Blog Post

Does the Olympics Video Suck For You Too?

Admit it. These Olympics have been awesome so far. The mind-blowing opening ceremony. Michael Phelps. The breadth of games covered. All wrapped up in an HD bow. Too bad the online experience doesn’t even merit a bronze medal.

Let’s set aside the bone-headed decision to delay the web video coverage for popular events until after the already delayed West Coast coverage. Yes, that sucks. I’m talking more about the video player.

As we’ve written before, just getting the video from the games to your PC is an Olympic task. But all that effort is going to waste. I tried watching these Olympics online at different points throughout the weekend and just gave up to watch it on oldteevee. Here are some of the big issues:

1. Video presentation. This was supposed to be a big coming out party for Microsoft’s Silverlight. The quality is adequate, but the video doesn’t play full-screen and it fails to capture the energy and excitement, especially for events that don’t have a lot of close-ups (try watching field hockey). And the four simultaneous streams option shrinks the videos so small it’s pointless.

2. No commentary. Yeah, sure. Web video means that you can actually watch archery for the first time, but there are no announcers providing commentary, so I don’t know what’s going on. What’s happening? Why is it happening? Don’t know. This is especially bad in between matches like fencing. There is just a shot of an empty court (is that what they call it in fencing?). No indication as to what’s going on or what’s coming up.

"As Seen On" coverage from Day 2
"As Seen On" coverage from Day 2

3. Poor navigation. Events aren’t always labeled properly (men’s archery is listed as “Men’s Team Event”). In the “As Seen on TV” option, where you can watch the games as they were broadcast on oldteevee, there’s only one video from Day 2 (trap shooting), and six videos from Day 1. Yeah, preeeeeetty sure there were more than seven televised events over the weekend.

Unfortunately, NBC doesn’t have much incentive to change its behavior. The games have been exciting and a ratings monster for the network. racked up 70 million pageviews on Friday, and 4.8 million people watched 3.1 million video streams on Saturday.

This could have been a golden moment for online video — too bad NBC just couldn’t stick the landing.

68 Responses to “Does the Olympics Video Suck For You Too?”

  1. It’s interesting to read through this. My overall impression of the live video is that it’s great.. I understand from watching Microsoft’s Channel 9 video on the making of the site, that there is a hard limit on quality that you can get that works everywhere across the nation and the live stream size was as HD as possible making that work.

    The other thing I gleaned from their video was it was a creative directional plan not to go full screen because the stretched video doesn’t look good at differing aspect ratios and screen sizes and they wanted the best possible exhibition and live playback all the time. Video needs to look like video not like smeary youtube stuff.

    As far as Flash goes, it sounds like there is a lot of sour grapes from Adobe folks who are commenting here.

    The previous comments about VC-1 doing technically better streaming over the net than H.264 is correct. In lower and varied bandwitdth conditions (a national broadcast to the outer reaches of the internet) the video should be looking better even at lower bitrates. I believe it too, I have seen comparisons.. VC-1 is a SMPTE standard (not a Microsoft thing) and it’s a codec you’ll find in all HD dvd players (including Blu-Ray).

    As far as not support PPC Macs, how long has it been since Apple has produced a PowerPC based Mac.. Geeze your machines must be around if not over 5 years old.. Apple even announced Snow Leopard so it’s obvious they are even leaving PowerPC machines behind. Silverlight 1 was supported, but like many other 3rd party developers for the Mac. Most are going Intel only. Mostly because even though there is a “Universal Binary” you still have to develop and tweak on a PowerPC Mac to get reasonable peformance.

    There is also a big lack of PowerPC Macs still in use out there and on the internet (according to Internet access statistics that are pretty common), the number of intel macs surfing has well over shadowed the left over PPC macs… Do Apple a favor, and yourself BUY A NEW MAC… It will be faster and probably more capable of things like internet HD video at reasonable performance..

    I am happy with it, and it looks great in a window on my 1920×1200 monitor or full screen if I change my resolution to something lower it looks like great fullscreen HD to me..

  2. Cromwell

    Actually, up until today I had nothing but praise for the player despite not going full screen. I was getting excellent picture quality and watching full soccer games, which are 10 times better without the inane rubbish of the average commentator. BUT, today I can’t even get the player to load a single video, what’s up?

  3. in africa

    i’m an american student studying abroad in south africa. i can’t find video of lots of american stuff because nbc won’t allow me to access their videos. they’re only available within the us. which blows.

    their coverage of the olympics is less than exciting… mostly because I CAN’T EVEN WATCH MY OWN TEAM!!!

  4. Todd Moser

    Well I for one think it sucks!
    Linux user here and of course I can’t use it. I could but not interested in WINEing it. I did bring a XP machine up with FIrefox and it was bad there too, slideshow.
    All in all I’m not impressed with the online or the TV. Seems to me that the enhanced Olympics channel should have had on demand streams of other events then maybe more people could watch more sports, but I will try for torrents later.

  5. I’ve been very impressed with the Silverlight video quality. It is by far the best live streaming I’ve ever seen done on the web. I’ve found myself watching 2-4 hours of it each night the last few days (on a Mac with FireFox) and had no issues with stability.

    The live streams look like they are ~650kbits, which means you do need a network connection at least that size to support them without buffering. If you have a decent cable model or DSL line it works great.

  6. silverlight and the video quality are a complete joke. you would that company that makes billions would have the bandwidth and technology to provide live steaming video that doesnt suck. have i gone through a timewarp to1996 with a dial up modem at 56K?

  7. Mercator

    Seems like a violation of anti-trust laws. So many countries are covering it live, but block it to meet these monopoly requirements.

    Online viewers of the NBC website get no track, no gymnastics, and no swimming, unless you count the highlights, which are delayed and then delayed again.

    Ok so archery is really fun to watch, as is judo (not really). Its like the online coverage is an afterthought because they can’t destroy it like the opening ceremonies (or what I like to call the commercial bonanza with limited Olympic interruptions), where 6 minutes of ceremony was interrupted by 3 minutes of commercials. I watched it live on a German das erste feed and even though my german is terrible, it was live and uncut, so you got the same kind of experience most of the rest of the world got.


  8. I have installed Silverlight on 3 computers (2 Windows, 1 Mac) without issues. I have probably spent about as much time watching videos online (Handball rules!!!!) as on broadcast TV and I have not had any complaints about the video or audio quality.

    As for the lack of commentators, I can not imagine it is cost effective for NBC to hire people to offer commentary on every event. Heck, I watched almost an entire half of handbal before I realized there was no commentary.

  9. Ok to clarify, VC-1 quality delivered in most Silverlight players has higher quality than the VP6 codec delivered in most Flash players. The codec is simply far superior. Besides, the “file size” doesn’t matter for live streaming…it’s the bandwidth from the encoder(s) and subsequent path to the user that counts. Bit for bit, VC-1 is better than VP6.

    That said, the playing field is arguably leveled with H.264 based Flash video. This is still not widely deployed but I expect it will be within 24 months give the very rapid upgrade to Flash9 players which support H.264 (this must happen before the video source starts delivering H.264 to Flash servers).

    We discuss such topics frequently at, and welcome comments and discussion.

  10. The video quality is good….it beats the crap out of flash.

    Not true. Quality depends on how you encode your source video. Most people equate flash video quality to what they see on youTube, which is probably the crappiest quality I’ve ever seen. youTube uses the maximum amt of compression to keep file sizes low.

    You can definitely have an flv that looks as good, if not better, than the wmv’s they’re using (and probably with a lower file size)

    With the amount of bank NBC has, they should have just invested in a Flash media server. Could have streamed HD content that DOESN’T crash my browser. But alas, they (NBC) probably had no choice in the matter as Microsoft is a partner :(

  11. My impression is overall very positive from the technology and player side. I very much like the interactive experience of the Silverlight player. I think the fade in/out buttons are cool and help keep the viewing experience uncluttered when you just want to watch. Finding the buttons seemed intiutive. The video quality is good….it beats the crap out of flash. Watching tennis in the “standard player” (which means standard resolution) or the large size was quite watchable. I tried watching the shooting, and the little clay pidgeons weren’t visible, but they are quick little guys anyway so i’m not surprised.

    What I liked from the technology experience was offset by a navigation experience that should be improved. Finding a particular sport isn’t clearly obvious. The highlight player design was decent, though sparsely populated today (Monday). The streaming broadcast delays from TV and real-time are frustrating. Finally, it took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to go from the large video back to the standard view so I could watch other things. A persistent “back” button (sarcasm “on”) is an innovative idea (sarcasm “off”) that NBC should incorporate.

    I watched from home during a light traffic time where I’ve got a Time Warner cable modem that is advertised to support 3Mb/s.

  12. I watched football (soccer) highlights on my PC after installing the Silverlight plugin for Firefox.

    It worked fine the first time and then crashed when I tried to watch other videos. I had to close the player and reopen = sucks

    I was also looking for the full-screen option for a while until I realized there was none = sucks

    Cataloging all the video takes a long time – if you do it the old way.

    NBC should have harnessed users by creating a YouTube like site where users could upload there own clips of NBC coverage.

    NBC would be able to place ads beside the content because they already know it’s all olympics stuff. This would leave editing and rendering up to the masses, give us commentary and take advantage of the ugc culture.

    NBC could also have their official channel on there as well.

    Too bad. I was considering Silverlight for our re-designed site but this experience really turns me off.

  13. Video quality has been fine, though I’d prefer a fullscreen option. What has made it less useful for me is the inability to accurately rewind/rewatch plays. For example, in judo one perfect throw ends the match. So of course I want to rewind and see it again. However, the scrub bar/slider is 4+ hours. So try rewinding just 10 seconds – impossible. I’ll wait for DVD or just skip it. I set a TiVo Season Pass to grab all the wrestling – it’ll be a pain to also run through a large segment looking for just that sport and I’ll only see the big matches, but at least it’ll be on my TV and with an instant replay function.

  14. First I discovered that attempting to access Olympic videos with a PPC Mac is useless. NBC presents you with a “not supported” message. So then I turned to a Windows PC, and after the Silverlight download and setup hassles I can only say it wasn’t worth the effort. I’m thoroughly disappointed. I’d even watch this stuff with advertising if only they provided a decent user experience. NBC and Microsoft, this is awful.

  15. Well, I will agree to the last comment. I am pretty impressed so far.

    Video quality is the lack of commentary doesn’t bother me at all. Sometimes, TV analysts could be a pain when they don’t know jack about the sport they are commenting on…

    Yes, they are lessons to be drawn from the experience. But this is a first, and for a first it’s great.

    Yes, the toggle between the 4 feeds and the enlarged screen is to be worked on…and probably needs a real full screen option. But since the Silverlight 2 Beta 2 plug-in has issues with the FullScreen functionality on Firefox, I think it could be a reason why it’s not there this time.

    My overall opinion. It’s neat.

  16. Overall, I’ve found the Olympics coverage online to be remarkable. Yes, there are lessons I’m sure NBC and Microsoft will take away from the experience, but it’s a huge improvement over what was possible for the 2004 games.

    On Albrecht’s comments:

    1. I’m sure quality and full-screen were higher level decisions and not limitations of the player. We disallow full-screen for our broadcasts as well, as all you have to do then is turn that full-screen feed into the input of another encoder and you’re rebroadcasting and saving NBC’s coverage. That and you lose the critical sight of advertising.

    2. No commentary once again has to do with an NBC decision. Perhaps a little-known fact is that many of the events are fed to NYC where the commentary is added there. Not sure at which stage of the assembly line it goes to Web. Saves a lot of money for NBC and the viewer has no clue that the commentators are half-way around the world.

    3. Poor navigation – This is subjective I think. I didn’t have a problem getting around but maybe less savvy users do. Hard to say. Another interesting fact is that the Olympics involves 2,900 hours of live coverage for NBC (a world record). It would take you 120 days to watch it all if you didn’t sleep. I would imagine indexing that online is no piece of cake either.

    Anyhoo, I’m not jumping up to give Microsoft the Gold, but I’ve been pretty impressed so far.

    Go USA!

  17. David Jung

    IMO, the video feeds a love/hate solution. I love the fact that I can watch my two favorite Olympic sports (archery and fencing) live or rewound when I have time. The lack of commentary was okay because I looked at it from the standpoint of…if I was there in person, I wouldn’t have a commentator either. I love the fact that there no commercials. What I hated about the enhanced player is the when you went from the 4 video feed to the enlarged screen back to the 4 video feed, the 3 feeds on the right appeared to be gone and I had to remember which feeds I was watching. Only to find out the feeds where still, they just weren’t showing up in boxes anymore. FWIW…I got working on both WinXP and Vista machines. My WinXP was built long before I joined Microsoft and SL installed just fine on IE 6.

  18. Chris Albrecht

    The video worked most of the time for me, but did crash once, and the buffering kinda blows, too, especially since they are encouraging you to switch between windows.

  19. Ron Hirsch

    Clearly NBC’s priority is protecting its’ investment and limiting distribution of videos, otherwise why would they bother with this proprietary software that doesn’t work.

  20. I like the NBC online video as a companion to the TV coverage on NBC MSNBC,USA or CNBC and there is text based “live blog” style commentary for some events but as you said they could of done it so much better maybe by 2012 they will get it right .

  21. yea, i can’t take it anymore. i’ve tried firefox and IE both; when i try and start video my browser will either freeze for 2-4 minutes and miraculously comeback, or sometimes it will be permanently frozen, requiring a hard reset. i was able to see about half of the USA basketball game without commentary (REALLY???) until the browser totally froze up on me.

  22. randomguy

    Since I’m not around to watch most of the live stuff anyway I just catch it using their online VOD service,

    The installation was a little long.. but was ok, and the HD video is decent quality, looks good on my regular computer or the media center connected to my 45″ TV.

    I subscribed to swimming, track & field, and the daily recap and it DL’s at night so I can watch it after I wake up… or get in late.