The camera pans into the crowd lazily, catching the sight of the painted faces of college basketball fanatics. It then cuts jerkily to cheerleaders getting ready to do a routine. The audio is off, and then suddenly comes to life. The scene cuts to the tunnel below the stadium where the Virginia Tech Hokies are getting ready to take the court. They exhort each other and then run out of the tunnel. A cut back to the cheerleaders doing routines, while the players are introduced by the stadium announcer.
These weird scenes are part of the anything-goes action when you spend some time on CBS Sportsline’s March Madness on Demand, a free site that lets you toggle among the various basketball games going on in the men’s basketball tournament. Despite my tongue-in-cheek call for CBS to suspend the live feeds so that worker productivity would not swoon as usual, once again CBS is offering the greatest worker distraction since the O.J. Simpson trial.
Rather than rail against the unstoppable, I decided to go with the flow this year — the flow of the millions of video streams. Last year, CBS logged 19 million streams, and this year is off to a grand start with 800,000 registered users by tip-off of the first game, and 1.5 million visits to the video player by 4 pm the first day. I was stymied last year by the long waits in the virtual waiting room, so this year I made sure to sign up for a VIP pass, and have had no problem getting in to watch.
The Good, the Bad, and the Smudgy
One of the best parts of watching the games online is that you really are in control of what games you want to watch. With the click of a mouse, you can pick the live action you want to see, or check out highlights or the full game of previously played contests. Once you’re watching, you can zoom in for full screen action, and I experienced excellent video streaming, with few hiccups or stalls. However, my Firefox browser did crash twice in the first couple hours of watching.
At full screen, the video quality deteriorates and gets a bit smudgy, but you can still follow the action pretty well. My cubicle neighbors were “oohing” and “ahing” at the games they could see on my computer monitor. But while you do get control of the games you want to watch and for how long, you lose control of the commercials, which you cannot skip unless you switch games. At one point, there were four full 30-second commercials along with a CBS promo. Perhaps in the future, CBS can figure out how to build in a less TV-like experience that doesn’t overkill with the ads. But as it stands, most office workers could just do work while the ads are on.
A couple other quirks to note. Not only do you get some raw feeds before games start, as I detailed above, but you also get between-game commentary from a web crew that includes a very young host named Jason whose voice almost cracks as he talks about the games. There was even a shot of what looked like an online control room, where young producers stand around overseeing laptop jockeys.
Overall, CBS has a good thing on their hands, as do office workers who previously had to call in sick so they could stay home to watch the tourney on TV. Now they can watch with co-workers, and the ubiquitous “Boss Button” lets them bring up a harmless-looking spreadsheet in case trouble is brewing. And to add a little showboating, CBS made a deal with YouTube to show clips of the tourney, a nice contrast from cousin Viacom and its $1 billion lawsuit against the video hub.
What’s your experience watching the hoops tourney online? Have you had trouble getting in to watch? Did you like what you saw? What features would you like to see CBS add in the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below.