NBC in Your Pocket

With the small screen going mobile, TV networks are chasing viewers. The number of people who subscribe to Comcast’s Internet service surpassed its video subscribers for the first time this year. As the owner of NBC, Comcast is likely hearing, “Philadelphia, we have a problem.”

So maybe NBC’s mobile app can keep viewers flirting with the Peacock between texting, Facebook, Candy Crush, and YouTube.

To compare the NBC app to the Today-to-Tonight linear network, I loaded the iOS and Android versions into my iPad and smartphone. The app asks that you authenticate yourself as a cable/satellite subscriber. From the perspective of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, there are two classes of viewers: subscribers and freeloaders.

Signing in allows you to see new episodes of select shows the day after they air and access to full seasons of particular series. (Freeloaders aren’t shown the door, but their choices are limited.)

You can watch the live simulcast of your local station (not available in all markets). You can also watch entertainment and news programs on demand, which includes new and old NBC series. There was a retro feel to viewing an entire hour of Miami Vice—not only because it lacked high-def but because you’re made to sit through multiple commercials. Such commitment is most likely to come from junkies who missed Meet the Press or Days of Our Lives. Given that our attention span is less than that of a goldfish, we’re more likely to forgo any full episode and gravitate to clips from Late Night with Seth Meyers.

The most surprising feature of the NBC app was being able to binge-watch the entire season of Aquarius, even as new episodes were still rolling out weekly on NBC.

I found live TV the best reason to use the app such as watching Today on the bus into the city. Sitting at a table with a TV above the restaurant’s bar, I whipped out my phone to see American Pharaoh win the Triple Crown when the TV was blocked by patrons. I had previously watched the Preakness on my iPad, which goes to show that sports were made for live apps.

The NBC app includes closed captioning. You can pick up where you left off when returning to an on-demand episode. You can share the title of what you’re watching on Facebook from the app. The app is Airplay-enabled for mirroring the screen to your Apple TV. If you have a network AV receiver, you can send the sound to your home theater speakers, but audio is limited to stereo. The app scales up nicely to 1080p for screens that support high def.

On a related note, Dyle TV pulled the plug in May. NBC had been one of the few participants in this system that inserted a mobile-ready signal into free, over-the-air TV broadcasts (for viewing on the Belkin Dyle Mobile TV Receiver). Besides lacking on-demand capability, the system seemed doomed as consumer electronics makers concluded that DTV stations had already lost the wireless data wars to cellular, Internet, and Wi-Fi delivery.

Though I enjoy its content, the app is risky to use much outside of Wi-Fi. As my cellular billing cycle reached the end of the month, the data usage cap was getting perilously close. This (and the inability to download a show for later viewing) may prove the Achilles’ heel for the app. You can set the NBC app to rely exclusively on Wi-Fi (instead of 3G or 4G), but data by Wi-Fi isn’t always practical—especially when you’re mobile.