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Summary:

NBC’s decision to restrict live streaming of the Vancouver Winter Olympics to subscribers of cable, satellite or IPTV services is making many cord cutters scramble. We’ve heard anecdotes from former cable customers flocking to gyms or stop by friends for surprise visits while figure skating and […]

pirateolympics

NBC’s decision to restrict live streaming of the Vancouver Winter Olympics to subscribers of cable, satellite or IPTV services is making many cord cutters scramble. We’ve heard anecdotes from former cable customers flocking to gyms or stop by friends for surprise visits while figure skating and hockey games are on TV. Even current cable customers able to jump through the authentication hoops of NBC’s Olympics may be looking for alternatives. After all, NBC is only streaming some 400 hours of the games in real time and once again reserving key competitions for broadcast TV, with some of them airing while many of us are stuck at work.

Of course, there are also other, slightly less legitimate ways to watch the games online. A number of web sites have been touting for weeks that they’ll carry live streams of the Olympics, and sports fans have been looking to P2P video clients for years to bypass TV pay walls. How easy to use are these services, and how good is the video quality? I decided to find out and give different ways of pirating the Olympics a try.

First, a word to the wise: We don’t recommend to try any of this at home. Not only are you bending the rules, but there’s also a very real risk of catching mal-ware while looking for pirated sports streams. Scammers have been stepping up their game in recent weeks, and countless web sites ask you to fill out surveys or install untrusted ActiveX plug-ins in order to access streams of the games. Please don’t fall for these tricks.

However, users willing and able to avoid these scams can theoretically get access to full coverage of the games online without NBC Olympics. Here’s what I tried, in the name of science:

Live streaming sites

Sites like Justin.tv and Ustream used be be a popular way to catch unauthorized relays of sports broadcasts. However, these days, most of these streams disappear as soon as they go up. Evan Solomon from Justin.tv told me that his company has been working closely with NBC for years on copyright issues, which led to the development of an instant take-down system during the 2008 Olympics.

The site is also using an automated filtering system, and these efforts seem to largely pay off: I was only able to find one live stream carrying a hockey game on Justin.tv, and that stream was so blurry that viewers in the chat room kept asking things like: “Who is winning? I can’t see anything!” Oh, and it also didn’t have any audio. I guess you can fool any filters if you make your feed unrecognizable. However, there were a number of feeds that promised to carry video from the Olympics, only to link to sites asking people to answer bogus questionnaires, and presumably install mal-ware on their PCs. For the record, I didn’t find any working streams on Livestream.com, Ustream or Stickam either.

P2P Streaming

Chinese P2P video streaming clients used to be a sports fan’s best friend, but the many have started to clamp down on unauthorized sports streams as well. I wasn’t able to find any live coverage of the games with TVUNetworks, PPLive or Veetle. But using the Windows-only StreamTorrent client proved to be much more fruitful, making it possible to watch the Women’s Hockey Game between the USA and Finland with around 300kbps without any significant buffering.

The bit rate wasn’t quite enough for a good full-screen experience, but a great way to follow the game while I was working – and I suspect that’s how many people will be using this. I also found a stream of a curling game transmitted with 941kbps, which looked great in full-screen mode on my 15″ laptop screen, but ended up buffering a little too often. It seems like there’s a number of fake sites set up that seem to provide StreamTorrent downloads but instead try to spread mal-ware or get you to buy subscriptions, but P2P sports forums seem to be a good way to avoid the worst pitfalls.

Torrent sites

Speaking of torrents: Sports fans have been busy uploading HD versions of pretty much all major competitions to torrent sites. These videos usually appear soon after the actual competition ends. I obviously wasn’t able to catch any of the action in real time this way, but I did get a nice, crisp HD recording of this week’s snowboarding finals — commercial free, no less.

Web proxies

NBC may skimp on its online coverage, but broadcasters in other countries are going all out with multiple simultaneous live channels, streaming every minute of the games in real time. Most of these sites determine by your IP address whether or not you’re allowed to watch the videos in question. However, there are numerous commercial proxy services that offer to tunnel your connection, in turn masking your country of online origin. I wanted to get access to the live streams provided by the BBC, so I searched for a proxy providing me with a UK IP address, and ended up going with a company that offers unlimited access for $9 a month.

What followed was a little bit of tinkering with the VPN settings of my Macbook, and blimey! I was British. Or rather my public IP address was, and BBC’s Olympics site provided me with the best video experience I got from all the approaches I tried. We’re talking about crisp, full-screen streaming with multiple live channels, accompanied by some nice gents making sarcastic jokes about the weather in Canada. What else can you wish for?

For the record, I also tried to get access to the streams provided by the Olympics website of the European Broadcaster’s Union, but couldn’t get the video player to work, despite being offered full access to all of the site’s static content.

Pirate picture courtesy of Flickr user Juliana Coutinho.

Related content on NewTeeVee: Where to Watch the 2010 Winter Olympics Online, Watching the 2010 Winter Olympics Online Around the World

Related content on GigaOm Pro: The Ultimate Guide To TV Everywhere (subscription required)

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  4. I don’t understand… did these “cord-cutters” sell their televisions as well? Or does the USA not have over-the-air television?

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    1. Fraser, good question. There’s over-the-air TV, but NBC spreads its coverage of the games over all of its channels, which includes three basic cable channels, and depending on our cable package a number of premium cable channels. You’ll be able to catch only a small part of the Olympics by watching NBC itself, which is the only channel available with a rabbit ear antenna.

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  5. I just tried to watch some live or full-length event streams via the official and legal means. I should be able to do so since I have Dish Network as my provider. Guess what? I can’t do it anyway because I do not have a premium level package that contains both CNBC and MSNBC, (I do have CNBC, not MSNBC), though Dish / NBC are very willing to let me up my package right then & there.

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  6. You know I actually have one of the partnered cable broadcasters and therefore am theoretically eligible to watch their streaming service. I tried to do it legitimately at first but after missing 10 minutes of the hockey game I wanted to see trying to jump through their hoops, sign in through Comcast’s mySignIn service (or whatever its called), looking for my account number to do so, I said forget it and found a nice, quick, and simple p2p stream.

    Piracy started because it was cheaper to pirate than buy. However, more and more now, piracy happens not because people are against spending money, but because the profit-grabbing and anti-piracy measures put in ‘legit’ media foul up the experience so muhc.

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  8. I’m surprised the author decided to proxy into the UK to watch BBC coverage. Being physically located in the US, it would be faster to connect to a Canadian proxy and watch CTV’s beautiful 720p coverage. You don’t have to pull http traffic all the way from the UK that way.

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    1. Good point, John, but I was actually pretty curious to try the EBU offering. It didn’t really work for me, but the BBC’s videos were working great, transatlantic or not.

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  9. The NBC affiliates carry quite a bit of the olympics. And in many markets there’s a second OTA option, Universal Sports, as well. I sometimes feel like people are so conditioned to fight for what they want on the web that they completely forget what’s floating, at no cost, right into their living rooms.

    Plus, there’s nothing like watching sports on the beautiful uncompressed OTA signal.

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    1. The OTA signal is great, but NBC’s coverage is terrible. There are 2 minutes of commercials for every minute of coverage, and those of us on the west coast have to watch everything on a tape delay. It would be nice to see an event, if not live, then at least uninterrupted instead of split up over four hours.

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