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I'm Erik Stuart, a 30-something married guy living in San Mateo, CA. I'm in eBay's corporate strategy group, and I lead eBay's efforts to look at & develop relationships with internet startups. (Posts about Web 2.0, the internet, and anything else are my fault and don't reflect on my employer, except to the extent that they hired me and continue to keep me around.) I'll also blog about sports, games, musical theater, economics/physics/other science stuff, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

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Online Olympics coverage: too good to be true

A week or so ago, I was getting excited about the rich online coverage NBC was going to offer for the upcoming Olympics.  That coverage is apparently going to be a lot more restrictive than I had hoped.  Two points to highlight:

1) Olympic video cannot be displayed on any website other than www.nbcolympics.com.

Sigh.  Implications for NBC: your online viewership probably decreases (e.g., I’d definitely click back to NBC after seeing an interesting clip from some event on another site, to see more context) and you move toward the “doesn’t get it” side of the spectrum regarding online content.  Implications for me: the NBC site probably won’t be able to handle demand and so I’ll be out of luck for less-popular videos that don’t get illegally distributed.

As an aside, one of the things I thought I’d been observing in the past 12 months was that “old media” companies seemed to finally be “getting Web 2.0”.  Many newspapers, publishing houses, TV networks, music labels, etc. seemed to have made moves in the second half of 2007 or the first half of 2008 indicating that they were finally starting to get on board with the rest of the online world (maybe I’ll expound on this in another post).  For NBC, this is a big step backward, IMO.

2) No events that are scheduled for TV broadcast - on any of NBC’s 6 Olympic channels - will be available online until after they’ve been aired.

Are you kidding me??  I’m speechless.  This doesn’t qualify as “coverage”; it’s remnant live video plus an after-the-fact replay library.  I can guess the mindset: they don’t want to reduce viewership by having people watch online and then not watch the main TV broadcast, for big events.  Though I’m wary of extrapolating my own behavior to the mass market (an early eBay colleague once informed me that I was an “extreme edge case”), this is a situation where my instincts strongly say that TV viewership increases due to live online coverage.  If I see something amazing online at 3 am, I’m probably going to tune in the next day to see it live - on a big screen, with more color & context around it, and just to see it again with the non-die-hards in my family who weren’t awake in the middle of the previous night.

One of my favorite Olympic memories is from the 1994 Lillehammer Games.  Dan Jansen - the best short-distance speedskater in the late 80’s and early 90’s - had heart-breakingly fallen short of an Olympic medal in ‘84, ‘88, ‘92, and in the 500m (his better race) in ‘94.  His last opportunity for a place on the podium was in the 1000m.  The morning of the race, the TV announcer told the audience to turn down their volume and look away for a moment if they didn’t want to know the current results (the event was happening as he spoke, but wouldn’t be broadcast until that evening), and then informed us that Jansen, with only a few, non-medal-hopeful skaters left to compete, was in the lead, having set a new world record.

Nothing could have kept me away from the TV coverage that night - if I had had a wife who was having a baby, I probably would have skipped the birth.  It wasn’t the race itself - speedskating isn’t the most exciting sport when you already know the results; it was the experience.  … and the coverage was phenomenal.  I usually don’t have patience for the human interest stories, but CBS showed an absolutely fantastic piece, centered on a prior interview of Dan’s wife Robin by Charles Kuralt.  She talked about how she and Dan had made peace with his Olympic misfortune and then, just for a moment - when Charles said “what if, after all these years of Olympic agony, there is, at the end of it all, a place on the podium for your husband at last, and a flag flying?” - she showed a glimmer of hope, and her eyes lit up… and then you could see her remind herself “no, we’ve been through this; I can’t let myself revive the dream, because I’ll be disappointed again”, and she reassumed her resigned, but calm, demeanor.   Then, minutes later, Dan was receiving his gold medal, with his baby in his arms.  I bawled when I saw it the first time and I still tear up now at the memory.

This is what I’m talking about.  I watched more TV coverage that night because I knew it was a dramatic, special event and I wanted to experience all of the color around it, even though I already knew what had happened.  In this instance, at least, I don’t think I’m an edge case.

Here’s a further argument: TV networks are already aware of this phenomenon!  They sell highlight videos of the World Series and the NCAA basketball tournament and, yes, the Olympics.  People pay money for the privilege of watching something they’ve already seen, weeks after the fact.  Why does NBC worry they wouldn’t tune in for free TV coverage that night?

Four years from now, this may not even be an issue.  Spectators with mobile phones with high-quality video capability will stream live coverage of every event to Qik or Kyte.tv or whatever platform ends up winning in that space.  It may not have commentary or color - that’s what NBC will be for, and that’s fine.  … and I’ll still watch both.

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