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Streaming and the Olympics

It's doubtful that Baron Pierre de Coubertin - founder, in 1894, of the modern Olympics - ever referred to the Games as "content." But that's exactly what they have become. And because that content is now worth billions on the open market, there will be no live streaming of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Today, the Olympics and its five-ring logo are among the world's most recognized and fiercely protected brands, generating $2.6 billion for the marketing rights to the Sydney Games. More than half of that - $1.33 billion - comes from the licensing of television broadcast rights around the world. NBC, for example, paid $705 million for the U.S. television broadcast rights to the Sydney Games alone, and $3.55 billion for the rights to the Winter and Summer Games through 2008.

Live streaming of the Olympics has been banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because it threatens to diminish the value of those rights. To those who argue that the Olympics belong to the sports fans of the world, this may seem like a victory for crass commercialism. But Richard Pound, VP of the IOC, responds, "Take away sponsorship and commercialism from [the Olympics] today and what is left? A large, sophisticated, finely-tuned engine developed over a period of 100 years - with no fuel."

The broadcasting entities in many countries, including Canada, will be airing the Games live. The results of the competitions - scores, winners and losers, world records broken - will be instantly posted on thousands of Web sites around the world. But television viewers in the United States - with the exception of those near the Canadian border or with large satellite dishes - will be unable to watch video playback of the events until many hours after the drama is over. (While some have questioned the decision to delay playback for up to 24 hours, NBC's take from ad sales will top $900 million.) But even if NBC, in a fit of generosity, decided to offer live streaming to its American audience, the IOC wouldn't allow it.

In discussing streaming media and the Olympics, it's important to note that while both the Internet and the Olympics are global phenomena, the International Olympic Committee sells broadcast rights country-by-country. The IOC, knowing that Bob Costas won't appear on French or German television screens, was able to sell the European (EBU) broadcast rights for $350 million. But while NBC's television signal may not encroach on the Europeans' broadcast space, Web users in London - or Sao Paulo or Tokyo - could choose to watch any live streaming offered by NBC in lieu of their local broadcasts. Fewer viewers means lower ad rates, which in turn means reduced rights fees for the IOC.

Axient Offers High "Octane" Solution for Streaming Video

The primary challenge faced by NBCOlympics.com - a joint venture between NBC and Quokka.Sports - was to offer high-quality, on-demand video streaming without violating the IOC's stipulation that it not be accessible outside of the United States. Axient Communications, a facilities-based content distribution network headquartered in Phoenix, offered its Octane solution as a way to deliver streaming broadband video while bypassing the public Internet.

Tom Newell, general manager at NBC/Quokka Ventures, notes, "The first criteria in selecting Axient and their Octane product was the ability to meet the IOC's concerns about maintaining the integrity of the video within the United States. We had an additional concern that a lot of video that is streamed today is of poor quality… Axient offered to us the ability to stream full-screen video and a full frame rate." By choosing Axient to deliver its content, NBC/Quokka gave up the larger narrowband audience in exchange for high-quality, broadband audio and video streaming at 200k, 500k, and 700k bit rates.

Axient hopes its high-profile debut at the 2000 Olympics will demonstrate its ability to control access to its broadband network. Allan Kaplan, senior VP of business development at Axient, explains, "Our broadband access providers are giving us the addresses of all their residential users, and they've agreed to not pass content to the business user… By defining it as residential and business, what we're really saying is, ‘We want to deliver the content within the United States to users within the U.S., and to the safest group of users that won't [forward] that content outside of the U.S.' The residential user fits that [profile]." Users will have to contact their ISPs to find out whether or not they can be connected to the Axient network.

Axient won't be the only company introducing a new streaming product for the Olympics. eSynch, a media technology developer based in Tustin, CA, created a prototype of its new ChoiceCaster media player interface specifically for the NBCOlympics.com site. There are several reasons NBC chose to go with ChoiceCaster as opposed to an embedded player. Massimo Arrigoni, product manager for ChoiceCaster, explains, "First of all, an embedded player cannot be resized by the user, even if it's embedded in a pop-up window. The second reason is that they wanted to keep their brand visible at all times [and] we had the ability to customize a skin for NBCOlympics.com. Third, ChoiceCaster offers an ‘always-on-top' feature that enables users to watch a continuous video while browsing the pages in the background. This is something an embedded player cannot offer because whenever you leave the page, you leave the player itself."

Because ChoiceCaster is really an enhanced interface, as opposed to a true player, it can differentiate and stream video in any of the three major formats. Users will never know that underneath the ChoiceCaster hood, Axient is really streaming Quicktime. Arrigoni thinks there was another reason why NBC went with eSynch. He points out, "NBC probably liked the idea of working with a smaller company that was definitely going to dedicate resources to them. Esynch is a public company, but definitely smaller than the bigger players that they could have gone to."

"A rogue Web site in Uzbekistan could easily download live video from a satellite and stream it to the world."

While NBC and the other licensed broadcasters have agreed to restrict streaming to their own territories, others might not be so scrupulous. A rogue Web site in Uzbekistan could easily download live video from a satellite and stream it to the world. At the same time, any fan among the thousands attending the Games could record the events on a mini-DV camera, edit the footage on a G4, and be streaming the end product through the Internet in a matter of hours. But just as technology can provide the means to threaten the status quo, so it may offer the tools to respond to those threats.

Paris-based Datops, a self-described "measurement engine," and NetResults, a London-based firm that specializes in monitoring and policing copyright infringements on the Internet, were hired by the IOC to monitor the Web for, among other things, violations of the ban on Olympics streaming. Datops has identified 28,000 sites as containing "Olympic content," 2,000 of which include both Olympic content and video files. NetResults employs a team of sports research analysts to evaluate the Datops database of potential violators, and determine what qualifies as actionable copyright infringements or violations of the streaming ban.

Datops and NetResults take different approaches to the problem of Internet piracy. Louis Gay, founder and CEO of Datops, suggests, "There are thousands of new sites on the Internet every day… and people are making copies of audio and video files more and more often. I think that the answer to control the copyright rules will be through technology."

Meanwhile, NetResults gets cooperation in their search for streaming pirates from the official broadcasters. Caroline Townley, director of NetResults, notes, "The sites that might potentially be tempted to do this are already known to us and to the broadcast partners for the Olympics around the world. [Some among] the various parties have worked for a number of sports governing bodies [and] are familiar with the sports Internet sites that are out there."

Web Sites Not Issued Media Credentials

Ironically, the last thing a major sports portal like CNNSI.com, ESPN.com, or CBS Sportsline.com wants is to maintain a low profile during the Olympics. But these sites, despite attracting millions of users every day on the Web, can't seem to make a blip on the IOC radar screen. This year, not one sports Web site - other than NBCOlympics.com and not to mention any media Web site - was even issued media credentials to the Sydney Games, much less authorized to stream video.

And while NBCOlympics.com was at least invited to the party, broadband streaming will be limited to 20 minutes each day, only 10 of which will be footage of the competitions. In a final indication of streaming media's lowly status at the 2000 Olympics, even those 10 minutes will have already aired on the previous day's NBC television broadcast. Regarding the prospects for video streaming, Joe Ferreira, VP of programming at CBS Sportsline.com, observes, "[Given] the fact that they weren't even giving their own partner, NBCOlympics.com, video rights prior to NBC's broadcast, we knew we had no shot."

It may be that the IOC's fear of streaming media is helping to create the very situation it wants to avoid. As NetResults' Townley notes, "In a situation where an official approved, and therefore offering a good-quality picture on the Internet, then a lot of the market for pirate software will dry up... Because there is no official video on the Internet - at the request of the broadcasters - then obviously it's likely to encourage a number of pirates to actually think, ‘Well, this is a market.'"

Thus, the IOC finds itself in a dilemma. If it continues the ban on streaming, it risks having to hold back a rising tide of Internet piracy. If it embraces streaming, the flow of television broadcast money might slow to a trickle.

IOC To Meet in December Regarding Future of Internet and the Olympics

The IOC World Conference on Sport and New Media, to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland this December, will attempt to resolve this dilemma as it explores "the future of the relationship between the Internet and sport." Among the issues to be discussed will be "the ways in which live sports coverage can impact the evolution of the Internet as a medium," and "the convergence of television and new media and the resulting impact on traditional sports coverage, existing television rights, and the sports fan's experience."

For example, will television rights contracts running through 2008 need to be renegotiated? Will such long-term contracts - given the pace at which the technology of media delivery is changing - be advisable in the future? Even if none of these questions are resolved in Lausanne, at least the battle lines will be more clearly drawn.

The interests of the entrenched television culture often do not coincide with those of the ascendant new media culture. The controversies now surrounding streaming media and the Olympic Games may presage the type of turbulence that could accompany the broader, much-heralded convergence of television and the Internet. The outcome of the competition between the old and new media for access to the sports fans of the world is less predictable than many of the events in Sydney.

Stay tuned. And in the meantime, if you live in the States and you crave the drama of this year's Olympic competition, you'd better keep your eyes and ears covered from dawn until dusk.

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