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Streaming the 2008 Beijing Olympics
With the help of Microsoft Silverlight, NBCU is going for the gold with this summer's Olympic games, promising to offer 3,600 hours of programming from Beijing, most of it available online as well as through NBCU's affiliated broadcast networks.
Fri., June 13, by Max Bloom

This article also appears in the June/July issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

The Olympics has become a very, very big business. Worldwide media rights to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing sold for $1.7 billion, with NBC Universal paying $894 million for the U.S. media rights alone. That’s a long way from the $50,000 that CBS paid for the U.S. broadcast rights to the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif. While CBS broadcast only 15 hours in 1960, NBCU plans to offer 3,600 hours of live programming from Beijing. That’s 212 live hours for each of the 17 days of the Olympics. (As was the case in Athens in 2004, NBCU’s live Olympics coverage will be distributed over multiple NBCU-affiliated broadcast networks, including NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Universal HD, USA HD, and Telemundo.) In addition to the sheer volume of live content to be delivered—three times what was offered in 2004— what’s notable is that most of NBCU’s live programming—2,200 hours—will be delivered online at NBCOlympics.com.

The 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, were the first for which live streaming was technically viable. But with worldwide television broadcast rights selling for $1.33 billion, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned streaming of the games to protect the value of those rights. While the ban remained in place for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the IOC did allow limited live webcasts from Switzerland to test the feasibility of geofiltering. (Media rights for the Olympics are sold by territory. The IOC wanted to make sure that one country’s TV broadcast rights weren’t devalued by viewers opting to stream free webcasts from other countries.)

In 2004, sports fans in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and a host of other countries were able to stream hours of live and on-demand coverage of the Summer Games in Athens, Greece, but fans in the U.S. weren’t so lucky. While streaming technology had continued to advance and a decent, convenient streaming experience would have been possible for viewers with broadband connections, NBCOlympics.com limited streaming to on-demand interviews, features, and event highlights with no live or on-demand video of the events themselves.

By 2006, the wall protecting the exclusivity of the TV broadcast was beginning to crack. NBCOlympics.com delivered 9.1 million online video streams—more than 125,000 total hours—from the Winter Games in Turin, Italy. Again, most of that video consisted of interviews, features, and on-demand recaps of events that had long been concluded, but NBCOlympics.com did break new ground by offering the U.S. online audience a live stream of the men’s gold medal hockey game.

The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing will mark the arrival of streaming as a viable alternative to the Olympics’ television broadcast. This summer, NBCOlympics.com will offer 4,400 hours of on-demand streaming in addition to its 2,200 hours of live programming, making the Beijing Olympics the most ambitious streaming media project in history. To make sure its Olympics content is seen by as wide an audience as possible, NBCOlympics.com is partnering with MSN to promote and help deliver its programming from Beijing.

"What we get with MSN is that they have 100 million unique viewers coming through their front door every month," says Perkins Miller, SVP of digital media for NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. With all that expected traffic, it’s not surprising that MSN’s parent, Microsoft, chose the Olympics as a fitting occasion for the first large-scale rollout of the latest version of its cross-browser, cross-platform media plug-in, Silverlight.

Inside Silverlight
In addition to supporting Windows Media Video 9 (WMV9), Microsoft’s version of the SMPTE VC-1 compression standard, NBCOlympics.com’s Silverlight 2 player offers a number of enhancements that seem custom-made to optimize the Olympics streaming experience. For example, a picture-in-picture feature enables the viewer to watch a minimized view of team handball while badminton action unfolds in the full-sized window. The Silverlight player that NBCOlympics.com demoed in March at MIX08 in Las Vegas featured three minimized windows in addition to the primary window, with each screen displaying a separate video stream. With up to 16 events occurring simultaneously, NBCOlympics.com plans to cover the action with as many as 20 simultaneous live streams. Including redundancy for each one, that’s 40 simultaneous streams.

These days, a single televised baseball game offers enough stats and arcane data to satisfy a gaggle of rotisserie-league die-hards. With 302 events in 28 Olympics sports and more than 10,000 athletes competing, one can only imagine the amount of data that NBCOlympics.com will try to present to its online viewing audience. Collecting and processing that data is one thing, but presenting it to online viewers in a palatable way and developing an intuitive, user-friendly navigation structure is another.

"Every different sport [comprises] multiple events," says Matthew Rechs, CTO of Schematic, the interactive agency that is designing and building the Silverlight player for NBCOlympics.com. "Trying to figure out how people want to enjoy all of that [programming and related data], organizing it in the interface, and giving viewers the right ways to find it … that’s a really tough challenge."

To help meet that challenge, the NBCOlympics.com player offers a "metadata overlay" feature, which allows the player to display transparent data and navigation tools over the video window. This enables users to access statistics and other data without covering up, pausing, or leaving the primary video display. For example, play-by-play announcers’ dialogue can be keyed into an XML data stream, then rendered as a timecoded, scrolling text caption that transparently overlays the bottom of the video display. The player also enables the TiVo-like experience of pausing, rewinding, and replaying content, and these two features together allow viewers to use either the timecode or the play-by-play captioning to rewind to a specific point in the on-screen action and replay it.