Jim Louderback

April 16, 2009

Not Today Zurg! – 4 Reasons Why MLB.TV Isn’t Good Enough to Replace Cable Yet

Filed under: Commentary,Sports,Technology Reviews — Jim @ 9:12 pm

Unlike many of my co-workers, I’m not ready to give up cable – or in this case DirecTV. First, my wife would divorce me – although my son and I could definitely make it work. But even if we’re not ready to join the “rip-cord” generation, I thought I was ready to replace some of those premium services that are also available on the ‘net.

First on my list: the $200 I spend every year on DirecTV’s Extra Innings Baseball package. For the last 8 years it’s been a godsend for this California-based Mets fan – but it’s gotten more expensive each year. I do love seeing 4 or 5 games each week in HD, but I’ve gotten more and more rankled both by the price, and the lack of Saturday games (Fox owns those contests, and they rarely feature east coast teams out here).

MLB.TV has offered live streaming of every baseball game for a few years. I tried it for a month in 2007 when I was in London, and it was passable – small window, jerky action, but better than nothing. Last year they moved to Silverlight and it was useless, so I didn’t even try.

But this year I was intrigued: MLB.TV reverted back to flash, and added in a new HD feature, along with DVR functionality. The DVR and on-demand features are essential to me, as most games start at 4pm while I’m still at work. Unlike many sports fans, I have no problem TiVo-ing a game and watching it a few hours later – I just avoid twitter and the other Mets fans in the office (Hey Ron Richards and Ryan Daume – it’s really nothing personal) when the games are on.

Every game in HD, on-demand, for $110. Could this be the year that I ditched DirecTV’s baseball package, saved $90, and saw EVERY game I wanted, wherever I happened to be? Gosh I sure hoped so.

Two days into the season I had the perfect opportunity to compare one to the other. My DirecTV DVR mysteriously cancelled its scheduled recording of the second game of the season – one I really wanted to watch. So after calling DirecTV and threatening to bolt, I subscribed to a month of the MLB package, with high hopes.

Alas, they were quickly dashed. Four days later I cancelled the MLB service and made up with DirecTV. Although the MLB.TV package is much improved from last year, it’s still not good enough. Here are the four reasons why:


  • Quality: I love HD. I have a 42” and 52” flat screen and HD baseball is simply stunning. Although MLB.TV promises true HD, and I more than the 3 megabits of downstream bandwidth to support it, the quality pales. My Dell 1330 has an HDMI out port, so I was able to compare MLB.TV and HD DirecTV baseball side by side. Even at 12 feet, the MLB.TV picture was noticeably inferior, with blotchy pixilation and poor motion. It was better than an SD stream, but just barely.


  • Consistency: When you’re watching DirecTV, either live or via DVR, it just works. Dropped video and audio glitches happen, but rarely more than once a game, and many (if not most) games are glitch free. Not MLB.TV. Even after I adjusted the quality level way down, I still suffered regular dropped frames, stalled video, and other glitches. At least three times while watching a weekend worth of MLB.TV games – both live and on-demand – the signal just stopped for no good reason. With one game, I was unable to progress past the opening frames of the 8th inning, no matter what I did. For no apparent reason the signal just stopped. I even waited until the next morning to see if I’d be able to see that inning on-demand, but it simply wouldn’t play – a heartbreak, because the Mets scored five runs in that inning, as I later found out, and put the game out of reach.


  • DVR functionality: I don’t think anyone at MLB.TV has ever used a DVR to watch a baseball game. Last year’s Silverlight implementation was dreadful, this year’s is simply bad. With my DirecTV DVR I can fast forward or reverse at four different speeds, and do a 30 second skip or slip forward, along with a 7 second instant-replay style skip backwards. The MLB player has none of these. Instead, you can drag the slider forward towards an approximation of where you want to be, or use the fast forward/rewind button. Those buttons are impossible to accurately control, which is compounded by the fact that MLB replaces the ad breaks between innings with a hideous promotion for the MLB.TV service that its customers have already subscribed to – made painfully worse because it touts features that have yet to be delivered. It’s an instant “buyer’s remorse” reminder, replayed over and over at least 16 times per game.  There’s no 30 second forward skip, no instant-replay, and worst of all, the controls that are implemented can’t be controlled by the standard Windows player buttons found on many notebooks and remote controls. My Dell IR remote was useless, meaning that I had to get up every half inning to fiddle with the controls to try to bypass the inane intermission ads – ultimately unsuccessfully


  • Video On Demand: MLB.TV has one nice feature – if you watch after the game has ended, you can jump directly to any half inning. Alas, MLB even botched that one up. They promise that the on-demand version will be available “soon” after the live stream disappears (which happens immediately after the game is actually over). Their definition of “soon” and mine, apparently, are far different. Midnight on the west coast – five hours after the game ended – is way too long for “soon” to apply.


There’s a lot to like in the MLB.TV package, including access to every game, video and audio from both home and away announcers, and the ability to watch on any PC or notebook. But for this fan, at least, it’s not ready for prime time. It’s close though – I could overlook one of the previous glitches, but all four just make it not worth the money. But since MLB.TV keeps getting better each year, I have high hopes.

Next on my hit list – DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket. $200 for 100 games works out to about $2 a game, or less than a dollar an hour of enjoyment. With Sunday Ticket, I end up spending about $25 a Patriots game, as many of them are on free TV. That’s nearly $10 an hour, so I’m a bit more motivated to find an alternate solution. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.


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