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August 6, 2008 1:06 PM
Posted by Benjamin J. Romano
I wrote today about NBC's unprecedented online video presentation of the Olympics and its partnership with Microsoft. But it turns out not everyone gets to see the best features of the service, including live video, long-form event replays and NBC encore video.
People who don't have a television, tune in an over-the-air broadcast or subscribe to a cable provider that's not one of NBC's "distribution partners" are left out in the cold. NBC said this is a small slice of the U.S. audience, less than 10 percent by its own reckoning.
One of those is Paul Drahn, who lives in Crooked River Ranch, a community about 15 miles outside of the other Redmond in Central Oregon.
"I thought this would be great for my wife to watch a bunch of the Olympics on the Internet," Drahn said in an e-mail. "We don't have TV by choice. When all was downloaded and ready to go, I had to enter my zip code, no big deal, and my TV service provider. There is no choice for none of the above!"
Drahn was filling out the short "get local" form that first-time visitors to NBCOlympics.com are prompted to complete. If you haven't done so when you first visit the page, you will be prompted when you try to view a video, such as the full replay of Norway's 2-0 rout of the U.S. in women's soccer.
The information helps populate the TV and online schedule tab at NBCOlympics.com with a programming guide specific to your market. But it also determines whether you are a customer of one of NBCOlympics' cable and satellite distribution partners.
Drahn tried selecting the local cable company that provides access at his electronics assembly business, BendBroadband, but it's apparently not among the partners.
For those who are not customers of NBCOlympics distribution providers, the system denies access to the cream of the online presentation: live video and full-length replays of events that will take place in China while most of America is sleeping.
It's spelled out in NBC's Terms and Conditions of service, and distilled in a brief FAQ:
Q: What if the television service provider that I choose is not part of NBC's Olympic premium online video partnership?
A: While more than 90% of all markets in the U.S. are partnered with NBC in this premium program, some providers have not partnered with NBC. If you're a subscriber in that market, you will not be able to watch LIVE, long form replays and NBC encore video: Please contact your local TV service provider with questions.
Q: Will I be able to watch any video?
A: Absolutely: You will still have access to hundreds of hours of Olympic highlights, athlete interviews and feature stories -- plus by entering your ZIP code, you will get up-to-the-minute TV listings for your home market."
It's not hard to circumvent this barrier by simply picking from among the NBC partners when prompted.
But why did NBC put it up in the first place?
NBC made the premium package available to every cable, satellite and broadband provider in the country, said Greg Hughes, spokesman for NBC Sports. Not all of them chose to take it, but most did.
"There are limitations to everything that you do and you do them for business reasons and you don't want people to fall through the cracks, but you can't make everything available to everybody at all times," he said. "... What we're doing is a, maximizing our rights for the Olympics and b, maximizing the exposure where we can, but there are parts of this that are out of our control, certainly."
It is a small group who will be without access -- even smaller considering it's so easy to circumvent the restriction. There are people who don't have adequate Internet access, dial-up customers for example.
"These things are not draconian. It would be different if there were five percent of the country that could see it. But this is far and away the most exposed Olympic games in the history of our country. No Olympic games before this comes close. It's a little bit on the nit-picky side to say, 'Yeah, but... .' It was zero percent in 2006 and zero percent in 2004, now we're at 90 percent, but we're like 'Yeah, but 10 percent still can't.'...
"It's sort of a perspective thing... . The larger sect of society is getting more than ever before, just how they want it, in a varity of ways that they want it, whether it's on NBC over the air, whether it's in HD, and it's on cable, and it's online and it's on mobile, if you have the right phone setup."
Still, the restriction could disappoint those who imagine a time when a television and cable subscription won't be necessary to get the best video of the biggest events, and saw NBC's Olympics presentation as a big move toward that vision. Hughes doesn't see that happening in the near future.
"This is a huge step in that evolution, but I would also say that even as it evolves, over-the-air television is going to remain the primary delivery system for big events for a long time to come. And those people who want to watch online only and not have a TV, they're not going to see Michael Phelps swimming live. ... Ultimately the delivery systems are designed to maximize an investment in a product. As of now, those delivery systems don't maximize your revenue."