Lowenstein's View: The first 'mobile' Olympics: bronze medal

Mark Lowenstein
Having an Olympics every two years is an interesting benchmark for the status of "content anywhere"--the idea that consumers can access any content on any "screen," using the fixed or mobile network. The huge audience for the Olympics and the allure of live sports makes the Games an ideal playground to experiment with different types of programming and business models--live programming, scripted/packaged programming (such as the prime time "Costas show") and supplementary content such as extra videos, profiles, statistics, and so on.

I would argue that the 2012 London Games is the first true "mobile" Olympics. We have:

  • Sufficient penetration of advanced devices (smartphones, tablets);
  • Availability of mobile broadband networks that can support video and live programming;
  • A business model allowing for delivery of content to multiple screens;
  • Significant investment by programmers (principally NBC in the U.S.) to deliver unique content for mobile; and
  • Heavy marketing of online and mobile content by NBC

Despite all this, I award the first "mobile" Olympics with only a bronze medal. On the plus side, there will be a massive amount of content available, with unprecedented access to live programming. This is a significant achievement. On the minus side, big money and the complexities of rights for live sports gets in the way of "nirvana," which to me means any content, anywhere, on demand.  

A great start…

For Olympics-philes, there is an awful lot to be excited about. Like in other recent Games, NBC continues to expand programming options: more channels, more content, more online, and more live. Certainly there is the nightly "Bob Costas" show in prime time, which will, like in past years, broadcast tape-delayed packages of the day's signature events, sprinkled with the requisite amount of personal interest stories, commercials, and manipulated to keep us watching till Midnight (Hint: set the DVR for 7pm-11:30pm, enjoy your summer evening, start watching at 9pm, skip the ads and the fluff, and you'll be caught up). There's also a ton of live programming on the other NBC networks such as MSNBC, CNBC, NBC Sports Network, Bravo, and Telemundo, plus the creation of specialty channels just for the Olympics for soccer, basketball, and other sports.

The online experience, nbcolympics.com, is also a lot richer, with vastly increased video content compared to even two years ago in Vancouver, more personalized content (for example, a "New England" tab appears at the top of my screen), and integration with social networks.

The real innovation, though, is live programming and mobile. Every Olympic event will be streamed live--that's right, all 32 sports and 302 events. This will be available from PCs through an NBC Olympics online site, and on smartphones/tablets through a free app called Live Extra that must be downloaded. Live Extra will provide access to the same live programming as the online site, over Wi-Fi and mobile networks.

The other mobile elements are:

  • An NBC Olympics mobile application for smartphones and tablets, which will provide a similar experience to the online site, with an ability to personalize (favorite sports, athletes, etc.), and offering greater focus on social media integration; and
  • An NBC Olympics mobile website, m.nbcolympics.com, which will optimize the NBC online experience for mobile devices.

The various mobile options for the Olympics are heavily promoted on the main NBC Web site, which should drive adoption.

I have played around with the live application on both a smartphone and a mobile phone and the experience is terrific. Once the app is downloaded, you simply click on your TV provider (Comcast in my case) and you're off to the races. No separate registration, password, etc. 

…But a poor finish

OK, now for the downside, and there are two biggies. First, the access to live programming, while free, is only available to subscribers of a cable, satellite, or telco TV service package that includes MSNBC and CNBC. There is no over-the-top option, or even the opportunity to purchase a package specifically for the Olympics.

Second, and even more maddening, the live programming is not available on TV. It is only available as an online stream to a PC, tablet, or smartphone. That's right--the truly authentic Olympics experience is available only for the small screen, not that gorgeous HD set that sits in most U.S. homes today.

This major compromise undoubtedly has to do with rights and money. The networks pay huge rights fees for the Olympics, and despite the multiple distribution channels, assembling a big audience for the prime time broadcasts remains the primary means of monetization. Live sports and other signature events that still command large audiences will continue to be the barrier to the "content anywhere" experience, unless and until the business model for online provides sufficient return on investment. This is the same reason the NFL commands a premium for TV ad rates, and why HBO refuses to make itself available over-the-top.

Missed opportunity?

I am also somewhat surprised at the how quiet the operators are being about marketing the Olympics experience. I understand that the IOC and TV rights holders have built a pretty big wall around content. But the operators are missing a nice opportunity to trumpet their 4G networks as a showcase for the first real "mobile" Olympics. There is currently nothing--zero, zip--on any of the operator Web sites even mentioning the Olympics (ironically, AT&T is a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team). No pro-active marketing to consumers, and very little joint marketing with NBC. Wouldn't this be a great opportunity to promote upgrades to LTE devices, higher tier data plans, Share Everything/Mobile Share, and so on? And hello, Android ecosystem--why not promote your current leadership position in 4G devices? Incidentally, front and center on Apple's App Store website is a promotion of Olympics apps from NBC and the IOC. Nothing on Google Play. Just sayin'.

This cements my view, discussed in recent columns, that the wireless operators don't actually want you consuming rich media over mobile networks--hence their lack of marketing of video-centric applications, and skittish data pricing plans.

What's next?

This first "mobile" Olympics will be an interesting experiment in two respects. First, with NBC's promotion of mobile and the markedly improved quality a true 4G network provides for live streaming, it will be interesting to track adoption rates and usage patterns. It will also be interesting to see whether the infrastructure--servers, networks, and so on--will be able to handle the traffic.

Another dynamic is that the multi-screen world provides an opportunity for the viewer to optimize their Olympics "experience." The "other screen" is a great companion while watching the Games on TV, to retrieve additional information on athletes, sports, and as a supplement during commercial breaks and other down times. Maybe we should call this the first "multi-tasking" Olympics.

Things are moving very fast. Streaming, mobile, and social provide the potential for a significant evolution in the Olympics experience for consumers, compared to even the most recent Games.

Looking forward, the next couple of years are expected to see significant developments in the "digital living room" initiatives by OTT players such as Apple and Google. Web-connected TVs are going to be a big part of this. The question is whether the business models, rights, and will of the content owners will keep pace. Perhaps as soon as the Winter Games in 2014 in Sochi, we'll be talking about live streaming the Olympics to the screen of your choice, not merely to the screen of the IOC's or NBC's choice.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.