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Live From London

Setting a new record for live online streaming

The Olympic men’s long jump record, 8.9 meters, has not been broken in 44 years. The women’s 200-meter sprint record, 21.34 seconds, has stood for 24 years, along with men's shot put, 22.47 meters, and steeplechase, 8:05:51 minutes. 1Wired Magazine, “What Olympic athletes do to be one one-hundredth of a second faster,” by Mark McClusky, July 2012 But in 2012, one record is guaranteed to crumble, as it did in 2010 and will likely do again in 2014: the record for live-streaming Olympic events online, 25, and total streaming hours, 2,200, and the online audience itself that’s watching the games.

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London will be virtually 100% streamed – all 32 sports, every event, 3,500 hours total over 17 days – by both NBC and the BBC. At times, there may be as many as 40 simultaneous streams.


An Olympic gamble?

Streaming 100 percent of the games is a major strategic shift for NBC, which holds exclusive broadcast rights for the Olympics through 2020. While 2,200 hours of 25 sports were streamed live from Beijing in 2008, they did not include the marquee events reserved for prime time. Similarly, at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, the premier events were largely reserved for the broadcast audience.

Going all-in on streaming is not a risk-free undertaking for NBC. In the past two games, it has limited streaming for fear of cannibalizing its broadcast audience, an understandable concern. If the network doesn’t deliver the audience advertisers are expecting, its high-stakes gamble on the games through 2020 could cost a bundle. Even with nearly a billion dollars of advertising sold for the 2012 games – plus $55 million in ads for its streaming broadcasts – NBC is expected to lose $100-200 million on the $1.18 billion it paid for the rights to the London games. And it has committed $4.38 billion for the next four Olympics. 3Adweek, “NBC’s $1 Billion Olympic Sellout,” by Anthony Crupi, 6/27/12

The tidal shift toward online viewing since the most recent Olympics, though, is something NBC and the Olympic Committee could not ignore. Two years in “Internet time” is enough for paradigms to shift; four years is a lifetime. The iPhone was barely a year old for the Beijing Olympics. And the iPad came out the month after the Olympic flame was extinguished in Vancouver. Today, video viewing on the go and “second screen” viewing on the sofa are well-established habits.

As a hedge to protect its audience and advertisers, however, NBC isn’t letting just anybody watch online. Anyone who wants to watch the live streams will have to verify that they are cable, satellite or telco subscribers to a service that carries the NBC signal. Cable-cutters will be restricted to the over-the-air broadcasts unless they can score cable credentials from a friend or relative.

Multiple online viewing venues

The main U.S. streaming outlet will be NBCOlympics.com, using a video player built by YouTube. Two mobile apps will support the effort. The NBC Olympics app brings users up-to-date schedules, news and results, backstories, and video highlights. NBC Live Extra is the app that gives users full streaming coverage of all the Olympic events.

Like NBC, the BBC is streaming all the Olympic events live on the Web and through dedicated mobile apps, but will also offer UK viewers the option to view streams directly within Facebook. BBC Sport debuted its Facebook streaming with the Wimbledon championship. For the Olympics, it will offer UK Facebook users 24 simultaneous streams, and the usual options to like, share, and chat with friends, as well as see which streams friends are watching.

Beyond the NBC and BBC coverage, the International Olympic Committee will broadcast 2,200 hours of HD coverage directly over its YouTube channel to Asia and Africa. 4Mashable.com, “2012 Olympics: How to Watch 3,500 Hours of NBC Coverage Online,” by Sam Laird, 6/28/12

Streaming on an Olympic scale

It’s unlikely that there’s ever been an online streaming effort of the breadth and scale of what’s coming out of London. It’s a content-gathering, video-encoding, user-authenticating, delivery-managing challenge the likes of which has never been attempted before.

“This is the first time that anyone has actually attempted to execute at this scale,” says Donald Foss, Keynote’s director of global testing services. “It’s massive on a scale that, frankly, is only seen during the Olympics.”

The concept of live-streaming an event is fairly simple: collect the content feed from the source (the cameras), encode it for online, and push it out over the Internet. But when you multiply that by dozens of events, multiple camera angles for each, encoding not just for PCs but for iPhones, iPads, and multiple Android formats (at least), and then successfully delivering it to potentially millions of users spread around the globe – whose connection speeds may be fluctuating even as they watch the stream – things get complicated in a hurry.

“There’s a number of things with streaming these Olympics that aren’t Internet-related whatsoever,” Foss says. “You have to get the video from wherever the cameras are through satellite links –satellite uplink, satellite downlink – into a bank of encoders. Every stream option has to have a separate encoding system to make it available for the end users in whatever format and whatever bitrate they’re using. So if you have 200 streams available, and you’re going to have seven different bitrates available for each one, now we’re up to 1,400 different line syncs that have to be encoded.”

Streaming at this magnitude requires testing and monitoring on an unprecedented scale as well. Confirming successful delivery of one stream does not mean that the other versions of that stream are getting through. Each and every one requires validation.

“People want to watch anywhere they go, and now the challenge is how to test and scale that side of the model, too,” says Bhavesh Upadhyaya, who played a lead role in streaming the past two Olympics and is director of operations at iStream Planet. “You’re no longer simply validating that your software can support one delivery mechanism. Now you’ve got three or four, if not more, delivery mechanisms, and you’re adding onto that online advertising as well. It’s just becoming so much more complex because people are trying to get to the point where what they watch online is as simple as turning on a television.”

Assuming that NBC and YouTube have thoroughly stressed and load-tested their internal streaming infrastructure – among other things, they’ve conducted months of “war games” to prepare for an onslaught of hacker attacks – there’s still the actual delivery over the Internet to worry about, to the content distribution networks and beyond.

“With the Olympics especially, this is super critical,” Upadhyaya says, “because you are going to be, up to a point, saturating a lot of end nodes. You’re going to get to the point where, potentially for some major cities, you might be saturating an ISP with all the video that’s being delivered.”

Then there’s the mobile side of things. Content has to be staged as close to mobile providers as possible to support delivery to their customers. In many cases, those providers are remote, indeed.

“Google is provisioning for videos to be transmitted in places that have never really seen live-streamed videos before,” Foss says. “In rural Asia, in rural Africa – some of these places have never actually tried to stream this amount of data before in any format. They’ve never tried to transmit this many bits at one time.”

Will you “like” the “Socialympics”?

In addition to being the most deeply and widely streamed Olympics ever, it’s a safe bet to say that the London games will be the most liked, tweeted, plussed, and shared Olympics ever. The official Olympics Facebook page is already liked by millions.

At the time of the last summer games, Facebook had 100 million users. Now they claim more than 900 million. Twitter had 6 million users then; today they have 140 million. 6Mashable.com, “How Social Media Will Change the Olympics,” by Sam Laird, 4/19/12 Then, YouTube averaged something less than 70 million unique viewer visits per month; today it’s pulling in 800 million. In 2008, Google+, Pinterest, and Foursquare didn’t even exist, and the International Olympic Committee was still struggling with its social media policy. Today, more than 1,000 athletes have signed up for the official Olympic Athletes’ Hub (hub.olympic.org), where they’ll text, chat and otherwise engage their fans with the IOC’s approval.

Facebook and NBC are partnering to give each other’s Olympic efforts a boost. Facebook will promote NBC’s coverage as well as news and highlights, while viewers of NBC will regularly see familiar Facebook iconography on-screen, including a Facebook Talk Meter from time to time showing how online conversations are trending, and encouragement for viewers to vote in Facebook’s daily Olympic polls. 7The New York Times, “NBC and Facebook to Announce Olympic Partnership,” by Brian Stelter, 7/10/12

NBC has also teamed up with Shazam – the app known to most users for identifying music tracks – to offer still another avenue to access schedules, results, medal counts, and other ancillary content, as well as Olympic polling on Facebook and Twitter. 8AdMonsters.com, “Shazam Partners with NBC Olympics to Deliver a Social TV Interactive Experience for London 2012,” 6/26/12

In addition to comments and conversation about the games, social will be an important way for users to discover the video streams as viewers share what they find exciting. And that’s still another piece of the technology puzzle that has to be right.

“Most people aren’t going to be looking at every single one of the channels, constantly going back and forth figuring out what’s going to happen,” says Upadhyaya. “They want to know if something exciting is happening at this event, and social is the way right now. It’s the best way for people to communicate and say, ‘There’s something really cool going on in track and field right now.’ Or, ‘Oh my god! You’ve got to see this amazing shot put event.’”

Upadhyaya adds, "The people who are designing the video players and the people who are designing the websites that have the links into players need to do a really good job of integrating the social plugins, to ensure that people from within the video stream can simply say, ’I want to share this on Twitter, or Facebook, or pin it on Pinterest.’

Watching the future unfold

After the last medal is awarded and the athletes and fans head home, the legacy of the London Olympics will reach across the Internet and color the future of online video. Users have eagerly embraced online video on a wide range of devices, and many predict that video will soon make up the bulk of Internet traffic. Successfully executing an extended live streaming event of the scale and complexity of the London Olympics will elevate the bar as to what’s possible, and elevate users expectations as well.

“We are going to see more and more live linear television out there,” says Upadhyaya. “We’re going to be seeing more and more IP-capable devices that are out there and more avenues to deliver video. And the challenge is going to be to scale properly and validate that you can create one inbound stream and have it delivered to over-the-top devices, desktops, laptops, mobile devices, tablets, a little bit of everything.”

The world will get a glimpse of what’s possible from London. Let the games, and the future, begin!

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