Race To The Finish For NBC Universal Affiliates

As part of its 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics push, NBC Universal spent more than a year working with cable, satellite and telco-TV partners for what stands to be the largest “TV Everywhere” effort by a programmer to date.

But not everyone will make the team.

The Olympics Online Connect section of NBCOlympics.com will offer more than 1,000 hours of live and on-demand video over the games' two-week period to TV subscribers of participating distributors.

As of last Friday, the site listed 85 affiliate providers. However, NBCU executives said that up to one-third of those would not be ready in times for the games, for various reasons. Between 55 and 65 ultimately will be in the authentication mix, including the top 15 providers, to reach approximately 95% of all multichannel households.

Different distributors had different capabilities, and some faced hurdles including resource constraints and technical issues, NBCU senior vice president of TV networks distribution Bradley Fleisher said.

“This has been a multi-step process, and there's a minimum level that is required to continue on,” he said. “Some of the distributors got going and enabled this earlier than others.”

The Olympics Online Connect section of NBCOlympics.com will let visitors choose their provider; then it will present a log-in screen — hosted by the MSO, satellite or telco provider — where the user will enter a user name and password for access to the extra video content. The affiliate passes back only a “yes/no” to NBCOlympics.com, which either allows or denies the user access, based on a unique ID associated with the Web browser.

NBCU said all of the top 15 pay TV distributors will be ready to roll for the Feb. 12 opening ceremonies.

But even some of the biggest names were hustling to get into place before the starting gun went off. Comcast activated its authentication service via NBCOlympics.com only late last Thursday, and Cablevision Systems went live last Friday.

Over the course of the Vancouver games, which run from Feb. 12 to 28, the Olympics Online Connect service will host more than 300 hours of live streaming of events ranging from hockey to curling. The site also will include more than 400 hours of on-demand replays of coverage from NBC, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network — plus full, unedited replays for all 86 events across all 15 sports on the Winter Olympics program.

“We're able to provide a huge amount of content that otherwise would not have aired,” Fleisher said.

The rationale for staging an avalanche of video content is to provide “deep engagement” for hard-core fans, said Perkins Miller, senior vice president digital media for NBC Universal Sports and Olympics.

“If you look at the research out of Beijing [from the 2008 Summer Olympics], the more platforms people used, the more engaged they were overall, and they watched more television,” he said.

Olympics Online Connect is part of a larger package of programming options for the Vancouver games that included expanded video-on-demand, HD and interactive-TV elements. Fleisher said all distributors who have agreements with NBCU have rights to the same package. The programmer is requiring subscribers to have a tier with MSNBC and CNBC to be allowed to access Olympics Online Connect content.

One of the vendors NBCU worked with on the Olympics Online Connect program was Synacor, which helped connect 13 cable operators to the service. Those MSOs included Charter Communications, Mediacom Communications and Suddenlink Communications, according to industry executives.

Synacor president and CEO Ron Frankel said the goal from the beginning was to make it as easy as possible for users to log in while maintaining a very high security level.

"It does take some heavy lifting," he said. "If this is going to happen on programmers' sites, work needs to be done to standardize the process."

NBC offered different user log-in options to distributors, including the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) specification for cross-site authentication and authorization.

In addition to the video behind the walled garden, NBCOlympics.com will host a plethora of free material. Most of that video content will be highlights and "water-cooler moments," which Miller expects to represent the majority of the site's total views. Banner advertising and video spots will run across the site, he added; for example, Coca-Cola is sponsoring the Team USA section.

As far as technology partners, NBCU will again use Microsoft's Silverlight streaming-media technology for NBCOlympics.com. The broadcaster is using iStreamPlanet, a provider of digital media services and software applications, to encode 23 video feeds originating from Vancouver. Akamai will then distribute the video online over its "HD" network service using Microsoft's IIS Smooth Streaming streaming platform.