These are the signs of spring: the first crocuses, the first robin and the first Internet-streamed game of the new baseball season.
For me, the most enjoyable pleasure wrought by the Internet is that it lets me watch my beloved Red Sox throughout the season. I live behind enemy lines in the New York DMA, where regular telecasts of Sox games are prohibited by Major League Baseball broadcasting rules unless they are playing the Yankees and appearing on YES.
For years, if I wanted to see Red Sox games on TV I needed to take my summer vacation in Massachusetts. But that began to change a few years ago, when Major League Baseball began streaming live games on MLB.TV. This was about the time we abandoned our dial-up connection and wired a laptop in our kitchen so I could sit on a stool and watch buffering-challenged game streams. The quality was erratic at best, but it was a blessing to get any Red Sox broadcasts at all.
When we finally got WiFi, I could move the laptop to the living room or porch and that seemed like a miracle, especially as the quality of the cable connection improved. Yeah, it wasn’t great sitting on the couch watching a 14-inch screen, but it was so much better than it had been just a few years before.
Then last year, online baseball achieved an apotheosis. I bought an Apple TV device, which enabled me to easily stream the games onto the HDTV. And because MLB now allows you to select the feed of the home or visiting team, I could watch the local announcers, Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo, for every game. So the entire summer was like a trip to my childhood -- watching the Red Sox after dinner -- except that the quality of the broadcast was better than it had ever been when I was a kid.
So what does this mean for “Television” at a time when everyone’s trying to figure out whether the old business models still work? Because of the ease of use and quality, there was really no difference in the experience of watching baseball over the Internet versus over the air or on cable. If all I ever wanted to do was watch out-of-market baseball games (Yankees and Mets games were blacked out) I could have become a cord-cutter and dropped my cable service entirely.
But of course, I do want to watch more than baseball, so MLB.TV alone won’t inspire me to cut the cord. In fact, MLB.TV on its own wouldn’t be enough if the Red Sox had a successful season, because I’d need cable to watch them in the playoffs.
What MLB.TV demonstrates is that the Internet remains a terrific platform for niche interests or superfans. There are pockets of enthusiasts who will go to great lengths to satisfy their interests -- and for a price, the Internet can satisfy them. The premium package on MLB.TV costs $25 per month, which is a deal compared to the cost of a ticket at Fenway Park. But it isn’t just sports fans or video services that benefit from niche opportunities on the Web. Think of people who pay to play online games, follow an entertainer, or subscribe to specialized e-zines. There’s an Internet service for almost every enthusiasm.
MLB says it has two million paid subscribers for MLB.TV and its At Bat mobile apps. It also serves a million live video streams a day. These are big numbers overall, but still niche in the overall context of the 115 million homes who own at least one television. After all, the service only appeals to fans like me who feel exiled from their “real” hometowns. Most fans watch their team on their local station or sports network.
While MLB.TV won’t make me a cord-cutter, it does increase the bucket of viewing that Nielsen doesn’t measure. MLB doesn’t count in the regular TV ratings, so is listed as “All Other Tuning.” Online baseball is just one niche video service. Netflix is another. Hulu is a third. Pretty soon all these small niche players could begin to add up to something substantial.
One last point: watching MLB.TV shows that the advertiser-supported business model has not completely exhausted itself yet, especially considering the alternative. Last year MLB.TV showed no commercials, presumably because of rights issues. I found that I actually missed the ads. All of you who say you hate TV ads? Trust me -- it’s better to have even an annoying commercial than three silent minutes of a MLB logo. I never thought I would make this request -- but please, MLB, can we have some commercials this year?