Have you been loving NBC’s amazing English Premier League coverage these past few years, as they’ve coupled smart and engaging studio and commentary teams with unparalleled access to the matches through multi-channel broadcasts and a streaming service that brought every single league game live to your computer or phone as part of your cable package? Well, hopefully you enjoyed it while it lasted, because NBC has just fucked it all to hell.
NBC announced today that it has effectively cleaved its TV coverage from its streaming service, and will charge $49.99 for the latter. In the glorious and naive days of the past (meaning before today), a cable subscriber whose package included NBC Sports Network could watch nearly every single match on live TV (either on one of the network’s many traditional channels like NBC and NBCSN and USA and the like, or on one of the match-only Extra Time channels that would awaken from its dormant state when the traditional channels were filled up but there were still matches to be shown) and could watch literally every match live or on-demand online by signing into NBC’s streaming service using their cable login info. If you got NBCSN as part of your cable package, then you were golden. If you didn’t have cable, you were more or less out of luck.
Today’s news is bad for everyone. For TV subscribers in this dark future NBC has hurtled us into, the only matches you’ll be able to watch online as a benefit of your cable subscription going forward are those NBC sees fit to put on one of its traditional channels. The auxiliary Extra Time channels will be killed, and the option to stream matches that aren’t broadcast on cable TV has been taken away, too. All those tons and tons of matches you had been able to stream as part of NBC’s previous package will still be available, of course, but now will cost $50.
In theory, today’s news is good for cord cutters. Before, you needed cable to get access to the full range of EPL offerings; now you can buy into the league with the new streaming package, and get access to thrilling Watford-Stoke action. However, there’s a significant catch. Those who pay for the service will not be able to stream the matches that are broadcast on TV, which of course will include all the big matches that make the league what it is. To get those games without paying for cable, you’ll need to get some other streaming service like Sling, which gives you access to NBC’s suite of channels.
In effect, then, NBC has taken what was a single great product and sliced it into two unsatisfying parts, making it worse, more expensive, and less convenient than the previous unified whole.
The televised package will now suffer because of NBC’s longstanding preference for airing matches involving the biggest teams. This means cable-only subscribers will miss out on some damn good matchups involving slightly less popular teams (a Tottenham-Southampton match, say) in favor of boring ones involving a big-name team (think something like Manchester United-Burnley). I cringe to think about all the errant shots Ross Barkley will send into the stands that my Everton-supporting colleagues will miss out on next season.
The streaming-only package, for its part, is similarly incomplete, because even paying the $50 fee won’t be enough to get access to the marquee matches that drive the league. For those, you’ll need either a cable subscription or a subscription to a streaming service that mimics one.
In order to follow the Premier League with the depth NBC’s previous setup allowed Americans to do, then, you will now need to pay for two services. In a way, NBC pulled off a classic drug dealer move: give away samples of the product in its purest form for free to get the fiends hooked, and right when the new addicts come back for more, water the product down and jack up the price. Sure, $50 for a season isn’t all that expensive, and the cable-only package will probably be more than enough for the majority of America’s army of Gooners and Red Devils to follow their club’s every move. But still, it was once so good and now it’s more expensive and complicated and I hate it.
Whether this is an effective scheme—whether NBC should be more focused on growing EPL fandom in the U.S. generally by offering as much of the league to as many people as possible rather than trying to extract more money from the existing customer base right now—is an open question and really of interest only to people who have investments in Comcast. What isn’t up for debate is that for fans of the league, cable subscribers and cord cutters alike, this move doesn’t serve any of our best interests and so it sucks.