The Gods of Olympus

Censorship. Totalitarian. Restrictive. Unconscionable. Obnoxious.

Pretty heavy words, right? They’ve all been in the news this week, referring not to the handful of political regimes that may immediately come to mind, but to NBC. More specifically, to NBC’s online coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

Now that the games are underway, the terms and conditions of NBC’s online coverage are familiar to most viewers. Given the 180 degree time difference between Beijing and much of the US, most televised NBC coverage of events is time shifted into primetime, and what programming is televised doesn’t go onto the Web site until after the TV broadcast. And no one is the U.S. can watch game clips anywhere on the Web but the official site, NBCOlympics.com.

In perpetuity, one wonders?

In order to watch those clips on NBC’s site, viewers are required to download and install Microsoft’s Silverlight 2.0, a pretty cool video browser plug-in with a catch. “It’s a plug-in nobody has or has heard of,” as JupiterResearch’s Emily Riley put it at a recent panel discussion we were on.

Microsoft is obviously hoping to drive distribution of its contender to Adobe’s Flash player, so this exclusive arrangement is a coup for Redmond. But not for users of Linux or older Macs, which are incompatible with the app. Not to mention the Internet primetime online-at-work audience. Business and corporate PC users are often prevented from installing anything new on their machines at all, making Silverlight off limits to a large potential viewing segment.

This plethora of obstacles and restrictions has spawned all sorts of online how-to-watch-the-Olympics despite NBC guides. It isn’t only blogs and online publications running content such as How To Watch The Beijing Olympics LIVE On The Web — Even If NBC Doesn’t Want You To and Behind the Olympics: How to hack NBC and watch the Games on your schedule. Even major metropolitan dailies such as “The Dallas Morning News” are running content on how to watch the games live. People are asking for game-viewing help on social media sites such as Yahoo Answers — and getting those answers.

The International Olympics Committee, meanwhile, is sending cease-and-desist letters to sites hosting Olympics content. In a game of whack-a-mole, access to international sites streaming the games in banned in the U.S. (to those not versed in using proxy servers). Access goes up, and comes down. All sorts of sites are publishing lists of where the games are accessible to U.S. viewers. These resources are updated daily.

Can This Be Good For Advertisers?

There’s no paucity of complaints about the pre-roll ads NBC’s running on Olympics video clips when they finally do become available. Some users have said several ads run, then the site crashes before the actual clip plays. Another well-known blogger writes, “The volume of pre-roll advertising that NBC is pumping into the video is totally obnoxious. In every single instance we mute the ads.”

Would online viewers complain less about the ads if NBC’s coverage were more in their favor?

The LA Times estimates NBC’s restrictions have cost its Web site, and its advertisers, “thousands” of viewers. NBC, meanwhile, is reporting 90 percent of viewers watched the games on TV alone; nearly 10 percent watched both on TV and online; and only 0.2 percent watched online only.

One can only assume in this instance, “online only” refers to the official site. Wired, meanwhile, reports that P2P networks are seeing through-the-roof Olympics file sharing traffic. One network estimates over a million users have downloaded the high-definition release of the opening ceremonies. And “a quick search Tuesday of popular torrent networks like Mininova showed more than 300,000 downloads completed with another 63,000 currently under way — and that’s just for one copy of the event.”

And while millions of interested viewers bypass NBC’s site by any means necessary, the restrictions have the potential to erode the audience for future Olympics games. Harris Interactive found only 46 percent of teens have any interest at all in watching the games this year “because it’s not convenient for them.”

The video-snacking generation wants to watch what it wants to watch when it wants to watch it.

Wonder how their preferences will shape broadcast and Webcast policy by the time the 2012 games roll around?

For another take on NBC’s choice of a video platform for the Olympics, see Dorian Sweet’s “A Brand Catastrophe.

Meet Rebecca Lieb at SES San Jose, August 18-22 at San Jose Convention Center.

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