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Watching brief

Amazon-error-message-usopen-2018.png"Hope the TV goes out at the same time," the local cable company advised me regarding outages when they supplied my Internet service circa 2001. "Because then so many people complain that it gets fixed right away."

Amazon is discovering the need to follow this principle. As the Guardian reported last week, this year's US Open tennis is one of Amazon Prime's first forays into live sports streaming, and tennis fans are unhappy.

"Please leave tennis alone," says one of the more polite user reviews.

It seems like only yesterday that being able to watch grainy, stuttering video in a corner of one's computer screen was like a miracle (and an experience no one would ever want to repeat unless they had to). Now, streaming is so well established that people complain about the quality, the (lack of) features, and even the camera angles. People! Only ten years ago you'd have been *grateful*!

A friend, seeing the Guardian's story, emailed: "Are you seeing this?" Well, yes. Most of it. On my desktop machine the picture looks fine to me, but it's a 24-inch monitor, not a giant HD TV, and as long as I can pick out the ball consistently, who cares whether it's 1020p? However, on two Windows laptops both audio and video stutter badly. That was a clue: my Linux-based desktop has a settings advisory: "HD TV Not Available - Why?" It transpires that because Linux machines lack the copy protection built into HDMI, Amazon doesn't send HD. I'm guessing that the smaller amount of data means smoother reception and a better experience, even if the resolution is lower. That said, even on the Linux machines the stream fails regularly. Reload window, click play.

The camera angle is indeed annoying, but for that you have to blame the USTA and the new Armstrong stadium design. There's only one set of cameras, and the footage is distributed by the host broadcaster to everyone else. Whine to Amazon all you want; but all the company can do is forward the complaints.

One reason tennis fans are so picky is that the tennis tours adopted streaming years ago, as did Eurosport, as a way of reaching widely dispersed fans: tennis is a global minority sport. So they are experienced, and they have expectations. On the ATP (men's) tour's own site, TennisTV, if you're getting a stuttering picture you can throttle the bitrate; the scores and schedule are ready to hand; and you can pause a match and resume it later or step back to the beginning or any point in between. Replays are available very soon after a match ends. On Amazon, there's an icon to click to replay the last ten seconds, but you can't pause and resume, and you can only go back about a half an hour. Lest you think that's trivial: US Open night sessions, which generally feature the most popular matches, start at 7pm New York time - and therefore midnight in the UK.

In general, it's clear that Amazon hasn't really thought through the realities of the way fans embrace the US Open. Instead of treating the US Open as an *event*: instead of replays, Amazon treats live matches, and highlights compilations as separate "items". The replays Amazon began posting after a couple of days seem to be particularly well-hidden in that they're not flagged from either the highlights page or the live page and they're called "match of the day". When I did find them, they refused to play.

I would probably have been more annoyed about all this if UK coverage of the US Open hadn't been so frequently frustrating in the past (I remember "watching" the 1990 men's final by watching the Teletext scores update, and the frustrations of finding live matches when Sky scattered them across four premium channels). Watching the US Open in Britain is like boarding a plane for a long flight in economy: you don't ask if you're going to be uncomfortable. Instead, you assemble a toolkit and then which ask components you're going to need to make it as tolerable as possible within the constraints. So: I know where the Internet hides recordings of recently played matches and free streams. The US Open site has the scores and schedule of who's playing where. All streams bomb out at exactly the wrong moment. Unlike the USTA, however, it only took a day or two for Amazon to respond to viewer complaints by labeling the streams with who was playing. I *have* liked hearing some different commentators for a change. But I do not want to be a Prime subscriber.

Amazon will likely get better at this over the next four years of its five-year, $40 million contract and the course of its £50 million, five-year contract to show the ATP Tour. Nonetheless, sports are almost the only programming viewers are guaranteed to want to watch in real time, and fans, broadcasters, and the sports themselves are unlikely to be well-served in the long term by a company that uses live sports is a loss-leader - like below-cost pricing on milk in a grocery store - to build platform loyalty and subscribers for its delivery service. Sports are a strategy for the company, not its business. Book publishers welcomed Amazon, too, once.

Illustrations: Amazon error message.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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