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Did NBCUniversal Medal at the London Olympics?

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London did an amazing job of playing host to the world for the 2012 Summer Olympics. From the moment in the opening ceremonies when the queen jumped out of a plane with escort James Bond, we were hooked. For 17 days we cheered on Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Usain Bolt, Aly Raisman, and many other returning and new world-class athletes.

In the United States, the games were brought to us by NBCUniversal, Inc., which showed them on multiple broadcast and cable stations, and live streamed 3,500 hours of events -- more than 100 events each day. It was a herculean effort, and yet NBC Sports' efforts weren't much praised by viewers. No, Olympic watchers largely took to their social media accounts to protest what NBCUniversal was doing.

So why the disconnect? Shortly after the Olympics ended, we spoke to Rick Cordella, NBC Sports' senior vice president and general manager of digital media, about what went right, what went wrong, and what NBC might do differently next time.

Let the Planning Begin

NBC's plans for the London games began soon after the Beijing Olympics completed, well before the network covered the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. Cordella and his team looked at their coverage and sought out ways to improve.

The Beijing Olympics was the first with a significant live online video component, and NBC learned that smaller sports could have a big audience online.

"They're willing to watch table tennis. They're willing to watch these long tail sports. There's an audience out there. It may not be huge in a lot of cases, but there is an audience," said Cordella.

In the Atlanta Summer Olympics of 1996, NBC broadcast 171 hours of games, so many of the less popular events were never seen by American viewers. Beijing was the first experiment with mass streaming, and it paid off.

NBC Olympics"Now on the digital side, we can put these sports out there. We can put the sailing, we can put the fencing, we can put these sports that have people that are passionate about it and give them access to it. We saw the interest in Beijing and we sort of continued to execute upon that," added Cordella.

Many viewers got their first taste of TV everywhere authentication during the London games, but authentication was required for Vancouver as well. In the post-Beijing planning, Cordella's team had to decide how to put an authentication system in place that would be seamless and easy enough for most people. During the London games, 9.9 million people used the authentication process to prove they paid for pay TV service, allowing them to see the live video streams online.

For London, NBC switched from its usual online partner, MSN, to YouTube. Cordella is positive about what the world's largest video site brought to the table.

"They reached a younger demographic. We were able to send some of that traffic to us and in addition they were good technology partners. They hosted the backend of our streaming media player; they'd helped design the player itself," noted Cordella. "We also worked with Adobe on the mobile side, so the two [NBC Olympics] apps were built by Adobe on Adobe AIR; so some pretty big companies. I know we worked closely with Apple, of course, to get our apps approved and go through the testing and QA of it. We tried to bring as many big companies that all had a stake in this, to be as successful as we could."

Mobile streaming was available, thanks to those Adobe apps, and Cordella found a strong desire for mobile access. In the first week of the games, streaming video traffic to the apps was higher than streaming video traffic to standard web browsers.

A Whole Different Animal

"The funny thing is, NBCSports.com streamed, I don't know, 100 or so events last year including the Super Bowl. We walked into that first Saturday morning, we streamed 110 events on Saturday, the opening day, day one of the Olympics," noted Cordella. "A whole different animal," he added.

While NBC continued with many of the practices it started in Beijing and Vancouver, it also added several new components. For one, social media played a big role in the London Olympics.

"There were a lot of social integrations," remembered Cordella. "That certainly was one big thing, around the video player itself. If you checked out the Gold Zone, we had a Twitter feed that we had a guy in London basically updating on-the-fly in real-time, bringing people around to different action and that was probably one of the coolest products we had, to be honest. It was a lean back experience where we may take you from equestrian to table tennis to the men's basketball game to a fifth set at Wimbledon in tennis -- whatever's hot at the moment. We were sort of your guide, moving you around. It's akin to the Red Zone the NFL has."

Live video was the star of the NBC Olympics site, but video clips were also popular, even those showing the agony of defeat. German diver Stephan Feck's spectacular 3-meter springboard back flop was the site's top video clip, said Cordella. In all, the site streamed more clips than live feeds, but more minutes of live video than recorded video.

For a look at the numbers, NBC delivered 159.3 million video streams this time around, compared to 75.5 million 4 years ago in Beijing. It offered 20.4 million hours of total video, more than doubling the 9.9 million hours of Beijing. Live streaming was way up this time, with 64.4 million live streams, compared to 14 million during Beijing. All those streams let NBC show many more video ads than expected. By the end of the games, Cordella noted, it was showing house ads. That online growth likely helped the network turn a profit on the games, where it had expected a loss.

Bones of Contention

With all of that streaming going on, it sounds like NBCUniversal delivered an excellent experience to online viewers. And yet, many found things to complain about. Those video ads, for example, got on some people's nerves. And the authentication requirement, which limited live streaming to pay TV customers, seemed an unnecessary hurdle. Why was an over-the-air broadcaster putting up roadblocks for the pay TV industry?

"You make people do something before watching a video, they're going to be upset over it. We understand that. Our business model is set up in a way that we're partners with our MVPDs [multichannel video programming distributors] and it's part of the overall business model of the Olympics: cable companies are paying the freight for some of it. So TV everywhere is a derivative of that," said Cordella.

Some viewers were so put off by NBC's requirements that they set up virtual private networks to get around geographical restrictions and access the BBC's video feeds. That's something Cordella hopes goes away in time.

"It's unfortunate people are trying to work around it. Honestly, it's quite easy. If you know your credentials, you know your log in, you get in," said Cordella. "There's no incremental fee for you to do it. I think some people just saw that as a deterrent and they went a separate direction. The hope is, as we continue to evolve, that TV everywhere, as we head into Sochi and later on Rio, has become second nature to people and it's not a big deal."

NBC's coverage of the Olympics became one of the top stories of the Olympics, thanks to the network's decision not to broadcast key events each day, and instead show edited versions of them in prime time. That meant viewers had often learned who won events before they were able to watch them. Cordella notes that online viewers didn't have that problem, as even popular gold medal round events were streamed live.

"All the events were live streamed. The only one that wasn't was the opening ceremony. Everything else was live streamed," noted Cordella. "Whether it was gymnastics or whether it was Usain Bolt's 100 meters, we had that online."

Some vocally complained about buffering issues with the live video, although that has more to do with network conditions than the NBC Olympics streams.

"If your kid upstairs is streaming Netflix and some kid downstairs is watching MLB At Bat on their app and you're trying to stream the Olympics, everyone's going to have a pretty bad experience, because of bandwidth constraints to your house," said Cordella. "The expectation right now with the consumer is getting a crystal clear signal each and every time, and in 2012 we're just not there yet."

Despite NBC's best efforts, #NBCFail (and less flattering versions) were popular hashtags during the games. Cordella admitted that it was hard to read that kind of feedback.

"It's tough to go on Twitter and hear people have a bad experience with NBC Olympics digital. We certainly want to improve that; we listen to it. Some of it you can take with a grain of salt, but I think where I personally feel bad is when there's so many people working on this project and I hate to see the negativity reflect on those people," said Cordella. "That's probably the hardest part."

NBCUniversal has the U.S. rights to the upcoming Sochi and Rio Olympics, so Cordella and his team have a lot to think about these days as they plan how to improve on the London experience.

"We'll probably have some meetings within the next two weeks to talk about what we could have done better, what are some things we'll have to do differently next time based on Sochi being a different time zone," said Cordella. "That plan isn't formulated yet, but we will start to do that in the coming weeks."

All criticism aside, Cordella is positive about the London online coverage, which brought more video to more people in more ways than ever before.

"The majority of people had a great experience," said Cordella. "We were able to bring you a wealth of content that you never saw before. We were able to bring you the big prime time sports live, online, which was never done before. We were able to bring you this content on multiple platforms which was never done before. So I think it's a lot to be proud of for the group here."

NBC Olympics

NBC live streamed a total of 3,500 hours of events—more than 100 events each day. 

This article appeared in the October/November, 2012, issue of Streaming Media magazine under the title "Did NBCUniversal Medal at the Olympics?"

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