NBC finally “gets it,” will kill the Olympic tape delay

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The new-look NBC Universal, now owned by Comcast and helmed by Steve Burke, has kept one tradition from the previous regime intact by retaining rights to broadcasts of the Olympic games through 2020. But another tradition of that leadership — the Olympic tape delay — could be over.

NBC Universal paid $4.38 billion for the Olympic games from 2014 through 2020, reportedly outbidding the nearest competition by $1 billion. That bid comes after the network lost $230 million on the 2010 Winter Games and is expected to lose another $200 million on the upcoming 2012 Summer Games, in London.

One of the biggest complaints over the past several games was NBC’s decision to time-shift marquee events, putting them on tape delay and holding them until they could be broadcast in prime time. That might have been fine a decade or more ago, when TV was the only game in town — but with live streaming becoming more prevalent, bandwidth plentiful and users increasingly dependent on social media and the 24/7 news cycle to alert them of results, the tape delay was frustrating to the biggest Olympics fans.

For the 2008 Summer Games, NBC made an unprecedented amount of video available on NBCOlympics.com. But it kept a number of high-profile events on hold until they could be broadcast in prime time. Since the 2008 games were held in Beijing and many events took place while viewers were asleep, it made some sense; after all, NBC wanted to funnel the maximum number of viewers to its most profitable advertising slot. But in 2010, with the Winter Games being held in Vancouver, the tape delay was less excusable.

While NBC has tried to protect the prime-time Olympic audience, there has been plenty of evidence to show that online audiences are complementary and not cannibalistic to broadcast, especially for live sporting events. This year’s March Madness tournament, for instance, for the first time broadcast all games on TV between CBS and Turner cable networks, at the same time that they were live streamed for free online. The result was that both TV and online posted higher viewership. Even NBC itself has seen the effect — or lack thereof — that simultaneous online streaming has on broadcast of live sports: Its Sunday Night Football games have been live streamed for the past several years, but the football games continue to be the highest-rated program on prime time on those nights.

Fortunately for fans, NBC’s dependence on the tape delay will finally end with future Olympic Games. According to various reports, NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus said during the announcement press conference that the company would “make every event available on one platform or another” to appeal to the Olympics “superfan” who wants to see everything as it happens. By doing so, NBC can capture a larger overall audience than it would be able to if it just held everything until prime time.

While the ability to watch live streams of Olympic events will be a welcome addition for viewers, it’s likely to come with some trade-offs: Because so much of the Olympic content will be distributed through NBC Universal cable networks like USA and MSNBC, it will likely rely on authentication to prove that viewers are cable subscribers in order for them to view live streams of online content.

NBCOlympics.com required viewers to authenticate in 2010, and with Comcast as its corporate parent, it’s even more likely to do so in the future. Comcast is not only one of the founding partners behind TV Everywhere authentication but it’s also one of the initiative’s biggest proponents.

Not just that, but Comcast will likely push for higher retransmission fees for NBC content from other cable providers, especially with a decade of Olympic Games ahead. In order to do so, it will likely sell online video authentication for events like the Olympics as one way to provide more value to subscribers on other cable systems.

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