streams typically have one or two, just in case a problem arises.

This is the third time NBC will stream the game, but this Super Bowl serves as a test of the network's technology and capabilities for something even bigger. The Winter Olympics start just five days later in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and NBC plans to stream some 1,800 hours of the games over a two-week period. 

"It's not an easy task," Cordella said of streaming events like these, during a sportstvratings.com podcast last month. He's ready for all sorts of things to go wrong, like delays, buffering and low-picture quality. "We're trying to cover all of our bases."

There's good reason why Cordella is feeling the pressure. Streaming has become an increasingly popular way people watch TV shows, movies and live sports as well. Millions of people are opting to go without cable or satellite, preferring instead to pay for streaming services from Netflix, Hulu and HBO.

During each of the past two years, the number of people streaming the Super Bowl has grown by about 300,000, enough to represent the entire population of a midsize US city.

The NFL is showing it's paying attention. Sunday's game will be viewable for free through PCs, internet-connected TVs, tablets and phones using the NFL and Yahoo Sports websites and mobile apps as part of the league's renewed deal with Verizon.

Besides the bolstered streaming, NBC is experimenting with how to attract more eyes. For the first time, the Super Bowl will feature a SkyCam angle from behind the quarterback -- a point of view like the one in the hit Madden NFL video game. Typically, the swooping aerial cameras show the action from the side. The new perspective means fans will be able to look over the shoulder of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as he takes on the Philadelphia Eagles and seeks to become the first player in history to nab a sixth Super Bowl ring.  

NBC used the behind-the-QB shots during several NFL telecasts this season, but during the big game, there'll be two cameras and one will be able to zoom down from as high as 80 feet in the air, twice the normal height.

"I think it gives the football purist what they want to see, and the casual fan a shot that's 'not boring,'" said producer Drew Esocoff.

The SkyCams are among 106 cameras NBC will use on Sunday, more than the 70 deployed during each of the last two Super Bowls. The 106 figure also includes 38 cameras using 5K Ultra HD technology to create 360-degree replays and 20 pylon cameras ready to catch those ground-level shots in the end zone. NBC is also using seven 4K Ultra HD cameras, similar to those used in last year's matchup, said executive producer Fred Gaudelli.

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Lots of streamers

About 2 million people are expected to watch NBC's live stream, Cordella said. That's an increase from the 1.7 million who watched Fox's stream last year, and the 1.4 million who streamed coverage from CNET parent company CBS two years ago, according to Nielsen.

Though the 300,000 viewers the streams have picked up during the past two years may not seem like much, the number is similar to the populations of Pittsburgh (303,000), Cincinnati (298,000) and Tampa, Florida (377,000).

Despite the growth in viewership, the people who'll be tuning Sunday expect some issues, said Stefan Birrer, who runs Phenix, a Chicago-based streaming platform. A recent survey by the company found that 64 percent of viewers anticipate buffering, about 42 percent expect delays and 30 percent anticipate loss of service.

Any major disruption will no doubt spark complaints on social media, Birrer said, like during last year's Super Bowl. Fox's stream went down late in the fourth quarter as the Patriots, once behind by 25 points, rallied. 

Viewers began griping on Twitter, making the issue a trending topic. Fox fixed the problem as the Patriots forced the game into overtime and beat the Atlanta Falcons, capping the biggest comeback in the game's history.

"If there are some major flaws, there will be some major tweeting about it," Birrer said.

No matter who wins or loses, Cordella hopes NBC's stream will hold up, and pave the way for smooth Olympics coverage.

"We're ready for it ... I believe," Cordella said.

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