NBC's Online Olympics Coverage Won't Win A Medal After Shaky Weekend Debut

Full of promise, NBC’s live, online viewing experience debuted to disappointment over the weekend. The LIVE EXTRA coverage at NBCOlympics.com is billed as, "All 32 sports. All 302 events. All LIVE from London." If NBC is going to promise this, and sell ads for it, it must deliver. So far, the streaming live and replay coverage has been fraught with frozen images and crashing browsers.

The first real test came on Saturday when I, and presumably millions of others, tuned in around 3 p.m. EST to watch the Lochte-Phelps showdown in the 400-meter IM. As the athletes were being introduced before the start, Lochte came strutting out of the tunnel and then … the image froze. For several minutes, a little buffering circle taunted me as I pictured the swimmers stripping down to their suits and settling on the starting blocks halfway around the world. After refreshing the page, which prompted a new round of advertisements, I was able to rejoin the event in time to see only the closing moments.

A similar freeze occurred seconds after the start of the women’s 4x100-meter relay. This time the hiccup was fatal. My browser crashed and I had to restart the computer. I experienced several more untimely freezes, including one, while watching men’s gymnastics, where the stream actually unfroze to serve up a 30-second Coke ad, and then went back to buffering.

There are other frustrations. Though all events are streamed live, replays of marquee events are blocked until after they are shown in NBC’s prime time coverage. So if an event like gymnastics is live at 5 a.m. in your time zone, when you’re still asleep, you have to wait more than 12 hours to watch it during NBC’s prime time coverage.

NBC at first reacted defensively to reports of the glitches, suggesting the problems were isolated and caused by users’ out-of-date software or slow internet bandwidth. At the same time, however, they claimed to be working on the problem, according to New York Times reporter Richard Sandomir, who tweeted, "NBC working on problems w/ live Olympic streaming--freezing, stop-and-start; network said problems not widespread and hope to fix by tomw." According to the experience of me and other Outsports bloggers, as well as reports I found online, the glitches appear to have been widespread.

My experience Sunday was noticeably better. Functionality improved, both in terms of the image quality as well as the number of interruptions and crashes. The same was not true for Outsports co-founder Jim Buzinski. He had the swimming stream up for two hours on Sunday, and got to see 25 minutes worth of action. The rest of the time, he watched the buffering circle go round and round.

Despite Sunday's improvements, it is still a subpar viewing experience. For most of the morning, I couldn’t get through a swim race without the stream freezing up. This improved by afternoon, but every time I tried to switch into full-screen viewing, I experienced a brief pause every five seconds or so.

Additionally, I found at least one exception to the promise that "all 302 events" would be shown live. I couldn’t find any coverage of the tournament-altering soccer match between Spain and Honduras, either online or on TV, even though the Great Britain vs. United Arab Emirates game, which was happening at the same time, was being shown in both places.

One hopes that Sunday’s improvements to the video streaming mean that the glitches are simply problems of scale and will continue to improve as NBC bolsters its capabilities to meet demand.

A few other comments about the online viewing experience:

--Fifteen- and 30-second ads interrupt the feeds abruptly. I have no real complaint here, since they don’t seem to interfere with an event while in progress. But the ad experience does feel more jarring than on TV.

--The streaming video comes without NBC commentators, for better or for worse. There are neutral commentators for certain sports, such as swimming and gymnastics, but for most sports, like cycling or rowing, no commentary is provided.

There are pros and cons to this. If you’re a true fan of a sport, NBC’s commentators can be overly simplistic or outright infuriating in how they translate a sport’s subtleties. So the commentator-free feed is a refreshingly authentic experience, almost as if you are there in the stands yourself, taking it in. For more casual fans, commentators offer real value in the form of orienting you to the rules and format of a sport, as well as its major players. Without them, the sport lacks meaning and excitement. This isn’t a criticism, just a reality. Commentary or not, for sports like equestrian, badminton, archery, and others, this is the best coverage their sport has ever seen. And that’s progress I applaud.

I’m a heavy consumer of Olympics coverage. Ever since I was 14 and convinced my parents to get a TV so I could watch the ’94 Lillehammer Olympics, I’ve had a tortured, love-hate relationship with NBC (and, back then, CBS) for their stubborn policy of tape-delaying every important event and repackaging it for prime time rather than showing it live.

I’ve accepted the futility of complaining about my tape-delay frustrations because what’s at stake for NBC is not the viewing experience of the most passionate and knowledgeable fans, but rather the masses. And there is clear proof that the masses can still be corralled reliably for advertisers during prime time. Saturday night’s prime time coverage was the highest for any first night of an Olympic Games held on foreign soil.

With that in mind, the promise of on-demand live coverage of any Olympic event online is a dream come true for passionate sports fans. But only if it works. For NBC in 2012, at least, it’s a dream that will have to wait a little longer.

Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.