7 September 2018

Has Amazon delivered?

Two weeks ago, we reported on a revolution in the TV coverage of the US Open. So, how has Amazon done? We look at the good and the bad and give you the chance to give your verdict.

It must have got almost as hot and sticky at Amazon HQ as it was on court in New York as the UK coverage of the US Open began. In the first few days there was an avalanche of negative feedback posted to the Amazon site. According to press reports it got so bad that the retail giant closed the online review system for new comments. Even if true, it is open again now and while at the start 88% of users gave  the service a measly one star, the feedback is gradually becoming more positive.

Technically the streaming service was a shock for many users. After a couple of decades where those in the UK with access to satellite or cable TV have been able to enjoy at least some (and in recent years, through the red button, most) of the US Open direct to their TV screen via Sky or Eurosport, the TV coverage vanished. Gone with it was the high-definition picture quality that we had all got used to.

Now the only way to get the web-based streaming service is with a smart TV with the Amazon App built in or through a streaming device such as Amazon's own Firestick. Infuriatingly, not even all of these devices worked. We had championed the normally reliable Roku but in the UK, it turned out not to have Amazon live streaming enabled.

Amazon Prime US OpenUndoubtedly, if you have been watching this year's US Open on TV in the UK, however you accessed the Amazon stream, the picture quality ias noticeably poorer that the TV coverage of recent years. Colours are flat and the streaming makes the image jerkier and less detailed. More surprisingly, the sound quality during matches has been extraordinarily poor - just where were those courtside mics positioned?

What seemed like a lack of planning also made the coverage in the first few days hard to follow. Streaming channels obstinately refused to advise which matches were being shown and the catch-up service which split highlights of matches between two downloads was confusing and limited. Gradually this too has been improved.

But arguably, the technical difficulties masked the fundamental nature of the change. While Amazon UK stuck largely to the same commentators we were used to - Greg Rusedski and Annabel Croft were the studio pundits - watching the US Open via Amazon proved to be a much more immersive experience. Watching with an Amazon Firestick (as we were) added a disincentive to channel hop - it just takes too long to search your TV's inputs to find Bake Off for a quick check on soggy bottoms. Instead, we found ourselves staying tuned to Amazon and the soggy bottoms of the gladiators competing in gruelling heat and humidity. With no advert breaks on Amazon (and much less BBC Wimbledon-style hopping to the action on neighbouring courts) you got sucked deeper and deeper into the experience.

Novak Djokovic on Amazon PrimeThe ten minute heat breaks after the third set in the men's game has added to the "dwelling time" giving more time for commentators to reflect and for the us to try to get into the heads of the players. There is a curious bonding between viewer and player that happens when, instead of heading to the adverts, you have the chance to stick with an exhausted Djokovic, shirt off, grinning as if in disbelief at the physical effort it takes to progress in this contest.

More time to fill has also allowed the commentators to come into their own. Daniela Hantuchová has been generous with her willingness to share her own experiences of top-level play and Jim Courier has been exceptional throughout - insightful and witty and able to draw a lot more sense from Mark Petchey than the under-rated commentator usually allows himself when confined to punning wrap-ups ahead of the next betting ad.

Traditionally, broadcasters have seen their role as the interpreters of great sporting events, packaging the coverage to appeal to the biggest audience. Fronted by a Desmond Lynam or a Clare Balding, it had a kind of star status. For tennis, that began to change with Sky and Eurosport as more of the action became available, but the Amazon coverage is a determined break from the conventions of the past. As it improves technically, we suspect real tennis fans will be won over by an approach that is refreshingly different and seems to have tapped into the essence of the sport. That is to the good, but in doing so, will it break the bond between the tennis and the everyday viewer, leaving a product that only aficionados will appreciate?

What do you think of the coverage? We will publish a selection of your responses here.