Yet again, NBC's Olympics strategy is a Web loser

Despite enhanced Silverlight technology for its Web site, NBC is preventing almost all Winter Olympics sports from being shown live online, largely to hinder piracy.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

In a world full of gall, NBC Sports deserves an asterisk.

Sporting events tend to be rather more fun when you can watch them live. You, indeed, might want to watch the Winter Olympics, which begin Thursday, live. Well, NBC Sports is the kind of host that will invite you for dinner and serve you cornflakes, coffee, and a dried croissant--in the restroom.

It seems only yesterday that NBC was annoying people, especially those on the West Coast, with its coverage of the Beijing Olympics. The peacock network takes pride in being able to censor your ability to watch Olympic events as they happen. It has done it for so many years, crowing that its so-called evening packages, featuring recorded highlights and potted documentaries of athletes, their loved ones, and their heartaches are what viewers really want.

While at Beijing, NBC at least allowed you to enjoy many Silverlight-enhanced events online--live, as they happened. In fact, there were more than 2,200 hours of live action shown online from Beijing.

However, not merely content with biting the hand that ultimately feeds it, NBC has, for the Vancouver Games, decided to take that hand, chop it into 2-inch pieces, slip it between pieces of bread, and eat it as if it were a succession of hot-diggity dogs.

Well, it depends what you mean by "Welcome." Cc Robert Sanzalone/Flickr

While it is delightful that Microsoft will be offering many great and gracious technological enhancements for your NBC Winter Olympics online-viewing pleasure, here's what you might want to be prepared for.

According to Mediaweek, a mere 400 hours of video will be shown live online. And should you be a enthusiast of something other than curling or hockey, you will not feel terribly lucky. Nothing other than curling and hockey will be shown live online. Nothing. Once you have downloaded Silverlight, you will be able to watch those two sports live or short highlight packages of other sports. That's it.

"One of the things we learned in Beijing is that people really go to the Web for highlights," Perkins Miller, senior vice president of digital media at NBC, told Mediaweek.

Perhaps, indeed, you have become used to watching the Olympics as little pieces of docusoap, online or on TV. Perhaps you are happy with the little stories being told before nonlive pieces of action are shown, with often the most interesting races appearing late in the evening.

So perhaps, if you are living on the West Coast, you won't mind the fact that, despite being in the same time zone as Vancouver, you will have no way of watching anything live on TV in the evening. You will get the same package as those on the right coast got three hours previously. Just imagine how much fun Twitter, texting, and the rest will spoil on those nights.

Yes, there will be some daytime live TV coverage. But many of the main events--short track, snowboarding, figure skating, for example--are at night. To make its dual intentions of command and control even clearer, NBC is, Mediaweek reported, putting far more digital troops on its front line against the more technologically astute, who might try to log on to feeds from other, more enlightened broadcasters around the world.

NBC has reportedly already reached out to Justin.tv and Ustream, and wagged a digital digit. Both sites have reportedly promised to be extra vigilant. The media company is spending large amounts of money, despite the fact that it is unwilling to broadcast most live events online, to simply stop anyone else in the United States from having access to them.

"Our aim is to make access to pirated material inconvenient, low-quality, and hard to find," Rick Cotton, NBC's executive vice president and general counsel, told Mediaweek. "There has been a sea change," he claimed, "in terms of recognition of the problem." But the channel's logic is surely as twisted and insincere as its view of the whole of Olympic broadcasting.

If the reason you are not showing events live online is that you say no one is interested in watching them that way, why are you bothering to police the Web? Prove that no one cares about live events online. Let's see if people really would bother to experience a live event, as it happens, rather than through the menacingly choking prism of NBC's commercial wisdom. Wouldn't it be faintly enlightening if NBC's TV-viewing figures miraculously declined if live events could be freely viewed online?

It might be scant consolation for some to hear that NBC says it expects to lose $200 million on these Winter Olympics. However, greater consolation might come when another network, perhaps ESPN, secures the Olympic broadcasting contract. (NBC's current deal expires in 2012.)

(Disclosure: CNET is published by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS.)