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Olympics coverage becomes major experiment on multiple platforms

For NBC, the Olympics are no longer just about television. It’s also about Web pages, mobile phone screens and video-on-demand viewers that may be anywhere at any given time. Aside from making the technology and broadcast systems work properly, attracting viewers in large enough numbers to realize a profit could prove to be a its most difficult challenge.

It’s generally acknowledged that the network is anticipating losing money on its various online and mobile video initiatives, but that’s not stopping it from trying. If NBC pulls it off, the establishment of the network as a true multimedia company could pay dividends well into the future.

Between now and Aug. 24, NBC will present more than 3600 hours of broadcast coverage during the Beijing Olympic Games. It’s also producing 2200 hours of on-demand coverage for personal computers and mobile phones, and 3000 hours of highlights, replays, and game results to be shown around the world.

It will be a showcase of new technology with such innovations as the Rail-Cam, Dive-Cam and Lane ID. And even though NBC has spent more than $1 billion in rights fees and production costs, the Olympics is far from a known success. Sponsors may pay up to $750,000 for a single 30-second spot, but a fragmented media landscape has left many unknowns as the Games unfold.

Because the viewers are using several types of new media, NBC has teamed with Nielsen for a new kind of audience measurement system. It adds Web sites, mobile telephones and video-on-demand viewing to traditional television.

Among the many challenges and uncertainties is the Chinese government. There may be agreements, but the Chinese are known to break them and change the rules on a moment’s notice. The government has shown little regard for press freedom, and has placed huge political, security and logistical challenges as a backdrop to the coverage.

The technical achievements are already historic. This is the first Olympics being broadcast fully in HD video. More than 1000 HD cameras and 60 HD mobile units are in action. Even tiny “point of view” lipstick cameras are HD. High-speed cameras at the finish lines take 2000 images a second to help determine the winner if a race is close. All venues have been wired with fiber-optic cable.

A real-time, high-bandwidth Cisco 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 accomplished 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. As 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 adore multimedia applications 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.

The Web site has been established as a year-round destination for fans of Olympic sports. It features news, previews, athlete features, expert blogs, photos, Olympic video from the NBC archives, and social tools enabling users to build communities around their favorite sports, post comments and blogs.