TV Slowly Learning to Play Nice with the Web

The Olympics have been a modest success online for NBC in the United States (and traffic has been significantly better to its online coverage during the work week, according to Nielsen//NetRatings (PDF)). But despite putting 2,200 hours of streaming Olympics video on the Internet this time around, NBC still has a rather tepid relationship with the web as a delivery medium for its video content.

Consider that the types of sports NBC is willing to stream live on the Internet are not the most popular events among US web users. The NBC television broadcast will air another 1,400 hours of live and tape-delayed event coverage that won’t be available online until after it has already been shown on television. NBC was so afraid that the Internet would cannibalize its lucrative television coverage, it imposed strict limits on the amount and type of content it was willing to make available on the web.

That, however, is probably a mistake — and one that NBC and other broadcasters have even started admitted to making.

“We’ve learned that wherever you are, you watch on the biggest screen you can,” said Robert Bowman, the CEO of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, in the New York Times today. Bowman knows a thing or two about streaming content online — his firm streams as many hours of professional baseball games in the US each week as NBC is streaming video for the entire Olympics. Bowman said that fears that the web will eat into television viewing have been unfounded, and he hopes to do away with local market blackouts for web coverage in the coming years as well.

According to Bowman, before the TV to web debate, people were worried that putting games on television would keep people from visiting the ballpark. Yet, baseball has been setting yearly attendance records this entire decade.

Jason Kint, the GM of CBSSports.com, which this year webcast the entire NCAA basketball tournament, said that the decision to put the final games online as well as earlier rounds was a big win for the company. Putting the final games on the web, “only added to revenues and therefore profit,” he said. Only a small percentage of users watched those final games on the web, and those were likely people who were not able to get access to a larger screen.

The initial numbers for NBC’s Olympics seem to bare that out. Over the first few days of Olympics coverage just 0.2% watched solely online (that number may have jumped a bit once the work week began and people logged on from work).

“The streaming will not diminish the ratings,” sports-media consultant Neal Pilson told the Wall Street Journal last week. “It encourages viewers and provides them with information. There will be no dilution or fragmentation of the national audience.” Pilson advised the IOC on negotiating broadcast rights.

And NBC might actually be getting the picture. “The Internet hardly cannibalizes; it actually fuels interest,” NBC’s President of Research Alan Wurtzel told reporters last week. “If you watched the Olympics in high definition on a big screen, you are not going to watch it online. So that is why there isn’t going to be a cannibalization.”

That’s exactly the sentiment described by Kint and Bowman. People watch video content on the biggest screen available to them, and complete coverage online will only fuel the offline coverage. “If I watched a great event live, I’ll e-mail 55 people to say watch this on TV,” Bowman told the New York Times.

What this means is that in the future, we should expect more parity between web coverage of live events and television coverage, and better selections on web-based TV catchup services like a Hulu and the BBC iPlayer. That’s certainly a big win for consumers.

Update: Techdirt notes that some big media companies are even starting to realize that they can benefit from their content being illegally uploaded to YouTube by fans.

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