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Lost in Cyberspace

Reality Olympics

© 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz

Imagine the media packaged the Olympics like it was a reality TV show. You know, one Olympic village, thousands of athletes, no privacy and daily challenges in which everyone but the top three got banished. Along with TV there'd be a 24/7 live, streaming video Webcast showing every contest in every venue. Internet users could choose between video feeds, and not just of the games. There'd also be Web cams in the locker rooms, dorms and nightclubs the athletes frequent. Now that would be up close and personal.

Far out? Not really. The basic elements are already in place. But two major hurdles remain to making a streaming video Olympics a reality. One is the still-primitive state of the technology -- on most computers, streaming video still looks like a fuzzy slide show the size of a postage stamp. The other hurdle is the still-primitive state of mind of TV executives, who have yet to figure out the Internet is their friend, not their enemy.

During the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, it's NBC's turn to dumb down the proceedings for Americans who may not watch another track, gymnastics or swim meet for four more years. In what NBC calls its "Total Olympics," the network and its cable channels, CNBC and MSNBC, increased their coverage from 171.5 (mostly live) hours for the 1996 Atlanta games to 441.5 (mostly recorded) hours for Sydney. Rather than repeating each other, the three channels divvied up the coverage, with CNBC showing mostly team sports and MSNBC having two hours of boxing a day, freeing the peacock network to focus on classic Olympic events like track, gymnastics and swimming.

NBC also has an official Olympics Web site, NBCOlympics.com, featuring "Athlete's Voice" programming, with Olympians (or their publicists) providing ongoing first-person accounts of their experiences through online diaries, pictures, audio and even e-mail. Quokka.com, the Internet company handling NBC's online Olympics coverage, created an "Action Tracker" with real time event results, slide show pictures of the action and a running commentary. It's a nifty feature, although it only works with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser and not Netscape.

NBC and Quokka teamed up with a third company, Axient.com, to provide streaming video highlights of the games. Axient promises "full-screen, full-speed, high-resolution video, clear stereo sound and fast text and graphics." But even if it is "media quality," the video is only available to computer users in the U.S. using a broadband connection like cable or DSL and Axient's Octane Internet provider, unavailable in many areas.

Which, one suspects, is just fine with NBC. The International Olympic Committee banned all streaming audio and video of the games, largely to protect TV networks worldwide, which paid a total of $1.3 billion for exclusive rights. According to an article on the Australian Web site "Sydney Games" <www.smh.com.au/olympics>, streaming video services like Axient offering high-speed Internet to closed networks of subscribers by-passed the ban by striking deals with TV rights holders like NBC. But instead of offering live Webcasts of the games, NBCOlympics.com permitted a measly 20 minutes a day of streaming video and audio highlights.

One reason NBC allowed so little streaming video is that it tape-delayed the Down Under Olympics for prime time viewing in North America. The concern is that sports fans would turn to the Internet to watch the games live instead of turning on the TV to see the replay. But at least one TV executive, Paul Romer, thinks online media and TV complement each other. Romer speaks from experience, being the co-creator and executive producer of "Big Brother," the reality TV show that has already been a cross-media smash in Germany, England and his native Holland.

In a recent interview at the official "Big Brother" Web site, BigBrother2000.com, Romer said his attitude has changed a lot from 18 months ago, when he tried to keep all breaking news from the European "Big Brother" house off the Internet by pushing a "panic button" that stopped the Internet feed.

He said that for the first two weeks they used the panic button to stop the live feed all the time. But once they cut back, the TV show "benefited from all the attention on the 'net. People saw things happening live and they wanted to see what we did with it on television. The moment I would show it on television the Internet side went sky high because people wanted to see what happens now."

The Internet and TV versions of "Big Brother" "were really helping each other," Romer added. "But that's a big change of mindset for a television producer. And that has to happen with all the executives, with all the networks. They all have to have that experience. (It) will be a struggle, but in the end it will happen."

Though not in time for the Olympics.
 
 

copyright 2000 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.


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