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Broadcast of the Rings

There's a certain irony in the International Olympic Committee's choice of YouTube as its broadcast platform for the Beijing Olympics, which started last night or this morning depending on your time zone. The plan is that the IOC's official channel will bring clips of Olympic coverage to the 77 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East where it hasn't sold TV rights. This is the first time the Olympics will have official Internet coverage.

The IOC said eight years ago that it would not allow Internet broadcasting until technology was in place to control geographical distribution reliably. Four years ago, major broadcasters like the BBC did their first Webcasts of the Games to subscribers in the right geographical areas who had broadband. And now YouTube: the Olympics are starting to do their own TV production.

The irony lies in a couple of things. First of all, of course, are all those suits YouTube is currently experiencing. There's the Viacom suit, the one in which the judge has ordered YouTube to turn over "anonymized" user data. There's the €500 million suit brought by Mediaset, Italy's largest commercial broadcaster, owned by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which has said it will also claim compensation for lost advertising revenues. Music publishers. Football leagues. And so on. It's a surprise that the IOC is partnering with YouTube rather than suing Google.

Second of all is that even though YouTube (which, as it was only founded in February 2005, didn't actually exist at the time of the last summer Olympics) seems to be capable of blocking viewers from the wrong sort of IP address from the official channel the odds are pretty good that in a very short time the amount of unrestricted "unofficial" Olympic coverage on the site will dwarf the official stuff. It remains to be seen what kind of policing effort the IOC mounts to prevent that.

But the third irony is of course that there are plenty of ways to see the Olympics that bypass local broadcasters. And plenty of motives for doing so: US viewers, for example, have for years been frustrated by NBC's insistence on saving the biggest events for prime-time evening viewing, even if that means showing them on tape delay many hours after they actually took place. Got a friend with broadband and a VPN in another country that shows events live? VPN into friend's network and access their local broadcaster's stream via their network. British friends ought to be especially in demand for this kind of thing, since the BBC's coverage is...actually, comprehensive isn't really a big enough word for it.

If you're friendless and don't care about real-time viewing, you'll probably find the sport of your choice popping up pretty quickly via the usual torrent sites. True, that, too, will be time-delayed, but you will still get it sooner than those poor NBC-afflicted saps.

If you're friendless and do care about real-time viewing, your best bet is to download one of the many Chinese P2P TV players such as TVU Player (desktop and mobile phone versions), Sopcast (desktop and Web versions), or PPLive, or head over to Channelsurfing.net. These things tap into the open streams from broadcasters all over the world. Not ideal: the output is in a small, low-res screen on your computer, but as against that there's the benefit of having the commentary in a (usually) incomprehensible language. It's hard to get so annoyed with commentators you don't understand. (TVU Player showed the Olympic opening ceremony over what seemed to be an Italian channel.) Channelsurfing.net publishes a schedule you can click on. With the other players the schedule is always a little bit of a mystery, although AsiaPlate seems to be helpful with respect to the Olympic streaming schedule. (Its tennis page, however, hasn't been updated since February.)

By 2012, it would be a logical progression for the IOC to offer streaming video from its own site, particularly for the smaller niche sports that don't get much coverage even in the best-endowed countries. NBC is boasting as much as 3,600 hours of coverage if you include TV and broadband services, standard and high-def; NBC has said 2,900 hours of it will be live. The difficulty for the IOC is that according to its own figures (PDF) 50 percent of its revenues - $2.57 billion - come from broadcast rights (and much of that from NBC). Sponsorship is 40 percent, ticketing 8 percent, and licensing and other sources only 2 percent. It's hard to imagine the Net being able to replace that kind of revenue any time soon. What's more likely is pressure on broadcasters to encrypt those open streams.

Sports, particularly the biggest events, seem likely to continue to increase in value to broadcasters: they are one of the few things that a mass of people really care about seeing live. Which is the fourth irony: both the IOC's own official YouTube channel and an important portion (a little over 20 percent) of the official channels of its biggest broadcaster, NBC, are both tape-delayed.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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