Live-Streaming the Olympics

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The London 2012 Olympic Games will go down in history for lots of reasons—and not just because of Michael Phelps' historic swims or the USA women's gymnastics success. This is the first truly connected Summer Olympics. Never mind the athletes' entertaining Twitter feeds; the connected center of attention this year is NBC Sports' ambitious live streaming of all 32 sports and 302 events. While NBC's streaming coverage doesn't get a gold medal for reasons both in and out of the broadcaster's control, the live streaming does go beyond anything viewers ever got to experience before in Olympics coverage.

That's no exaggeration. By Day 6, NBC says it served up 5.3 million hours of live video from London, more than NBC delivered in total for Beijing four years ago. Viewers are coming in droves: According to NBC's stats as of Day 6, the network had some 64 million total video streams across all platforms—Web, smartphone, and tablet. That represents a 182 percent increase over Beijing. Of those, some 29 million are to live events, a 343 percent increase over Beijing. The number one stream to date of the first week? 1.5 million streams to the Women’s Gymnastics Team Final on July 31.

I've taken to the live streams for more than 30 hours of men's and women's gymnastics coverage, spread across the past 11 days of the Olympics, to see what it's like to view the Olympics in real-time, nearly half-a-world away. My journey has left me with mixed feelings in terms of overall satisfaction. NBC deserves props for its efforts in some places, and rebuke in others. Read on and see why.

All of the Action, Live

For all the (deserved) flack that NBC has received about its U.S.-centric, packaged prime-time narrative and time-delayed coverage, its gargantuan effort streaming the Games of the XXXth Olympiad has felt overshadowed. This year's live streaming far exceeds NBC's efforts at the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008; and the reality is that I've been able to see the action—only on a comparatively unsatisfying laptop screen and not my 42-inch HDTV. The catch: I had to have a paid cable subscription with some combination of NBC stations in there.

The opening ceremony had barely concluded its tape-delayed U.S. broadcast in California, and there I was, settling in for the first of two all-night live stream-a-thons for the qualifications rounds in gymnastics. I turned to both the NBC Live Extra app on the iPad, and to the Live Extra streams found on NBC Olympics Web site.

I quickly settled on the website as my primary video source. It provided better image quality overall than did the app, and proved to be the better of the two options simply because I could have two streams incoming at once if I chose. This was handy since NBC provided dedicated streams for each apparatus in gymnastics; I could view a dedicated camera each for the vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise. These views had no commentary, just the raw video feed. For a more rounded experience, I turned to the so-called “main feed,” which carried coverage that bounced among all four events with an engaging commentary provided by 1996 U.S. Gold medalist Shannon Miller.

To get this level of Olympic gymnastics coverage has heretofore been unheard of, and NBC's streaming provided a you-are-there level of immersion I haven't had before while watching an Olympics. It also rivaled the oft-touted BBC coverage (yes, I used the free ExpatShield to get a UK IP address and view the BBC's live coverage, too, for the finals). I found that for gymnastics, at least, the BBC feed appeared to match the “main” NBC feed, except that it had different commentaries and added its own interviews and infographic extras to supplement the broadcast.

That would be because the feeds all come from Olympic Broadcasting Services, and thus the footage appears identical. NBC also had its own cameramen on the floor for gymnastics; presumably capturing their own footage as well for the primetime coverage.

Ultimately, when the streaming on worked right, I was more than satisfied to stay put on the NBC feeds. Only early on I found the need to migrate to other live feeds. (Eurovision! BBC! CTV! TVR Romania!...I continue to be amazed at how easily you can find live TV transmissions on the Internet, and how that information can be shared among fellow enthusiasts in real-time.) Unlike previous Olympiads, though, I largely found it unnecessary to play the stream-hopping game.

It was when it didn't work right—due to streaming hiccups and due to NBC's presentation choices—that I threw my hands up in frustration.

Good Streaming Gone Bad

Let's start with my Live Extra app experience on the iPad. I quickly found that the ballyhooed app fell far short of expectations. It wasn't particularly obtuse to use, as some of my colleagues experienced; but I did find the video quality to be very inconsistent, and ultimately a big disappointment. For one, I was subject to the bandwidth limitations and vagaries of a Wi-Fi connection, which left me with a mediocre image, at best. For another, the iPad app lacked the playback quality options available on the Live Extra streams via the Web. That alone pushed me towards using the Web.

Once I realized I could increase the default quality on the Web from the default of 360p to 720p or 1080p, well, there was no going back. Ultimately, while I liked the idea of holding a tablet to watch, in the end I put the tablet aside for good in favor of the Web-based streaming.

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