2008 Olympics: The digital games

For the first time, fans will be able to watch thousands of hours of events, live and on-demand. It'll be a huge test for the nascent Web video market and Microsoft.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

Two years ago, watching the Olympics live via the Internet was limited to a single gold medal game of a popular sport. This year, everything from preliminary table tennis matches to team handball will be available both live and on-demand directly to the PC.

In all, more than 2,000 hours of live content and 3,000 hours of on-demand video will be available from the PC via NBCOlympics.com.

While a huge opportunity for Olympics fans, it is also a big test for both Web video and for the companies behind the site, in particular for NBC Universal and Microsoft, whose Silverlight technology is being used in the video player, and for Limelight Networks, whose network is being used to route all of those streams to Internet service providers.

To be sure, the Web has seen some big live events in recent years, including CBS Sports' streaming of March Madness games, but this could be the biggest test yet.

"It does keep me up at night," said NBC Universal Senior Vice President Perkins Miller, who is heading up the network's Internet efforts.

That this much content will be available over the Internet is a testament to just how much progress has been made in everything from video streaming to online advertising in just the past two years, as well as a change in attitude among consumers, who now slurp up 3.5 billion videos a month from YouTube.

"I don't think anybody could have imagined that in 2006," said Miller. "You look at something like March Madness on-demand. You look at what's happened on MSN with Live Earth. This is what we think the trend is for online."

One of the other things that made it possible is the fact that, as part of buying the TV rights for the Olympics, NBC gains access to an HD broadcast feed of every Olympic sport.

Click for gallery

"There's no incremental cost in terms of covering the events," Miller said. "They were available before. We just had not been broadcasting them."

The Internet provided an opportunity that just wasn't possible on TV, even with several cable channels augmenting NBC's network coverage.

Picture-in-picture viewing
Not only will Olympics fans be able to watch nearly any event live, but the enhanced player, powered by Microsoft's Silverlight, will also allow picture-in-picture viewing of two events and a "control room" experience where true junkies can watch four events at a time.

NBC originally imagined it would use Adobe's Flash, the de facto standard for Web video, but ultimately was convinced by Microsoft earlier this year that Silverlight would allow it to stream more high-quality video than would have been possible using Flash.

Microsoft is hoping that its role in the Olympics will both prompt downloads of Silverlight in the short term, as well as help give the video streaming technology a needed boost. However, those that can't get or don't want Silverlight will still be able to watch video from the NBCOlympics site, just without access to some of the cool features, such as the control room.

What you won't find is a lot of help if your computer runs into trouble during the games. NBC is putting up online FAQs and other help, but there won't be e-mail or phone technical support. The good news is you can try things out now, with the video content already on NBCOlympics.com.

Also, while Microsoft is making thousands of hours of content available live, you won't be able to watch some of the marquee events, like women's gymnastics and track and field, until after they have aired on the nightly TV programs.

While much of the early attention has been focused on the live streams, Miller notes that many of the site's visitors will be looking for a more casual experience.

In fact, many people historically go to the Web site just to find out what's going to be on TV and when. Others, will be looking more for highlights than full streams, so a team of people will be watching the live feeds for memorable moments, chopping the segments, and serving them up to the casual Olympics fans that come to the site.

On the results front, NBC won't be holding back on scores for those who want them. That means those who tune in to watch an event that has taken place risk seeing the score before they can get to their video stream.

"You will have to be somewhat disciplined in your navigation to avoid scores," Miller said. "We have found that, on balance, people want to know the scores quickly. If you hide the scores and results, you run the risk of disappointing the people that are using the Internet as a utility."

Other ways to watch
The TV and PC aren't the only ways to watch Olympics content. A smaller range of programming is also being offered through cell phones, video-on-demand services, and as "on-the-go" content that can be downloaded to a laptop or bought via Amazon.com or Microsoft's Zune service.

Organizers are being somewhat coy about how much traffic they are expecting, though an executive at Limelight Networks, the company streaming out the video to the world, said he wouldn't be surprised to see a million users or more for the video feeds.

Miller said the overall effect could be noticeable at workplaces.

"We really hope that we give every employee in the U.S. a time to take a deep breath before putting a shoulder back into the economy," he joked.

Disclosure: CNET News is published by CBS Interactive, owner of CBSSports.com and NCAA.com.

Click here for more stories on tech and the Beijing Olympics.