CBS College Returns to Flash in Video-Player Overhaul
From Air Force to Xavier, the CBSSports.com College Network runs subscription video products for 125 collegiate partners, but, beginning this fall, those products will look completely different. The CBSSports.com College Network is rolling out a new version of its All-Access video player that features an enhanced frontend user experience, a backend registration system that integrates with parent CBSSports.com, and a new Flash-based video player.
“Over the last six months, we have embarked on completely overhauling the product,” says John Ore, senior director of product management for CBSSports.com College Network, a division of CBS Interactive. “We’ve touched just about every system that comprises All-Access, with the possible exception of Akamai, the content-distribution network. If that’s not broke, you don’t try to fix it.”
All-Access is a subscription-based online streaming product that allows college-sports fans to watch live games and events as well as on-demand content like highlights and featured shows. Based on direct feedback from clients — which include 80% of BCS conference schools — and their end users, the new All-Access player upgrades three areas: improving the frontend user experience, creating efficiencies in registration and sharing, and combining those improvements to increase revenue generation for both CBS and its partner schools.
A Familiar Flash-Based Front
One of the biggest changes to the video player involved a move away from Silverlight back to Flash. The previous iteration of the All-Access player was a standalone pop-out application built using Microsoft Silverlight. The Silverlight plug-in required a separate download, which presented a barrier to entry for some users.
In this new roll-out of All Access, Ore and his team chose to return to an HTML page with an embedded Flash player, removing that barrier to entry and improving the user experience. Rather than loading a separate pop-up application, the video player is now nested inside the page, providing a more familiar visual experience.
“We’ve made the experience look a little closer to the client’s official athletic site,” Ore explains. “Instead of launching a standalone application that doesn’t really look and feel anything like their Website, this is an HTML page with an embedded Flash player on that page. Seminoles.com All-Access, for example, will now bring you to another page on the Florida State athletic site.”
Moving away from Silverlight to Flash, Ore believes, has improved the quality of the videos.
“We are encouraging our clients to encode in a little bit higher bitrate,” he says. “Since we natively support 16:9 in Flash, the video fills up the screen; you don’t have the automatic letterboxing of content that we had before.”
On the client side, the schools are already comfortable with encoding their content on-site. The only change the new player requires is the specifications at which they do the encoding.
“The process by which they get the content to us remains virtually unchanged,” Ore says. “We embarked on training with our clients in advance of rolling this out, which was a great opportunity to make sure that we’re sharing all of our best practices and innovations with them.”
Find What You’re Looking For
Some of those best practices include giving fans the option to view content related to what they are currently consuming. Ore and his team have worked to improve the “discoverability” of content, the ability to find related videos after the conclusion of a live event. With a new advanced-search feature, fans can immediately browse All-Access by sport, recent event, or featured content as well as through client-defined custom channels.
“Clients can brand channels so that users can search by tags, categories, sports, date range, or a combination thereof,” Ore says. “They can go in and look for all the highlight clips featuring an athlete named Smith or any other search parameters the client wants to set up.”
He and his team also added native sharing tools to the video player, so that fans can share content via Facebook and Twitter and can e-mail videos directly from the player.
“That will help syndicate the content and really drive fans back to the page,” Ore says. “This allows clients to get more of their content in front of end users. They’re spending a lot of time and energy on this content, so they really want users to consume it.”
Although the frontend relaunch was relatively straightforward, the backend changes to the player proved quite a bit more complicated.
“We swapped out wholesale the system that powers both the registration and subscription for All-Access,” Ore says. “We went to the registration system that CBSSports.com uses, which allows us to integrate more deeply with them. That is something that our clients have asked for, to be able to use the brand power of CBS to expose their content.”
In addition to changing registration systems, Ore’s team also swapped out the transaction-processing backend for the subscription service, moving to a system that is closely aligned with the new registration process. By knitting those two systems together, the new player gives subscribers more service-management tools (such as credit card, password, and subscription-level changes) that do not require customer-service intervention. In turn, those backend efficiencies are passed along to the clients as cost savings and shared revenue.
Busy Engine, High Stakes
With the new All-Access product set to roll out on time for the fall 2010 football season, one of the things that Ore is most proud of is the number of systems the relaunch has touched — and the number of fans who will appreciate the improvements.
“This product is really important to us because it powers more live events each year than any product that we’re aware of,” he says. “The infrastructure and experience of this new player had to work very well because of the volume of events that we deal with. We serve up a ton of events to our subscribers.”
Indeed, in the 2009 calendar year, CBSSports.com College Network streamed 11,385 live events and is on pace to grow well past the 12,000-event mark by the end of this year. The average viewing time on the site has also grown steadily since 2008, giving Ore and his team greater potential for revenue generation.
“That gives us an opportunity to engage more with the user, which is really attractive to sponsors,” he explains. “Users are coming back more frequently and spending more time with us, which means we’ve got more eyeballs on whatever sponsor assets we have.”
Currently, the CBSSports.com College Network has more than 31,000 free and subscription videos available for consumption across all of its clients’ video products. For more information, visit collegenetwork.cbssports.com.