2004 Summer Olympics disappoints in HD and on the Web

This year’s summer Olympics are generating a mixed bag of opinion among industry analysts and U.S. viewers.

As the first true HDTV Olympics, critics have not been kind. NBC’s HDTV feed is actually a day behind. And, in some cases, it’s two years behind, as the network broadcasts HD footage from the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games to fill time while the NTSC channel began showing this year’s opening ceremony at 8 p.m.

The HD feed started with an approximate 30-minute delay from NBC’s network NTSC telecast and then slowly lagged to a 24-hour delay. The coverage, running in eight-hour loops, was taped delayed, but HD viewers weren’t told in advance it would be a day behind.

The Seattle Times said that even Comcast, the only cable outlet carrying HDTV in Seattle, was surprised, thinking the delays were to be an hour.

Even with the delays, NBC Universal has limited HD coverage to swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, and the medal rounds of soccer and basketball.

Although the network is promoting a 24-hour channel with 399 hours of HD programming, it’s actually about 135 hours of original programming from six venues shown most days on an eight-hour loop.

The Olympic Games are being used to stimulate viewers to buy HDTV sets.

"The problem is, the sets are selling but (buyers aren’t) necessarily getting HD," said video industry analyst Bruce Leichtman. "Service providers have to swoop in and use this as a precipitous moment to get HD in the home."

John Mancini told Wired that he expected the Olympics HD channel to spark high-definition sales at his Mid-America Satellite DIRECTV dealership in St. Louis. But as the Olympics were starting, he hadn’t even seen a blip, despite constant promotion by the local NBC affiliate and late advertising from DIRECTV.

Mancini said after reviewing the sales for HD sets two days ago — they sell about 15 to 20 new subscriptions a day — his business is averaging one out of every 100 taking an HD feed.

No one, including NBC, is satisfied with the amount of programming or the way it’s being produced, Wired reported. NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said the host committee’s last-minute decision to provide high definition was the main factor.

“We would like to do much more but can’t this time around,” she explained, adding that NBC plans to provide the main feed without delay in high definition for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

NBC is also streaming video of the events on the Internet — another first this year that’s been approved by the International Olympic Committee. But despite its contractual hold on Olympic footage, www.nbcolympics.com is offering only highlights of selected events after they have been broadcast on one of the network’s TV channels.

By contrast, those online in the United Kingdom can watch live simulcast coverage from BBC TV’s five video streams. Other European networks are also offering live, on-demand Internet video streaming of Olympic events to broadband viewers.

The catch is that the BBC and fellow members of the European Broadcasting Union are required by their Olympic broadcast contracts to block U.S. Internet users and others from outside their home counties.

Neither network will reveal how it is restricting Internet broadcasts within specific geographic boundaries. NBC spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard also declined to confirm media reports that NBC is encrypting its video feed and scanning Internet visitors to restrict access to those connecting through a U.S. service provider.

But experts are wondering whether the restrictions will work. Once the American Internet viewing public realizes that U.K. web surfers are watching better Olympic coverage than they are allowed to see after forking over their credit card, they will look for better ways to access those images. Bandwidth has gotten a lot cheaper over the years, so it is not out of the question to think that someone will set up proxy servers in Britain that would do this.

While there are various ways to bypass restrictions, experts said, the larger question is whether the Internet community really cares enough about the Olympics to set up an alternative network for live footage.

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