A few years ago, watching the Olympics without cable was a relatively cheap and straightforward affair.
While you still needed a pay TV subscription to watch every event, cord-cutters could choose from several inexpensive live TV services—even for just a month—and get complete coverage across all of NBC’s channels.
The forthcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo—pushed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic—provides a snapshot of how much cord-cutting has changed. Live TV streaming services have ballooned in price since early 2018, and they no longer offer every event as some coverage is moving to Peacock this year. By my calculations, those who want access to every televised event will need to pay twice as much as they did last time around.
It’s not all bad news, though. While full Olympic coverage is much more expensive, this year’s games will also have more to watch for free or cheap, and streaming platforms will be better at helping you figure out what to watch in the first place. The question, as always with cord-cutting, is how much coverage you’re willing to forgo to save money.
Olympics without cable: Then and now
Looking back to 2018’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, NBCUniversal had yet to launch Peacock, and live TV streaming providers were still chasing aggressive growth by underpricing their services.
As such, you could pay as little as $35—then the monthly cost of YouTube TV and the cheapest DirecTV Now plan—to watch the Olympics across all of NBC’s channels. Hulu’s live TV service and PlayStation Vue (RIP) cost only $5-per-month more. Alternatively, you could combine an antenna with Sling TV and pay just $30 per month.
Three years later, streaming the Olympics across all NBC channels—NBC, NBC Sports Network, Olympic Channel, USA, and CNBC—will cost at least $65 with a subscription to either YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, or FuboTV. Combining an over-the-air antenna with Sling TV reduces the price, but not by much; to get every channel, you need a Sling Blue subscription with both the News Extra and Sports Extra add-ons at a total price of $52. (NBC’s Olympics schedule page has a list of what’s on every channel.)
Those pricey bundles won’t even get you complete coverage anymore. NBC is making some of its coverage of the Tokyo games exclusive to Peacock. While the service will stream gymnastics and track & field for free, men’s basketball will require a $5-per-month Peacock Premium subscription. That brings the all-in price of streaming this year’s Olympic coverage to $70, twice what it was in early 2018.
This story becomes less dreary for folks who’d rather snack on Olympic coverage than gorge on it.
Peacock, for instance, might be all you need if you just want an overview of what’s happening. The service will offer a free linear channel (called “Tokyo Now”) with highlights, commentary, and live look-ins. Additional free live channels will include athlete profiles, footage from past games, and Team USA-centric highlights.
Peacock’s free tier will also include extended highlights for many events, while the $5-per-month Premium tier will include full replays of select events including the opening ceremony. In 2018, those who didn’t have a pay TV subscription could only stream highlights, with no live component at all.
Over-the-air antenna users will also still be able to watch anything that airs on NBC proper. But this time around, those who can’t pick up an antenna signal can also look to Locast, a non-profit service that streams local channels in exchange for a $5-per-month donation. If you’re in one of Locast’s supported markets, you won’t even need an antenna to access NBC’s coverage.
Meanwhile, Roku and Amazon are chipping in with their own ways of keeping up with the games. Roku devices will gain a dedicated 2020 Tokyo Olympics section on the home screen with short video clips and links to coverage in other apps, while Fire TV devices will have a home screen row promoting highlights and more.
This lean approach to the Olympics has its limits, of course; you’ll miss out on live coverage of less popular events like fencing and handball, and you’ll generally have less control over which sport to watch at any given moment.
But such is the state of cord-cutting in 2021, both with the Olympics and with TV in general. While the cost of watching everything is higher than ever, you also have more ways to pay less by making do with less.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.