Deeper Dive—CBS braces for a serious Super Bowl streaming surge

Super Bowl LIII takes place Sunday, Feb. 3, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Wikimedia Commons)

Super Bowl LIII pits the monolithic New England Patriots against the fresh-faced Los Angeles Rams, and a massive number of households are going to watch on Sunday. CBS is counting on it and expecting a lot of those viewers will be livestreaming.

Just how many viewers will stream the big game is up for debate. According to a PCMag/Sports Illustrated survey, 11% plan on streaming the Super Bowl. According to Scribblrs, 12% plan on streaming.

Jeff Gerttula, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Sports Digital, wouldn’t speculate about any specific numbers. But he did say that, assuming it’s a good game and that the event goes as planned, CBS is expecting double-digit growth over 2018’s Super Bowl streaming audience.

Last year’s Super Bowl on NBC pulled in an average online viewership of 2 million, up 15% from Fox’s livestream of the Super Bowl in 2017. The 2018 game peaked with 3.1 million concurrent streams. Gerttula said the streaming audience has been growing steadily since Super Bowl streaming began about six years ago.

“We expect it to continue delivering on that trend of double-digit growth and [being] the biggest livestream ever,” Gerttula said.

Livestreaming the Super Bowl is unique in terms of its scale and growth, but also due to the heavy volume of connected TV viewership for the livestream. Connected TVs—a fast-growing platform for online video viewing—presents a challenge for big livestreams like the Super Bowl since it requires the highest video quality.

Gerttula said CBS starts planning about a year in advance and often has to rethink its streaming architecture to maximize aspects like the speed at which a stream loads, the clarity of the stream itself and latency.

“Latency is about just finding the most efficient path from the raw feed to the consumer,” Gerttula said.

Livestreaming tech firm Phenix said that last year’s Super Bowl experienced latency anywhere from 20 seconds to five minutes behind the traditional television broadcast. CBS has been addressing latency ahead of its Super Bowl livestream by building in efficiencies and looking at where it places its video encoders within the production workflow, then looking for the path of least resistance between the decoder and the consumer. This year, CBS is livestreaming the Super Bowl on its subscription platform All Access and for free on CBS Sports via the website as well as the mobile and connected TV apps.

Gerttula said it’s difficult to fully stress test for a Super Bowl livestream since CBS only gets to host it once every three years. But he said that other streaming events like NFL regular season and postseason games, the Masters, NCAA college basketball and the Grammys help CBS hone its streaming chops throughout the year. CBS also has 24-hour streaming networks like CBSN and CBS Sports HQ that add to the broadcaster’s streaming résumé.

“We know how to stream. We consider ourselves good at it,” Gerttula said.

Of course, CBS only livestreams the Super Bowl every three years; Fox and NBC take turns with it during the years in between. But all three have a vested interest in the Super Bowl remaining a quality product, even in the years they’re not carrying it. Gerttula said that CBS, Fox and NBC don’t necessarily collaborate on livestreaming the big event, but they do share experiences.

“We all know each other and we’ll talk about what we’re seeing,” said Gerttula, adding that many times the Super Bowl broadcasters’ individual technology stacks have some overlap. “We do talk about it so we make sure we’re not making the same mistakes twice.”