Play Ball: It's Over-The-Top Season

Last week was the beginning of the baseball season, but in our house it’s really the beginning of the over-the-top (OTT) season.  

OTT, as most MediaPost readers probably already know, is television programming that does not arrive via antennae, cable or satellite.  It includes subscription-based services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, free and ad-supported services such as Crackle, and transactional services like iTunes and Amazon Instant Video that allow users to pay for individual pieces of content.

This is where baseball comes in.  I live in a different DMA than my favorite team, so the only way to watch the games is to stream them over the Internet on MLB.TV. Since I’m already a heavy streamer of Netflix, HBO Go, and Amazon Prime, adding baseball games to my TV options crowds out most traditional television — except for the prestige Emmy-bait shows like “The Americans” and “Better Call Saul” that return this month.



I’m not alone in going increasingly OTT.  Nielsen reports that two-thirds of homes now have subscription on-demand devices — and, among those households, 10% of TV viewing is streaming.  

The traditional networks are racing to catch up and nearly every one of them now offers an SVOD service.  This makes it theoretically possible to drop the cable bundle altogether and cobble together a personalized TV platform of favorite networks and SVOD services.

All this comes in the face of a steady increase in cord-cutting.  According to the Leichtman Research Group, only 79% of households paid for cable or satellite service last year, down from 88% in 2010.  

But as appealing as a 100% OTT world sounds, there are still downsides.

The biggest problem with OTT is inconvenience.  There’s still nothing as simple as watching traditional TV: Turn on the set, click around to find something you want to watch, then watch.
Not so with OTT.  For starters, there is no simple way to gain access to all the major SVOD services.  I have an Apple TV device, and every time I want to watch something on Amazon Prime, I have to hook my laptop to the TV via an HDMI cable.  This is like having one TV in the living room for NBC, CBS and Fox and another one for ABC and ESPN.

I’m also not crazy about the way streaming services handle ads.   Netflix and Amazon Prime are ad-free, but MLB.TV needs to fill the time between innings, and for some reason — legal, I assume — it does not run the local ads associated with the local broadcasts.  Last year MLB filled the time with commercials that were not even as good as the ones you’d see on your local origination channel.  Seemingly between every half-inning I saw ads for an umpire training camp.  

I probably saw that commercial 250 times — 200 times more than any other single ad in 2017 — and I still declined the opportunity to become a Major League umpire.

Still, cheesy ads aside, MLB.TV is a major success for the OTT principle.  Only Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have more subscribers.  Baseball doesn’t have the buzz of other sports like football and basketball, yet with 162 games a year and an ability to tap the deepest reservoirs of family nostalgia, it’s still a major source of summertime programming. Its primary appeal is that it provides a vehicle for people who are away from what they consider their “real” home to remain connected to their younger selves.  

This is a lesson that other OTT services can learn from: OTT works best for subscribers who have similar general interests (local sports, entertainment, the arts) but different niche affinities (a specific team, a movie genre) that couldn’t be supported even on a cable network.   This is the formula that makes Netflix a powerhouse, even though only a handful of its shows (“Stranger Things,” “The Crown,” etc.) are as well-watched as traditional network hits.

So play ball.  Technology has added a lot to the TV viewing experience in the last 10 years — but nothing quite measures up to the satisfaction of watching my favorite baseball team all summer.

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