NBC Uni sharpens Olympic game


NBC Universal is planning an ambitious mix of technology to blanket the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

There will be upward of 3,600 hours of live coverage of the Games, not only on NBC and its portfolio of cable channels but also VOD, online and mobile through its platforms and through its strategic partnerships with Microsoft, AT&T and MSOs, satellite providers and telcos.

"We wanted to provide the broadest distribution possible," NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel said.

NBC Uni is no stranger to large projects with its 75-plus years as a broadcaster and with its TV, film and Internet properties stretching all over the world. But it estimates that the two weeks of the Beijing Olympiad, both in TV and online, will be its most ambitious project yet.

Online, it means that the network will use AT&T fiber optics to send its high-definition TV signals from as many as 30 venues in and around Beijing back to the U.S. From the U.S., it will be distributed to viewers on NBCOlympics.com and MSN using Microsoft's state-of-the-art Silverlight video player. Silverlight will deliver a mix of live and on-demand video as well as such other data as statistics and results that make the video player a gold medalist as far as NBC Uni is concerned.

Silverlight's full-screen viewing is especially of interest to NBC Uni, which, like the rest of its high-tech offerings, will be ad-supported. That means the quality of the presentation and the viewing experience is key.

"(Microsoft has) obviously developed advanced digital products, and we found Silverlight to be a product that would be comparable with our ambition to distribute the volume of video we're planning," Zenkel said.

What Microsoft and MSN gets back is a deep connection to some of August's most compelling content. MSN has one of the biggest audience's online, and more than 100 million users a month visit the site.

NBC's increased Olympics presence online will be a big jump from even two years ago, when only the gold-medal hockey game was streamed live over the Internet. The network has been increasing its capacity to stream at NBCSports.com, with live coverage of such Olympic events as bobsled, speed skating, marathon and curling. It's one of several engineering tasks that Olympics engineering chief Dave Mazza and his team have been working on in the years since the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

Zenkel pointed to Mazza's team, which essentially has been together since the late 1990s, as the reason why NBC has been able to make such technological strides. Some members of the team have been with NBC even longer, since 1992.

"There's an amazing amount of engineering that goes into simply producing and distributing Olympic coverage on television," Zenkel said. "We have extended that today to essentially every conceivable platform."

This will be the first Olympics that will be produced exclusively in high definition. On VOD, that means working with cable and satellite operators as well as telcos for additional space for Olympics-dedicated video channels. While no deals have yet been announced, the extra channel positions will give viewers a deeper dive for Olympics coverage they might have missed. Also in the mix are additional high-definition channels beyond NBC, including Universal HD (which will carry CNBC and MSNBC Olympics coverage) and USA Network HD, which will be launched by the summer, as well as dedicated HD channels for basketball and soccer.

"We believe there's a significant amount of demand among basketball and soccer fans to see as much of those games as they can," Zenkel said.

One of the emerging platforms will be wireless through its On-the-Go coverage.