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NBC broadcasts Olympics under difficult conditions

In a highly ambitious move, over the next 17 days, NBC will present more than 3600 hours of TV broadcast coverage during the Beijing Olympic Games, spread across some 300 separate distribution platforms. Because of the time difference, prime-time coverage will only include live swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball.

Included among those delivery platforms is another 2200 hours of video coverage that can be played back on-demand on personal computers and mobile phones, plus 3000 hours of highlights, rewinds, encores and scoring results.

Much of the world will be watching as the network showcases a range of new broadcast technology, including the rail cam, dive cam and lane ID. “The Olympics serve as a great laboratory for us,” David Neal, executive VP of Olympics for NBC, told “TV Week.” “It serves as a great tradition on television that dates back to the days where the Olympics was in its own way a version of NAB on the road.”

NBC has spent more than $1 billion in rights fees and production costs for the Olympics. Even though sponsors will pay up to $750,000 for a single 30-second spot, much has changed in two years since the last Olympics broadcast. For one, no longer is television the only screen that matters.

Because of this, NBC is working with Nielsen for a new kind of audience measurement system. It will extend beyond TV viewing to capture users of Web sites, mobile telephones, and video-on-demand viewing.

It is far from certain whether the Olympics will be a success for the network. There are many challenges and uncertainties, including a fragmentation of the audience. And then there’s the Chinese government, which has been hesitant to fully cooperate with foreign journalists.

This is the first Olympic Games to be broadcast fully in HD. More than 1000 HD cameras and 60 HD mobile units will be in action. Even tiny point-of-view lipstick cameras will be HD. High-speed cameras at the finish lines take 2000 images a second to help determine the winner if a race is close. And all venues have been wired with fiber-optic cable.

A high-bandwidth, real-time IP connection between Beijing and NBC’s studios in New York and Los Angeles give shot selectors and editors in the United States the ability to edit video as it is being captured in Beijing — a technical feat never done before. There will also be encoding and transmission of low-resolution video from Olympic venues for broadband viewing.

On trial for the games is the relatively new medium of mobile television. With more than 600 million subscribers, the Chinese mobile telephone industry is huge. Like in Japan and Korea, mobile users in China are typically interested in new technology. They replace devices more often than a typical Western user and use services more often during large events such as the Olympics. It is programming tailor-made for the mobile television medium.

China was so committed to rolling out mobile television that the government pledged subsidies for the first year to support the development of technology and increase consumer demand. The Olympics is a high-stakes test of the technology.