Internet can't get Olympic chance

Competition: Leaders limit live video to television to protect their top revenue source.

February 14, 2002|By Jon Healey | Jon Healey,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City are awash in high technology, with athletes and non-combatants alike using the latest gear to compete, judge and document the events.

The International Olympic Committee isn't letting the cutting edge slice into its lucrative relationship with global TV broadcasters, however. The IOC has barred Internet transmission of any digital audio or video until the Olympic flame is snuffed out.

The only way to watch the Olympics in the United States is to tune your television to NBC or one of its two cable outlets, CNBC and MSNBC. You won't even find highlights of the competition online while the Games are being played.

The IOC's stance is an aberration at a time when sports leagues are increasingly turning to the Web as an alternative - and revenue-generating - outlet for audio and video. Major League Baseball sells subscriptions to a full season of games on Web radio, for example.

"There are two main reasons," said Stephane Kanah, IOC Internet manager. "Today, there is not sufficient bandwidth or quality to show the emotions and to be able to view the competition properly.

"And most importantly, in order to protect our broadcasters' rights, especially those who are not broadcasting the games live ... we have restricted live videos until there is a technology that allows us to restrict access to videos [geographically]."

The Summer and Winter Olympics have long been financed by squeezing billions of dollars out of broadcasters for the exclusive right to present the games in their country. Those broadcasters need strong ratings to sustain the premium fees they charge advertisers.

If viewers can get their fill of bobsledding or snowboarding from a Web site, ratings and advertising revenue will drop. Broadcasters will bid less for the rights to the next Olympics, generating less money for the Games.

That, at least, is the IOC's contention. And online broadcasting experts agree that it's hard to build a 100 percent reliable electronic fence around a Web broadcast, as the IOC requires.

But Larry Jacobson, president and chief operating officer of RealNetworks Inc., said technologies have emerged in the past six months to meet the IOC's needs. These efforts have been spurred by the demands of record companies and Hollywood studios, which also cut up the world into different markets with exclusive distribution rights, Jacobson said.

NBC, which would be first up with online video from the games, isn't complaining.

"The most overrated thing in the world, at this point in time, is live video or live streaming on the Web," said Tom Feuer, coordinating producer for its Olympic site.

Watching video online through a dial-up modem can be a miserable experience. But more than 20 million consumers have high-speed Internet connections at home that can deliver a full-screen picture in close-to-videotape quality.

Given the growing broadband audience, some online broadcasters say, the Internet could increase the IOC's take. The Net could cater to specialized tastes, offering subscriptions to events or customized packages.

NBC's Olympics Web site (www.nbcolympics.com) isn't bereft of video clips. The main features of the site, though, are schedules, results, an exhaustive selection of athlete biographies and written explanations of the events. It's an approach designed to enhance the TV programs, not compete with them, Feuer said.

The network learned from the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 that the Internet "just paled in comparison [to the TV] as a business proposition, in terms of traffic and in terms of revenue," said Gary Zenkel, executive vice president for NBC Olympics.

"And by the way, the costs were very, very high."

Jon Healey writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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