Pulling the (TV) Plug on the Olympic Games

I haven't been watching the Winter Olympics on TV. In fact, a quick and thoroughly unscientific survey of friends tells me that an awful lot of people are going to NBColympics.com rather than flipping on the television. Could this be the last Winter Olympics that more people watch on TV than on the Web?

I have a problem with time-delayed events. Most of the truly amazing moments in televised Olympic history have been broadcast as live several hours after they actually happened, and most people watching the "live" broadcast already knew how it would turn out. Depending on the location of the Games, this is generally done for fairly good reasons, like not interrupting scheduled news broadcasts on the East Coast or whatnot, but the fact remains that most people never actually watch live events and, since they already know the outcome, are less likely to bother. Who would watch the MLB playoffs if you already knew who won?

Basically, the scheduling of most events in both the Summer and Winter Olympics just doesn't jibe with broadcast television anymore, if it ever did.

But NBC has done a pretty good job of filling that gap over the Internet. NBColympics.com provides a good portal for finding just about anything you're looking for, with plenty of search options and tons of content. Want to watch 3.5 hours of pairs figure skating without commentary? It's there.

Or you can tap into the live feeds and finally watch live competition. This is the way the Olympics should be broadcasted. This is the way that everyone can get what they want, when they want it. There aren't enough broadcast channels in existence to provide anywhere near this level of coverage, which is why the Olympics are likely to be the first major worldwide event to be almost completely Webcast. It might be the 2012 Summer Games, but that seems a bit soon. My guess is that the 2014 Winter Games will be the watershed.

The 2014 Winter Games are being held in Sochi, Russia, which is eight hours ahead of the East Coast and 11 hours ahead of the West Coast. Any broadcasts will be time-delayed to such a degree that they will be meaningless. The Internet will carry the vast majority of the programming -- not just in the United States, but all over the world. That's the other interesting thing about this shift: The reach is truly global as long as the contracts allow it.

I'm not completely certain about the terms of the Olympic broadcasting rights, but NBC is blocking international visitors from viewing the content on its Olympics site. Since broadcast agreements exist all over the world for the Games, this isn't surprising, but if Olympic broadcasting shifts to the Internet, then these contracts need to change drastically.

NBC or any other company could suddenly acquire broadcast rights for the Games to entire continents, offering multilingual commentary for the same exact video streams. Unlike SAP, which carries only one language, every event could be covered by dozens of languages, and everything could be tailored to the viewer's country. What better way to enjoy the Olympics?

By the time 2014 rolls around, the storage required to house the petabytes of video will be cheaper; the processing power required to produce, format, and display that video will be cheaper and more capable; and the bandwidth required to pump all that content around the globe will be more readily available. More people will own Internet-connected televisions that can directly access that content, or at least HTPC systems that can stream it to a television and interact with the hosting sites. Generally, new consumer content technologies need a societal push to vault beyond the early adopter stage and into the mainstream. HDTV migrations in the United States were helped immensely by the SuperBowl and other popular sporting events, and this will be no different.

Four years from now, the Winter Games in a little-known Russian town may be the catalyst that finally flips the switch between broadcast and Internet content consumption forever.

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