Sports fans hoping to log onto their computers from work to catch some live action from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will have a much smaller menu of choices than they did for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
That’s because for the Vancouver Games, NBC is taking a step back with regards to live Web streaming. The broadcaster will show only curling and hockey live online, with all the other events airing either live on television or held for primetime or late night. That’s a big departure from its much-touted 2,200 hours of live streaming for Beijing in 2008.
While the lack of a China-like time difference means NBC can show most of the key events live in primetime, the move also reflects a growing industry trend toward protecting the core television airing. That also means acknowledging what many have refuted in the past: Internet viewing can indeed cannibalize TV viewing. And with NBC already slated to lose a quarter of a billion dollars on the Vancouver Games, that take is not surprising.
Perkins Miller, senior VP of digital media for NBC Sports & Olympics, acknowledges that the television product remains the core business. “If you look at the way the folks in the corner office have programmed the Olympics for decades, and done so with tremendous success, what it reflects is that people want to watch the Olympics while sitting in front of their 50-inch television when it is most convenient for them,” he says. “This is something we continue to support strategically.”
But NBC, like everyone in the industry, continues to experiment—and send mixed messages. For instance, despite backing off live streaming for the Olympics, NBC does stream its Sunday Night Football matchups live online with full commercial loads.
As such, SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney says he is a “little surprised” with NBC’s Olympic online strategy, but understands the underlying financial reasoning: TV is still what butters your fiscal bread. “All of our research shows it is additive, but you are still stuck with some advertisers that may not buy into that concept,” he says.
But the industry continues to shift toward protecting television viewing, as evidenced by the backers of Hulu talking openly about bringing in some sort of paid component to the Website this year.
“Today it’s easy to make it free because it’s not really cannibalizing that much; the cannibalization is pretty small. But it’s gonna grow,” said News Corp. COO Chase Carey at the 2009 B&C/Multichannel News OnScreen Media Summit in October. “And if you don’t get in front of it as it does start to cannibalize, the key business starts [getting cannibalized] down the road.”
So in Vancouver, NBC will put every minute of every event online, in both full-length and highlight form, but in most cases only after the television airing.
SmithGeiger’s Toney adds that while it may make economic sense to delay the ice skating or snowboarding finals to primetime, streaming preliminary rounds of those events, or new events like skicross, could actually help boost their buzz and increase TV viewing.
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