February 9, 2010
Streaming Sports: Superbowls, Olympics, and Online Video

If you live in America, you probably did not miss out on the constant chatter about the Superbowl this past weekend, whether you were paying attention to the football or the commercials. Nevertheless, you might not have watched the actual event -- like myself, who was on a bus from New York to Boston throughout the duration of the pre-, in-, and post-game periods. However, I followed the by-the-moment hype of the sport and the advertisements on my phone's Twitter client, and the morning after I caught up on the game highlights and commercials (rated and organized by social media addicts via services like BrandBowl 2010).

Even though the Bowl lasted at least 4 hours, I feel like I didn't miss much after spending about 40 minutes rewatching -- for no fee -- game highlights and the Bowl's funnier commercials. Watching this content via the Web is not something I could have done a few years ago. The potentials of online video have created an environment in which I don't need to own a television. I can simply flip to NFL.com to watch a 10-minute recap of the best plays while spending the time it takes to wait through NFL.com's ads watching the previous day's commercials on Hulu's 2010 AdZone. I can even jump over to the Discovery Channel's website to watch the annual Puppy Bowl.

However, I still need to own a television set to watch everything. What gives? I thought this was the Age of the Internet, where all content would be beamed to my computer screen through my Apple TV (no, I don't actually own one). The situation for most television shows at the moment is that I can see most episodes online at some point in time, until they are removed (producers need to make some money off DVD sales, and online ad revenues are still nowhere comparable to those of television ads). But sports events are pretty hard to come by for free online. Occasionally we will find a hub of clips (eg., NFL.com), or we can subscribe to a subscription service which grants access to high-quality streams (eg., MLB.com).

Why? Well, while most networks are feeling the heat, sports are still bringing in all the viewers.

According to AdAge ("NFL Cruises While the Rest of TV Splinters"):

The highest rated prime-time program on NBC during the fourth quarter was, once again, "Sunday Night Football." Through the course of the regular season NBC's games averaged 19.4 million viewers, whether they watched live or time-shifted on the same day, an increase of 17% from the 2008 season.

Sports, of course, operate as televised events, and viewers do not want to miss out on the live aspects of the game (hence why most games are watched upon broadcast rather than DVRed). And this year, the Superbowl succeeded with its ratings by beating out the 1983 M*A*S*H finale with its 106 million viewers.

Given so many viewers, I would assume that more sports shows would also be telecast online to garner a wider audience. If you're a savvy Internet user, you probably found a way to watch the game online. The reality, though, is that networks want to reign in the money from advertisements, so they push as much of their audience toward the television set.

According to PC World, last year CBS had intended to stream the Superbowl online, but this year there was no official simulcast. And while a simulcast would have been convenient for those far from a television set, the live element of the Superbowl event, down to a specific hour, helps most potential viewers find a TV.

However, the situation is not the same for the Olympics. Spanning a number of weeks, each Olympic event would garner more attention from viewers if streamed online. However, in the United States, NBC (the Olympic carrier) has evaded this tactic.

The same article from PC World (above) explicates NBC's failure with broadcasting the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing:

NBC learned that lesson during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. The network embraced the Internet by streaming and posting thousands of hours of Olympic coverage online; however, it was taken by surprise when U.S. viewers had numerous options to watch the more popular Olympic sports online before their scheduled broadcast time on NBC.

NBC made available online numerous events from 2008's Olympics, but retained the major ones for television broadcast, prompting viewers to create a vibrant economy for pirated Olympic video. The International Olympic Committee allowed a stream of the events on YouTube, but it did not allow viewers in the United States to access the channel and strongly enforced illegal uploads with Content ID takedowns.

As TorrentFreak.com explains, in response to the 2008 Olympics having been torrented to such a degree (eg., the opening ceremonies over 2 million times in the first week):

NBC... announc[es] that it will do all it can to prevent people from accessing unauthorized live feeds or downloads of Olympic broadcasts. While NBC doesn't believe there is much demand for live coverage, it will do all it can to prevent the 'few' people who do from downloading or streaming the events online. "Our aim is to make access to pirated material inconvenient, low quality and hard to find," said Rick Cotton, NBC's Executive Vice President commenting on their Olympic mission.

Although NBC streamed over 2,200 hours of video from the summer Olympics, only curling and hockey from this year's winter Olympics will be available on NBC's website.

The issue with NBC (and a bit with CBS too) is not that they do not understand the demand for online video, but that they do not take into account the cultural modes of watching televised sports that their audiences practice when they move from the TV set to the computer screen. And with the 2010 World Cup set to hit worldwide televisions sets this summer, we can only hope that networks adopt better practices for distributing the event to a broader set of viewers.



This is the same point I've been making with my (many) posts about awards shows. Event TV (usually news or sports, but sometimes scripted stuff like Lost) is the still the only thing people reliably watch live. Sportscasts are the only time when networks get anything close to the ratings shares of "the old days." There have been a bunch of articles talking about how this year's Super Bowl had more live viewers than the finale of MASH. That's a huge milestone, but it shows how much the industry has changed. Can you imagine any scripted show getting as many viewers as the Super Bowl?

Since networks are still making more money from selling ads on linear TV than they are from selling ads online, it makes sense that they want to drive viewers to watch on TV sets. This probably won't be an effective long-term strategy because it does create a lot of piracy, but for the time being Event TV is one of the only sure revenue streams networks have left.


I wonder if television producers will eventually take the beneficial elements of sports events (eg., the live aspect) and incorporate them into other genres to make shows, like scripted series, more valuable for networks. We've already seen this happen with reality shows (eg., American Idol), where viewers want to watch the episodes "live" because the next day the results aren't as exciting and fans have moved on to anticipating the next episode. But moving beyond reality shows, is there a next step in explorations of genre mashing that might produce something similar and newly profitable?


Networks have done "live" scripted shows throughout the years. I remember a live episode of ER from my childhood. I'm not sure they were too successful in the ratings because seeing a scripted show live isn't that exciting. It's not like the outcome is going to be different. The only real excitement comes from hoping people will mess up. I think this is part of why people watch SNL live. There's a slight chance that you might catch the next Sinead-ripping-up-a-picture-of-the-Pope-moment.

Networks have done other things to get people to watch live like SMS based quizzes and contests and live-tweeting. I don't think any of it's been too successful to date.