Tuned In

NBC’s Olympic Livestreaming Is a Step Forward. But Is It a Permanent One?

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David J. Phillip / AP

Australia's Kylie Palmer, right, and United States' Allison Schmitt compete in a women's 200-meter freestyle swimming heat at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Monday, July 30, 2012.

Let me say upfront that complaining about the quality and immediacy of one’s video options for watching the Olympics in the comfort of my home is, more literally than usual, a First World problem. It’s what we do every two years, of course, and this time is no exception, from the tactless editing of the opening ceremony to the inane commentary on the parade of nations to, especially, the decision to time-delay major competitions like this weekend’s swimming events.

But credit where due: NBC‘s decision to livestream every event on the Web and via apps is a big improvement. Not for everyone! You need a cable or satellite subscription, which ain’t cheap; if your cable company is not part of the deal you’re out of luck; and through the weekend users of the Web stream in particular complained of freezing, buffering and pixellation, especially during big competitions. (I’ve largely been using the iPad app, and in my very anecdotal experience I’ve been surprised how well it works, on a not-stellar home Internet connection.)

So when people have complained that they have to wait until primetime–after the world knows who won–to watch the events they most want to see on TV, NBC has responded that they can stream online if they want to.* Point taken. But it also raises the question: why not treat NBC’s on-air coverage the same way?

*[By the way: NBC has pointed to the high ratings for the games as proof that people are fine with its strategy. I don't see the logic. High ratings prove that people love the Olympics, not necessarily that they love NBC's TV coverage. It's not like they can choose ABC's or Fox's if they have a problem with it. (Yes, I know there are technical ways to watch or hack overseas coverage, but few people are going to do that.) A lot of people also have corporate health insurance, fly commercial airlines and go to the post office. It doesn't mean they love the service!]

As I mentioned in my column on spoilers last week, NBC announced its livestream plan not out of public charity but as a considered business strategy. It believes–judging from past live sports and awards shows–that when some people see an event early and start tweeting and buzzing about it, it only builds the audience for the primetime broadcast. (Say, when a big awards show airs taped on the West Coast.)

So if allowing events to stream live online only helps ratings, in NBC’s view, why wouldn’t exactly the same thing be true of airing, say, a Phelps-Lochte swim event live on a weekend afternoon? (Media critic Jeff Jarvis raised this question in a post over the weekend.) You could collect ratings, and ad money, from a high-profile race in the afternoon, then collect again when more people tune in to watch the highly produced package in primetime.

NBC has not to my knowledge said so straight out, but the thinking seems pretty clear: having a small, intense group of viewers watch online does not cannibalize primetime ratings (from which you make the big ad bucks), but putting the same event on live TV would–presumably, because too many people would see it.

I don’t know if that thinking is actually correct, but it’s the prevailing wisdom. Maybe online streaming is in a sweet spot where it gets enough viewership to boost buzz, but not enough to be a threat. There’s still a barrier to watching online, after all. You have to have an Internet connection. You have to have cable or satellite. You have to risk a poor connection, or buffering from high demand, or all-out crashing just at the wrong moment. In general, TV still looks much better. Most people would just rather watch TV, even if it means waiting.

For now. But what happens in another Olympics or two, when live streaming gets much, much better? What happens when the Internet pipes into our houses can carry faster video, when most of our TVs are Web-enabled, when watching online streaming is far, far more seamless, reliable and better-looking–and far, far more people are ready to do it? Let’s say, what’s more, that online advertising—which now produces far less revenue than TV ads, right or wrong—does not catch up with primetime TV in a way that nearly recoups the ad money. Wouldn’t live-online streaming “cannibalize” primetime just as much as NBC apparently believes live-TV airing does?

Maybe, when we get to that point, NBC (or whoever has the Olympics in the future) will realize that live technology can grow the audience rather than cut it. But there’s no guarantee, if streams become mainstream, that NBC et al. will be as generous with them in the future.

Live-streaming any event I want is a very, very good thing. But if broadcasters try to take that back in the future, it could get very, very ugly.

24 comments
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BearFlagFan
BearFlagFan

I've found live streaming great but the lack of color commentary is a major drawback. Part of watching the Olympics is feasting on odd sports once every quadrennial, but I need an expert to tell me why the US v Hungary women's water polo game was so close. Help with some arcane rules of the sports is good too. I can understand, maybe, why there isn't live commentary on archery. But not for a USA men's basketball game? I know it was broadcast live with commentary, why not for the live stream too?

Manuel Avellan
Manuel Avellan

what a piece of crap. It made me install 2 plugins (Ilivid!!!) and mplayer??? and tried installing a toolbar in Firefox, What the hell!  after all that none of the streams work, some even say "Sorry Mate wrong country"

It like we are in the 1980's and no one has ever heard of quicktime or silverlight, and must reinvent the weel to show us the Olympics. As far as I'm concern The IOC and NBC could go to hell in a Basket, bunch of grubby money penny pinchers. This is not about sports uniting humanity this is about how to make unfeathered amounts of money in a monopolistic way.

nidwaldner
nidwaldner

I am one of those left out of the live-streaming option.  I would be willing to consider paying just for an option to stream just the Olympics but for some reason that is not available.  I simply cannot stay up late enough to watch the Primetime coverage.  What about all the kids who are missing out being exposed to the Olympics because it's past their bedtimes too?

twocee
twocee

Kids don't buy things, so NBC doesn't care.

 

Blue-eyed Gal
Blue-eyed Gal

I'd love to watch the Olympics live-streamed, as it's the only way I can get it. Unfortunately, it's not, because I gave up cable several years ago when the ONLY live TV I was willing to pay for - -baseball-- became a viable and mostly stutter-free option via online subscription.

Nothing else is worth paying $100 a month for in cable fees. I've got plenty of other stuff to watch.

The Netflix/online-viewing audience is being left out of this Olympics. And that's a problem, because I'm on the elderly end of that demographic: we're talking about most of the 30-and-under generation. Ironically, most of them -- at least in America -- are only getting their Olympics news through Twitter. I doubt they'll tune into the next one, since they were blocked out of this one.

nycgeoff
nycgeoff

As someone currently watching weightlifting while typing this, I couldn't be happier with the live streaming service. Lack of commentators is a huge plus, as is discovering sports that NBC would not air if it had 100 channels (weightlifting, sailing, fencing...)

Sure, the popular events are suffering from low bandwidth, but I think it was Merlin Mann who said that people aren't allowed to complain about free stuff.

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Well... it's not technically free, since you have to have a cable, DirecTV, or Dish subscription to view the livestream. And, God forgive me, I hate to say this, but this dork-who-isn't-a-Sports-Dork could use just a little informative commentary on the livestream. I mean, I don't want to know every fencer, archer, or rower's life story, but a bit of quick information about the game and its status and strategy would help a lot.

Bill Stockstill
Bill Stockstill

I had lots of technical problems the first day with either browsers becoming unresponsive after about 7-8 minutes or the video being stuttered. This was with trying the feeds on 5 different browsers, all the latest versions. Eventually, after disabling browser add ons I got Firefox to give me a smooth HD picture that wouldn't crash when it was time for NBC's commercials, which come at inopportune times and were the same ones repeated.

But someone told me how to get the BBC feed and its night and day. No commercials. The BBC feed has intelligent commentary on every sport, which NBC doesn't. I watched Judo for 8 hours Saturday on the NBC feed, fighting the browser issues, with no commentary and no idea about the rules. I watched Judo again today via the BBC feed. The BBC feed has a guide to the sport on the bottom of the screen and athlete info with a link to their profile page. The commentary was excellent and now I know what is going on. The BBC feed also has match stats for sports like tennis. Its night and day, the information the BBC feed has vs NBC which includes current events to watch streaming at the bottom of the feed.

This year's online Olympic coverage is a study in opposites with the BBC being the Gold Standard.

Daveed
Daveed

Perhaps this is one more reason for Americans to move to Canada...or at least close enough to the border to pick up our live broadcasts.

We are lucky in Canada that whichever network broadcasts the Games (CTV this time, CBC other times) always attempts to show the events as they are happening except where conflicting schedules meet.

NBC's argument is all about money and not about audience satisfaction.

twocee
twocee

I think that the cable subscription requirement to watch the events online is due to NBC being owned by Comcast.  My wish would've been that NBC charge a one-time fee to watch online, similar to what the NCAA/CBS did for March Madness.  But doing that would negatively affect Comcast. I have heard several people say that they got or kept cable specifically for the expanded Olympics coverage that would be available on the different cable channels.

I work during the day, don't pay attention to Twitter, and can avoid the news sites during the day, so having NBC time-delay the big events until prime time isn't really that big a deal to me.  But I agree that this will be a bigger and bigger issue as more and more people expect everything to be streamed in real time, and more and more people either drop cable/satellite and/or never had it to beg in with.

 

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

 I'm sure NBC is more sympathetic to cable companies' interests because it's owned by one. But the pressure from carriers to require verification has come up in many other instances. There's HBO GO, e.g. (Before someone says it, HBO is not in the same company as Time Warner Cable. Time Warner--which owns both TIME and HBO--spun off TWC a while back. I'm a TWC subscriber and I can't even use HBO GO, because I get DSL from another company.) And there's the move to eventually require Hulu to verify that its users subscribe to cable. I wrote about that a while back here: http://entertainment.time.com/...

Kyle A Moulder
Kyle A Moulder

For those looking for streams outside the US, FreeCast.com has a Global Olympic Coverage guide where you can link to the official live streams for over 150 countries.  A good option for those outside of the US, and for US residents without NBC subscrip you can probably just use a VPN to watch another country's stream.

kumicho
kumicho

I'm sorry, but NBC's handling of their online streaming has been UTTER AND COMPLETE GARBAGE.  I've had to log in literally *dozens* of times to try to get it to work, and when it finally decides to do so it's a pixelated image with dropped frames.  Fine for something like air rifle, but utterly infuriating for anything moving faster than a turtle.  And no, it's not the connection/computer, as I've streamed plenty of youtube videos (including some recently to test the connection), and even had the Tour de France streaming every single night for 3 weeks straight (also an NBC sports product that I signed up for).  It's not HTML5 (which works perfectly on my machine), it won't work with Chrome's embedded Flash (pepper), and often times it just....  Doesn't work.

And to top it off, when I want to leave (negative) feedback on their page, the captcha just happens to not be working (no visible letters/numbers due to their script failing).

I originally said that NBC should charge $30 for anyone without cable/Dish to watch the Olympics.  Now I'd be demanding my money back, because it's literally not worth the hassle of trying to get this to work.  I seriously don't think that anyone actually *tried* this out before subjecting us to it.  This is a far worse calamity than in '10 when the Winter Olympics worked *just fine* on anything we played it on.

Adam Brickley
Adam Brickley

Nothing against NBC - but I DO have something against Comcast/Xfinity, which is apperently only allowing subscribers to livestream the games if they have a premium packages. I pay them for 100 channels of TV and use them as my internet provider, but when I go to the NBC livestream I get a message that says that Comcast only allows people with bigger subscriptions than mine to watch.

John Duffy
John Duffy

For those of us who don't buy cable television, there is NO WAY to view ANY olympic coverage. NBC makes you enter you cable provider ID and passcode to watch anything. This was not the case with Vancouver. Why? This is definitely NOT a step forward!

otterface
otterface

Not defending NBC's decision, but maybe their rationale for not airing events live in the middle of the day, then re-running them at night, is: People would DVR the live event during the day, watch it at night, and skim past the commercials. I'm guessing one of the perks of the Olympics for NBC and its advertisers is, even with the tape-delay, it's a little more resistant to DVR'ing than, say, "The Office".

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

 Might be. But that just underlines the question: if online becomes more "like TV" in the future--better quality, easier to use, integrated into TV and easier to record--does NBC (or whoever) begin treating it like TV and taking away the livestreams?

pdxuser
pdxuser

HOW DARE NBC WAIT UNTIL PEOPLE ARE HOME TO SHOW US STUFF!!! And who cares that the record high ratings indicate it's the right decision.

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

 I don't think it's a matter of "how dare." It's not a moral issue. NBC has a right to maximize its profit. Customers have a right to complain. But as I said above, ratings don't logically "prove" anything--it proves people want to watch the Olympics, not that they want NBC not to let them watch events live in the afternoon.

Also, people are generally home on Sunday afternoons. Ask the NFL.

Steffen Klenk
Steffen Klenk

 If NBC can't fix it problems, the IOC should hand broadcast rights to another network.

James Poniewozik
James Poniewozik

 A major factor here, of course, is that the IOC will always hand the broadcast rights to whoever is willing to pay the most.

Jan P. Payne
Jan P. Payne

Live should be live - it is ridiculous  in this day and age to say it is live when we already know the outcome!! Get with the program - they did this with the French Open and with Wimbledon too - I am watching LIVE on BRAVO!! BRAVO!!