Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Braving the sports TV arena with big ideas

Tim Martin says Coliseum is not a fly-by-night provider, and he wants to do sports other than top English soccer.  Photo / Greg Bowker
Tim Martin says Coliseum is not a fly-by-night provider, and he wants to do sports other than top English soccer. Photo / Greg Bowker

Manchester United aren't the only ones who've made an erratic start to the English Premier League season. Coliseum PremierLeaguePass, the EPL's ground-breaking internet broadcaster in New Zealand, has been a controversial friend and foe to the league's devoted fans.

Teething problems have led to the gnashing of teeth in this brave new world. Coliseum has crossed a broadcasting frontier, but as one angry customer put it to the Weekend Herald, going from Sky to PLP has been like quitting fillet steak for gravy beef.

The service covers every EPL game and is a winner to many, with extras thrown in. PLP recently showed two European World Cup qualifiers, and is investigating carrying the remaining Concacaf games that will determine who the All Whites meet for the right to go to Brazil next year.

But there have been serious bugbears, particularly the picture quality in comparison to what Sky TV provided before Coliseum dispossessed them of the EPL rights. Subscribers also complain of coverage jamming, or being unwatchable at times, and upgrade costs.

As for linking the internet to the much loved traditional flat screen TV ... many have quit in despair.

But as Coliseum's 41-year-old boss Tim Martin explains, his head office staff of seven are continually working hard at fixing problems. He says a significant breakthrough in picture quality will be noticeable this weekend. The Weekend Herald visited Coliseum's minimalist offices in downtown Auckland where Martin - a former advertising man - chatted about problems, solutions, the world of sports broadcasting ... as well as his unusual upbringing.

So, what will change this weekend?

We've definitely noticed problems with the wide shots - when the ball is hoofed upfield the picture goes jittery. Sport is the hardest thing to do on the internet because of the ball speed. We think we've got to the bottom of our problem, though. The issue was encoding compatibility between the EPL and NeuLion, our tech provider in New York. It's been frustrating, no question. We've been working on it since the season kicked off and it's smoother, much improved, and shouldn't have that jittery look.

What about the "comet effect" - will the ball keep its shape rather than turning into a blur?

We think that is part of the same problem. What about HD quality? We know 85 per cent of our customers use the highest rate of 3000Kpbs, accounting for 70 per cent of all hours watched. That shows people can take a higher-quality feed. We always said if the demand was there, we would do it. There are challenges but we are working closely with Telecom ... to have a 4500Kpbs rate available this season. It's a big cost but we won't pass that on to customers.

What's the picture like at your place?

We've got a long driveway - it all got too hard to get the new ultra-fast fibre broadband. We got the faster VDSL copper service instead and it made a massive difference. With the old copper, the download speed would drop and the picture would suddenly go pixilated and shitty. The old copper network clogs up at certain times and speed gets slower.

What's your best advice for people experiencing problems?

Ring our tech-based call centre. There are so many different elements involved. The modem quality makes a massive difference. People are using 10-year-old modems and wondering why they have problems.

You must have got a few tasty letters ...

Email and Twitter give really nice people the opportunity to be incredibly rude, in a way they wouldn't be to your face. Yes, it can hurt but it's not my nature to take things personally. It just means a lot of people are frustrated and we address it all. Someone went to the trouble of setting up a domain with the address f@#$you@wheresmyfootball.com. Someone else told us he didn't need the internet and would never get it - he sent the message by email.

Do you support an EPL team?

I like Arsenal, quite like Manchester United, Swansea, enjoyed watching Cardiff the other day, a bit of a soft spot for Manchester City ...

I can almost hear Loyal in the background ...

My thing is the (American gridiron) Dallas Cowboys. I'm a huge fan. I grew up in Asia going to American schools so maybe that's where the connection was made. For my 40th, I took my long-suffering wife to the new stadium in Dallas. It is unbelievable, with the largest architectural arch in the world. It is this giant thing on the horizon.

Asia ...?

Dad was a Wellingtonian who worked for Coca-Cola, and we moved around a lot. The Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore ... kids normalise things and we were used to being the only ones with white faces and blond hair. Manila in the 1970s was crazy with guns everywhere. There were cops standing there in big boots, black leather pants, a white singlet and open vest to the navel, shotgun on shoulders, with bandoleers across their chests, in aviator glasses, with a toothpick in the mouth. It was great.

Maybe that's where you got the new frontier spirit ...

I guess I grew up knowing there was a world out there.

Is the English Premier League happy with you? We report to MP & Silva, the rights holders, every month. They are very tight with the EPL. The scrutiny is massive. We have to give sales, feedback, quality of service. They haven't voiced any concerns and are really excited. Compared to the figures supplied by Sky, viewership is up slightly.

What's in the pipeline?

We're looking at innovations ... heaps. For instance, we've got a conversation going with Opta, the global leader in real-time sporting statistics, about incorporating their stats into our feeds. We'll probably get that in season two. We're about to go into a development cycle - for example, the timeline under every game will have little markers where the action points are - goals, a big tackle, red cards. We can be much better than TV in that sense.

Scariest moments?

We carried the World Cup qualifier between England and the Ukraine. The feeds out of the Ukraine were like old school 4 x 3 that didn't work with our player. We were on the phone to New York and the Ukraine. It was a highly nerve-racking, white-knuckle ride and we only fixed it a few minutes before kickoff. It was like the old No 8 wire mentality - we rammed it in, tweaked a few knobs. Waiting for our first ever EPL game was nerve- racking. We had technical issues on the first weekend where people couldn't access for an hour.

One of the many rumours is that overseas subscribers are boosting your service, even though it is geoblocked ...

I tried to get on from Singapore and found it hard, although I'm not a great internet guy. We can see where every stream is going. A couple have tried to get on (from overseas) and you just switch them off.

Your biggest lesson has been ...

What you can't do is try things in the market, although you have to sometimes. We made a big mistake early on, putting up a test video that wasn't rich enough and it pixilated when blown up. It only took a couple of hours before it was in the papers, how shit our quality was. People have high expectations, they're pretty unforgiving out there.

Any scuttlebutt from the world of rugby?

I've just been at a sports conference in Singapore and all the talk was the fragmentation of European rugby with English and French clubs pulling out of the Heineken Cup and open talk about South African teams playing in a new Heineken Cup. That raises the question of what happens to Sanzar. Personally, I don't think it will happen but it's hard to predict how many things will go.

What's a key trend?

Everyone says screens are getting bigger, but that's not what I see. I see them getting smaller - iPhones, iPads. More portable devices will change how people watch stuff. We developed this to work on ADSL because we realised it wouldn't be fair to everyone as a fibre-only product. In time it will be fibre, however - our view is that all content will be through the internet eventually.

Are you here for the long haul?

We're not fly-by-nighters and we want to do other sports. We don't give out subscriber numbers but I can tell you it has worked. We will constantly tinker and improve this product. The rights come up on three-year cycles so it will be open slather again in May 2016. We understand that, but we'd love to keep going.

- NZ Herald

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