Net service comes through in clutch

The Baltimore Sun

Thomas Morton is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees.

Unfortunately for Morton, he lives in Columbia, Howard County, so watching his boys in pinstripes on a regular basis was impossible unless they happened to be playing the Orioles. That's why last year, the 65-year-old ad agency art director signed up for Major League Baseball's MLB.TV, which enabled him to watch games online any time he wanted.

"I liked it so much, I signed up for it again this season," he said. "But instead of a month-to-month package, I signed up for the full season for $119.95 because it was cheaper. At first, everything worked fine. I was able to get some of the games and spring training, but then when the regular season started, I couldn't get any games. My screen would just lock up."

Morton spent from April to June calling and writing MLB.TV. Ultimately, he was told by customer service reps that the problem was his computer, a 3-year-old Macintosh with a Safari browser.

While the Mac was still relatively new to Morton, it was relatively ancient for the new upgrade this season that MLB.TV wanted its customers to install to continue streaming live, standard-definition quality games online. Unable to fix the problem through MLB.TV, Morton contacted a Mac specialist who said he would likely have to upgrade the operating system.

"My cost for that would be about $300-plus for the software, vital system backup and professional installation," Morton said, when he first started contacting MLB in April and May. "They upgraded me right out of the ballpark. I was not going to buy a new computer or spend that much on upgrades just to watch America's favorite pastime, as much as I love watching baseball. I asked for my money back repeatedly since MLB.TV sold me a product I could no longer use. I have yet to receive any assistance."

Morton didn't want to give up the ability to watch a season of up to 2,430 baseball games. But he lacked the computer know-how to deal with his technical problem. Calls to MLB.TV tech support garnered some help until frustration set in and techs would eventually tell Morton there was no solution for his old computer. By the time I heard from Morton, he was already disconsolate about missing most of the season and worried he'd never see a refund.

Never say never.

We contacted MLB.TV on behalf of Morton, asked for his money back and inquired about the possibility of getting the games back on his computer screen.

Matthew Gould, vice president of corporate communications for MLB Advanced Media, promised an immediate fix.

"It's something that a lot of digital media content providers face," Gould said. "When you have an audience the size of ours - we get upward of 8 million visitors a day during the season - and you have as many products as we offer, you have to remember that not everyone has the same Internet connection, the same level of speed, the same computer or the same operating systems.

"It requires a gargantuan infrastructure," Gould said. "Just to stream a single game, making sure it stays up and is consistent, requires an enormous technological back end."

Evidence of the difficulties from pulling off such a task popped up at the beginning of the season, when 1.1 million subscribers severely taxed MLB.TV's system, according to published reports showing that many subscribers missed their favorite team play on Opening Day. Little wonder then that some customers like Morton would fall through the cracks.

To make up for its abysmal response to his initial complaint, MLB.TV's chief technical officer and a technician called Morton within a day or two.

Walking Morton through each step on the phone, they proceeded to remove and reinstall Flip4Mac, a digital media tool that allows you to play Windows Media video and audio files in QuickTime Player on your Mac. Then they upgraded Morton's browser and tried upgrading his operating system. Then they upgraded his Adobe Flash Player, which allows his computer to play video and audio files. They tried installing Microsoft Silverlight, the new plug-in needed to watch MLB-TV's games in standard def, but Morton's operating system was too old to handle the upgrade.

They struck out on every attempt.

But instead of accepting the dreaded Golden Sombrero and calling it a day, the MLB.TV techs made one last-ditch effort to score. They ran Disk Utility on Morton's Mac to correct system files and software permissions on his computer.

It was a dinger.

"He had not run Disk Utility on his hard drive since he bought his computer," Gould said. "There are things we should all be doing to maintain computer efficiency. That's one of them.

"We wish we had addressed his problem in a more efficient manner, but we are thrilled that he was finally able to get the games again, and he didn't have to spend a dime or buy a computer to do it."

After three hours on the phone, about the time it takes to play a baseball game, Morton was indeed back up and able to watch the end of baseball season on his computer. Due to the age of his computer, he was not able to watch the games on a 1.2-megabyte stream, which is the standard def quality image. But Morton was able to watch the games on a lower-quality stream, which suited him all right.

"They could have quit after half an hour, but they kept going," Morton said. "They could have said it wasn't worth it. They just continued to go on and on and on. The one technician said he would get me going, and he was good for his word."

Gould says Morton's computer should be OK to watch games online next year, too.

The best part for Morton was that not only was he back online, he also got his $119.95 back for missing most of the season. The bad news is that he caught the games just in time to see his Yankees be eliminated from postseason play.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@ baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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