NBC offers plenty of live Olympics online

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By ANICK JESDANUN, AP Technology Writer

Soccer and balance beam gymnastics on the desktop. Swimming and badminton on the laptop. Boxing on the iPhone. Gymnasts’ floor exercises on the iPad. Vault routines on an Android phone. And rowing on TiVo.

Welcome to the Olympics of the digital age.

For the first time, NBC Sports is showing all competition and medal ceremonies live over the Internet in the U.S. The unprecedented online coverage addresses one of my biggest gripes with Olympics coverage in past years: NBC used to withhold the popular sports for prime-time television and show them on a delayed basis.

At one point, I had seven live streams going at once, plus NBC’s TV broadcast recorded on my digital-video recorder. I got flustered with all the choices in no time but I appreciate having the choice to view any event live. Tape delay doesn’t work anymore. It’s especially compounded by the five-hour time difference between New York and London.

Although the coverage at NBCOlympics.com isn’t flawless, it’s the network’s best effort yet and comes a long way from 2000, when “video” meant still images grabbed from television footage. It’s also the first time live video is extending to mobile devices, through apps for Apple and Android phones and tablet computers.

So get up at 4 a.m. EDT this Thursday to watch an elimination round in women’s archery. Or watch the woman’s marathon in its entirety this Sunday at 6 a.m. Some sports offer multiple feeds, so you can keep watching the javelin throw even if everyone else turns to Usain Bolt on the track.

All this is free, but there’s a big catch: You must have a TV subscription with a cable, satellite or phone company at a service level that comes with CNBC and MSNBC.

I was able to watch live video once I verified my cable account (for Time Warner Cable, I simply had to enter the same username and password used to access bills). It’s something I’m supposed to have to do only once per computer or mobile device, though I ran into a few hiccups because of cookie settings on my browser. If you have trouble, you can get a one-time, four-hour pass for free while you figure it out.

If you still get television over the air or don’t even own a TV set, you’ll be able to access non-video features, including a prime-time companion app with trivia and quizzes. But videos will be limited to highlights, previews and other clips. Full-length video won’t be available until two days after an event takes place.

Dare I say I’d gladly pay $25, $50 or even $100 to watch the streams if I didn’t have the required TV subscription. I get most of what I watch through Hulu, iTunes or Netflix, and all I need cable for is the occasional big event such as the Olympics. I’d rather pay a one-time fee for that than a recurring cable bill.

That mentality is precisely the reason NBC isn’t making live video available for non-subscribers. NBC paid nearly $1.2 billion for U.S. rights to the London Games. Increasingly, it makes money from fees that cable and satellite companies pay to carry channels on their lineups. NBC and other networks get a good chunk of your cable bill each and every month and don’t want to jeopardize that for a fee you pay just once.

Of course, when NBC chose not to show the opening ceremonies live, even online, links to unauthorized video feeds quickly circulated. I was able to watch a feed from British television – briefly, until my conscience and work demands got to me.

For the majority of Americans who do pay for TV, you’re in for a treat.

Most of the video steams allow you to rewind the action. Start from any point if you are joining late or after an event is over, or hit a replay button to go back several seconds. The exceptions are with high-profile sports such as swimming and gymnastics. If you missed it, you typically must wait for television – or the next day online.

That limit didn’t annoy me as much as I would have thought. The video streams are broadcast-quality and they include multiple camera angles, graphics and instant replays, as chosen by the producers. So as long as I’m online when the event is taking place, I can re-watch the key moments. Plus, it’s better than not having high-profile events live at all, as was the case in the past.

Some videos offer commentary in English or Spanish, while others provide only natural sound from the venue. These are typically the world feeds produced for countries that don’t have their own broadcasters, so you have a better chance of seeing non-Americans online than on U.S. television.

Because griping has become an Olympic sport, though, let me offer a few:

  • Gold Gripe: In 2008, I had access to four simultaneous feeds per computer – one on the main screen and three to the side. I could easily switch back and forth depending on the action. This time, I’m limited to the main screen and a smaller one on my browser, and just one feed on the mobile app. To get around that, I need multiple devices, or at least multiple browsers. It seems to be a regression, when NBC made progress in so many other areas.
  • Silver Gripe: I wish I could just type in the name of an athlete or a country and get not just the full-length video but the portion where that person is competing. A search for Thai weightlifter Sirivimon Pramongkhol produced no video at all because the video for that event hadn’t been indexed with her name.
  • Bronze Gripe: Since I’m required to sign in to watch video on my various computers and devices, it shouldn’t be difficult to have reminder requests move with me. If I happen to notice an upcoming fencing event on an iPad, I can request to get an iPad alert just before the event starts, but it won’t appear on the iPhone or in email. It would also be nice to have a playlist all queued up, based on these alerts, so I can watch the events one by one as I have time.

All of these complaints are minor. Video was sharp and smooth, with a few exceptions when watching a high-interest sport such as swimming. I was willing to overlook that when so much else worked glitch-free. On computers, I can even choose HD-quality video. I also didn’t mind the ad interruptions; TV-like commercials typically appear when you start a video or when there’s a break in the action.

One of the big questions many people have is whether online streaming will cut into television audiences. NBC and its owner, Comcast Corp., are gambling that it won’t.

I have to agree. I found myself re-watching many of the events that I had already seen online, as the broadcast comes with extras such as profiles, interviews and cutaways to parents cheering in the stands.

NBC is also a pro when it comes to dramatizing the Olympics. Prime-time TV had cameras glued to gymnast Jordyn Wieber crying after she failed to advance to the all-around finals. The online stream had some of that, but it also cut to the British team and the crowds and didn’t feel as voyeuristic.

I welcome all the Internet coverage, but there’s room for both. And confounded with all that choice online, I sometimes found it nice to just sit back and let the producers take over.

Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology and media editor for The Associated Press, has been following the Olympics online since 2000 and on television since 1980.

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