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February 27, 2008 10:11 AM

MSNBC.com's Debate Coverage Produces Bad User Experience

Last night I had my first moment of regret over having recently canceled my cable service in order to rely solely on Internet video for my entertainment needs.

I was eagerly anticipating tuning in online to what was likely the last presidential primary debate between the Democratic frontrunners. I had done the same for last week’s debate on CNN.com and had a great experience watching live video for over an hour. This week did not deliver on that promise.

As I tuned in for the start of the debate on MSNBC.com, I was immediately greeted by the vagaries of online video. It was choppy, with movement starting and stopping at random. It was buffering constantly, providing the complete opposite of the all-important goal of an unbroken viewing experience. Its audio fell out of synch, with the video lagging far behind the audio. And even that audio was marred by strange metallic noises that faded in and out.

Long story short, it was an altogether unwatchable experience.

Now, it’s important to note that this was my first truly bad online video experience in quite some time. I’d even begun to foolishly convince myself that the day of robust, reliable Internet video had arrived. So when I began encountering these problems, I assumed first that the problem must be local. So I spent the next ten minutes closing and re-opening my browser, switching between Firefox and Safari, checking my connectivity, and power cycling my cable modem. Nothing worked.

My browsers weren’t hanging. It didn’t seem like a Mac issue. I had oodles of bandwidth available. And it had nothing to do with my cable modem. It just wasn’t working.

I know mine wasn’t an isolated experience as I searched the blogosphere to see if others were sharing similar fates and found many posts, in particular this one from Dan Rayburn, a long-time colleague of mine who’s widely regarded as one of the top gurus in streaming media. He put up a post on his blog during the debate that quickly garnered a string of comments from people like myself from around the country lamenting over the poor quality of the live stream.

Luckily one commenter astutely found and shared a link to another live stream of the event, this one from a local NBC affiliate in Ohio. While it was only streaming at 200Kbps, which is lower quality than a YouTube video, it had something the major cable network didn’t: it just worked. So from that point on I was able to enjoy the last half of the debate.

But this isn’t just a story about some stuttering video. MSNBC made a series of missteps that ruined the online viewing experience.

Right off the bat they got their advertising all wrong. Each time you accessed the stream a pre-roll video ad played. While pre-rolls are the most common form of in-stream video advertising and generally regarded as acceptable by users, playing a pre-roll before allowing access to a live stream meant missing bits and pieces of the debate every time I closed and opened the window. And since I was doing that frequently in a futile attempt to resolve the playback issues, I had to repeatedly sit through pre-roll ads while live video was playing that I wanted to watch.

Making this even more bizarre was the fact that during the commercial breaks built in to the broadcast, the online version didn’t serve up any ads, it just went to a placeholder screen. That was inconceivable to me as at that point I would’ve been happy to have ads play. And it’s not like I was going anywhere as I was fully invested in watching what was coming up after the break so they had a captive audience.

Adding insult to the injury of stuttering payback was the fact that MSNBC’s player offered a button to blow up the video window to full screen. Offering me that ability is meaningless if you can’t deliver a quality viewing experience in a smaller window.

Further exasperating this situation was that there were no alternatives given on MSNBC’s website to this poor quality video. Because it was so bad, I would’ve gladly switched over to an audio-only feed if it meant being able to listen to what’s being said without it stopping to buffer every few seconds. But that wasn’t an option.

My guess is what precipitated all this was greater demand for capacity than there was supply, an all-too-common occurrence online, especially with live video. But even then I don’t consider that to be an excuse as MSNBC should’ve known a lot of people would likely be tuning in online as the debate was only available nationally on MSNBC, which doesn’t reach 100% of cable subscribers, let alone the people who rely solely on broadcast or only have basic cable.

Additionally, it’s not like it’s impossible to deliver live video as CNN.com did it flawlessly a week ago, and making it even worse is the fact that a local broadcast affiliate was able to succeed where MSNBC failed.

Experiences like this remind me of how nascent the delivery of online video is. Despite huge advances being made, it’s still not as reliable as turning on your TV and tuning in to a broadcast or cable signal. There are just too many moving parts, from the need for robust encoding capabilities and connectivity on-site to send video out from an event, to the many routes video needs to take over the Internet before reaching me, to all the things that can go wrong inside the home, like issues with a wireless router or problems localized on my computer.

That said, I don’t believe this experience is indicative of the industry as a whole. I’ve now had many very positive experiences watching live video online, including times when I was one of millions trying to tune in. Like for the Live 8 concerts over the summer, or for March Madness last year, which I’m getting ready to enjoy again in just a couple of weeks.

Live online video has endless potential, but it obviously still has a ways to go before it becomes a foolproof alternative to traditional distribution systems.


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