With 100 games of the 2013/14 Premier League season completed, it’s an opportune time to rate how NBC Sports is doing in its first season of its three season deal in broadcasting the Premier League to a US audience.
The acquisition of EPL US media rights by NBC Sports from FOX Sports has raised the bar on the TV coverage of English soccer in the States. But despite the positive steps, there are still areas of improvement needed that can make the coverage better, which will help bring more viewers to the sport.
In reviewing NBC’s work thus far, I’ve divided their coverage into 9 areas — covering everything from their web coverage and online streaming to TV production, and more.
Now that we’re 25% into the season, here’s how NBC Sports is doing so far:
Production and presentation
NBC’s production and presentation of the Premier League is exemplary. Never before have viewers in the United States had such a polished and professional experience of watching the EPL on US television. Everything from the studio set, to the camera angles and on-screen graphics are exceptional. NBC gives the Premier League (and viewers of the Premier League games) the reverence it deserves.
1. The studio is clean, large and inviting. The open space doesn’t make the broadcast feel stuffy or cramped. Plus the large studio space gives the production crew options for different camera angles to keep the broadcast fresh and exciting.
2. The background music that’s used is unobtrusive and adds to the overall warm-and-fuzzy feeling you get when watching and listening to the broadcast.
3. The incorporation of video such as aerial footage of the stadium, players inside the tunnel before they go out on to the pitch, and fans singing anthems in their entirety before games kick-off has been a joy for soccer fans both new and old.
4. No crawl across the bottom of the screen.
5. The use of a score ticker in the right corner of the Saturday 10am ET game on NBCSN has been a revelation. It doesn’t detract from the game. It can be incredibly helpful to stay on top of the scores from the other games, and it can be useful if you want to switch channels for a second to see a goal from elsewhere (particularly during a break in play in the 10am ET NBCSN game).
6. The pre-match and post-match Premier League Live show features sound analysis and news without the joke fest or shallow coverage that FOX Soccer previously produced. There is now a reason to tune in early and to stay tuned in after Premier League matches.
7. The on-screen graphics by NBC including the score box in the top left corner are professional. They’re larger than what we’ve been accustomed to in previous years from other broadcasters, but I have no complaints.
8. Premier League matches have been given the reverence they deserve. The broadcasts start on time (compared to FOX Soccer who sometimes started “live” matches 2-3 minutes after they actually kicked off). Plus, when matches are over, NBC have switched over to other broadcasts where games are being played, which has been a small but wonderful treat this season.
1. NBC has experienced issues syncing up the video feed with audio feed for the games it has shown where they’ve used their own commentators (Arlo White along with a co-commentator). Thankfully those early season hiccups seem to have been resolved now.
2. The use of the two English gentlemen from Football Four Eyes at the beginning of one of their Premier League Live shows earlier this season was misguided. No one knows who these people are. They’re not funny nor are they informative.
When NBC Sports announced the commentary team earlier this year as well as their plans on how it would operate, there were few complaints from fans or pundits. There were, however, a lot of question marks from soccer fans who either weren’t familiar with the talent, or were skeptical. Let’s review how they’ve done thus far.
1. The use of the commentators on site featuring Arlo White/Lee Dixon for Saturday matches, and Arlo White/Graeme Le Saux for Sunday games, has been a breath of fresh air, giving the commentaries a professional feel and remaining topical for American viewers (when necessary). It’s obvious how hard these three men work in preparing for games. And the balance of commentary and statistics is perfect. There’s no using stats here as a crutch unlike other commentators.
2. Arlo White’s temporary replacement, Steve Bower, has been brilliant. The former MUTV commentator has stepped right in where White left off (while he’s commentating MLS games). Bower, if anything, is even better than White. He’s more incisive, less talkative and has an instant camaraderie with Dixon and Le Saux.
3. The decision to bring Tim Howard into the commentary booth was risky, but it paid off for NBC with a low key and rather uneventful co-commentary where he was able to add his insight particularly regarding Joe Hart.
4. NBC’s use of their own commentators for 2-3 games per weekend coupled with their decision to use the TWI/IMG commentators for the other games has been a perfect balance.
5. The commentaries have been so practically flawless that there have been so few criticisms this season, which has been so refreshing. Soccer fans in the United States can now concentrate on the games without annoying distractions.
1. Other than the technical glitches and audio/video syncing issues early in the season, I have no complaints.
Other than production and presentation, the other area that NBC had the greatest opportunity to improve on FOX Soccer’s presentation of the Premier League was in the area of analysis and punditry.
1. The team of Rebecca Lowe, Kyle Martino, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe are professionals who are focused on making sure that every word they utter matters. They’re not talking to fill space. Their words are meaningful.
2. The chemistry between the team feels like they’ve been working together for years. No one is trying to out-do another person on the broadcast. You get the feeling that they’re all working together to inform the viewer.
3. It’s clear to see that Martino, Earle and Mustoe work incredibly hard in watching and researching games and stats, as well as working hard in rehearsals to stay on top of their game. There have been very few flubs so far this season.
4. Rebecca Lowe is fantastic. She’s an ideal presenter to bring the Premier League into the homes of America. Her knowledge of the game is exceptional. She’s a great complement to Mustoe/Earle/Martino. And she keeps us listening in to her every word each week.
5. Kyle Martino has been a revelation this season. He’s come along so much so quickly from his days at FOX Soccer. At the same time, Earle and Mustoe have been consistent and a pleasure to watch, too.
1. The analysis by Earle, Mustoe and Martino is beginning to become stale. It’s not that what they’re saying is wrong or misinformed (as was so often the case with FOX Soccer’s Premier League analysis). But the analysis has become too conservative and predictable. After an impressive beginning to the season, it’s rare now that you’ll hear an enlightening piece of analysis of something you didn’t already think or see in the game yourself. The trio of pundits are oftentimes reinforcing salient points without taking the analysis to the next level, where a Gary Neville or Jamie Carragher might reveal something to us that we didn’t know or see.
2. Every time I see the trio of pundits standing in front of the jumbo TV monitor to share some tactical insight, I cringe. It’s not what they’re saying that makes me feel uncomfortable, but the whole contraption of the large monitor with antiquated touch-screen knobs and controls that doesn’t work for me. It’s awkward, clunky and the angle of a TV camera showing a TV monitor doesn’t work. Plus, I don’t want to see a shot of the two analysts standing either side of the monitor showing me the screen. I just want to see the screen itself, so I can see what they’re showing me (and hear their voices).
NBC probably spent a ton of money on the software, but there are far better pieces of technology out there that bring the viewer “into the action.” This way, it’d be easier for the viewers at home to watch and listen instead of being distracted by the method of how the analysis is being presented.
3. I’m concerned that the talent are starting to get burned out. It’s a marathon of a season, and Saturdays are a grueling 12 hour day for the NBC personalities. But mistakes are beginning to creep in, particularly small ones on Sunday morning broadcasts (presumably with the cast feeling a little tired after a long Saturday). The team are holding it together, but I wonder if there’s an opportunity to bring in some new faces now and again just to give the talent a break, so they can recharge their batteries. The key will be finding personalities who fit NBC’s ethos and who don’t downgrade the quality of the Premier League Live show.
The quantity and quality of Premier League shows that NBC provides its viewers is enormous, more than anything a soccer fan in the United States has ever experienced.
1. NBC’s decision to broadcast a Match of the Day and Match Of the Day 2 show was spectacular. The late night show is a brilliant way for people to catch up on the games they missed. It’s like clockwork, and it works.
2. The Premier League Club Selection Show that NBC launched in August was informative and a joy to watch. While it was aimed at new fans to soccer and the Premier League, the show was entertaining for veteran fans too.
3. NBC’s Manchester Mondays show that’s aired late on Monday night features highlights of the two Manchester club’s matches from the weekend with the added bonus of footage from the club’s official football channel. This is a must-see for City and United fans.
1. I underestimated how much loyalty and impact the Premier League Review Show has had on audiences that were used to watching it on Sunday nights on FOX Soccer for years. NBCSN broadcasts the Premier League Review Show on Tuesday mornings (typically at 2am ET) that includes the weekend highlights as well as the Monday game. NBC probably thought that viewers would prefer a more comprehensive weekend review show featuring highlights of all of the games, but the resounding feedback I’ve read and listened to is that people miss their Sunday night review show. Yes, NBCSN has Match Of The Day and Match of the Day 2, but they’re not in the same “easier to digest” one hour format that soccer fans have been used to religiously watching every Sunday night for years.
2. The first episode of Premier League Download was entertaining, but the show got old real fast with the same talking heads saying nothing really of interest or value. It felt more like a pop culture show about soccer — cheap, easy and empty.
3. I’m not sure how much of a priority NBCSN’s outdoor programming or infomercials are, but there’s definitely a demand from soccer fans to have more replays of Premier League games shown on TV each week — even if it’s in the middle of the night when viewers can DVR games. Not everyone has access to Premier League Extra, so having more games shown on NBCSN would be appreciated by all soccer fans.
NBC Sports Live Extra
Watching soccer games online is more commonplace than it’s every been — whether you’re on the road, at work or at home with a laptop open while watching a different game on TV. The NBC Sports Live Extra app allows Premier League soccer fans the ability to watch any live game, which has never been available before in the States.
1. For the live experience, the accessibility of NBC Sports Live Extra has been fantastic, offering soccer fans the ability to watch any Premier League match live on their computers, smart phones or tablets.
2. During a live game, the features of NBC Sports Live Extra are very useful. You can jump to the goals within seconds of them being scored, or you can return to ‘Go live’ with a simple click.
1. For the on-demand experience, NBC Sports Live Extra has been nothing short of a disaster. If you miss a live game, NBC Sports Live Extra currently doesn’t have the ability to let you watch the game on-demand via smart phones or tablets. You can however watch on-demand games online, which leads me to my next point.
2. Only select games are available to watch on-demand online via NBC Sports Live Extra. And finding those said games can be an ordeal, to say the least. In previous weeks, NBC’s Pro Soccer Talk website has posted links to the on-demand games, but there have been times when the links have pointed to team guides, not the games themselves. Even when you can find the on-demand games, the matches often buffer, making online viewing practically a nightmare to watch.
The reality is that you if miss a live match, and you want to watch it on-demand, NBC Sports Live Extra is currently not a viable or consistent solution. Your best bet is to watch the games on Premier League Extra Time (more on that later) or to just watch the highlights show instead (which is a shame if you want to see the game in its entirety).
3. For soccer fans who like to jump from game to game during live matches, the pre-roll video plays every single time a live match is selected. I’m for all monetizing NBC Sports Live Extra to help pay for rights fees and incurred costs of running a platform like NBC Sports Live Extra, but the pre-roll ads get in the way of being able to switch quickly from game to game especially during Saturday 10am-Noon ET windows. If it’s possible to show the pre-roll video just once every 24 hours, that would be better.
4. When watching live games online via NBC Sports Live Extra, I’ve experienced this issue several times throughout the season — when you click on the links to the other live games in the horizontal navbar near the top of the page, the links are sometimes not updated so clicking on the link will take you to a different game entirely than the one you chose.
5. I’ve noticed that the iOS version of the NBC Sports Live Extra app often stops playing and returns to the main menu — even when I’m watching games live via a strong WiFi connection.
6. In a moving car (while sitting in a passenger seat), trying to watch a live game via the NBC Sports Live Extra app is practically impossible. You may get a minute of the game, at best. But the iOS app (using AT&T’s 3G network) doesn’t allow you to watch live games in their entirety (not even close). In contrast, the FOX Soccer 2Go app is far more reliable in the same circumstances.
7. As the popularity of NBC Sports Live Extra has increased during the season with more soccer fans watching live games on it, the video quality has been an issue particularly on 10am ET games when some of the top teams are playing in the same window. Even with a hard-wired Internet connection, buffering happens more than it should. And when games are watched in full-screen mode, the video quality is often not good enough.
8. Android users experienced a lot of issues earlier in the season with the NBC Sports Live Extra app for Android devices being practically unusable. NBC, to their credit, upgraded the Android app to improve the viewing experience. Technically, however, it’s a difficult job to keep all Android users happy as the app works well on most of the popular Android devices, not all. It’s the nature of the beast, unfortunately.
Premier League Extra Time
NBC launched a brand-new feature for its first year of Premier League TV coverage, which is Premier League Extra Time. The feature is actually overflow channels that most TV providers offer to its subscribers, so you can watch live games that are not being shown live on NBC or NBCSN. Plus many of the games are available as video on-demand for later viewing.
1. If your TV provider offers Premier League Extra Time, consider yourself fortunate. There are still a small number of TV providers who are not providing the service. Or, for example, Tivo users who have Xfinity Comcast are not able to access the Premier League Extra Time features via on-demand.
1. The only complaint is that some TV providers don’t make Premier League Extra Time available, but that’s no fault of NBC Sports. That’s a decision for each TV provider. NBC is making the overflow channels available free-of-charge.
Marketing and promotion
Production, analysts and commentary are key ingredients in making a successful launch, but the marketing and promotion to let people know that Premier League matches are now on NBC Sports is just as crucial.
1. NBC scored a home run hit with their Ted Lasso viral videos starring Jason Sudeikis. The NBC network gained instant credibility on both sides of the Atlantic, making sure that the words “NBC” and “EPL” were on the tips of the tongues of all US soccer fans.
2. NBC scored another hit with the advertising it did on the NBC subway cars in New York City. The subway cars were so popular that fans of some of the clubs made special pilgrimages to see them in person, and to share the photos on social media for everyone else to see.
3. Even though the decision by NBC was risky to put Gareth Bale on a giant billboard in New York’s Time Square, it was bold, caught people’s attention and made a statement that English soccer has hit mainstream.
4. NBC’s advertising on taxi cabs and on street posters in NYC was another smart move.
5. NBC’s I Was There video series has been brilliant, often capturing what it means to be a football supporter, showing the passion and fandom that we often don’t see on television.
This is one of those aspects of NBC’s coverage of the Premier League that will often be overlooked, but it has an impact on the overall coverage in terms of how the league is presented. When Premier League games were featured on FOX Soccer, the advertising on the network and during the programming often were smaller brands or the same ads over and over again from energy supplements, cheap phone services or hair replacement companies. As the ratings grew, so too did the calibre of advertisers who paid to have their products or services aired on FOX Soccer.
1. With NBC Sports, the majority of brands who are advertising during Premier League broadcasts on the US network are major brands.
1. On NBCSN, there are legacy advertisers who are targeting their products at the outdoors audience who watch the hunting and fishing programs on the network. However, there is overlap where these ads are often shown around Premier League programming. One of the ads, in particular, turns my stomach every time I watch it — especially when I see it during early morning broadcasts of Premier League matches. It’s for a knife product where slabs of guts and raw meat are shown on screen as the knife cuts through them. More than 10% of the audience who watch Premier League games on NBCSN are between the ages of 6-17. I don’t think they, or anyone else (unless they’re outdoors people), should be subjected to that type of advertising. It cheapens the Premier League brand.
Six months ago, NBC’s Pro Soccer Talk website was just one of many websites out there that produced (for the most part) average content. In the past few months however, the site has become more well-read and appreciated for its coverage of world soccer.
1. The weekly Football Focus column by Liviu Bird is one of the best features on the entire site. The amount of detail and analysis that goes into the column are outstanding.
2. The sheer amount of content has increased at Pro Soccer Talk, bringing viewers a better choice of articles about the world’s game, not just MLS.
3. Joe Prince-Wright‘s exhaustive articles about Premier League clubs, where he visits the towns and cities, interviews supporter clubs and club officials, as well as paints a picture of what life is like in that part of Britain, are some of the best work that NBC’s Pro Soccer Talk has ever produced. Incredibly well-written.
1. Despite the herculean work that people like Liviu Bird, Joe Prince-Wright and Richard Farley are doing at covering the Premier League, the articles are buried on the site. These are feature length articles that should be featured and highlighted across NBC’s properties, as well as made easier to find on the homepage of the soccer site. NBC’s PR teams should be making sure that other media are aware of them.
2. Not only are the gems of articles “hidden” on Pro Soccer Talk, but the format of the website doesn’t bring out the best in the articles. The narrow column width and lack of large images and wide-enough video squashes these brilliant works into “a box,” and not giving them the TLC they deserve.
3. The integration of video into the site is clunky. Pro Soccer Talk offers video highlights of key goals or incidents in games, but the site really needs its own soccer video section that makes it easier for users to browse through the video content on offer. NBCSports.com has a section, but you have to wade through the other sports to find the soccer videos you’re looking for. Perhaps a soccer video section already exists on Pro Soccer Talk? If it does, it’s not easy to find. The site (and video platform) needs a complete overhaul and redesign to make it more user-friendly and modern.
4. The high quality standards and A-rated production that NBC gives to its TV production of Premier League matches is not carried over to its soccer website. NBC’s Pro Soccer Talk has the potential to be a more comprehensive site that features content of higher quality, as well as a mix of different media formats — not just the written word. Pro Soccer Talk is scratching the surface, but it has a long way to go before its a daily must-visit for soccer fans.
NBC faced a mammoth task in getting the network ready for its launch of the Premier League. Some of the issues NBC faced were the nature of the TV industry in the United States where regional cable channels and satellite companies make it difficult to get new channels on the air (as well as authenticated login to NBC Sports Live Extra). For the most part, NBC came through in the end. However, the journey to get there was a pretty stressful time for some soccer fans, and it meant many of them had to change providers to get the soccer games they wanted.
Overall, NBC Sports has done a marvelous job of bringing the Premier League into the homes of millions of Americans. From a TV perspective, the sports network is hitting the ball out of the park, with only a few improvements needed here and there. Most disappointing of all, however, has been the online experience, particularly when trying to watch games on-demand. I understand that NBC’s hands are tied in certain circumstances by what they can do in accordance to Premier League rules (in terms of the amount of on-demand games they can show, and for how long). But if NBC Sports can remedy the issues outlined above, that’ll go a long way to improving the overall viewing experience.
NBC has worked very hard to get where they are now with its Premier League coverage. The network needs to continue to work diligently to push on through to raising the bar to the next level.