A friendlier time schedule for U.S. viewers and the presence of the first credentialed Internet Olympics press corps promise to bring some useful information to Web surfers who can't make it to the TV set. In addition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has again approved tests for online video broadcasting of the games, which may open the door to a richer Web experience in future contests.
Still, consumers shouldn't expect a front-row cyberseat at the Games anytime soon, analysts said.
"Coverage is going to be stripped down, and you're going to see that the Internet site is more a driver to TV than the other way around," said Patrick Keane, an analyst at Net researcher Jupiter Media Metrix.
At the height of dot-com mania two years ago, a heated turf war exploded in Sydney over online coverage of the Games. Now, however, hostilities have cooled, thanks to the deflation of the Internet bubble and steps by Olympics organizers to relax tight restrictions on Web media outlets.
Lessons from the previous Games have instilled a sense of caution among online publishers wary of running up expenses with the promise of little gain.
Scrappy start-ups that once aggressively vied with deep-pocketed rivals to produce original coverage of the Games are largely gone. Significantly, the IOC found few takers this year when it offered official press credentials to online publishers--something that was denied over vociferous objections during the last go-around.
This year, only a handful of Internet sites, such as Yahoo and Sports.com, will field reporting teams. In January, Yahoo signed a deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee to be the official host of its e-commerce store and to produce coverage of events involving the U.S. teams on its Web site, a first for the U.S. committee.
A host of other sites will also offer a crop-dusting of Olympics coverage. ESPN.com, for example, hosts a history of past Winter Olympics, athlete bios and diaries. It also offers a "medal tracker," which keeps a running tally of countries leading in Olympic gold.
The relative dearth of online interest comes as the IOC continues to enforce broad limits on Net broadcasting. Fans looking for a replay of Picabo Street in the downhill or Timothy Goebel in the figure skating competitions will be snowed out online, although the IOC is taking steps that may ease the restrictions for future Games.
The situation underscores ongoing friction between television and the Web, which networks consider a growing threat to costly exclusive broadcast rights even as they seek to capitalize on tie-ins aimed at boosting viewership.
That said, online audiences in the United States can expect to see relevant information on the Web sooner this year.
With the aid of friendlier times zones, NBC and MSNBC will offer real-time scores. The operation also has access to a database from the IOC of 2,500 athlete biographies, including details such as height and weight.
Lessons of Olympics past
This year's Web coverage has been heavily influenced by NBC's experience during the Sydney Games, undertaken in partnership with Quokka Sports, which has long since joined the dot-com boneyard.
NBCOlympics.com, produced by Quokka for the Sydney Games, was elaborate and contained extensive original reporting on each event. There were about 200 news stories on track and field alone.
Those investments did little to attract online viewers, however. Internet researcher Jupiter Media Metrix registered relatively scant traffic to the Quokka site, calling it a "non-event" on the Web.
"The beauty and downfall of Quokka was that they built beautiful, cutting-edge Web sites. The bad news is that those sites were all hand-built--you needed a small army of people to handle them," said Kevin Monaghan, vice president of business development at NBC Sports.
Producers of the site said that its Achilles' heel was a lack of live event coverage. The IOC put strict guidelines on what materials could be presented on the Internet. The biggest restriction was on video because of fears that the global nature of the Web would undermine broadcast rights in various countries.
As a result, coverage of the Summer Games in Sydney was tape-delayed, giving U.S. audiences little to no real-time view of the Games. A small amount of live footage ran on Quokka's Olympics site via a small application approved by NBC, but the coverage was limited. Quokka also didn't have credentials to attend and report on the games live, nor did any Web publisher.
The shakeout left a bad taste in the mouths of some former Quokka executives, who said online Olympics coverage has been in retreat ever since.
"Two years ago, we were trying to understand what it would be like when convergence (of TV and the Internet) would happen," said Michael Gough, former vice president of creative at Quokka and now vice president of brand design at Nike. "But now, it's about informational content for the medium.
"One could argue (the Olympics online) is taking steps backward every two years," he said.
With MSNBC hosting the events, reporting will be more automated, making it simpler and cheaper, according to producers of the site. Only about 70 people work on the two official Web sites this year, compared with more than 300 who worked the Quokka-produced NBCOlympics.com site during the Sydney Games. IBM hosted and produced the official Olympics.com site last year.
"The real eureka to me about the Internet is that more isn't necessarily better. You can do things a lot smarter and people won't notice," said Tom Feuer, coordinating producer for the Internet at NBC Sports.
Despite the light budget, MSNBC projects Web traffic will be much higher than that for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Organizers are forecasting up to 20 million unique visitors worldwide to the official sites this year. In comparison, NBCOlympics.com4.4 million U.S. visitors during the Sydney Games, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
"It could get up into hundreds of millions of page views," said Steve White, chief technology officer for MSNBC. "The ceiling would be a billion page views, and that's probably a high-end projection."
Analysts predicted that future Games will likely see a further expansion of online coverage, particularly as the IOC takes steps to authorize online broadcasting. This year, for example, it approved a test by Television Suisse Romande, a Swiss-based broadcast rights holder, to stream video and audio over a closed DSL (digital subscriber line) network in Switzerland. The video will reach less than 2,000 homes and will be the only competition footage to air via the Web.
"We're on this path to what the Olympics coverage will look like; it will truly be a convergence event," said Allen Weiner, a principal analyst at NetRatings. "The TV and Web experience will be in the same box. You'll be able to have some sort of Web experience like buying the official toboggan of the U.S. team while watching live coverage.
"But we're still a couple of Olympics away from that," he said.
News.com's Joe Wilcox contributed to this report.