Post-game report: Live NFL football on the Web (result: needs work, but still way-cool)

NBC blasted out of the gate with the debut of its NFL Live webcast last night, offering multiple camera views and interactive features that gave viewers more options for football watching than ever. We tested the Adobe Flash-based interface in our New York HQ at 30 Rock and our Midwest Test Facility, putting it through its paces as the season opener between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins kicked off in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. How was it? Click Continue for our hands-on review.



When you first click into the user interface, you're presented with a main widescreen view with four small camera windows arranged around the main window. For our New York contingent, this was easier said than done, though, because they were immediately put into a "waiting room," unable to access the game because of too much Web traffic. Not good.

For those of us in the hinterlands, the flash interface popped right up, immediately giving us access to all its functions. With a mouseover of the main screen, you're given the option to "maximize." Great! We can watch this full screen? Nope. All "maximize" does is enlarge that main screen by about 10%, losing the four other camera monitors in the process. Mouse over the left or right side of this maximized screen, and you see overlays inviting you to change camera views. We were disappointed at the lack of full-screen capabilities, only allowing us to expand to about a quarter of our 1,920 x 1,200-pixel screen.

We were eager to try these alternate cameras, but when we first clicked on one, the game stopped, and we had to watch a 30-second commercial over and over. It was awful, and frustrating. But it got better. We were relieved that once you pay your commercial dues with about three or four clicks to other cameras, you're in, able to switch from one camera to the next instantly. Excellent!

As you change cameras, you have wait about five seconds for the blurry video to sharpen up as it loads, and the audio tracks are slightly out of sync, but overall it's an outstanding effect. Hey, look ma, I'm a TV director! You can choose the main broadcast view, the Star Cam isolated on a major player (which changes as the game progresses), Sideline Cam, Cable Cam (what's normally called a Skycam), and an end-zone camera. It's fun to see what the camera operators do when they aren't on the air, swish-panning here and there and then suddenly holding still when the director calls for their camera to be punched up live.

We like the way stats are always instantly a click away and that the excellent announcers Al Michaels and John Madden were audible throughout. You can ask questions to NBC's appointed web commentator, some of which are answered during the game in the text panel at the left. We weren't impressed with the lockout of our New York testers, but perhaps NBC will realize just how popular this webcast was and expand its server bandwidth and speed for the next game this Sunday night. We also noticed numerous dropped frames resulting in video choppiness, and distorted audio in some studio segments, both of which were distracting but not ruinous.

Despite its rough edges, this first outing of NBC's live NFL coverage proved the tremendous potential of Web for football. It makes a game that's tailor-made for TV even better. If it just had a full-screen option, transport controls for pausing and reversing the live video and HD resolution, it would be the TV viewer of our dreams. We found having the webcast (with all its stats) especially useful to have on a laptop as we watched the traditional broadcast feed on our big-screen HDTV. We've seen the future of football on TV, and it has the potential to be fantastic.



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