What it takes to bring the Olympics to the PC

CNET's Ina Fried has an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how Microsoft, NBC, and others are putting thousands of hours of live video from the Beijing games online.

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
5 min read

Stage 8H is best known as the place where Saturday Night Live is filmed. This week, though, it's been turned into an ad-hoc data center as part of NBC's efforts to stream thousands of hours of live Olympic coverage over the Internet.

Instead of the usual crop of comedians, NBC will have dozens of people watching every hour of the games, looking for highlights that it can chop up and make available on-demand. It's just one piece of an elaborate arrangement that shuttles the events in Beijing back to the U.S.

From each of the dozens of Olympic venues, a high-definition video feed is delivered over fiber-optic cables to the International Broadcast Center that has been set up in Beijing. A bunch of encoders and Windows Media servers get the video into an Internet-ready format. From there, it travels via satellite to NBC's headquarters in New York.

There, NBC actually adds a one-minute delay, allowing its cadre of live bloggers in Stamford, Conn., and elsewhere to write their text and have the video and commentary synchronized. Once ready, it goes from NBC to Limelight Networks, a content delivery network, which has 1,000 servers just for the live events sending the content to various Internet service providers, who then shuttle the content directly to their customers. (See chart below)

Susan Dove/CNET News

Making it play
Limelight Chief Strategy Officer Mike Gordon said his company is prepared for this to be the biggest live event the Internet has ever seen. "I would not be surprised at all to get 1 million viewers," he said. "We're certainly prepared for whatever the audience turns out to be."

Mike Gordon, Limelight Networks
Mike Gordon, chief strategy officer, Limelight Networks Limelight Networks

That said, there is clearly an element of risk in all this, considering NBC's history of live Olympic streaming has been limited to broadcasting a single game, the gold medal ice hockey match in Torino, Italy, two years ago.

"NBC has always taken risks and is always trying to do more than it has in the past," said Perkins Miller, the NBC senior vice president in charge of the Internet push. "It does keep me up at night when I think about streaming 2,200 hours (of live coverage)."

The massive effort has come together in a remarkably short amount of time. Microsoft's deal to power NBCOlympics.com dates back only to January.

NBC had a pretty good idea what they wanted to do and had built some mock-ups of the player prior to deciding to partner with Microsoft.

Initially, they expected to use Adobe's Flash, given that is the standard for video delivered over the Internet these days. But, as they began to hash things out with Microsoft during a series of all-day meetings at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, Microsoft was able to show NBC some ways it could do more using its homegrown Silverlight technology.

Silverlight, Microsoft said, would be key to enabling NBC's vision of a "control room" in which a viewer could watch multiple live streams at once.

Perkins Miller, NBC Universal
Perkins Miller, senior vice president, NBC Universal NBC

Even within Microsoft's team, though, there was some apprehension of whether it was doable.

"Can we actually pull this off?" Senior Technical Evangelist Jason Suess recalled thinking. "Is the user's machine going to be able to maintain four connections at one time?"

The key, Suess said in an interview at Microsoft headquarters last week, is using an approach known as adaptive streaming in which the player has the ability to customize the bit rate of the video stream based on a computer's connection and processing power.

By Valentine's Day, they were ready for a test. It was pretty important that the test work out, given that NBC was getting ready to crate up the gear to ship it off to Beijing.

"That was the first time the player came to life," Suess said. "Obviously the player was extremely crude."

Making it pay
One of the last pieces to fall into place was the advertising. Initially, NBC and Microsoft were hoping to be able to insert full video ads into the live streams, but doing so is tough work.

"You don't have any way to pause a live stream," Suess said. "Trying to deliver a video ad on top of that, you hit the limits of a user's bandwidth."

As of mid-April, they were still struggling with what to do and began considering that perhaps they would have to just rely on companion advertising around the video stream. Then they came up with an idea. Rather than insert full videos into the live streams, what if they stuck a display ad into the video, particularly during dead times in the action.

Jason Suess, Microsoft
Jason Suess, senior technical evangelist, Microsoft Ina Fried/CNET News

That, approach, which is ultimately what's being done, solved several issues. It was less bandwidth-intensive than video ads, but still got the advertiser directly in front of the viewer, all without interrupting any of the coverage. The amount of advertising will vary, Suess said; "It depends what is happening in the sports. We just wait for a dead space."

By early May, NBC made the basic player available on the Internet, using a variety of prerecorded Olympic video, and by early June the enhanced Silverlight player was made public as well. The Olympic Trials, at the end of June, offered the companies and the public a chance for a test drive.

At this point, it's come down to a triage of the few remaining known bugs. Each day, the bar is being raised in terms of what is a big enough deal to warrant such a late change. Suess, meanwhile, sent his wife and kids to visit family in New York so he could work 18-hour days.

In an interview last week, Suess said he had been at work until 1 a.m. the night before and gets in every morning by 8 a.m., so he can chat with the folks in Beijing before they sign off for the night.

"If I am not online and pushing things along, then I am introducing delay," Suess said.

An admitted type-A personality, Suess is a stickler for organization--the kind of guy whose desk is always clean. (His wife would probably use the word "compulsive," Suess said.)

Suess said he hopes things will be enough under control that he can actually watch some of the games, particularly sailing, of which he is a big fan. "I sure hope so," he said. "When I got involved in this project, that was one of the reasons."

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