NBC Will Stream The London Olympics Live — But Only To TV Subscribers

May 2, 2012
Originally published on May 2, 2012 7:03 am

For decades, Olympics fans have loathed two words: "tape" and "delay." But this summer, things will be different: For the first time, NBC will stream live video of the London Games, online and via mobile.

If you think that decision is overdue, you're not alone. Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand says he is shocked it has taken this long for the network to put live video of all Olympic events online.

"I'm surprised it didn't happen four years ago, or even eight years ago," Ourand tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep.

"People are watching video online," he says. "And people also are rejecting tape-delayed broadcasts — which is what NBC had done" in previous years.

For the 2012 London Games, NBC plans to stream video of all 302 Olympic events, allowing online viewers to choose what they want to watch. Fans will have options for watching broad highlights, or following one discipline's events.

The network will also release apps to allow live video and other features on tablets and smartphones. It's a far cry from the years the network spent cloistering the most popular events into a prime-time package that aired hours later.

But that doesn't mean NBC will be giving open access to just anyone who wants to watch the Olympics online. To get full access, you must be a cable or satellite subscriber. And you'll need a user ID and password from your TV provider to log in, according to a guide posted last week on NBC's video site.

That could be bad news for anyone who's gone "off the grid" by rejecting cable and satellite subscriber plans, who may be forced to find other options to watch favorite events live. And the network still plans to save most of its interviews and features for prime time.

Ourand says that for NBC, the lure of advertising revenue is only one reason to try to control access to its online Olympic content. He points to the network's widely available cable channels — USA, CNBC and MSNBC.

"One of the reasons that they're widely distributed is because they carry that Olympic programming," he says. "And cable operators didn't want to do without that programming."

As Ourand tells Inskeep, "TV is still driving the bus here. There's a cliche in the media business: 'Digital dimes for TV dollars.' And that's still in effect here."

Even so, Ourand says that NBC's online coverage, which will be hosted at the network's newly relaunched Olympics site, signals a new approach at the network — and in the sports media.

"What ESPN and other networks have found is that, when you broadcast things live online, it doesn't erode the broadcast at all," he says. "In fact, it draws a lot of people to want to see it on their hi-def TVs in their living rooms."

Ourand says that NBC received a vivid demonstration of how hard it is to keep sports fans from watching an event live online during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when sprinter Usain Bolt turned in an electrifying world-record performance in the 100-meter dash.

"People watched it online, via foreign websites, via pirated websites — and NBC didn't get any of that," says Ourand, who recalls watching the race on the BBC's website.

Despite that burst of online interest during the event, the network's programming didn't suffer. Ourand says that "the rating for Usain Bolt for NBC on prime time was still very good" — something he attributes to buzz about Bolt's record, as well as fans' desire to watch the race on large high-definition televisions, even if they'd seen it earlier on a computer.

The Bolt race seems to have been a big moment for NBC, which had previously been unwilling to put many high-profile events online as they happened.

"They were so worried," Ourand says. "They wanted to protect their TV rights, and they wanted to protect advertisers who were advertising on TV, and they didn't want to dilute the viewers."

Another thing that'll be different about this year's Olympics is the timing of the men's 100-meter sprint final. If Bolt repeats his gold-medal performance of four years ago, he would do so on Aug. 5, a Sunday. That means that here in the U.S., the race would start around 4:50 p.m. EDT.

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For the privilege to broadcast this summer's London Olympics, NBC paid more than $1 billion, 1.18 billion to be exact. As part of the deal, the network gets the right to stream the entire Olympic Games, every event, live, online. It's going to be the first time American viewers will be able to see all the games live, rather than have the network tape-delay games for prime time broadcast.

We're going to talk about this with John Ourand. He's the media reporter at Sports Business Daily. Welcome to the program.

JOHN OURAND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: It is 2012. You surprised this didn't happen sooner?

OURAND: Oh, very surprised. I'm surprised it didn't happen four years ago, or even eight years ago. It's established that people are watching video online. And people also are rejecting tape-delayed broadcasts, which is what NBC had done two years ago, four years ago, six years ago and eight years ago.

INSKEEP: Well, NBC must have noticed people being unhappy about this. Why did they resist?

OURAND: They resisted because they were worried that by putting everything out online, it could potentially dilute the audience of their primetime program. And if they dilute that audience, all of a sudden the ad rates are going to go down and they're going to get less viewers for the primetime. And that's really what drives this whole deal.

INSKEEP: What showed them that there might be a different way to go here?

OURAND: Four years ago, in Beijing, Usain Bolt had a thrilling race where he set the world record in the 100-meter dash. That was seen on pirated sites almost instantaneously. You could go to any sports blog and you would have been able to see video of Usain Bolt.

INSKEEP: Well, when this Bolt race went around the world, went to America, did it actually hurt NBC then or help them?

OURAND: There is a belief now in the sports media industry that it did help them because it helped market it. And so people said, wow, I saw that on a grainy video on some sports blog on my little computer screen. I want to be able to sit there on my hi-def TV in my den and really watch it in perfect quality.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the thought is that this may actually drive more primetime viewers or at least not cost any?

OURAND: That's what other networks are finding. They're finding that sports ratings are increasing, even as there's more video that's being made live online.

INSKEEP: You know, this is a biennial story or quadrennial story, depending on the way you think of it. But it is often pointed out that as much as NBC pays for the Olympics, it doesn't seem like they necessarily make that money back. It's a money loser. Is that actually correct, and are we missing something here?

OURAND: Well, it's difficult to say, actually. NBC did say that they lost $223 million on the Vancouver Olympics. And when Fox and ESPN bid on the most recent Olympic Games, they bid about a billion dollars in total less than NBC bid. And they said that where they bid, they could just barely make a profit.

But it's more than just ad sales that people are looking at it. If you look at NBC, they have a whole stream of cable networks - like USA, CNBC, MSNBC - that carry Olympic programming. And all of those networks are very widely distributed. And one of the reasons that they're widely distributed is they carry that Olympic programming, and cable operators didn't want to do without that programming.

INSKEEP: So can you imagine a future in which the streaming of the Olympic Games actually would become bigger than the broadcast of the Olympic Games?

OURAND: Well, in a future of, you know, 40, 50 years from now?


OURAND: Absolutely. I don't see it happening really - TV is what drives the biggest audience.

INSKEEP: We talk about the Web all the time, but TV is what people watch.

OURAND: Absolutely. The digital is getting closer to TV, but if that continues...


OURAND: ...in 2030, 2040, you could see that. But who knows how we'll be watching anything in 2030 and 2040.

INSKEEP: John Ourand of Sports Business Daily, thanks for coming by.

OURAND: Really had fun, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.