Michael Vitez: NBC's live-streaming of Olympics: Fascinating and frustrating

Posted: August 06, 2012

NBC executives were crowing this week about how well the broadcasting and live-streaming of events have been going at the Olympics.

“We couldn’t be more pleased with the current results on all of our platforms,” Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Group Chairman told reporters Thursday in London.

He wasn’t watching in my house.

Let me first give NBC its due. It is stunning and ambitious what NBC is doing. Every single event of the Olympics is streamed live over the Internet. And most of the time, it works beautifully.

I woke up at 8 a.m. Friday and watched the heats of the 3000 meter steeplechase. I literally walked from my bed to my computer, clicked on the screen, and it was wonderful and glorious. I watched Princeton’s Donn Cabral make it into Sunday’s finals.

And later that morning I watched the finals of trampoline streamed live. Dong Dong of China won gold. It took him 10 bounces to get the altitude he wanted before beginning his acrobatics, which went on for another 10 jumps.

Overall, NBC’s numbers are impressive — 34 million live streams as of Friday. Many are watching video for the first time on a computer, tablet or phone.

OK, now the bad.

NBC has made a decision to televise all the marquee eventsonly in prime time, five to 10 hours after they actually happen.

NBC will stream them live over the Internet. But so many people are forced to their computers to watch them that the experience can become excruciating.

I felt madness and fury and frustration. I missed Michael Phelps being touched out in the 200 meter butterfly. I missed him winning the 100 meter butterfly. I missed Missy Franklin winning her first gold and her second gold. I missed medal ceremonies.

The same frustrations happened during gymnastics. During Gabby Douglas’s individual routines, my screen froze, or went black, and at times a sign appeared, “coverage will continue” — reminding me of “technical difficulties, please stand by” on our childhood television screens.

Here are just a few tweets from fellow sufferers using the hashtag #NBCFail:

Hannah Koenekamp @felicityofbeing

“Seriously. Your online coverage crapped out for Phelps' final individual race, and all I heard was the score. #YouSuck #Congrats”

Joe Watson @wjoewatson

“Finally connected #NBC's live streaming but quality was crap. It was like watching #Phelps win on the radio. The ads were fine tho.”

@tyduffy

“I'll never forget whr I was when Michael Phelps won his 19th medal … staring at a frozen feed on laptop silently enraged.”

I was on the phone Friday with Rick Cordella, General Manager, Digital Media, NBC Sports Group — right when Michael Phelps swam his last individual race, won his last individual gold. I saw none of it. My screen was black. Cordella could feel my exasperation across an ocean.

“You're not the only person,” he said. “But a lot of people are getting through ...

“You're not the only person,” he said. “But a lot of people are getting through ...

“Live streaming in 2012 is not perfect. We're trying to push the envelope, producing one of the single greatest digital events in history. Nobody's ever live-streamed so much content before.”

YouTube is actually doing all the Olympic streaming for NBC, and a spokesman said their data shows better quality across the board than YouTube videos normally. He's heard anecdotes like mine, but attributed the problems to local networks simply not having enough bandwith to meet high demand.

I didn't call Verizon. It's probably all just my fault. I have a beautiful computer, Fios high speed internet, and the gall to expect it all to work.

A second trial for live-streamers like me is the volume of advertising. The ads begin to feel like mosquitos on humid summer nights — ubiquitous, relentless and very, very annoying.

Again, a few tweets:

Mike Cranston @mikecranston

“Next to impossible to watch NBC's gymnastics feed. Commercials at least every 2 minutes, starting in the middle of the action.”

Rease Kirchner @IndecisiveRease

“Really NBCOlympics? An ad every 15 seconds and a jumpy, terrible stream for women's gymnastics all around?”

Tim Brooks @SyxxGage

“NBC — Now Broadcasting Commercials.”

I was motivated during women’s gymnastics Thursday to get a stopwatch.

Here’s what I clocked:

60 seconds of commercial.

3:24 of live feed, including a Gabby Douglas routine.

15 seconds of commercial.

2:25 of live feed.

30 seconds of commercial.

1:58 of live feed, including Aly Raisman on the beam.

15 seconds of commercial.

1:35 of live feed.

15 seconds of commercial.

37 seconds of live feed.

1:00 of commercial.

2:29 of live feed

30 seconds of commercial

3:36 of live feed

45 seconds commercial .

2:05 of live feed

45 seconds of commercial.

10:07 of live feed, including floor exercises by Douglas and Raisman.

45 seconds of commercial.

2:33 of live feed.

45 seconds of commercial.

I stopped.

When I read this list to Cordella, he replied, “We're an advertising supported business. It's a difficult task … It would be a fair criticism to say we had too many ads in there, and it's something we'll look at.”

He added, “Our thinking was, ‘Here is a two hour gymnastics meet. What is the best way to monetize that?”

NBC via YouTube is live streaming what is known as a “world feed” — coverage of every event by the International Olympic Committee. This has no programmed breaks, so NBC tries to insert commercials deftly, obviously a brave new world NBC angered many viewers when it decided to delay airing the most popular events until prime time. But it is looking at this Olympics as a laboratory, and that decision could well change in future Olympics.

Lazarus and a colleague on Thursday released survey data which essentially showed that people who knew results during the day were more likely to watch at night then people who didn’t know the results. The Olympics are like no other sporting event, he said. Viewers come to prime time not only for sport, but also for story.

If there are more moments like a Phelps-Lochte showdown this week, I won’t stress trying to see them live. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll wait an hour and watch the stream on replay, or wait for prime time.


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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