HLS Streaming Conversion Extends March Madness Live to More Devices

Few major sports events are more perfectly suited for the TV Everywhere universe than the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

With a robust rotation of games and fans’ desire to switch through them quickly, Turner Sports’ March Madness Live is becoming a go-to source for fans watching and tracking the tournament. This year, thanks to a more streamlined digital distribution workflow, more fans will have access to the Madness on more devices than ever before.

March Madness Live is now available on all Android devices that support Android 4.0+ operating systems.

March Madness Live is now available on all Android devices that support Android 4.0+ operating systems.

In addition to Apple iOS devices, Turner is adding all smartphones and tablets working off the Android 4.0+ operating system. To accomplish this, Turner partnered with a company called NexStreaming, which converts Turner’s outgoing stream to a single HLS stream that can be read by nearly all iOS and Android devices.

“That gives a common stream for all of these different platforms,” says Mark Johnson, VP, business operations, Turner Sports. “That was the problem the last year, year and a half on Android; it was so fragmented. You didn’t know if it was going to work on various devices. So this company has come along with a way to reduce the friction there.”

HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) is an HTTP-based media-streaming protocol implemented by Apple as part of its QuickTime and iOS software to distribute live video content to iPhones and iPads.

In the early days of TV Everywhere, the exclusivity of HLS to Apple was a major barrier to providing live-streaming video to non-Apple devices. It wasn’t until March 2011 — when Google released Android 3.0 — that Android-supported devices could receive that signal. Having a common stream eases workflow for content creators, which do not need to create differently encoded videos for various devices.

Live-video quality on iPads will top out at 1,800 kbps.

Live-video quality on iPads will top out at 1,800 kbps.

In addition, the unified stream allows Turner to send out a steadier, more high-quality stream. For this year’s version of the app, the company is looking to push out live video to mobile devices at 1,800 kbps (broadband viewers can expect, at max, around 3,000 kbps).

New Year, New Look
Viewers who have used March Madness Live in the past will notice a completely redesigned layout and look.

“We spent a good three months and just threw everything away,” says Johnson. “We looked at it from the user’s perspective and decided what we wanted to change with the product, and, while we did that, we did a complete custom redesign as well.”

Instead of cramming all the data onto one screen, as in last year’s app, this year’s version introduces more of a panel feel. Naturally, live video can be viewed, making it a primary viewing device, but the layout makes it the ultimate second-screen experience. In addition to picking and tracking their brackets in-app, users can swipe to the left for social content and swipe to the right for stats and box scores.

Turner also switched to the left-hand navigation bar that is becoming increasingly popular in app design.

High Usage Expected
A year ago, Turner switched its business model to a TV Everywhere model that required viewers to either authenticate via their cable provider or pay $3.99 to gain full access to live video of every game in the tournament. That shift saw usage drop about 6% from 2011, although the service still attracted 51.6 million broadband and mobile visits in 2012.

To view live TBS, TNT, or truTV games, users will have to authenticate by logging in with TV-service–provider information.

To view live TBS, TNT, or truTV games, users will have to authenticate by logging in with TV-service–provider information.

This year, fans can’t pay their way around authentication, which is required for viewing any TNT, TBS, or truTV game (CBS games can be accessed without authentication). After a year of experience with TV Everywhere, Turner thinks usage will spike back up.

“We expect usage will be extremely high,” says Johnson. “We’ve had different business models over the last three years, which obviously impacts your numbers one way or another, depending on the model. We’re feeling really good about this because this model is TV Everywhere. So fans will have access to watch all of the live games they want, with no barriers.”

Turner execs also believe that a more experienced and educated viewership will drive usage of March Madness Live this year.

“We think there’s now a far greater maturity in the market with regard to user authentication and TV Everywhere,” Turner Sports SVP/GM Matt Hong said to Sports Business Journal. “People are more accustomed to authenticating, and we’re working to make it easier for viewers to do so.”

Turner is also debuting new authentication software for broadband users. The modem-recognition technology can automatically detect subscribers and simplify the login procedure. In addition, Turner is offering a four-hour free preview, which gives fans a window to watch live video before having to authenticate.

CBS Sports Has Its Own Mobile App
While viewers can pick and track their bracket in the March Madness Live app, CBS Interactive is offering its own, robust supplements to the NCAA Tournament.

At the heart of the experience is the completely redesigned CBS Sports mobile app, which features access to all CBSSports.com bracket games, a live NCAA Tournament bracket, and expert picks, along with updated scores and stats, live play-by-play, and in-progress game tweets.