Eyeing Digital Gold in Sochi

EACH WINTER OLYMPICS has its own signature moments from one event to the next. But for NBC, the 2014 Games will leave one of its biggest marks thanks to digital platforms, where NBCUniversal is planning to live stream more than 1,000 hours from all the competitions. In 2010 in Vancouver, only curling and hockey were streamed live. The groundwork for this strategy was laid during the 2008 Beijing and the 2012 London Games, where NBCU developed the systems for handling more content and began to ramp up its streaming efforts. “To some degree the London Games were an experiment,” says Rick Cordella, senior VP/GM of digital media, at the NBC Sports Group.

Overall usage was very good, with 159.3 million video streams and 20.4 million hours of video streamed on all digital platforms, but despite that usage, ratings were stronger than expected. “What we found was that those who consumed Olympics coverage on other devices were more engaged and actually watched more TV content,” Cordella says. “So instead of cannibalizing TV ratings it may have boosted ratings.”

This increased viewing helped NBCU turn a profit on the 2012 games, which many had expected to produce losses, and will be important for the company’s financial prospects at Sochi. In contrast to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, which lost some $223 million, NBCU is now predicting Sochi will be profitable.

Authentic Fans

But these streaming efforts are also important for the TV industry as a whole, which has been trying to raise awareness for TV Everywhere offerings. Like London, users who want to access the live streams for the Sochi games must have a video subscription with a multichannel pay-TV provider.

“London was a watershed moment for TV Everywhere as we authenticated almost 10 million devices,” says Cordella, who adds that NBCU and multichannel video providers will be making a major push to publicize the offerings, which if successful could significantly raise awareness of TV Everywhere. “You probably have 100 million homes in American that will have access. It won’t cost them any more money and is one of the best values out there.”

To further boost interest in its digital platforms, NBCU is making a significant investment in digital-only programming and will be supplying over 143 hours of such content during the Games. This will include a half-hour show, Olympic Ice, and a ‘Gold Zone’ stream covering highlights of what is happening at any given moment during the Games. Separately, NBCU is also offering short two- or three-minute news bulletins.

NBCU is also making major improvements to the Olympics website and apps and has renewed its alliance with Facebook to use social media to help drive tune-in. “We wanted to give the website a very 2014 look that is centered on video so we came up with a design that is much more feed driven to reflect the way people consume media through Facebook, Tumblr or a blog,” Cordella says.

With an exponential increase in the amount of coverage, NBCU has also worked to make it much easier to find content and has done a major redesign of its London apps. “It’s amazing to think that only four years ago at Vancouver, the iPad didn’t even exist,” Cordella says.

On the tech side, NBCU will be relying on a number of key vendors, including Microsoft’s Windows Azure media services for all digital media deliverables; iStreamPlanet for encoding; Akamai for CDN, stream, security and a variety of other services; Adobe Pass for TV Everywhere authentication and the Adobe Primetime products for their video player, measurement and other features.

A key component to all this will be technologies allowing the system to provide a high-quality viewing experience for a very large number of users, says Kurt Michel, director of product marketing at Akamai’s digital media solutions. “If a video doesn’t load quickly or they experience buffering, they will abandon the video and they may not come back,” Michel says, adding that they have over 140,000 servers embedded in networks all over the world to improve the digital delivery of video.

Cordella and others also stress that the digital delivery platforms and technologies being used for the Olympics have already been used in a number of high-profile events that have tested their ability to handle heavy traffic.

“For the Olympics, we’ve been focused on leveraging similar technologies and best practices that we have already used for the NFL and other properties,” says Eric Black, VP of technology at NBC Sports & Olympics. “So this isn’t the first run we’re making at this. What you will see used for Sochi will by and large be something we have already used and been able to scale” on NFL coverage.