October 6 marked the fourth installment of Thursday Night Football this season, and several things are now clear. First, the Colts-Broncos matchup wasn’t worth scheduling in the first place, let alone staying up for overtime in a game that didn’t see a single touchdown. Hindsight is 20/20 though.
Second — and this is the part that’s actually important — Amazon Prime Video still has some serious work to do if it doesn’t want to continue to be dog-cussed by a number of customers each week.
To review: The 2022 season is the first in which Amazon Prime Video is producing the NFL’s Thursday night games from start to finish. It handles the production — from the cameras and sound to the folks in the booth and on the sidelines, along with the on-screen graphics and music. And it also handles the distribution, which is limited to Amazon Prime Video (no small channel), Twitch (which is owned by Amazon), and NFL+. No broadcast TV. No network TV. It’s the future, and Amazon is playing a big part in it.
And that’s why it’s such a big deal that for four straight Thursdays at least a portion of the viewership — which eclipsed 15 million in its first week (Amazon hasn’t released numbers since) — has seen some pretty major issues with the stream. As with the previous three weeks, the game itself wasn’t the problem. Nor was Amazon’s production — the on-screen graphics and music and commentary. Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit are as good a pair as there have ever been. The problem, as it’s been the previous three Thursdays, came down to the stream itself on Amazon Prime Video.
As we’ve written from the beginning — and as anyone who’s ever had to troubleshoot anything to do with the internet can attest — nailing down this sort of thing isn’t easy. There are myriad variables at work, starting from the source feed (what Amazon’s putting out), and flowing through content distribution networks before hitting your local ISP, and finally navigating your home network before landing on whatever device you’re using. Then there’s actual, actionable data about what’s happening, mixed in with anecdotal reports. It’s all useful to one degree or another, though.
It’s also important to note that we don’t actually have any idea exactly how many people are experiencing issues. It could well be a very small fraction of the millions who are watching.
(My anecdotal take: I have 1Gbps fiber internet through AT&T. My living room Apple TV pulls a minimum of 800 Mbps, connected via Ethernet. And it’s seen Thursday Night Football drop to an unwatchable resolution not just during the game itself, but also during commercials. I watched the October 6 game via a Roku TV pulling 100 Mbps, and it never — not once — achieved 60 frames per second.)
Amazon is one of the world’s leading providers for internet infrastructure. It should be better than this.
When you’re talking about distributing a live event like sports — even a snoozer like the Indy-Denver game — it has to work the first time, every time, for the three hours or so that the game is taking place. And in that regard, Amazon has failed.
Actually, it’s perhaps worse than failing outright. A failure could be considered the inability to stream the game at all, but that’s not what folks have been seeing. The broad strokes are that streams are stuttering and freezing, or that the resolution is dropping down below the expected 1080p, or that the frame rate isn’t hitting 60fps, which is what gives live sports that seamless motion. Anything less than 1080p at 60 frames per second is immediately and absolutely noticeable, and unacceptable.
And that’s saying something considering not just that Amazon is one of the most important companies in general, but also in terms of its networking technology since it’s the proud parent of Amazon Web Services. AWS, in fact, plays a pretty big part in the viewer-facing portions of Thursday Night Football, powering “Next-Gen” stats that don’t really matter, as well as making numerous appearances in advertising. It’s also a huge part of what makes the internet work — there’s a nearly 100% chance that you do something every day that interacts with AWS, whether you know it or not.
Amazon needs to publicly acknowledge the issues, at the bare minimum. I have no doubt that the company is working to fix them. And I’m willing to bet that it will fix them. But that’s of little comfort to the NFL fans who for four weeks now have had to hope and pray that they’ll be able to watch the game that they’re paying for as part of their Amazon Prime subscription.
Amazon is better than this. Amazon Prime Video is better than this. And it needs to have a week in which we’re not required to write about how its NFL stream is failing.
Perhaps the October 13 game between Washington and Chicago will allow us that luxury.
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