TV channels vs. the online pirates

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

French broadcaster France Télévisions will show 132 hours of cycling this year. It might sound like plenty but when you subtract the Tour de France, there’s not much left.  For example last weekend’s Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne weren’t on French TV, not even subscription TV channels Canal+ and Eurosport.

Such a scenario is common for fans all over Europe where local races are screened but only the biggest races from abroad get shown. For example in France, the Giro d’Italia is only on Eurosport, a satellite/cable channel. Obviously it’s even harder for fans in countries where the local broadcasters don’t show much, if any cycling. What’s a fan to do?

feeds
Pirates
Well many turn to “feeds”, pirated video streamed over the internet. Thanks to sites like Justin.tv, Ustream and many others, cycling fans are able to watch many races from around the world. Never mind the impenetrable Flemish commentary, that only makes it more authentic. Only it’s illegal.

Worse, the coverage can be very poor, a tiny window in your browser surrounded by strange graphics. Gone are the HDTV landscapes, in fact your lucky if the feed doesn’t drop. Sunday’s K-B-K saw coverage stop several times and fans scrambled for internet channels called “Bobo Melody” and “Danish Delight 2″ in order to find live video.

How does it work?
It’s easy. Some services are marketed as ways to show a child’s birthday party online to grandparents in another country, simple for anyone to operate. A very detailed Bloomberg Businessweek article sets it out:

This can be as simple as purchasing a $50 HDTV adapter, which plugs into a computer’s USB port and allows the PC to receive live TV. Deploying so-called screencast programs that make copies of everything on the PC screen, a user can then capture a channel carrying a sports event and stream it over a live video site.

As such it only takes a cycling fan in the home country to run a TV signal through their computer and with the screencast software the images can be watched around the world, especially since sites like justin.tv allow massive bandwith.

Illegal broadcasters
These streams are coming under attack from genuine sports broadcasters, as detailed in a detailed piece by Bloomberg Businessweek. It is more a threat for “per per view” events but none the less sites like Justin.tv are the subject of much legal wrangling. It boils down to taking reasonable steps, if justin.tv is notified of an illegal stream then it has a duty to stop it. But can Sporza employ people to scour the internet for the illegal feeds? If notified, how much time is reasonable for a website to act? In a matter of hours the sports event is finished.

If someone is watching Het Nieuwsblad in, say, Australia, are they a thief? They are not necessarily taking something that they could have paid for. But they are viewing an illegal broadcast, so if there’s no theft it can be illegal. I should caution here that you do this at your own risk etc.

Get your feed
Cyclingfans is a good source. Scroll down and see the “Shift Gears” link on the right of the page for a permanent link from The Inner Ring to this most useful site. Steephill.tv has similar content and sometimes if you want additional options, see the BVLS site.

Eurosport Player

There are legal versions. Eurosport offer the Eurosport Player to Europeans only, they can subscribe and watch a lot of racing from the, much of it excellent with the professional audio commentary in a language to suit, although not every race is covered and some are not live but broadcast hours or days after the race. Not ideal.

There is also cycling.tv, a dedicated website that streams high quality video with proprietary content to subscribers. If your internet connection can stand it, you’ll get great pictures. Only again they don’t cover every race and personally I’ve found the service wanting, although that was in the past. Some might also find it expensive given lesser quality video is available via the streams mentioned below.

A vision for the future
Fans around the world are exploiting readily available software and hardware to share the racing. If big pay-per-view broadcasters are struggling to file lawsuits yet alone stop the broadcasts then the likes of Sporza or Eurosport are going to find it near-impossible to stop.

My solution would be some kind of international streaming service involving a modest subscription in return for high quality video. Cycling.tv has high costs partly because it adds its own audio commentary but I can live with Flemish or Italian audio commentary, indeed I love the way I’m improving my language skills thanks to the race coverage.

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{ 36 comments }

beev March 1, 2011 at 9:18 am

as a cycling mad teenager back in the 80′s i can remember always trying to tune into the north european broadcasts of the spring classics from the UK. depending on the atmospherics, some days were more rewarding viewing than others – however, “snow” (in the form of interference) generally featured. these days being able to stream the events takes me back to my early years – cue grouchy grandad voice – “kids these days don’t know how luck they are”….

TboreRK March 1, 2011 at 9:21 am

Agreed that it can be quite a hunt to watch races these days.

Being a big cyclocross and track admirer, I’ve been forced to find streams during the last couple of winter periods.
Here in Denmark there are almost no tv-coverage of cyclocross and track cycling – so in that matter being a pirate is the only method!

But when it comes to road racing, we are pretty lucky. We might not be the country with most men in the peloton, but we definitely have a great history in road cycling. Hence why the national channels (with Eurosport) are showing most of the races. This sunday though, they decided to post-pone the start of KBK so we missed the Oude Kwaremont – a could-be crucial moment in the race – so the only solution – illegal streams once again!

The main problem in DK regarding illegal streams might be that Eurosport and TV2 Sport, which are showing most of the races, only can be watched if you buy a “package” of about 40 or so channels, forcing you to waste a lot of money, if you’re only after racing/sports.

Instead I’ve in many years used the great Eurosport Player, as you mention, and watched the rest somewhere else at the big www.
I also tried cycling.tv for a couple of years, when they started, but there were to many bugs and fall outs – though I don’t know how great they are running these days either.

REG March 1, 2011 at 9:46 am

Worse yet is when the legitimate licensed content source in your country sucks. Take Versus in the US, with the overwrought, mistake ridden ramblings of Paul and Phil and 35 minutes of ads per hour of racing, I search out the illegal (French) feeds even during the Tour. Fortunately I speak French. Problem is, if someone tried to gather and legally broadcast all the feeds, I think the fees for the rights would be prohibitive to the small viewership the site would attract.

Neil March 1, 2011 at 9:48 am

I was quite frustrated at the weekend to find that Eurosport weren’t covering either of the races in the UK coverage. It was all cross-country skiing events and women’s tennis. I even had a gander at Eurosport player to see if they were covering anything that might not be in my cable package but they weren’t. So really the only option was to have a look on cycling fans and see what feeds were kicking around.

I guess this might all change in a few years when our TVs can stream reliable 720p hd video from the internet connection. Granted it’s possible right now but it’s not an easy setup because you need some kind of computer connected up to the TV. Once that kind of thing becomes fully integrated and easy to use I think I would ditch my cable TV package and just subscribe to the channels that i’ll use ala eurosport player.

Here’s hoping for some eurosport coverage this weekend.

Alex Murray March 1, 2011 at 11:04 am

This week there were three broadcast deals which I would guess ASO will have noted with interest: IPL, NHL and NBA agreements to be streamed live via Youtube.

However, it’s not just that they signed agreements which are pretty commonplace. It’s that Google’s One Pass was announced recently and provided a platform that integrates easily with Youtube for PPV online.

Essentially a smart operator, so long as they’ve got output, could hand on the streaming costs to Youtube and the PPV operation for a 10% cut.

The problem for broadcasters to date has been that streaming is a high cost, low return narrowcasting model. As many, if not all race broadcasts originate from state broadcasters (Sporza, France 2/3, Rai) they have absolutely no reason to be serving expensive and tiny overseas audiences online with expensive streaming operations.

The days of selling broadcast rights by territory isn’t dead, it’s just being replaced by PPV online. Porn mastered this long ago, the mainstream should catch up eventually. Their main failing has been the lack of foresight.

Ben March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am

I’ve been able to use the built in web browser on the Sony Playstation 3 streaming content through cyclingfans.com with decent success. Allows me to watch races on the big tv, as long as it’s a good feed, the pictures are pretty good. Usually will just stream the English audio from eurosport on a computer, although this can annoyingly be out of sync by a few seconds. Sounds like quite a bit of effort when I think about it, but I love this sport. Until I have other options, I’ll live with it.

For the record, I’m in Australia. We get great live coverage through SBS of the TdF, P-R, Ron Van Vlaanderen, AToC and the world champs. Some of the other races are either shown in morning highlights packages like the giro or vuelta, and others are shown a few weeks later. Even our own World Tour race, the TdU is only shown as highlight packages for the weekday stages

EDnl March 1, 2011 at 11:40 am

I think “Only it’s illegal” is too general and plays into the fear mongering tactics of RIAA et al. Certainly broadcasting a stream would _probably_ be illegal in many countries but conversely, I don’t think watching one is.

The Inner Ring March 1, 2011 at 11:56 am

beev: yes, it’s great these days. It’s now a question of “I demand to watch a race for free over the internet” when years ago it could take weeks to get the result of Paris-Roubaix.

TboreRK: that sounds ok in Denmark, more than France.

REG: I don’t find the language barrier too bad. For sure you can miss some info but the onscreen graphics help a lot and in time I find my language skills improve.

Neil + Alex: yes, we’ll see if tech changes things. But can PPV happen for races. Certainly a new version of cycling.tv could try to buy the online rights in any language and I’d be happy with that, if the price was ok.

Ben: that’s not bad. You might have as many hours as French TV?

EDnl: quite true. I wasn’t trying to moralise, more to point out the weird options available these days. The legal battles are between broadcasters and the streaming sites/hosting servers and not with the “little guys”.

Neil March 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm

This is an aside to the topic. The subscribe by email option works for the comments and i’ve been emailed each one. It’s the first time I’ve tested it since you added it.

Thanks
Neil

Andrew March 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

From Australia I like to record European cycling and watch on my trainer in morning! I subscribed to the on demand live feed from cycling TV of tour of Spain in 2008 and for $40 US got a hopeless inconsistent service.
If someone could provide for $100 a year all the races I cant get from SBS on demand I would happily pay. I thought the web was supposed to create these narrowcast products ?
By the way thank you for your excellent site with insightful and interesting blogs.

MW March 1, 2011 at 1:42 pm

I would love cycling to go the way of American sports where you can buy a “season ticket” online so you get high quality streams of all the games, for a fair fee. As a viewer in England we get a fair amount of live coverage but still miss out on some like last weekend. Would be great if the UCI could set up something similar, coverage of all their higher profile races at least on a dedicated website. Not sure if it’s even possible or if the UCI would be that forward thinking.

A March 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

If Sporza was smart, they would put up a 5 euro (or similar amount) paywall per race for viewing outside Belgium. I would gladly pay that for a live high quality broadcast.

dan March 1, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Versus and Universal Sports both offered online coverage last year that was pretty decent. Versus had some problems with its TDF package during the first couple of stages but overall I thought it was worth the $30 and would do it again. I just wish one or both of those networks would offer a complete schedule.

Sarah March 1, 2011 at 2:33 pm

The thing is, there isn’t necessarily a choice between a pay-for provider and a stream. I’ve got E/sport on my tv package, but if it doesn’t show the cycling, and as Neil says, it’s not on the player, what else is there to do?

Agree with A that I’d happily pay for Sporza coverage for races – and a pay-per-race would be great – I’ve heard nothing but bad about the quality of cyclingtv, and I am not prepared to pay good money (can I even access it from the UK?) for a service I can’t try out

Oliver March 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Here in the U.S. versus’s coverage of cycling events as stated above is ridden with commercial and does a disservice to the sport on the whole. Most of the action can be actually missed to watch Lance hawk a car, a radio, or something else — nevermind what one thinks of Phil and Paul sanitized commentaries….

I usually listen to French radio which often covers major races (RTL, RMC and the like) while watching a stream without the sound. I bet English only speaking folks could do that with the audio from Eurosport (Sean Kelly is quite good) while watching a feed from say Belgium with the mute button on….

Champs March 1, 2011 at 3:21 pm

How else was I supposed to watch the epic queen stage of last year’s Vuelta? The state of American cable TV is atrocious: if Comcast, owner of rival Versus, would offer Universal Sports in my area, I would have paid for it.

Apparently my sports programming dollar goes to Versus’ hunting/fishing shows, and ESPN’s hours-stale reruns of SportsCenter and poker tournaments.

edh March 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I’d surely pay aa reasonable amount to watch procycling, as I had last years TdF with versus.While I can tone out (mute, bottom right corner. . ) the mindless duo, theres nothing better than an HD feed and Pave discussion running side by side.
As far as cycling.tv goes, their website does not inspire confidence or value, and I’m not ready to gamble on the part-time approach. So close- yet so far.

The Inner Ring March 1, 2011 at 4:04 pm

I like MW’s idea above, a UCI stream. Everyone could win but it would take some organisation.

And it seems I’m not alone in being let down by cycling.tv

Yves March 1, 2011 at 4:08 pm

I m french and I don t like France Television i prefer eurosport .to be honest the main problem for france television is explained by his boss Daniel Bilalian in L’Equipe in february (i dont remember the day).
In 2007 he asked the politicians and the minister ( France Television is 100% public ) to study the situation .Bilalian wanted a new channel (France Television Sport was the idea ) but the coast of a new channel was estimated too expensive by the autorities .
Eurosport will not cover Monte Paschi Strade bianche 9 march but Eurosport 2 will …

touriste-routier March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm

But the UCI doesn’t own broadcast rights to any road events other than the World Championships. It is up to the individual race organizers and their tv partners. A low cost pay per view or reliable subscription could solve many issues and increase revenue.

The Inner Ring March 1, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Yves: I’m not looking forward to the possibility of Virenque or Jalabert on France Télévisions. Thierry Adam has improved a lot. A pity Patrick Chassé has gone, I really liked him (with Fignon especially).

touriste-routier: yes, the UCI could only act as facilitator. As the governing body it should be the “go to” organisation. It’s only a suggestion, I think they have enough to sort out now…

jonM March 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm

http://www.steephill.tv is one of my favorite race viewing portals. Eurosport’s audio race commentary is always tops and matched up with a solid video feed and my velo viewing appetite is beyond fulfilled. HD is nice and all, but I have to assume bandwidth requirements are extreme, which means expensive, thus making it less attractive to broadcast.

Anonymous March 1, 2011 at 4:38 pm

This is moronic . Do you want to have FBI or whoever take down the the few options that most fans around the world have to watch cycling? And for what? For a few coments and some fleeting blip in the number of visits to your site? Way to go IR!

Race Radio March 1, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Streaming is not high cost anymore, in fact it is insanely cheap. For 2 hours of racing the CDN cost would be cheap, about 1 cent or less per user.

The Inner Ring March 1, 2011 at 4:46 pm

jonM: funny you should say that ;-)

Anonymous: easy! As I’ve said above, even the biggest US sports events can’t seem to stop things. I can’t see the FBI teaming up with Sporza. Besides, I’m not exposing any secrets, I just wanted to look at the phenomenon. Plus If I wanted to blip the number of visitors I’d venerate Lance Armstrong with unquestioning retrospectives ;-)

Race Radio: just by the sounds of it the tech is cheap. It’s all about bandwith for the streamer and the viewer, no?

hamncheeze March 1, 2011 at 5:33 pm

I was an early adopter and long-time supporter of Cycling.tv but eventually I cracked. I remember trying to watch the finale of the 2006 L-B-L, Rodriguez on the attack on the Saint Nicolas and the stream died. Revived just in time to see Valverde cross the line. For some reason this memory stands out but there were many, many more like it. The final straw for me was the Giro in 2009, when I could get a pirate stream with steady images while my so-called “Gold” package from Cycling.tv was coughing and sputtering every day. I let my subscription die and I have never looked back. My new attitude is that 10 years ago I never had live video coverage of any race, so if I can get it for free now then it is gravy.

Having said that, if a company could deliver quality streaming race content and actually get the rights to all the big races (excluding the Tour which gets shown almost everywhere), I would gladly pay for the coverage. I would probably pay up to $100 USD/yr if the races were there and the system worked. The streaming coverage that Universal Sports has done in the past has been good quality. The key to making streaming coverage work for a paying user: robust feed and easy user interface. This is where Cycling.tv failed miserably.

21stC_centaur March 1, 2011 at 5:54 pm

There’s definitely the capacity available to offer decent quality legal streaming – the IBU has been making all the biathlon races available via a non-geo restricted Eurovision feed for some time now, and the Vancouver Olympics were broadcast the same way. No commentary, but frankly in some cases that’s a bonus. It would be great to see the UCI and state broadcasters exploring options like this (at the very least for UCI controlled events like World Championships) , but sadly I fear they have more “important” matters to concern themselves with.

Race Radio March 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm

The .01 price would include the IP connection.

For example with Netflix latest CDN deal it costs them under .02 to deliver a 2 hour movie in a much higher quality stream then any bike race would be.

The Inner Ring March 1, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Interesting that there could be a market for this.

Race radio: true it’s cheap but apparently it doesn’t reflect the real cost. Some ISPs are getting concerned about the bandwidth taken by Netflix and others.

Twisted Spoke March 1, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I seriously warn everyone away from cycling.tv. I signed up last year for the full, most expensive subscription and it was a disaster. I paid up front with a Visa, yet half way through the season my account was locked closed and despite repeated emails for any kind of help, they didn’t even bother to respond. I would never, ever have anything to do with these people. They ripped me off. Beware — the website looks stylish and well-designed and your hopes will be high but unless customer service has been profoundly improved, you could be in for real trouble. Run in the opposite direction now — I’m dead serious.

JYD March 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Sadly, I would have to agree with Twisted Spokes assessment of cycling.tv. I subscribed a few years back and found the website maddening. They managed to somehow get me to auto-resubscribe and then locked me out of the website after informing me via email that my subscription had expired. I had to email them credit card transactions to prove that they had charged me. The customer service was deplorable.

The Inner Ring March 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I downloaded the “vshare” plugin last weekend in order to watch a stream in the Firefox browser. It seems this makes some changes to the registry and if it’s not really malware, you might want to unpick the settings.

See http://support.mozilla.com/en-US/questions/759137.

To change things in firefox type in “about:config” in the FF browser address bar and find your way to the settings. Put vshare in the filter to see what’s lurking. Think about updating the start page and the default keyword entry.

Cillian Kelly March 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

“it seems I’m not alone in being let down by cycling.tv”

You’re definitely not alone…

http://www.irishpeloton.com/?p=115

And I believe their coverage is even more sparse this year

Alex Murray March 2, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Seriously, everything is already in place but the willing/nous from rights holders.

Any race that has a live host broadcaster already has the most expensive part of the operation covered: sat trucks and live production.

There are umpteen sites out there they could partner with for streaming delivery of live. OK, not all of them carry the bandwidth to carry large numbers of concurrent users, but if they can handle things like live streams from Libya that everyone in broadcasting is trying to access, they can probably manage the smaller audience for cycling.

But the issue remains: bandwidth is expensive and infrastructure to be able to support high concurrent user numbers requires expertise. But I’m pretty sure that if it can be done for Lady Gaga modelling at Thierry Mugler which I’m watching, it can be done for cycling.

The Inner Ring March 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Alex: exactly. I’m hoping to do a follow-up post to explore the same issues this week. It’s only a question of piggybacking existing broadcast images. All it takes is a bit of nous and willingness, plus the understanding from some race organisers who probably aren’t up-to-date with the internet. It can be done.

Race Radio March 3, 2011 at 1:05 am

Certainly the peering disputes like Comcast/Level 3 had have an effect, but it is small. It only adds .01 or so for Comcast traffic.

I can talk all day on this, it is what I do for a living. Ultimately delivery is not a huge cost component, rights management, user interface/authentication, and advertising eat up more.

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