Taking the Olympics online: How will online video perform?

NBC Olympics online video

Image courtesy of NBC Sports

As the Olympic Games prepare for the official opening ceremonies on Friday, July 27, it's clear that online video will play a bigger role in reaching viewers worldwide than it ever has before, thanks to partnerships between NBC and providers like Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) YouTube and Adobe (Nasdaq: ADBE). But how well will it accomplish that task?

The Beijing Olympics, four years ago, saw the first widespread use of online video by both an Olympic committee as well as major players like NBC, which has the exclusive broadcast license for the United States. NBC in 2008 teamed with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) to debut Silverlight in conjunction with the Games, promising high-quality streaming of previously taped events. While the amount of online video available through that source was a first--approximately 25 events were live streamed and 2,200 total hours of online video streamed--NBC dropped Silverlight after the Games in favor of Adobe's more ubiquitous Flash player, noting that of the 40 million people who visited their website, only half had Silverlight installed.

Enter the 2012 London Olympics. NBC recently dissolved its partnership with Microsoft, but long prior to that divorce it moved to a new provider to drive its online video streaming, partnering Google's YouTube for a wide-ranging partnership that will see YouTube providing video player technology, hosting and infrastructure for NBCOlympics.com And NBC also plans to expand its coverage of the Olympics to mobile devices through a partnership with Adobe, which will develop mobile apps for iOS and Android platforms. Its latest move in the online space is ambitious: provide the first completely live, streaming experience of the Olympic Games to not just PC users but tablet and smartphone users as well.

Live streaming firsts

Of course, NBC's online coverage of the Olympic Games will most likely top that of other online video outlets in terms of availability and quality--as long as you're subscribed to one of the participating pay-TV providers in the United States, such as Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA), Verizon FiOS (NYSE: VZ), Cablevision's (NYSE: CVC) Optimum tier, Cox or Charter (Nasdaq: CHTR).  

NBC Live Extra on tablet

Live Extra's tablet interface.

The broadcaster will provide the first live streaming of all the Olympic events on its website, NBCOlympics.com. Through its partnership with YouTube, a barter deal announced in March in which the online video provider gets promotional consideration from NBC Sports, visitors will watch live or pre-recorded video on the website via YouTube's player. (Viewers who don't have a cable or satellite subscription won't be able to view the live events, but will have access to selected pre-recorded clips and highlights of events including the opening ceremonies.)

NBC will also live stream its coverage to mobile devices through its NBC Olympics Live Extra app, developed by Adobe as part of its mobile apps partnership with NBC. It will offer "multiple concurrent streams for select sports, such as gymnastics (each apparatus), track and field (each event), and tennis (up to five courts)," NBC Sports explained in its media FAQ. "For example, during a session of track and field, instead of viewing only a single feed that moves from event to event, a user can choose to watch a stream dedicated to a specific event, such as the long jump or javelin."

That adds up to approximately 3,500 total programming hours for NBCOlympics.com.

Measuring the online Olympics

The Beijing Olympics was the first to be seen by more than 1 billion viewers, said Tom Lounibos, CEO of SOASTA, a testing and analytics firm based in Silicon Valley. The London Olympics may see multiples of that, thanks to online video and the explosion of video-capable mobile devices.

Tom Lounibos, SOASTA


"(There are) 5.5 billion mobile phones out there," Lounibos told FierceOnlineVideo. "The suspicion is that billions of people will interact with Games this year."

That makes online video coverage of the games kind of Olympian in itself, in terms of magnitude.

For sites like NBCOlympics.com, viewing may be mitigated by the walled garden placed around live broadcast of events.

But for London2012.com, the London Olympic Committee's official site, traffic is expected to jump at specific periods – such as when event results are posted immediately after the event. According to Lounibos, SOASTA helped prepare the website for this kind of traffic load.

"Four years ago, a very large test would have been 4,000 concurrent users hitting a site," Lounibos explained. His company now tests traffic loads far beyond a few thousand, though. "Today with cloud testing, a concept we created in 2008, we have hundreds of thousands (of testers) hitting the site. You build up to it… and you find problems in applications & infrastructure (as you build up)."

For the London2012.com site and its related mobile apps, SOASTA has simulated what would happen if, for example, 100,000 users access a mobile app that publishes results, immediately following an event like a footrace.

In fact, the company tested traffic loads up to 300,000 concurrent users, spinning up 1,000 servers worldwide to simulate traffic hitting the site from different regions. Over the last six months leading up to the Olympics, Lounibos said, the test results helped the website development team isolate potential areas of concern, pinpoint locations and applications that they needed to optimize, and fix various traffic issues.

Likewise, NBCUniversal will be using the Olympics as a research venue to learn how viewers use different types of media to follow the Games. The company is working with Google and comScore to measure "single source consumption" of video content on PCs, traditional television, mobile phones and tablets.

Google plans to work with a panel of 3,000 participants and utilize its proprietary algorithms to measure how those participants view and interact with Games coverage. comScore, meanwhile, will use its new 10,000-member TV/Online panel, focusing on several hundred participants who plans to follow the Games on multiple platforms. It will use electronic meters, set-top boxes and self-reports to gather data on their Olympics viewing experience.

Side bets: YouTube and social media

NBC Olympics Facebook

NBC's Olympics Facebook page

Alongside the available online video--live and recorded--broadcasters including NBC as well as sponsors and advertisers are hoping viewers will pull social media into the picture as well, adding an interactive element to the Games that wasn't possible just a decade ago. In fact, mobile marketing services firm Velti said last week that 40 percent of adults in the United States who plan to watch the Olympics will use two or more devices to do so.

That level of interactivity is already an early hit for media outlets ramping up their coverage. TeamUSA's website and YouTube channel feature not just profile videos but videos made by the athletes themselves. On Tuesday, the New York Daily News fretted that team members' recorded attempts to mimic Cockney slang would insult their British hosts.

Combining video footage with live tweets from team members means online fans following the Games can get up-to-the-minute insight from competitors on the competition. Though perhaps not complete insight--it's doubtful any athletes will be twittering in the middle of their event, but pre- or post-performance observations might be interesting and add to the online conversation.

Beyond the official media channels, of course, will be myriad videos posted by various sources worldwide. While YouTube's channel of aggregated Olympics videos will likely feature more mainstream sources near the top of its feed, quite a few videos from unofficial sources may show up in the upcoming weeks--including retransmitted video from viewers outside the United States, and videos uploaded by those attending the Games. With the proliferation of recording devices, getting an insider's view of the Olympic venue may be easier than ever before.

Taking the Olympics online: How will online video perform?