Olympic Diary: Online and Mobile Viewing Shatters Records

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It took some time for viewership stats to appear for the London Olympics, perhaps due to the complexity of the event or because no organisation wanted to be the first to release their data. But until yesterday, stats were impossible to come by.

However yesterday a Reuters report had some stats about the BBC but provided by BT, which was a bit odd. I've got several close connections in the CDNs and operators involved in the workflows, and realise that a provider like BT would be extremely unlikely to be allowed to provide statistics about one of their customer’s services, so the article surprised me. I contacted the BBC teams in charge of all the distribution, and they pointed to the now-public statistics, which are more detailed but make no reference to the numbers given by BT. In fact, the Reuters report from BT curiously says that  the "top clip" received 329,000 requests, immediately after asserting that the Andy Murray-Roger Federer match attracted 820,000 clip requests.

Believe what you will (personally, I’ll take the BBC-provided figures) the Olympics is clearly proving to be an online success, with a total online audience of 18.1 million viewers between 28 July and 2 August. In particular, it's been a massive mobile success, with  41% of all streamed views being delivered to mobile or tablet devices.

With the UK summer being dull, grey, windy, often rainy and only occasionally sunny, it has to be asked who would be walking around outside,  watching the Olympics on their mobile devices. My guess is that the "mobile" stats given by broadcasters don't distinguish between cellular and Wi-Fi connections to those devices, and actually if we could look in detail, the majority of mobile streams are probably an iPad propped up next to a laptop at home as a second screen tethered to the domestic Wi-Fi. Dad's in his home office watching a match, kids are in their bedroom watching gymnastics on their iPod touch, and mum's on the front room screen using some cable service red button, but all fed from the same internet connection. They are mobile, but tethered.

Despite the jubilance from smartphone operators veins at these numbers, I still think that the number of folks sitting in the park or on the bus watching live streams over cellular networks is relatively few—the fear of data usage charges still puts folks off streaming, and mobile service is a different experience to home Wi-Fi. This is just a hunch from my perspective; I don’t yet have stats to validate this, although from what I've heard from the BBC, it would be easy for operators to see the proportion of truly mobile viewers versus those that are still tethered to a Wi-Fi access point.

Looking elsewhere at the stats, there are one or two figures that Streaming Media readers will likely focus on. The key one given for me is that there was a peak of 729,000 requests for UK cyclist Bradley Wiggins' gold medal win. This is somewhat different to the peak mentioned in the Reuters article, but this indicates significant concurrency (in my mind requests for a short event like this broadly directly relate to the size of concurrency). This is interesting in its own right, but it is far from the millions purported to tune into the Michael Jackson memorial, Royal Wedding, or Obama Inauguration streams (so commonly cited as the biggest webcasts yet). Of course the total concurrency the BBC will have been managing at that time will actually have been many times that level, but the audience is typically spread over 20 or thirty streams, in addition to a huge audience being served by VoD.

The other facts and figures that  caught my eye were the 29 million requests for Olympics video streams in the first week, which compares with the 45 million traditional broadcast views of 15 minutes or more. In terms of "valuable user interactions," this indicates to me that the average license payer satisfied nearly a third of all their Olympics interactions with the BBC by watching what they wanted to online.

That is simply staggering. It is a real validation of the streaming industry’s success.

Additionally, the BBC note that the audience engagement has been larger over the first week than it was over the whole Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Indeed, NBC seems to be making similar claims, and the figures I have picked up show solid volumes, with 28 million visits to the NBCOlympics.com site, and 64 million video streams served, and with 45% of those being consumed from mobile and tablet—a number strikingly similar to the BBC’s.

So without a doubt the first numbers are indicating that not only has streaming media come of age and become an integral part of broadcast media, but its accelerating growth and diversity of access is placing this technology, quite literally, in the hands of almost everybody.

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