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NBC’s delayed Olympics coverage and sports’ fans quest to find pirated livestreams online has officially become the media story of the games. Even the New York Times has chimed in, noting what it referred to as the “game of digital whack-a-mole” between pirates and NBC that took place during the opening ceremony. The network’s fight against unauthorized streams on sites like Ustream.tv and Justin.tv continued all weekend, with streams going down quicker that you can say Dick Ebersol.
The network may win a fight or two, but the battle is far from over. I’m watching a broadcast of the Cuba vs. the Netherlands beach volleyball game — which NBC’s cable channel USA Network won’t show for another two hours and won’t air online at all — live on my laptop as I’m writing this article, courtesy of some folks in France that relay a live TV signal from heaven knows where. To be fair, there are some occasional hiccups with the video, but the overall quality is actually pretty good. Good enough to keep me engaged, and definitely good enough to question the whole idea of NBC-like restrictions in the age of global online video.
NBC is not alone in its fight against the Olympics pirates. The state-owned Chinese TV network CCTV sued the Google-backed P2P startup Xunlei last week, alleging it had broadcast parts of the torch relay earlier this year without getting a license from CCTV. The lawsuit was a clear warning shot against the dozen or so P2P TV platforms that have popped up in China in recent years, most of whom responded by putting IP number-based geolocation restrictions on CCTV streams or filtering them outright.
Sopcast, for example, has blocked access to its CCTV streams, making them inaccessible from within the client’s program guide. But the software also allows users to transmit their own streams, and a number of them use this feature to relay TV broadcasts from all around the world. I gave it a shot this weekend, and quickly found satellite TV feeds from Malaysia in surprisingly high video quality, video feeds from Poland and even a Portuguese video stream that someone apparently was filming off his TV in real time. A little tough on the eyes, but pretty amusing nonetheless.
Granted, watching pirated TV feeds via P2P TV isn’t always easy. A few other clients left me empty-handed. PPLive, for example, is an official licensing partner of CCTV. The company told us last week that it was going to block access to all CCTV stations for viewers from outside of China, and it has kept its word. Sina Live is a web plug-in that only works with Internet Explorer. The CCTV channels are embedded into Sina’s web site and seemed to be blocked for overseas users as well. At least I think that’s what happened; the language barrier didn’t help. Peercast.org, one of the oldest P2P streaming solutions, featured one Olympics channel, but I couldn’t get it to play on my machine.
So I decided to stick with Sopcast, and was rewarded with lots and lots of live coverage. Pretty much all the competitions were available in real time. To be fair, a lot of the minor events were also broadcast live on NBCOlympics.com, and in a few some cases the official streams had a much better quality (I’m talking to you, anonymous Portuguese pirate!). Overall, save for the occasional bandwidth hiccup, the quality of the pirated streams was surprisingly good. At least I got to watch the games in full screen, complete with live commentary, and let me tell you: Those sportscasters in Malaysia speak English with less of an accent than half of my neighborhood, me (obviously) included.
The downside of watching pirated P2P TV streams is that you have to install software from companies that you’re probably going to trust less than NBC, and rightly so. Sopcast for instance, comes bundled with an adware app, but users are reporting online that it can be erased without affecting the performance of the client. I bet many sports fans are willing to take that chance.