Bob Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media, feels renewed optimism about the growing array of TV stakeholders finding a way to live in harmony - and in profit.
During a keynote discussion at the Sports Business and Technology Summit, presented by Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Technology, he described a recent diplomatic/strategy meeting with a cable counterpart.
"I came away more sanguine than I have been in a long time time that we will figure this out," Bowman said. "The aggregate model in cable is not going away. It will get tested like every model does. There will be some fringe elements, some never-connectors. It's just too good a product, to be able to watch whatever you want on one device whenever you want."
Moderator Mark Robichaux, editor-in-chief of Multichannel News, asked if the challenge was more on the technology or the marketing front.
"Both," Bowman said. "The simple question is, can we collectively, behind the scenes so the fan doesn't have to get all worked up about it, come up with a system that respects the important role they play and the important and growing role that RSNs and cable systems play, but also respects the fact that we talk to our fans. ... I am optimistic."
Bowman described the evolution of MLB's digital video efforts over the years, beginning in August 2002 with the first package of games streaming online.
"People said no one would watch video on the Internet," he recalled. "People said it looked like crap. And people said no one would pay to watch something that looked like crap. And they were right, it looked pretty bad. In a relative world, though, we were the tallest building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. No one else was streaming live video as much as we were."
Cut to today, when MLB serves high-definition streaming video to any device and offers an array of apps to 3 million subscribers. Growth in subscriptions has averaged 20% a year - not a trivial number considering the top-end $130 price tag. A significant portion of views come during the week from desktops - but Bowman half-joked that advertising consumption meant that workday viewing was a boon to, not a drain on, corporate productivity. "We help the GDP," he quipped. "[Federal Reserve chairman Ben] Bernanke calls me all the time and says MLB TV is the biggest ally we have right now."
On a more sincere note, Bowman attributed MLB's steady digital growth to the sport's unique traits. "Baseball is perfect for the Internet," Bowman said. "More than any other sport, it's built for a quick touch."
Approaching the consumer proposition from a more independent point of view - especially in the dawn of broadband - allowed MLB to come up with innovative solutions.
"We were out there, not on an island, but out of the mainstream," he said. "And we had to figure everything out from a fan's perspective. That vantage point gave us the temerity to do things differently."