Sky’s streaming apps are a viewing nightmare

Live streaming of sports over the Internet is the future of sports broadcasting. But when it comes to our most popular sport, rugby, we’re beholden to a cable TV company: Sky. It’s not as if Sky hasn’t joined the online streaming revolution. It has no fewer than three live streaming apps in the iTunes App Store and on Google Play. The problem is, they’re all buggy and unreliable.

Sky Go is the company’s primary app, since it offers live streaming of selected channels to your tablet or phone. However, it’s gotten terrible reviews and averages just one out of five stars on the iTunes store. I’ve used the app a number of times myself, to stream a rugby or basketball match, but all too often the app fails and has to be re-started.

Sky also has an app called Fan Pass, which offers monthly or six-monthly online subscriptions to Sky Sports. The whole point of Fan Pass is to give non-cable subscribers a streaming alternative. While the monthly subscription rate of $99 is obviously a joke, the 6 month subscription rate of $329.99 ($55 per month) compares favourably to the $90 per month cable tv rate. But again, the problem is that Fan Pass is plagued by bugs. At least that seems to be the case, judging by the frustrated tweets I see during major rugby matches. “Fan pass cut out 3 times already and the game has barely started,” Aucklander Clara Irvine angrily tweeted at 7.49pm on 17 June (the night the Lions played the Maori All Blacks).

Unfortunately the bad reviews don’t end there. NEON TV, Sky’s entertainment app and a would-be Netflix competitor, is the worst of the lot. I downloaded this app onto my Samsung TV, but it takes ten minutes or so for me to get it working every time I want to watch Twin Peaks. In addition, there are issues with sound not syncing correctly, the app suddenly stalling, and so on. I’ve also tried to stream NEON from my iPad to my TV using Chromecast, with little success. Compared to the Netflix app, which streams like a dream, NEON is a streaming nightmare.

I’m being harsh on Sky’s collection of apps, but to be fair it does an outstanding job with the actual sports coverage. As rights holders to all SANZAR rugby matches until 2020, including the All Blacks and Super rugby, Sky’s broadcasts are top notch and the games are always shown live. It even offers alternative commentary, in case you aren’t a fan of Justin Marshall during test matches.

We perhaps take it for granted that a New Zealand company owns the rights to broadcasting our national game. From 2021 onwards, that could change. A global media conglomerate like Discovery or Al Jazeera could easily win the rights when they come up for renewal. You may think those are odd choices to buy rugby rights. But an Al Jazeera subsidiary, BeIN Sport, already owns the global soccer rights for this part of the world (although it promptly partnered with Sky to make the games available as a Sky TV package). But if BeIN Sport gets the rugby rights for 2021, there’s no guarantee it’ll do a similar deal. As for Discovery, last April the American media company acquired a “significant minority stake” in RugbyPass already owns all rugby rights for the Asia region, including China and India. For that region it charges US$20 per month, or US$160 per year. But you can bet those prices will be ratcheted up if RugbyPass obtains the rights for New Zealand, where rugby is in much higher demand.

No matter who wins the rugby rights for 2021 and beyond, millions of their customers will want to view the games via streaming apps. I don’t just mean apps for your phone or tablet either; most “smart tvs” on the market today have their own custom apps for Netflix and the like. In other words, even TV sets are online streaming boxes these days. That’s a trend that’s only going to increase over the next few years, given the rapid decline of traditional cable tv. Remember that the younger, digital native generation aren’t “cord cutters,” they’re “cord nevers.” The upshot for Sky? If it hasn’t sorted out its app woes by 2021, it’s in big trouble even if it retains the rugby rights.

There’s one other way this could play out for rugby fans. What if New Zealand Rugby itself built a streaming app? This is exactly what the NBA did. ItsĀ NBA League Pass allows you to watch every game live or on-demand, not just the relatively few games that show up on ESPN (via your Sky Sports package, here in New Zealand). It costs $42.99 per month to subscribe to NBA League Pass, so it doesn’t come cheap. But avid NBA fans will pay what’s necessary. There aren’t a huge number of those in New Zealand, but there are a lot of avid rugby fans. So a custom app is an outside chance of happening, although it’s much more likely NZR will simply sell the rights for an astronomical sum.

As for the next few years, I’m afraid we’re stuck with Sky’s cable tv box or its buggy apps that may disconnect at any moment.