NBC Has a VHS Olympic Moment

As my daughter said on the most recent StreamingMedia.com podcast, watching online Olympic video clips made her want to watch more live television.

Apparently she's not alone, as Broadcast Engineering is reporting that almost 18 million people "watched streaming video of an Olympic event on their computer or cell phone during the first five days of the Beijing Games."

Broadcast Engineering notes this is a 705 percent increase over the Athens Olympics, where only Visa card holders could watch online video, yielding a bit more than 2 million online video views. Those numbers, though, only tell a part of the story: NBC also has seen its primetime Olympic coverage skyrocket, even with complaints that NBC is both tape-delaying live content to the West coast and choosing to hold video clips for 14 or more hours, waiting for the content to first air on the 12-hour tape delay from Beijing.

While we might feel good about what NBC has accomplished in streaming media, consider that the real numbers coming out of China's CCTV.com dwarf all of NBC's online and traditional broadcast numbers.

CCTV says, according to The New York Times, that more than 100 million people in China watched streaming video on its website, CCTV.com, in the first 10 days. By comparison, in first three days of games, Yahoo's Olympic site had 8 million unique visits and NBCOlympics had 6.7 million.

By August 20, Yahoo was pulling away from NBCOlympics.com, as the span had expanded to 52 million for Yahoo versus 47 million for NBC.

To put the Chinese exclusive broadcasting rights into perspective, 842 million Chinese viewers watched at least a minute of the opening ceremonies on television, and almost 500 million Chinese watched the whole opening ceremonies, leveraging CCTV's $17 million purchase of exclusive broadcast and streaming rights in China to more than $394 in advertising. NBC, by comparison, stands to make about $124 million.

Last week, and again in the most recent podcast, we mentioned the inability of some viewers to legally watch Olympic content not shown on TV. Inlet Technologies' Andy Beach, on his blog Real World Video Compression (RWVC), notes that cable operators are partly to blame.

"NBC did however have a very odd deal with local cable distributors that either cut certain viewers out," blogged Beach, "or at least made them be dishonest in order to watch coverage. When first logging into the video area, viewers must provide a zip code and local NBC cable affiliate. Certain local cable operators did not make deals with NBC for online coverage . . . if you picked the wrong provider, you got an apology and no video."

When it comes to formats used for streaming the Olympics, Flash and Silverlight both got a good workout.

Beach thinks NBC made the right choice - for the moment - in choosing Silverlight for its delivery:

"I will say I don’t believe the live Flash video experience would have been as quite as good as the VC-1 streams we’re seeing in the Silverlight player," Beach noted. "However, that’s only because NBC would have no doubt implemented On2’s VP6 as the live codec, not H.264 because the live encoders and FMS 3.0 infrastructure to support the newer, higher quality codec, just isn’t built out enough to guarantee it’s as reliable in the lead up to the games. Silverlight had the benefit of just building on top of an existing and fairly extensive WMS infrastructure."

On the other side of the pond, though, the BBC used Flash streaming in 16:9 format for its live and video-on-demand content. Viewcast noted that its Niagara Pro streaming encoders are being used by the BBC for live streaming of sporting events and news on its website. This led to BBC Sports breaking into the top ten most-visited sites in the UK last week, with the average session lasting almost nine minutes.

Even in Brazil, one broadcaster's website has almost 120,000 unique visitors per day. (For a post about Olympic streaming in the Netherlands, see the Streaming Media Europe blog.)

How much of this streaming is occurring during the workday? At least in the U.S., the answer is a significant amount of it. Both NBC and Yahoo saw almost 100% increase in streaming video during the first Monday of the Olympics, and that is consistently holding true even after the Michael Phelps 8-gold-medal phenomenon has peaked, according to Neilsen Online.

Finally, while Beach and I might disagree on the the problem of georestrictions and DMCA takedowns that might turn the web into a series of border patrols for global events (see NBC's Olympic Task, we agree that something needs to happen before the next Olympics.

"n the marketing lead up to the Olympics, there seemed to be this message that NBC and its partners were bringing the Olympics to the world," said Beach. "Online rights should be considered more global than the traditional broadcast rights, which will naturally fall into certain terrestrial bounds."

When I asked Beach about this comment, his take is that a joint effort between key countries, such as the G8, might be a way to alleviate the need for georestrictions.

"There does need to be some consideration to online broadcast rights being less tied to country borders," Beach said in an email. "I'm not necessarily crazy about that being just one company, . . . A better idea is more a of coalition of media - some sort of joint coverage by NBC, CCTV, BBC, etc. Maybe the IOC could spearhead a solution like that. A technologist can at least dream . . . "

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