Sochi: A streaming event of Olympic proportions

Coming every couple years, Olympic games provide a mile marker to look back at how far online video options for live events have come -- and what we're still missing.

The Russian and Olympic flags fly during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Getty Images

For the Sochi Olympics, NBC will plow head first into streaming nearly every moment of the games over the Internet, but still stops short of giving everything to everyone.

The broadcast network NBC and its partners -- distributors like cable and satellite providers and tech companies like Adobe and iStreamPlanet -- have embraced the concept of bringing as much as they can online. What we're getting this year: nearly every moment of competition and more curated video on the Web; easier sign-on and more pay-TV providers on board to let their customers watch online; and more supported devices and apps to coordinate between your devices and your TV.

But just as important is what we're not getting: an option for so-called cord-cutters, or people who opt not to pay for cable TV and instead find most of their programming online. And, as many Olympics fans realized this morning, live access to flashy events like the Opening Ceremony is still out of reach, being kept pristine for the prime-time television broadcast.

The unique nature of the Olympics provides the chance to reflect on how far live streaming video has come and how far it still has to go. The regularity of the games, coming every couple years, sets up convenient mile markers to pause and look back, and time-zone irregularities -- which can, like this year, result in hours-long tape-delayed broadcasts -- makes the demand for live video especially fervid.

NBC kicked off online Olympic video with the Turin winter Olympics in 2006 -- one whole hockey game's worth. By Beijing two years later, many events were streamed online save for popular sports like gymnastics and swimming, but streaming availability retreated in 2010's Vancouver's games: NBC limited it to hockey and curling. It was the first Games after the rollout of "TV Everywhere," a coordinated effort between television companies and distributors like cable to offer video online to those who prove they already pay for cable. Before TV Everywhere, networks offered online video experimentally, and sometimes profusely; after TV Everywhere, the networks had a standardized procedure for providing streaming video, but there were often more strictures on what could go online and when.

NBC's Live Extra app on the Comcast X1 cable-TV platform can bring Internet-based streaming video to the television before the prime-time broadcast. Comcast

In addition, the iPad was released to the public right after the Vancouver games. By the time the London games kicked off in 2012, it was a common household item.

"Jumping to London, NBC decided to stream everything," said Vito Forlenza, director of TV Everywhere content and product strategy at Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal. "The iPad debuted and that changed everything."

Adobe, which studies digital video usage and a platform for publishing TV content online, found in a recent study that nearly three-quarters of TV Everywhere programming was watched on mobile devices, with tablets representing the most at 42 percent.

For London, NBC streamed 3,500 total programming hours. It notched 159.3 million video streams, more than double the Beijing Olympics; and the amount that was streamed live -- 64.4 million streams -- more than quadrupled Beijing online live watching.

"Just when you thought you'd predicted how much usage you'd get, it's probably going to be bigger than you assumed,"said Ron Lamprecht, NBCUniversal's executive vice president of business development for digital distribution.

So for Sochi, NBC and its partners put a camera on everything. NBC is planning more than 1,000 streaming hours, less volume than London but more intense coverage (Summer Olympics also have more events than their winter counterparts). NBC has beefed up Gold Zone, a day-long curated program on its Web site, and the NBC Live Extra app, which hops between events that are most engaging as they're happening.

Read: Stream the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (How-To)

From NBC's production perspective, that meant doubling down on resources. Lamprecht said the sheer raw capture of video is unprecedented, not to mention the need for graphics, producers, and announcers to accompany it. "The volume of personnel that are over there right now is staggering," he said.

The streaming backend, however, is increasingly automated. Mio Babic -- the chief executive of iStreamPlanet, a live-streaming services company helping power its fourth Olympic Games -- said the number of servers iStreamPlanet required has dropped from close to 500 for the its first Olympics in Beijing to 50 in London -- and zero for Sochi, as it moves its operations into the cloud.

"It's an all-virtual Olympics, he said. "This is the foundation for things to come."

All together, that puts a surfeit of online live video tantalizingly within reach of cord-cutters. But as with other Olympics, authentication -- the term for vetting viewers by requiring login credentials from a pay-TV provider -- will keep them locked out of most the action online. Anyone can watch 30 minutes of Olympics video free when they first visit NBC's site, and then watch 5 minutes every visit thereafter, but an account is necessary for full access.

Access to the lion's share of online Olympics video is reserved for people who have a pay-TV subscription. Screenshot by Dan Graziano/CNET

The set-up largely leaves cord-cutters in the lurch, except for one development. This is the first Olympics with Aereo as a widespread option. Aereo, the online service that streams broadcast TV online, was available in New York for the 2012 Olympics, but has rolled out to 11 total cities in time for Sochi. Media companies, including NBC and CBS, the parent company of CNET, have sued Aereo repeatedly on claims it infringes their copyrights. The case is headed to the Supreme Court, but so far Aereo has thrown off every injunction attempt that has gone before a court, so the service should remain up and running throughout the games.

But Aereo is an online half measure. Since it's limited to over-the-air broadcasts, members will miss out on live online video.

Though the paywall stands, it's letting more people through this year. More pay-TV companies signed up to give their customers online access, and NBC and its partners worked to smooth out the frustration from the login process. Automatic in-home IP authentication, a mouthful of a phrase, means you don't need to enter any login info if you're accessing on a network linked to your pay-TV service. NBC also has single-sign-on, so if you authenticate for any NBC source of video -- be it Olympics or USA Network -- then the rest are automatically logged in too.

Lamprecht said NBC has no plans to offer an online-only Olympics package, which is no surprise. Content companies such as NBC and distribution companies like cable and satellite rely on each other for their business models to work, and so far, neither side has risked offering options that undercut the other.

There's always next time, however, and there's no telling what could happen between Sochi and Rio de Janeiro's summer games.

Maybe in Rio, we'll get the Opening Ceremony live too.

 

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