First (Round) Look: Uneven NCAA March Madness Video, iPhone Experience

imageUpdated with comments from CBS: This isn’t one of those days when I can drop everything just to watch basketball; then again, it isn’t just any basketball day. It’s the first games of the first round of the NCAA Men’s Div.1 Basketball tournament and after all the warm-up writing, it’s time for some play by play. Your mileage may vary so please add your own experiences in the comments.

To get a better sense of why I ran into some of these issues, I spoke with Jason Kint, SVP & GM of CBSSports.com, between the afternoon and evening games. No traffic numbers yet but Kint said so far the vital signs show “it was a really good day for us and certainly broke the record” versus last year. By far, the biggest difference is the addition of CNET’s properties to CBS (NYSE: CBS) Interacrtive. As for problems, he said he spent the day with customer service in Ft. Lauderdale with that large audience watching online and so far hasn’t heard of anything major.

MMOD Player: The window in my browser insisted I should be able to watch CBSSports.com’s NCAA March Madness On Demand Player but not so fast. The MMOD player is a no go for Firefox 3.0.7, showing only some HTML text and a Pontiac ad, although someone at CBSSports.com said he could see it on Firefox 2.0. Trying to watch in *Google* Chrome opens a pop-up warning that this is an unsupported platform and that the standard video player requires Windows XP or Vista, IE 6 or higher, and Media Player 9 or higher. The “high-quality” player requires Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) Silverlight 2; it doesn’t mention the 3.0 beta released this week. (Microsoft is a March Madness advertiser.) Silverlight works on Macs, too, so might be the best way. As for Firefox, Kint said they knew Firefox 3.0 users have problems with the Microsoft Windows Media Player but that’s a very small percentage of the audience. The options are to use the Silverlight player or use IE. He said he had been worried about the complexity of offering two players with the addition of Silverlight, but it didn’t cause problems. (By late evening, CBSSports.com made the default for Firefox 3.0 users a window offering Silverlight as an option for viewing. It worked beautifully.)

Video quality: If you like watching decent quality video, don’t try the standard MMOD player full screen, at least not on a 24-inch wide-screen HP monitor. Blur city. (The almost-antique 15-inch flat-screen TV next to it doesn’t look that great either.) Smaller is fine. The HQ player was much better; I could even read the tattoo on a player’s neck but a good, clean picture is enough. The full-screen standard video player was still jagged on my smaller *Sony* Vaio TT with an 11″ wide-screen monitor; the HQ was higher, indeed, but not as sharp as I’d expected. If CBS wants to prove the PC isn’t a total TV substitute, good job. On the other hand, you can see the games — any and all of them — without paying one extra cent, and that’s something I could only do on my TV if I’d paid *DirecTV*for the privilege. You have to have been around during the bleak TV-only years to truly appreciate that. Kint said expanding the standard player is likely to degrade the lower-bit video, so my result from going full screen on a large monitor wouldn’t be unusual. (I finally had a chance to try this on my MediaCenter PC hooked to a 46-inch flat screen and the HQ results in full screen — it didn’t really fill the screen — were quite watchable. It would be a real option if I could only get the game I wanted online.)

iPhone: Lots of folks on Twitter are raving about the iPhone app produced by CBS Mobile and MobiTV. So far, our experience has been wildly uneven, sort of like the way the Memphis Tigers played today. It took numerous tries to get the WiFi connection to hold long enough to see anything, then it conked out so often the iPhone’s owner suggested it wasn’t meant for viewing longer than 90 seconds or so. He did get one streak to last more than 10 minutes. This is the same WiFi that’s holding steady for PCs on my home network, including the laptop now subbing as a dedicated TV for basketball, so not sure what’s happening. Also, it doesn’t default to the audio feed when WiFi doesn’t connect, which is what I thought would happen. (I gather that was a feature they tried to incorporate but couldn’t do in time.) The timing between the TV and iPhone feeds has been erratic, which wouldn’t matter to most people but could change a few last-minute bets. The connection issue we had is still a mystery and could be an Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) problem or even AT&T (NYSE: T) although the issue is on WiFi. By late evening, when TV viewing rules, the iPhone connection was seamless.

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