NBC Turns to Microsoft to Stream Live Olympics Coverage

Network Says 2,200 Hours of Video Will Be 'Real Big Game-Changer'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you're a badminton, handball or archery fan, you'll have a better go of it during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
NBC's online deal with Microsoft will allow the network to broadcast matches that often never appear on broadcast TV due to time-zone delays.
NBC's online deal with Microsoft will allow the network to broadcast matches that often never appear on broadcast TV due to time-zone delays.

NBC and Microsoft have inked a deal for the online coverage of the games, to be held in Beijing, which will feature 2,200 hours of events, including many of the matches that never get close to seeing the light of broadcast spectrum. Call it the Long Tail approach to Olympics. And it's about time.

Time delays thwart viewing
The TV broadcasts of NBC's Olympic coverage of the 2006 Winter Olympics was a disappointment, as the network underdelivered on its ratings guarantees to advertisers and was beaten on several nights by popular regular-season shows on ABC and Fox. One of the reasons for that, surmised industry pundits, was the time difference. Because Turin, Italy, was several hours ahead of U.S. time zones, viewers connected to their computers all day knew the outcomes of many events before the tape-delayed prime-time coverage began.

"Video is the real big game-changer for this year," predicted Perkins Miller, senior VP-digital media at NBC Sports. "In Torino, we streamed live a hockey game but that was more of a back-end test for us. This year we'll have 2,200 hours of live sports." In total, there will be 3,600 hours of Olympic video footage online, he said.

Mr. Miller said NBC has had to commit to its Olympics online video strategy a full year and a half out, and that it wasn't until fairly recently that the public indicated it had a huge appetite for live streaming.

NBC will program and produce the Olympics coverage, and Microsoft will provide the technology platform for the site and promote it through its MSN home page. The site will also use Microsoft's new Adobe Flash competitor, Silverlight, for the video, which the company hopes will increase Silverlight's distribution. (Like Flash, the technology is a plug-in.)

Terms of the deal were not disclosed; NBC will sell advertising but there is revenue-sharing with MSN.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas yesterday, Bill Gates announced his company's collaboration with NBC and NBC Olympics anchor Bob Costas gave a quick overview -- and then a playful jab at Mr. Gates, asking the Microsoft founder to quit calling him because there was no room on the Olympics anchor desk for him once he retires from his full-time job at Microsoft in June.

Learning from Live Earth
The two companies started talking in August about how they could work together when it came to streaming live video. MSN had just hosted the online broadcast of the Live Earth concert. "We learned about delivering a massive audience to a great moment-in-time event," said Rob Bennett, MSN's general manager of video and entertainment. The Olympics deal "is part of a continued investment MSN is making in tentpole events and deep engaging experiences."

Big events such as gymnastics and basketball that air live on TV will be available afterward online via on demand. NBC has not yet determined whether live TV events will also appear live simultaneously online.

While NBC execs are still working out what those 2,200 hours will comprise, Mr. Miller said "it will be very complete with all the relevant sessions or contests, especially medal sessions. Everything of consequence will be streamed online, as well as what we capture from our broadcast."

Making the Summer Olympics a draw is no fait accompli. This time, there's a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and New York, nine hours between Beijing and Los Angeles; increased disillusionment over sports because of doping scandals both here and abroad; and human-rights organizations are already targeting sponsors of the games because of the Chinese government's policies.

Still time to commit dollars online
Mr. Miller dismisses those concerns. "There's probably more conversation about these Olympics than there's been about any other Olympics," he said. "We're finding overwhelmingly when we talk to customers and do audience research that it's tremendously positive."

Many of the major Olympic sponsors that spend heavily on the NBC broadcast might have waited to commit internet dollars, Mr. Miller said, "because this medium is changing so quickly. ... There's still tremendous opportunity out there for existing broadcast sponsors as they look to commit dollars and spend even more money online."

He also said in some cases NBC will allow marketers to buy online only, but only when permitted by existing exclusivity agreements.
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