The Olympics on the Web: Squashed by tradition

Could NBC offer a Web experience that's competitive with the television offering and end up still ahead of the game? The problem is the affiliate-based ad model.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

The 2008 Summer Olympics is the most online ever, which is no surprise. More of the world has broadband access than four years ago. But in the United States, at least, the old advertising-supported television model for distributing sports coverage is hanging on tight.

That isn't to say the Web is losing. On NBCOlympics.com, you can quickly jump to delayed coverage of the major events, as well as live coverage of less popular sports or qualifying rounds. What you cannot do is duplicate the live-television experience online for major events like swimming.

This is because NBC affiliate stations make advertising revenues when people tune in to those events on TV. NBC cannot just run all its Olympics video online in real time and compete with its own affiliates. We may not like it, but from a business perspective, this appears to make sense.

As good as streaming video is on the Web, TV programming still provides a better viewing experience.

Or does it? Could NBC offer a Web experience that's competitive with the television offering and end up still ahead of the game? I believe that it could.

In nearly every U.S. household, the best place to watch a sporting event is on the big TV in the family room. You have a better screen, more comfortable chairs, and a video feed that's fluid and detailed. So why isn't NBC showing the videos live on the Web and shunting people over to their couches for the viewing experience we all want, anyway?

Already, NBCOlympics.com asks for your location and cable provider before it will show you videos (this leaves over-the-air viewers out in the cold, but it's easy enough to bypass by giving the site the name of a local cable company you don't subscribe to).

NBC and its local stations--each of which has its own Web site--could, in theory, create a combined TV-Web schedule or experience for its viewers. The right combination of live big-screen events and Web-based packages for background and catch-up could be more compelling than either experience by itself.

The problem is not the technology. It's the business structure: the hold that the affiliate-based advertising model has on network television. I'm not saying that if we didn't have that model, NBC would nail the online-TV Olympics experience, but it would sure give the network a fighting chance.

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