Cutting the Cord: New NHL.tv shows promise, even during growing pains

When NHL announced last year (yes, 2015) that they were partnering with MLB Advanced Media, I was optimistic. As a recent transplant to the Milwaukee area, I suddenly found myself without access to Chicago sports, even though I was now closer to Chicago than I had been in 19 years.

I tested the waters when we first arrived in the summer by purchasing MLB.tv’s package, and obvious blackout issues aside, I was pretty happy with the product.

The customer service was quick and helpful when I found myself blacked out from Chicago games even though I was living in Milwaukee County. The Roku channel had nearly everything you could want: the choice of home or away feeds, join live, start from the beginning–even starting from the half-inning. Having kids and a sports-ambivalent better half, I also found myself watching games drastically time-shifted, even after the game was over.

Knowing this, I happily threw down the money for the NHL’s new single-team package, even knowing from the start that it would only get me roughly 75 percent of the regular season thanks to national television blackouts. (Exactly how “national” is a game on NBCSN, a network that required me to have a third-level DirecTV package, out of five? That’s an issue for another day.)

But I found myself disappointed. The Roku channel was glitchy (especially during fast-forwarding and rewinding) and would force the device to restart. It didn’t always remember your departure point before the restart, so you had to had to play the fast-forward whack-a-mole game to get to your last spot–which ran the risk of crashing the device again.

There was no “Jump to # period” feature, though that is more of a luxury feature. And there seemed to be a dead period between the end of the game and the ability to watch it. Better put: If I started watching the game with one minute left in the game, I could start it from the beginning and watch the whole thing. If I came to the channel five minutes after the game ended, I had to wait a few hours until the video went through some type of process.  Which created its own problem: if you were watching it even slightly time-shifted, and the device crashed during overtime, that was it. You would come back to the channel and be told “Come back soon!” That happened to me twice this past fall.

The Xbox app was a bit better, mostly in terms of stability, but if you wanted to view the away feed, it required loading the original one, hitting the B button, and choosing it. Not the end of the world, but a hair annoying.

Still, something was better than nothing, and I could deal with this for a year until MLBAM got a full year under their belts. After all, major improvements to any sports service are traditionally done during a sport’s off-season, not during.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I plopped down to watch the Hawks/Avalanche game last night and was told to update my Xbox app. It downloaded quickly, but I had to enter my credentials again (which is a pain without a keyboard).

It appeared to be worth it. Sure, it had a nice UI refresh, but the options appeared to much more in line with what was available to MLB.tv subscribers. And for the first ten minutes of the first period, things were so nice.

“Lord, they were lovey-dovey.”

But the video started to hang. And skip. And then crash completely. And it started to happen more often. By the end of the first period, I had bailed on the game, and a check of Twitter showed (among other things) that I wasn’t the only one having these issues.

Later that night, I came back to the game, this time on the Roku in another room. Now, I had apparently started my second attempt right before the game ended, so I don’t know (yet) if the “dead zone” issue is gone. But I was able to jump right to the start of the second, and I don’t remember encountering a single hiccup the rest of the way.

Honestly, once it was clear this was a system overhaul, I expected opening-night issues. It’s often a challenge to really test the full demand on a service until it’s actually live. If they can quickly resolve this, it’s one more step addressing perhaps the biggest hurdle for cord-cutting: live sports.

Now, about those blackout issues…

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