Live-Streaming the Olympics

Sadly, regardless of the streaming resolution quality I tried those first two days, the stream often stalled, with spinning circles that rarely recovered on their own, and instead foretold a need to reload the Chrome browser's page (I had similar frustrations with Internet Explorer, too). Reloading begat additional hassles, though: At least half of the time, I had to re-authenticate with my cable subscription login info before I could gain access to the Live Extra video, and I usually had to sit through another commercial before the Live Stream would restart. At best this meant missing a gymnast's score; at worst, I'd miss an entire routine or two while waiting for the streaming to restart properly.

I tended to stick with watching the default browser window for the video stream. If I switched to fullscreen view, even at the higher resolutions, the image suffered more stuttering and artifacts than at the default view. I found 720p to be the most consistent, while the default 360p was barely watchable at any size. After the first day, I even upgraded my Comcast Xfinity service to 20Mbps to better accommodate this more extreme usage.

As the qualifications rounds progressed, my routine included three to four laptops running at any one time, each connected to my router via an ethernet cable. I did this to maximize what I could see of the multi-ring circus that occurs during the six and four simultaneous apparatus events, respectively, of men's and women's gymnastics competition. After much trial and error, I concluded that my streaming issues were not due to overtaxing my bandwidth; even if I kicked down to just one stream, I ran into trouble.

In a conference call days later, NBC admitted to some early difficulties they'd overcome, but didn't specify what those difficulties were. Meanwhile, a YouTube spokesperson said the company had a team of people monitoring NBC's YouTube-powered Olympics streaming 24/7, and that as the Olympics progressed they'd made changes in the streaming to add adaptive bitrate video. YouTube says this allows for both the resolution and bit-rate to be adjusted based on your network bandwidth and whether the player is in a Web page or in full-screen mode. Resolution can range from 240p to 1080p, with multiple bit-rates.

This change might account for why my streaming experience improved with each passing day. By later in the week, when the women's all-around competition aired, I had fewer issues with the overall quality of the NBC live streams, but I did still experience a freeze on one feed during the competition that never recovered.

YouTube says it has been pleased overall with its Olympics performance. “We have exceeded our expectations in quality. We're hearing some anecdotal stories [of issues with buffering and frame drops] and are checking against the data. The buffering for the Olympic live streams are lower than other areas of the site.” YouTube also noted that the biggest streaming issues it had seen were typically with the last-mile bottleneck of delivering the video. This last point is what makes this report one of personal experience: What I experienced might not have been what my neighbor experienced, or what my friend living in the suburbs or in another state experienced, thanks in part due to variables outside of NBC's control.

As viewers, we all praise or blame NBC as the one who did a good or bad job with its streaming experience.

The one area that NBC clearly came in dead last: how it handled commercials. I get the need for advertisements, but NBC went overboard by adding commercials on top of the stream with annoying and disruptive frequency. Not only would the commercials interrupt the commentary or conversation on screen, but they could pop up as frequently as every other competitor. Anyone watching would be forgiven for thinking that Bounty, Coca-Cola, Gillette, and others were going for the gold—we saw these commercials more often than we saw the athletes.

The Big Picture

While the live coverage satisfied my desire to watch the competition as it happened, and kept me from (largely) trying to find international streaming alternatives, ultimately watching video in a small window on my laptop was not a replacement for watching the competitions on the big screen. Night after night I tuned into the televised, comparatively pristine 1080p HD visual wonder of the Olympics, relishing every splash in the pool and every speck of dust that flew off the high bar.

I'm not alone in my desire to watch live events in primetime. According to a survey by NBC and Google, viewers who streamed live events on the first day of the Olympics were nearly twice as likely to watch the prime broadcast, too, and they spent about 50% more time watching than those who didn’t stream.

However, I'd posit that this primetime phenomenon has less to do with wanting to see NBC's dramatic repackaging of Olympic events neatly wrapped up in an American flag, and more to do with wanting to see everything on a big screen, in all the detail and beauty that high-definition video has to offer.

For me, and I'd bet for others, too, the live streaming on is nothing more than a stopgap. After all, streaming online is better than not having anything. I'll take it, stutters, stalls, macro-blocking artifacts and all. On a good day, the stream looked reasonably good in HD, but it still was no match for cable's HD feed. And if I had a choice to enjoy all of my Olympics on my HDTV, with an artifact-free image, I'd do so in a heartbeat. (And no, before you even ask, using HDMI or some other output from my laptop wouldn't have done the trick this year; the image quality was barely consistent let alone passable for use on a laptop's small screen, let alone for a 42-inch HDTV.)

In the end, when it worked smoothly, I loved NBC's streaming coverage. I had front-seat access to Olympics competition in a way that had never been possible before. But given the varying image quality, the streaming coverage just wasn't a replacement for watching the Olympics in 1080p on my HDTV.

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