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With the 2010 Winter Olympics wrapping up this weekend in Vancouver, I hope we can put the past behind us. That is, the past of crappy U.S. online coverage of a major global sporting event, with the key offender being exclusive distributor NBC.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics wrapping up this weekend in Vancouver, I hope we can put the past behind us. That is, the past of crappy U.S. online coverage of a major global sporting event, with the key offender being exclusive distributor NBC.

NBC knew at the outset of the games it would be losing money on broadcasting them due to licensing costs but still took an extremely cautious approach to making events accessible online, rather than experimenting with the web to goose revenue. To its credit, the network finally opened up a couple of high-profile events toward the end of the Olympics for live streaming, allowing access to users without requiring them to authenticate themselves as paying cable subscribers. But I found it incredibly frustrating that given the major advances in live-streaming video and video advertising since the Beijing Olympics (see my sub req’d story on GigaOM Pro about adaptive bitrate streaming), NBC ratcheted down its content so tightly — offering an estimated 400 hours of live video coverage compared to 2,200 two years ago.

As a card-carrying cord-cutter, I got my video access to the Olympics through highlight clips on my laptop screen or hooked up to my TV, friends’ cable subscriptions, and my gym (which, awesomely, has personal TVs with cable on every treadmill). Let’s just say it was a limited, frustrating and delayed experience. I fully accept that some of that is my fault for not paying up to get access to content I wanted to see. But NBC — by aggressively limiting anyone else from hosting video content (so as to drive us all to NBCOlympics.com, which was horrific to navigate), limiting most video-viewing access to paying television subscribers, and delaying content posting until the day after it was relevant — killed off the opportunity to give high-quality long-form viewing experiences, which are increasingly monetizable.

And to be sure, the Olympics have been exciting, and made for good television — they are supposed to be the most-watched foreign Winter Games since 1994, and some of that is attributed to user engagement around online social media. But that doesn’t mean TV watchers are satisfied with the tape-delayed coverage they’re getting either.

What I don’t understand is why the network couldn’t have shown most everything live online (and on TV too, as much as possible!). Then, at night, show us the TV-only primetime version, complete with commentary, sob story packages, Bob Costas. Millions of people have been trained to enjoy that produced Olympics experience by tuning in at 8 p.m., and will continue to do so. You don’t lose much by offering the same content two ways. It’s frankly absurd that Americans are complaining en masse to the nation’s newspapers about spoiling the results of the Olympics by publishing them right after they happened. It is not physically possible to have a spoiler for a live sporting event.

Other networks have more forward-thinking approaches than NBC. CBS has had tremendous success monetizing the at-work online watching of the March Madness college basketball tournament, much of which happens while people are in the office at their desks. Disney and ESPN are on record saying if they got the Olympics rights in the future they would be “committed to live.” Maybe the U.S. rights to an Olympics broadcast could be split up between multiple entities so they are more economically feasible and more open to pockets of innovation.

By the way, that hockey game, the first one that NBC tore down its online paywall for? It was the single most-watched live video event of the games, with nearly 500,000 live streams. The Olympics as of Thursday had accrued 28.9 million streams over 2.5 hours of online video. Sure the Summer Games are a bigger event, but you want to know the Beijing numbers? 75.5 million streams and 9.9 hours of video served. That’s hardly a competition.

  1. In Canada, CTV won the exclusive broadcast rights, and with CTV came their sister sports channel, TSN. They also teamed up with another sports network in Canada, Sportsnet. They’ve broken up the coverage between the three networks so that all the major events get shown – for example, the short-track competition was happening on one channel, while CTV broadcast the big hockey game between Canada-Slovakia. I’m fairly certain that most Canadians have enjoyed this freedom of choice of what to watch throughout the entire day, starting at 10am Pacific and going until 10pm.

    The best part of this partnership has been the use of commentators and hosts from all three networks being broadcast on any network, and even using two teams to alternate between the major events (two commentating teams for curling and hockey, for instance). I can’t really comment on their online coverage since the games have been so accessible on tv. Hopefully during the next round of negotiations, ABC/ESPN win so they can duplicate what their Canadian cousins to the north are doing.

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    1. The US is doing this too. We have all the events on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and USA network. Honestly, it’s fine and dandy to be a cord cutter but when the television broadcasts are commanding premium rates, I don’t see why it makes any sense for NBC to cannibalize their broadcast window.

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      1. It is simply the convenience factor- you are reaching an audience that may or may not tune into TV broadcast and gaining more users. NBC ran commercials online also so why is it cannibalizing their ‘Premium’ broadcast? The online audience offers a measurable result solution for the carrier and advertisers whereby the TV experience does not.

        Run the same ads online that match up. It is another convenient platform, not a replacement.

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    2. @James – from everything I hear the Canadian coverage is a model for the world to follow.

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  2. In Europe, watching these games live online and on TV has been great! There’s the eurovisionsports.tv which has multiple live streaming channels in extremely good quality, some in even what they call HD. And even in small Estonia, our 2 public TV channels have had an option which sports to watch live (+ there’s always Eurosport) + there’s been a live online stream by the public broadcaster.

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  3. @James McCullough
    I’m pretty sure CTV has broadcast almost any event involving a Canadian online using Microsoft Silverlight. While the Silverlight plugin sucks, the coverage has been pretty universal online. You can watch 2/3 streams at a time of simultaneous events.

    I wonder if Americans can go to the site and watch? I’m sure it would be skewed Canadian in coverage, but I bet they could still go. ctvolympics.ca

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    1. They check IP, I think. Tried and it didn’t work multiple times at different times of the day. Worked for the torch relay though

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  4. Just interested – did you sense the irony when you included a link to the “sub req’d story on GigaOM Pro” in an article complaining about the unnecessary way NBC had firewalled content that could have been monetized to a broader audience? :-)

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    1. @Doodel and Nate – I absolutely think there is a value to having multiple business models. There’s nothing wrong with selling content. The problem with the Olympics is the options here are buy cable or twiddle your thumbs.

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    1. … “my sub req’d story on GigaOM Pro”
    2. … “friends’ cable subscriptions”

    Liz, do we need to petion Om to pay you enough for a cable subscription?

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  5. I totally agree with this comment about NBC being backwards looking. They could have easily made more online content available without cannibalizing revenue. I would gladly have paid $5 to watch some of the hockey games. Maybe their deals with the cable companies prevented this, but if that’s the case, then they had plenty of time to renegotiate (not like the Olympics was a surprise). I hope the next Olympics broadcaster shows a little more creativity.

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  6. My Mom, now somewhat notrh of 70 sees this. She also remarked at how bad the website was.
    How can the people at NBC, big media not see it,
    not get it at this point? Napster was a lifetime ago.
    All the events are live, online. Big media is resistant to reality. They can have us go to them, or somewhere else.
    I went elsewhere.
    Abandonning NBC, and going for the web allowed me to enjoy this Olympics more than any other. The direct Olympic feeds
    of just the athletes, the sound of the venue, with no announcing, nothing?
    I had the sound cranked, the crazy screaming crowds, the intense energy, shared. As close to being there as is possible, in 2D.
    In contrast? NBC, Costas in his high chair, analyzing.
    I also very much enjoyed the feed that had it seemed, a combination of Brit, Aussie and Canadian announcers.
    They managed through the course of the individual performance to fill me in on the competitor, while providing a constant feed of just the competition. Their enthusiasm for each person, as an individual, was infectious, and made it very enjoyable to watch.
    Next, expect to hear NBC folks talk about how there is little interest in the Olympics or some such.
    Someone should total up the hours watched, online, if it is possible. NBC just left that all on the table.
    It is stunning how inept they are.

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  7. What’s even worse: the yanking of Olympic videos from YouTube — even weeks after the event. Want to watch, say, any of the performances of the Opening Ceremony? Tough luck baby. You can’t see them anywhere in full on the Web: not even on NBC. The stupidity of this defies common sense. You build an audience these days by providing your content through as many outlets as possible.

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    1. @Jimbo and Dave – I completely agree. Both YouTube coverage and a monetized online TV stream are additive and cater to an audience that you’re losing by shutting them off.

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  8. Time-delayed broadcasting of live sporting events? what is this, 1970? NBC is lame.

    Unfortunately I’m in Japan and couldn’t make ti home for the games, but the CTV website is amazing. I (only wish I could have got my proxy working so I could’ve taken advantage of the LIVE streaming video.) CTV’s iPhone app is great too, giving me push notifications of medal results for all events (and whenever a goal was scored in hockey).

    I also think the Official Vancouver Olympics site (www.vancouver2010.com) was very well done. As was their accompanying iPhone app that, among other things, gave me schedules in my local time.

    I understand that the IOC gets money from selling regional broadcast rights, but it will sure be nice when it doesn’t matter where you are in the world to be able to watch.

    But as such, I still wanted to watch the games. So I did. Online. And LIVE. On a site that doesn’t pay a dime to the IOC. Mind you, some of the games I had to watch in Russian, but it was still better than nothing at all. I even managed to pick up a few Russian expletives. ;)

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  9. What the hell! NBC just cut off coverage of the closing ceremonies to show a preview of The Marriage Rep? This is the dumbest sports-related move NBC has done since the “Heidi Game”. What were they thinking? Since when has a network ever cut off the closing ceremony of the Olympics? I hope their show bombs (it looks like a terrible idea anyway from the previews).

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