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.