When the Olympics opening ceremony began last week, Erik Thauvin did what many tech-savvy sports fans would do after learning about the tape delay: search for a live stream of the event.
Live feeds on the Web were getting shut down left and right, so it took some finagling on his part. Eventually Thauvin, 44, a programmer in Everett, Wash., found an illegal stream with sub-par video quality and hundreds of “nightmarish” pop-up ads. “It wasn’t even worth spending time on it,” he noted. It proved to be so much of a headache that he eventually relented, waiting until primetime to watch NBC’s rendition of the event.
Officially, NBC has defended its decision by saying such "complex entertainment spectacles" do not "translate well online because they require context." But it's worth noting that consolidating viewership into primetime also means higher Nielsen ratings, which ultimately translates into more ad dollars — much needed to recoup some of the $1.3 billion the network shelled out to broadcast the Games. NBC delivered with the kickoff, with 40.7 million viewers, a 17 percent spike from the Beijing opening ceremonies four years prior, and averaging 35.8 million the first three days.
Even though the network is streaming every sporting and medal event live on its website and its NBC Olympics Live Extra app, many people aren't satisfied. For one thing, only cable and satellite subscribers can access the service, and more are cutting the cord than ever. A Nielsen report , for example, found 1.6 million people in the fourth quarter of 2011 had recently said goodbye to their cable service.
Fans have also complained that the opening and closing ceremonies aren't available as live streams, and that the web video feed has been marred by technical glitches and other annoyances. These issues have sent people like Tara Jenson, 37, scrambling for other ways to watch live. Jenson, a Linux system administrator in Minneapolis, set up two virtual private networks (VPN) to bypass NBC's broadcast, one on her home media server and the other on her iPad, tethered to a 4G hotspot, so she can watch at work. Her preferred coverage? The BBC, which is notably devoid of “NBC’s dumb commentary,” she said.
While the BBC’s terms of service for its streaming player don’t mention viewing from outside the U.K., it refers users to its frequently asked questions for more information. There, the network clearly lays out that its broadcasting rights extend only to the U.K. Olympic content for both its iPlayer and streaming app are geo-blocked, so viewers outside the U.K. can’t watch its live feeds.
Jenson’s VPN masks the location of her computer and iPad, making it appear as if she were logging online from outside the U.S., so her clever workaround lets her watch the BBC’s coverage.
In Olympics priors, "I just coped with knowing I have to wait until whenever," Jenson said. "This year just really felt different. Are you kidding me? It's 2012. I can find out from Twitter immediately who's winning."
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Given the sensitive nature of VPNs, most of these services have clauses in their terms of service spelling out that users should not use their VPNs in violation of local, state, national or international law. But given their various privacy policies, policing these networks is another story. Some providers note they don’t monitor, collect, analyze or store information outside of basic details, such as users’ IP address, Internet Service Provider and data usage. In contrast, it’s much easier for the International Olympic Committee, which patrols against piracy, to shut down errant YouTube or Ustream videos.
There are no official numbers on how many Americans are using VPNs to watch Olympics coverage. But the impact of these workarounds appears to be small. NBC, which in recent years has lagged in ratings, has been trouncing the competitors in primetime, with averages besting the rest of the networks (Univision, Fox, CBS, ABC, Telemundo and CW) combined.
Having been without cable for the past year, Jenson also supplements her VPN viewing with over-the-air NBC, which she receives through an old-fashioned antenna. "It just seems so stone age. Here I am watching NBC through antenna when there are so many other ways to do it."
A Netflix user, Jenson has come to expect streaming solutions that don't require a cable subscription. "NBC is run by 90-year-old guys who don't understand," she said. "Could you see how much money you would be making by streaming this? I would pay up to $100 for a straight streaming package."
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Living with tape delays used to be an unavoidable – if unpopular – fact of life for Olympics fans. Jeff Mullins recalls being glued to the 1996 Games, cheering on the women's gymnastics team.
"I can remember the competition with vivid details even 16 years later," Mullins, a 33-year-old teacher in Lakeland, Fla. said. As he watched Kerri Strugg on the vault moments from taking home the gold in Atlanta, his dad walked in from his weekly bowling night. "Yeah I heard we won the gold," he recalled his father saying.
Enter heartbreak. "It was then I learned about tape delay and have detested it with a passion ever since," he said. "The beauty of sports is the tension and the buildup, which is absent in replaying events in primetime when the results are literally everywhere."
That was more than a decade and a half ago, before the rise of social media and 24-hour news cycles. Though marketers have touted the London Games as the most social event yet, in an ironic twist, viewers are turning to social media to vent their Olympic-sized frustrations with NBC's various mishaps — from tape-delayed coverage to the temporary suspension of the Twitter account of its most visible critic — with the hashtag #nbcfail, a digital public shaming of sorts.
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"It's so patronizing," said Kristy Sammis, 37, founder and partner of the Bay Area-based Clever Girls Collective, a 6,000-member blog network. "NBC owns the rights to broadcast, but they don't own the Games and they don't own their experiences. Social media is the tool we have to fight back."
Sammis has many more words to describe NBC's broadcasting and social media tactics: condescending, shameful, , ridiculous, shocking, surprising (and the list goes on).
"They do this to artificially enhance ratings," said Greg McFarlane, 43, a Las Vegas-based personal finance writer for Investopedia. "Even if the Games were held in the most inconvenient time zone for North America ... there's no excuse." (Sochi, Russia, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, is eight hours ahead of New York City)
Sammis contends that "trying to control what we consume and when we consume and how we consume is a failing dying model." It irks her to no end that the International Olympics Committee has also asked spectators to take a breather with tweeting, citing bandwidth issues.
McFarlane, whose cable-free household watches the over-the-air primetime broadcast, is upset by the restrictions, but tries to keep perspective. "This isn't a crisis, it's a profound inconvenience."
"I understand that [NBC] paid for [the broadcasting rights]. I understand I don't have to watch. … I just don't know why a network would go so out of the way to be so unresponsive to viewers."
Mullins, who first experienced the frustrations of tape delay as a teenager during the 1996 Olympics, hopes the #nbcfail campaign will make executives "listen to the criticisms, stop being so defensive and try to come to grips with the 21st century."
"It is not 1996 anymore," he added. "I think NBC might be surprised how they are able to get a high rating for the event live and then again primetime."
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