Comcast MLB VOD gives San Francisco, Chicago fans new viewing options

By Carolyn Braff

As the Major League Baseball season gets into full swing, Comcast is hitting away with the latest options in Video On Demand. The Comcast Media Center’s storied history of VOD offerings gives the network plenty of experience with efficient turnarounds for on-demand game feeds and highlight packages, so it is no surprise that two major RSNs have made a successful slide into the VOD market. Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and Comcast SportsNet Chicago are now offering MLB VOD free to Giants, White Sox and Cubs fans who subscribe to digital cable. “While the game is being broadcast, we’re simultaneously recording it and encoding it,” explains Gary Traver, COO of the Comcast Media Center (CMC). “We build a metadata core, encode the original content, pass it through a second pass and build a file for fast-forward, pause and rewind features.”

After MLB relaxed its rules on on-demand services last fall, allowing teams to exploit the technology in their respective markets, turning live game footage into VOD now begins with the first pitch.

Comcast currently offers two options for VOD – the full-game broadcast and a cut-down summary version. The CMC originally piloted on-demand game summaries for the NFL and has since perfected the format for baseball, focusing on efficient delivery of the perishable content.

“You would be amazed at how quickly we do [cut downs],” Traver says. “We adjust our workflow during the times that we know high-profile sports content will be made available. We create priority structures within the way that we deliver content, so we keep specific channels open for high-priority content.”

Turnaround time for VOD access after the final out is usually less than two hours, and can be as fast as less than 60 minutes. Pushing out the full-game broadcast is easy; creating game summaries with an accompanying voiceover script requires editing and producing, which takes time, either at the RSN or the CMC.

“The CMC is an interesting player because we can do all parts of it,” Traver explains. “We can do the acquisition and the record of the game, VOD encoding, metadata and VOD delivery and we have editors and producers capable of doing the game summaries. It’s up to the client whether they want to deliver those cut-down versions to us or if we deliver the final product.”

Once edited, the stream is delivered in three separate entities – content, trick file and metadata – via satellite to VOD servers on the Comcast network. There is no uniform way of managing trick files or metadata in VOD, but for RSNs, the CMC takes the guess work out of file delivery.

“Different vendors of equipment treat the components very differently,” Traver explains. “There is enough variability in the standard that different manufacturers act differently depending on how the metadata is structured. We know what equipment exists in a particular city, so we alter the metadata to make it work in that city.”

Comcast’s larger markets have the ability to locally encode and create their own metadata, so both SportsNet Bay Area and SportsNet Chicago manage and encode their own content. Cable system servers then house it before delivering the VOD stream to set top boxes throughout the network, where it is generally available for 48 hours.

Giving fans the ability to navigate through a full game just one hour after its conclusion could draw viewers away from live game broadcasts, but Comcast is not worried.

“Sports is the last frontier for passionate viewing with a live audience,” explains Tim Fitzpatrick, vice president of communications for Comcast. “Our entrée into VOD will never replace a live audience because passionate sports fans are following every play on the edge of their seat. You can never replace the excitement of the live event.”

VOD is especially appealing for Comcast’s regional sports networks because of the wide variety of original programming that the networks are offering – on demand – surrounding their live events.

“News, talk shows, specials and features, that sort of content is going to be a lot more useful on a VOD shelf than live game content,” Fitzpatrick says. “As leagues figure out rights issues with team partners on a local level, we will have a lot more VOD content from Comcast above and beyond repeats of live game events.”

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