Thursday, July 7, 2011 at 9:19 am.

NBC slashing price for Tour de France live iPad streaming as angry reviews roll in

NBC’s Tour de France “All Access” app lets you stream the Tour de France live to your iPhone or iPad, so you don’t have to spend the morning in front of a TV, tuned into Versus, the cable network broadcasting the race. You’d think that people would be happy about that.

But instead, the app’s reviews have been mostly terrible — its 1.5-star average (out of 5 stars) is outrageously low for a major app. Angry Birds, for instance, has a 4.5-star average.

Why are people so upset? The biggest reason seems to be the price of live streaming: A $14.99 in-app purchase. To many reviewers, this feels like a bait-and-switch.

Versus (now an NBC Sports property, via the Comcast merger) has been running commercials during the Tour de France advertising “All Access” for $29.95, including live video streaming, with a brief suggestion of mobile and iPad access.

But it turns out that the $30 web “All Access” pass isn’t actually “All Access.” That is, it doesn’t cover live streaming for the iPad app, which is a separate $15 fee. (And another $15 if you want it on your iPhone, too, supposedly.) You can, in theory, watch the $30 live stream in your iPad’s web browser, but iPad owners are used to running native apps for things like that.

NBC is responding by lowering the price of the in-app purchase upgrade more than it had initially planned.

On Friday, I’m told, the in-app purchase for live streaming on the “All Access” iOS app will drop to $4.99, instead of a price cut to $9.99 that NBC had initially planned. The Tour is going to be about one-third over, so it makes sense to drop the price by one-third of the initial fee every week. But NBC is reducing the price by two-thirds after one week.

That won’t make the people who already forked over $45 any happier. But it should allow people who have been fuming and haven’t yet upgraded to do it at a significantly lower price.

And the easy lesson for next year, if NBC sticks with the same pricing model, is to make it crystal clear that web streaming access and the mobile access are different products. Major League Baseball has been doing this effectively for years, Hulu has been doing it with Hulu Plus, and it’s a perfectly legitimate model. The Tour de France is a niche sporting event, and $45 for a month’s worth of access on your computer and iPad isn’t a crazy price. It just needs to be explained better.

Another criticism of the Tour de France app is that it doesn’t have full-length stage replays after the live stream is over. That is, if you miss the stage live, you are out of luck, and have to watch it on Versus on your TV. The app only provides a few short highlight clips after the stage is over.

The reason for this, I’m told, isn’t that the Comcast corporate bean counters want to force you to turn on your cable box. It’s supposedly a technical/logistics issue — something about the file sizes for the full stages being huge.

This sounds like a strange explanation — storage is cheap, and a media company like NBC should have been able to figure this out. After all, I’m told that on-demand stage viewing is available on the $30 web version of the package. And Netflix seems to have no problem streaming 2-hour movies to both web browsers and iPads.

But let’s assume that there is something uniquely complicated here that makes it particularly challenging to offer up on-demand iPad replays of 4+ hour bike race stages.

That’s when the discrepancy between two streaming packages starts to get annoying as an iPad app customer. Because now if I want to watch a stage after it’s over, it’s a $30 “upgrade” to the web version, not just the $15 iPad app. And I have to do the navigation in my browser, and not in the app. That’s a worse user experience.

Again, NBC is using a perfectly legitimate pricing model. But it has done a lousy job communicating the differences between its products. So it’s easy to see why people are frustrated.