It's Time to Put These Olympics Behind Us (As Far As Web Coverage Goes)

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.

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