Live-Streaming the Olympics

The London 2012 Olympic Games will go down in history for lots of reasons—and not just because of Michael Phelps' historic swims or the USA women's gymnastics success. This is the first truly connected Summer Olympics. Never mind the athletes' entertaining Twitter feeds; the connected center of attention this year is NBC Sports' ambitious live streaming of all 32 sports and 302 events. While NBC's streaming coverage doesn't get a gold medal for reasons both in and out of the broadcaster's control, the live streaming does go beyond anything viewers ever got to experience before in Olympics coverage.

That's no exaggeration. By Day 6, NBC says it served up 5.3 million hours of live video from London, more than NBC delivered in total for Beijing four years ago. Viewers are coming in droves: According to NBC's stats as of Day 6, the network had some 64 million total video streams across all platforms—Web, smartphone, and tablet. That represents a 182 percent increase over Beijing. Of those, some 29 million are to live events, a 343 percent increase over Beijing. The number one stream to date of the first week? 1.5 million streams to the Women’s Gymnastics Team Final on July 31.

I've taken to the live streams for more than 30 hours of men's and women's gymnastics coverage, spread across the past 11 days of the Olympics, to see what it's like to view the Olympics in real-time, nearly half-a-world away. My journey has left me with mixed feelings in terms of overall satisfaction. NBC deserves props for its efforts in some places, and rebuke in others. Read on and see why.

All of the Action, Live

For all the (deserved) flack that NBC has received about its U.S.-centric, packaged prime-time narrative and time-delayed coverage, its gargantuan effort streaming the Games of the XXXth Olympiad has felt overshadowed. This year's live streaming far exceeds NBC's efforts at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008; and the reality is that I've been able to see the action—only on a comparatively unsatisfying laptop screen and not my 42-inch HDTV. The catch: I had to have a paid cable subscription with some combination of NBC stations in there.

The opening ceremony had barely concluded its tape-delayed U.S. broadcast in California, and there I was, settling in for the first of two all-night live stream-a-thons for the qualifications rounds in gymnastics. I turned to both the NBC Live Extra app on the iPad, and to the Live Extra streams found on NBC Olympics Web site.

I quickly settled on the website as my primary video source. It provided better image quality overall than did the app, and proved to be the better of the two options simply because I could have two streams incoming at once if I chose. This was handy since NBC provided dedicated streams for each apparatus in gymnastics; I could view a dedicated camera each for the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. These views had no commentary, just the raw video feed. For a more rounded experience, I turned to the so-called “main feed,” which carried coverage that bounced among all four events with an engaging commentary provided by 1996 U.S. Gold medalist Shannon Miller.

To get this level of Olympic gymnastics coverage has heretofore been unheard of, and NBC's streaming provided a you-are-there level of immersion I haven't had before while watching an Olympics. It also rivaled the oft-touted BBC coverage (yes, I used the free ExpatShield to get a UK IP address and view the BBC's live coverage, too, for the finals). I found that for gymnastics, at least, the BBC feed appeared to match the “main” NBC feed, except that it had different commentaries and added its own interviews and infographic extras to supplement the broadcast.

That would be because the feeds all come from Olympic Broadcasting Services, and thus the footage appears identical. NBC also had its own cameramen on the floor for gymnastics; presumably capturing their own footage as well for the primetime coverage.

Ultimately, when the streaming on worked right, I was more than satisfied to stay put on the NBC feeds. Only early on I found the need to migrate to other live feeds. (Eurovision! BBC! CTV! TVR Romania!...I continue to be amazed at how easily you can find live TV transmissions on the Internet, and how that information can be shared among fellow enthusiasts in real-time.) Unlike previous Olympiads, though, I largely found it unnecessary to play the stream-hopping game.

It was when it didn't work right—due to streaming hiccups and due to NBC's presentation choices—that I threw my hands up in frustration.

Good Streaming Gone Bad

Let's start with my Live Extra app experience on the iPad. I quickly found that the ballyhooed app fell far short of expectations. It wasn't particularly obtuse to use, as some of my colleagues experienced; but I did find the video quality to be very inconsistent, and ultimately a big disappointment. For one, I was subject to the bandwidth limitations and vagaries of a Wi-Fi connection, which left me with a mediocre image, at best. For another, the iPad app lacked the playback quality options available on the Live Extra streams via the Web. That alone pushed me towards using the Web.

Once I realized I could increase the default quality on the Web from the default of 360p to 720p or 1080p, well, there was no going back. Ultimately, while I liked the idea of holding a tablet to watch, in the end I put the tablet aside for good in favor of the Web-based streaming.

Sadly, regardless of the streaming resolution quality I tried those first two days, the stream often stalled, with spinning circles that rarely recovered on their own, and instead foretold a need to reload the Chrome browser's page (I had similar frustrations with Internet Explorer, too). Reloading begat additional hassles, though: At least half of the time, I had to re-authenticate with my cable subscription login info before I could gain access to the Live Extra video, and I usually had to sit through another commercial before the Live Stream would restart. At best this meant missing a gymnast's score; at worst, I'd miss an entire routine or two while waiting for the streaming to restart properly.

I tended to stick with watching the default browser window for the video stream. If I switched to fullscreen view, even at the higher resolutions, the image suffered more stuttering and artifacts than at the default view. I found 720p to be the most consistent, while the default 360p was barely watchable at any size. After the first day, I even upgraded my Comcast Xfinity service to 20Mbps to better accommodate this more extreme usage.

As the qualifications rounds progressed, my routine included three to four laptops running at any one time, each connected to my router via an ethernet cable. I did this to maximize what I could see of the multi-ring circus that occurs during the six and four simultaneous apparatus events, respectively, of men's and women's gymnastics competition. After much trial and error, I concluded that my streaming issues were not due to overtaxing my bandwidth; even if I kicked down to just one stream, I ran into trouble.

In a conference call days later, NBC admitted to some early difficulties they'd overcome, but didn't specify what those difficulties were. Meanwhile, a YouTube spokesperson said the company had a team of people monitoring NBC's YouTube-powered Olympics streaming 24/7, and that as the Olympics progressed they'd made changes in the streaming to add adaptive bitrate video. YouTube says this allows for both the resolution and bit-rate to be adjusted based on your network bandwidth and whether the player is in a Web page or in full-screen mode. Resolution can range from 240p to 1080p, with multiple bit-rates.

This change might account for why my streaming experience improved with each passing day. By later in the week, when the women's all-around competition aired, I had fewer issues with the overall quality of the NBC live streams, but I did still experience a freeze on one feed during the competition that never recovered.

YouTube says it has been pleased overall with its Olympics performance. “We have exceeded our expectations in quality. We're hearing some anecdotal stories [of issues with buffering and frame drops] and are checking against the data. The buffering for the Olympic live streams are lower than other areas of the site.” YouTube also noted that the biggest streaming issues it had seen were typically with the last-mile bottleneck of delivering the video. This last point is what makes this report one of personal experience: What I experienced might not have been what my neighbor experienced, or what my friend living in the suburbs or in another state experienced, thanks in part due to variables outside of NBC's control.

As viewers, we all praise or blame NBC as the one who did a good or bad job with its streaming experience.

The one area that NBC clearly came in dead last: how it handled commercials. I get the need for advertisements, but NBC went overboard by adding commercials on top of the stream with annoying and disruptive frequency. Not only would the commercials interrupt the commentary or conversation on screen, but they could pop up as frequently as every other competitor. Anyone watching would be forgiven for thinking that Bounty, Coca-Cola, Gillette, and others were going for the gold—we saw these commercials more often than we saw the athletes.

The Big Picture

While the live coverage satisfied my desire to watch the competition as it happened, and kept me from (largely) trying to find international streaming alternatives, ultimately watching video in a small window on my laptop was not a replacement for watching the competitions on the big screen. Night after night I tuned into the televised, comparatively pristine 1080p HD visual wonder of the Olympics, relishing every splash in the pool and every speck of dust that flew off the high bar.

I'm not alone in my desire to watch live events in primetime. According to a survey by NBC and Google, viewers who streamed live events on the first day of the Olympics were nearly twice as likely to watch the prime broadcast, too, and they spent about 50% more time watching than those who didn’t stream.

However, I'd posit that this primetime phenomenon has less to do with wanting to see NBC's dramatic repackaging of Olympic events neatly wrapped up in an American flag, and more to do with wanting to see everything on a big screen, in all the detail and beauty that high-definition video has to offer.

For me, and I'd bet for others, too, the live streaming on is nothing more than a stopgap. After all, streaming online is better than not having anything. I'll take it, stutters, stalls, macro-blocking artifacts and all. On a good day, the stream looked reasonably good in HD, but it still was no match for cable's HD feed. And if I had a choice to enjoy all of my Olympics on my HDTV, with an artifact-free image, I'd do so in a heartbeat. (And no, before you even ask, using HDMI or some other output from my laptop wouldn't have done the trick this year; the image quality was barely consistent let alone passable for use on a laptop's small screen, let alone for a 42-inch HDTV.)

In the end, when it worked smoothly, I loved NBC's streaming coverage. I had front-seat access to Olympics competition in a way that had never been possible before. But given the varying image quality, the streaming coverage just wasn't a replacement for watching the Olympics in 1080p on my HDTV.

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