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Trying to watch the Olympics on TV and the Web

August 11, 2008 |  2:02 pm
Michael Phelps

How is your Olympics-watching experience going?

You may have caught some of the Olympic Games over the weekend, most likely in front of your television set and not online. NBC Universal, which owns the U.S. broadcast rights, said it attracted a 114 million TV viewers, which was itself an Olympic record. The Web viewing audience was a fraction of that, although a lot better than during the last Olympics (more details below).

Sure, there's griping about the TV experience. Chief among them is the fact that you couldn't watch some events live, such as the opening ceremony. But from what I caught, this beautiful, intense 4-hour celebration may have been best enjoyed tape-delayed, broken into 12-minute bite-sized videos and aided by the informed commentary. I went to bed somewhere between the contingents from Iraq and Iran walking into the stadium and woke up to see the runner taking the torch on its last loop on the rim of the stadium.

Still, a lot of people would have wanted the choice, and more exposure may have helped, not hurt, NBC's bottom line. Not sure if I hallucinated the lighting of the torch, I attempted to find video clips ...

... of it online so I could e-mail friends and family, and thereby aid NBC by building up buzz. But I failed to find a working link of an event that was 24 hours old.

The live issue is more pressing, of course, for actual athletic events. For East Coast viewers, NBC did air live swimmer Michael Phelps shattering one of his own records. But here, on the West Coast, we learned about the record falling elsewhere and, the suspense gone, got to tune in merely to watch how Phelps broke the record, Silicon Alley Insider complained.

In the online realm, NBC has said it is airing more than 2,200 hours of video of Olympic events, available to be watched after downloading a player from its site, as the LAT's Web Scout blog describes. But there have been mixed reports about the availability and quality of the video, not to mention technical difficulties.

Still, Nielsen Online reported today that a small but growing U.S. Internet audience is visiting NBC's Olympics site: 1.4 million Thursday, 2.6 million for the opening ceremony Friday and 4 million Saturday. Yahoo was second with 1.4 million Thursday, 1.5 million Friday and 3.3 million Saturday.

Those numbers are pretty good compared with other big sporting events: Nearly 5 million online viewers visited Fox Sports on MSN during the busiest day of this year's NCAA basketball championship, and 4.4 million visited the site the Monday after the Super Bowl.

NBC's own statistics include the number of videos watched and time spent on the site. On Friday, there were 1.3 million videos streamed, and the average visitor spent 10 minutes on the site. By Sunday, that had jumped to 3.42 million videos streamed and 15 minutes on average spent on the site.   

On Sunday, saw 5.1 million unique users and 66.7 million page views. In comparison, the record for the 2004 Games in Athens was 1.46 million unique users and 20.6 million page views. Total video streamed for the entire Athens Games was 2.2 million, according to an NBC spokesman.

The Wall Street Journal reports that although 90% viewed the Olympics on TV, and 0.2% on the Internet only, 10% caught Olympic coverage on both TV and online. This should be a sign to TV decision-makers not to cast the Internet as their enemy, the blog Mashable argues.

Today, the first workday with the Olympics, will most likely see a bump in numbers as workers hit the site, says Jon Gibs, vice president of media analytics at Nielsen Online. He sees another benefit to the hours of Olympic video: Some sports, such as women's badminton, may build up an audience that will be there for them -- and advertisers -- during the next Olympics.

For those who tried a different route -- finding non-NBC video of events online -- it was a time-consuming experience of hunting and pecking for video only to have the link go dead, possibly because sites received shut-down notices from a representative of the International Olympic Committee, according to Silicon Alley Insider.

I clicked on a lot of dead links over the weekend, gave myself poor marks for technical skill, speed and stick-to-it-ness. Then I gave up.

No medal for me. 

-- Michelle Quinn

Photo: Michael Phelps competing at the Olympics Monday. Credit: Michael Kappeler/ AFP/ Getty Images