Manage Your Summer Olympics Viewing Experience

Illustration: Doug Fraser
The 2008 Summer Olympics, which begin on August 8, will captivate audiences worldwide: No other sporting event captures the spirit of sportsmanship and athleticism quite like this quadrennial gathering. But the Olympics can be a source of frustration for remote watchers: A complex schedule that mimics a 14-ring circus often makes following your favorite sports difficult. That is, until now.

NBC Universal hopes to transform your Olympics viewing experience via an ambitious Web strategy that includes more than 2200 hours of live streaming video (with the option of viewing up to four streams at once) and interactive data to help you move smoothly between text such as athletes' biographies and vid­eo of their performance.

Seeds Planted in 2006

Besides streaming live video at its official Beijing Olympics Web site, NBC plans to post some 3500 hours of recorded video online at the conclusion of each event, for the duration of the Olympics. Previously, NBC's only streaming-video presentation during an Olympics was a single hockey game, which it streamed live during the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

"We're delivering more video content for this Olympics than in the last three Olympics combined," says NBC's Perkins Miller, senior vice president of NBC Sports and Olympics. The goal, he says, is to deliver "the most complete Olympics possible," in part by paying closer attention to sports that previous broadcast coverage typically ignored.

All of the digital content will be available at no cost, but it will be accessible only to viewers in the United States. By the terms of NBC's deal with the International Olympics Committee, its Web streaming rights mirror its broadcast rights, which are limited to the United States.

The Silverlight-Microsoft Connection

NBC turned to Microsoft's Silverlight technology to get the necessary link between data available elsewhere on its NBCOlympics.com Web site and the network's Olympics video. Silverlight is Microsoft's programming environment for producing slick, interactive content that can be played on any Web browser; the platform ties into Microsoft's .Net framework and its myriad services, including Microsoft Live Search. As with Flash, you must download a browser plug-in in order to support the content. Silverlight 2.0 is also supposed to have smoother video playback performance as compared with Silverlight 1.0.

NBC's player is based on the latest beta version of Silverlight, which the Democratic National Convention will also use to distribute video in August. Silverlight 2.0 is due out in the fall.

About 15 different companies are involved in the NBC Olympics streaming experience. The player itself was built by Schematic, a Web developer that won an Emmy award last year for its ABC streaming video player.

Viewing Online: What to Expect

NBC's media player--based on Microsoft's Silverlight technology--supports three interactive modes: Enhanced, Live Control Room, and Pop­up. Enhanced mode is playable in wide-aspect ratio, at full screen (1060 by 600 pixels) or at small screen (848 by 480 pixels). The player will use the highest bit rate that your PC allows--up to 650 kbps for live events and up to 1.5 mbps for on-demand (that is, recorded) events, as deter­mined by a combination of your bandwidth, your PC's components, and your choice of live or on-demand video. (See "Better Streaming Video" for tips on how to optimize your hardware and your broadband connection.) Enhanced mode also gives you access to extra features like expert commentary and live blogging that will appear in an accompanying text window--a handy option if you are catching the competition while at work and can't listen to the audio action.

"Our research [shows] that everybody is diving for the mute button when the video comes up, so we tried to integrate that into our design," says NBC's Miller.

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