Delay of game: Why Super Bowl streaming is not as 'live' as you might think

If you're watching the game online and you hate spoilers, avoid Facebook and Twitter, and don't text your buddies

Published: January 30, 2015 05:45 PM

As we wrote last week, NBC will be streaming this weekend’s Super Bowl free over the Internet through NBC Sports Live Extra. Sports fans should be able to watch the game live on both desktops and tablets. Well, almost live. 

Various networks have been streaming the Super Bowl for a few years now, and this year’s event will be the first Super Bowl stream to include the halftime show. But what fans who stream the Super Bowl might not realize is that their broadcast of the game might be lagging everyone else’s.

In reality, there's no such thing as truly live television. Besides inherent technological delays, for large-scale events such as the Super Bowl a few extra seconds of delay are built into the broadcast to avoid embarrassing issues such as Janet Jackson’s famous wardrobe malfunction during Super Bowl XXXVIII's halftime show in February 2004. And depending on the TV provider you use, the latency between what’s happening on the field and what you see on your screen can stretch up to 30 seconds. With streaming, the delay becomes more pronounced.

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An NBC spokesperson told us that the expected latency for computers was 35 to 40 seconds; for tablets, it is expected to be 45 to 55 seconds.

We’ve been paying close attention to this phenomenon since we noticed it during our first look at Sling TV. When watching live broadcasts of channels such as ESPN, we saw delays on Sling TV between one and two minutes relative to cable and satellite broadcasts. We’ve also seen latency of 50 seconds—relative to our in-house Optimum cable feed—when streaming live events using the WatchESPN app.

We reached out to some of our friends on the audio-video enthusiast site AVS Forum and they pointed out that when Fox streamed the Super Bowl last year, some members reported that the online feed was several minutes behind Fox's over-the-air broadcast.

Why does this matter? For the ordinary football fan streaming to his or her computer in a vacuum, it probably doesn’t. But in addition to being the country’s most watched sporting event, the Super Bowl is also a big deal for social media. Facebook is launching a new Super Bowl hub, and last year’s game was the most Tweeted-about sports event of 2014. Presumably, people who are watching the Super Bowl on their computer are also highly likely to be following the game on social media.

That opens up the possibility for some serious Super Bowl spoilers. Just imagine seeing a stream of Tweets, Facebook posts, or text messages from a friend constantly surfacing dramatic moments in the game 30 seconds to two minutes before you see them on screen. You could even find yourself hearing wild cheering from neighbor's house for the winning touchdown while on your screen a play hasn't begun yet.

If you're streaming the game this Sunday, let us know how it goes by posting your experience to our Facebook page—just don't check out any Super Bowl feeds while you're on the site. You never know what you might find out.

—Glenn Derene

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