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Commentary: NBC’s Olympic Coverage Marks Major Victory for Streaming Media

With NBC’s decision to expand its online video coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics, the opportunity to compare and contrast the characteristics of on-air and online video delivery has rarely been as ripe as it was last month.

By all accounts, NBCOlympics.com was a resounding success for NBC, serving up a reported 9.1 million video streams, or more than 125,000 hours of video streamed, over the two weeks of the Olympic Games. NBC’s on-air coverage, on the other hand, while still responsible for drawing 184 million viewers—nearly two-thirds of all Americans—suffered embarrassing defeats on a nightly basis to shows like American Idol and even Dancing with the Stars.

This article takes a look into the success of NBC’s online coverage, factors that may have contributed to the somewhat underwhelming response to their on-air broadcast, and how online video offers even more potential for success as NBC prepares for the 2008 Summer Games.

Getting Better All the Time
2006 wasn’t the first year that NBC offered online video as part of its Olympics coverage, but it was the first time they offered footage of actual events in such a way that allowed viewers easy and open access to that content.

In 2004, NBC’s online presence only included supplementary video content like interviews and some highlight reels, but none of the unadulterated footage of the events themselves. Additionally, NBC severely limited its online reach, as it only allowed access to its library of video clips to those users with Visa credit cards who were willing to provide their full names and the first six digits of their card numbers (Visa was the sponsor of the online video at the time).

In 2006, NBC took a major step towards realizing the full potential of Internet video. This time around, anyone could navigate to NBCOlympics.com and begin watching video immediately without registering at all. Plus, there was a selection, albeit a limited one, of footage from individual events.

NBCOlympic.com’s video player offered a 300Kbps Windows Media-encoded stream that delivered a very high-quality video experience, with more than adequate resolution and little-to-no jittering or artifacting.

Each video was preceded by a pre-roll video ad, and NBC wisely chose to keep those ads in the 10- to 16-second range. Trying to force users to watch the broadcast-standard 30-second ad prior to an online clip can often dissuade users from sitting there long enough to watch their video of choice. NBC also employed dynamic ad insertion so that users weren’t forced to watch the same ad over and over again.

The content discovery interface in NBCOlympic.com’s video player grouped clips by Sports, Athletes, and a mix of other categories, such as Top Video. Interestingly, despite NBC’s decision to include more videos of individual events, the vast majority of clips in the Top Video section were recaps or montages of multiple events spliced together. The only events to have a significant presence were the two surprise men’s gold winners in speed skating and what is traditionally the premier event of the Winter Olympics, women’s figure skating.

The Weaknesses of Broadcast TV
Back in 2004, NBC’s primary reason for not pushing forward with more streaming coverage of the Olympics was a desire to protect their on-air broadcasts from unnecessary competition. But watching 2006’s on-air coverage revealed the limitations of the broadcast medium.

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