(Today’s column looks at the online broadcast of the Vancouver Olympics and how it may preview cable TV business practices coming to the Web. This version also includes some images from my testing.)
You’d think the Vancouver Olympics would be a great time to shift from viewing the games on TV to viewing them online.
NBC is delaying broadcasts of major events until prime time, and Canadian TV coverage is largely unavailable here this year.
Networks instead are delivering live event coverage online, plus on-demand replays, in high-definition video using a special Web player built by Microsoft.
This comes as all sorts of new gadgets are making it easier to display Web video on a TV.
Some 52 million people watched 600 million minutes of the Beijing Olympics online in 2008, and Vancouver’s Web video will be even better, streaming in 720p high-def with better controls to pause, fast-forward and rewind.
It sounds terrific, and some may find it’s the best way to watch the Games.
But don’t expect an online utopia, free from the shackles that networks, cable companies and the Olympics organizers put on event coverage.
Although the technology for streaming video is getting better, it’s also enabling content owners to apply more restrictions and controls to online video.
In some ways, online broadcasts of the Vancouver Olympics preview what’s coming from media companies, as they explore ways to charge for online content that used to be free.
This will be apparent when you try to watch a Vancouver event live online at NBCOlympics.com, the Games’ official, exclusive broadcaster in the U.S.
For the first time, viewers will have to prove that they subscribe to premium-cable service to access “live and full-event replay video.”
During previous Olympic Games, you only had to provide a Zip code to identify yourself as a cable customer.
This time, you’ve got to register for access through your cable or satellite company, which checks to see that you have a cable package that includes MSNBC and CNBC.
People without cable or those who subscribe only to limited basic cable can watch video highlights, commentary and feature stories at the site, but not live events or full replays. The delivery system has progressed from a ski jump to a bobsled course.
It’s basically the cable model extending to the Web, where improved authentication systems enable broadcasters to limit the really good stuff to paying subscribers. If this is what NBC does now, I can’t wait to see what it’s like after Comcast finishes acquiring the network.
Maybe I’m being crotchety.
The vast majority of people still prefer to watch the Games on TV, and most online viewers watch only the highlights that are available to everyone, according to Perkins Miller, digital-media senior vice president at NBC Sports and Olympics.
NBC’s research after the Beijing Olympics found that 93 to 95 percent of people would rather watch the Games on a TV than a PC.
“Given a choice that’s what they want … they’ve got the big screen, they’ve got the couch, they’ve got the fridge,” Miller said.
Miller believes the online broadcast is complementary – something people do when they can’t get to the TV – as opposed to competing with regular TV broadcasts.
But he’s not stuck waiting until prime time to see events happening earlier in the day in Vancouver. For those who can’t wait, or who want to see more than NBC chooses to broadcast, online video becomes must-see TV.
The exclusive Olympics broadcaster in Canada, CTV, appears to be a bit less strict about checking whether you have premium cable. But its live video and full-event replays are restricted to people whose computers have Canadian Internet protocol addresses.
If you’re willing to fudge during the sign-in process and spoof your IP address, you may be able to connect through a proxy server in Canada, but you’ll have to find one that’s fast enough to handle the video.
The easiest part may be connecting your TV to the Web. Most new PCs have powerful enough graphics and outputs for connecting directly to a TV, and you can buy a tiny home-theater PC for under $400 nowadays.
One option is the new “WiDi” wireless display technology that Intel, Netgear and Best Buy announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
In preparation for the Olympics, I’ve been trying an $899 bundle from Best Buy that includes a Toshiba laptop with built-in WiDi and a hand-sized Netgear “Push2TV,” which fits behind the TV.
The wireless system is a breeze and a nice feature to have on a new PC. After connecting the receiver with an HDMI cable, it connects by pushing a button on the laptop. Whatever is on the laptop screen then appears on the TV, with audio.
Watching videos streamed from NBCOlympics.com worked pretty well over my slow DSL broadband. There wasn’t buffering but there were some jagged edges during fast action.
But the Olympics’ “full-screen” playback isn’t quite as promised.
I was hoping for a true full-screen display, as you would get from YouTube and Hulu.com. Olympics videos are shown inside a PC-like media player frame, with a banner ad permanently appearing on the upper right corner of the screen.
Here’s a screen shot of what appeared on my TV when using the WiDi setup:
NBC is trying to strike a balance between entertaining users and making sure companies paying for the coverage get exposure, Miller said. He’s hoping the quality of video is so good the “frame won’t be a distraction.”
You’ll get a similar frame if you find a way into CTV’s Olympics video stream.
I’m stubborn about not paying for premium cable so maybe I’ll just keep the WiDi pointed at Hulu.com until it starts charging, and hope for the best from the London Games in 2012.