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Olympics: NBC Gives a Big Middle Finger to Over 100 Million Americans Without Cable TV

People all over the world are watching the Olympics online, but a lot of Americans are just out of luck.
 
 
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Every four years, much of the world comes together to compete in – and watch -- the Olympic games. Everyone on earth can catch this year's games online, with the exception of one group: Americans who don't have a subscription to cable TV.

NBC, which holds the U.S. rights to the games, is giving an Olympic-sized middle finger to a lot of households by offering the games online, but only to those with cable. I am one among a growing number of Americans who have given up their boxy television and watch content on their computers using services like Netflix streaming, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video. According to Nielson, about 48 million households don't have cable TV – that represents around 37 percent of the population. (This figure includes satellite TV subscribers, who are also out of luck when it comes to streaming the games. But it doesn't factor in people with, say, both sattelite and an old-fashioned TV with an antenna laying around – that group can catch games on NBC, but not those carried on MSNBC.)

I would gladly pay for the privelege of watching the Olympics online. $9.95 would be a no-brainer, I'd almost certainly go $14.95, and might have even pulled the trigger at $19.95. So NBC isn't just depriving a third of the population an opportunity to watch the games, it's not only getting a lot of criticism – the hashtag #NBCFail is all over Twitter – but the company is also leaving tens of millions in revenues on the table.

According to TorrentFreak – a bit-torrent site – while limited access to the games is only going to send people looking for illegal streamers, “NBC and the IOC are fully prepared to act against Olympic pirates to protect their commercial interests.” It's a bit odd when you think about it, given that NBC isn't offering the service itself, other than to cable TV subscribers who would be crazy to choose a shaky Chinese mirror site over their cable TV. Again, like many, I'd pay for the service if I could.

What is NBC thinking? On its face, their strategy appears to be in keeping with a lot of content-providers' apparent preference to treat their potential customers like thieves – fiercely “protecting” their intellectual property -- rather than coming up with innovative ways to offer their stuff to the growing audience of online-only media consumers at a reasonable price. Corporate culture is weighed down heavily by short-term thinking.

But there's more to it than that. Comcast, the country's leading cable provider, is the majority shareholder in NBC Universal, NBC's parent company. And Comcast has a problem: it's hemorrhaging cable subscribers. According to Nielson, between 2010 and 2011, cable subscriptions declined by almost 8 percent, while households that get their video via satellite, online, or from their telco increased by about 7 percent. (Actually, Comcast has two problems, the other being that people hate the company – it consistently scores terribly on consumer satisfaction surveys.)

Despite the fact that NBC enjoys the use of airwaves that belong to the American people, Comcast fears that those 37 percent of households who don't feel the need for company's boxes anymore are a harbinger of the future, and it seems to be willing to cut us off from the Olympic games to protect its core business (which is extra annoying for those of us who still fork over money for its broadband services). Comcast has long viewed the Olympics as a means of making cable more attractive – in 2009, before it bought a majority share in NBC Universal, Comcast upset the International Olympic Committee by announcing plans to launch a cable channel dedicated to the games (including off-year trials and world championship events). NBC also squawked, and it may be that holding the rights to the Olympics through 2012 was part of the broadcasters appeal for Comcast.

The irony is that Americans jonesing for this year's games can get around Comcast's blackout by doing what people in repressive countries whose governments censor the internet have long done: set up a mirroring service that makes it look as if their computer is located somewhere else, like London. These services cost $5-$10 per month, and allow users to catch all the games, in high definition and without tape-delay, on BBC.com.

An extra bonus is that the BBC apparently thinks that the games are dramatic enough on their own merit, and don't go in for the cheap, contrived melodrama that NBC's producers seem to adore. #NBCFail, indeed.

Joshua Holland is Senior Digital Producer at BillMoyers.com, and host of Politics and Reality Radio. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter

 
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