NBC Olympics web strategy: a loser?

I’m a big fan of Hulu. I think it represents a huge landmark in forward thinking by the major television networks, and that they should be applauded for their work with that particular platform thus far. The video quality is more than reasonable (better than I get off my standard definition Comcast pipe, even!), on-demand, and almost impossibly ad-free. I can scrub through video and replay any particularly hilarious bits I choose, without needing to buy an expensive TiVo, or spend the time to set up Media Center or MythTV.

Actually, after several hours of trying I still can’t get MythTV to work, so maybe it’s just me.

But no one gets it perfect right off the bat. Hulu had its issues at first –– Hulu has its issues now. Slowly, one by one, they addressed them. You can pause during commercials now, and turn the volume down a bit since they’re always compressed beyond belief. But while the library continues to grow, NBC and Fox have made the incomprehensible decision to limit the number of available episodes online, even before DVD sets are available for shows. It’s the web, why limit content and revenue?

So, when I heard about NBC’s Olympics initiative, I was fairly excited. A multitude of streaming video selection, hours of playback and clips, and other on-demand content was the plan, and with how well they pulled Hulu off, I was looking forward to seeing it in action. Of course, I was in Amsterdam the whole time, so I never got to actually see it, instead relying on what other people and blogs said about it.

TechCrunch reported a couple of days ago that the NBC Olympics web initiative was an abysmal failure. A “loser”.

Of course, this was largely stated from a fiscal perspective, but it was stated nonetheless. While I didn’t get to see NBC Olympics in action, I did get to see the Dutch equivalent –– incidentally also in Silverlight only. It featured 10 streaming channels, one of which mirrored Nederlands 1, and the rest of which were simply raw feeds from various sporting events. There was a schedule for each channel, and all sports got very good representation in the lineup. I could pick whatever I wanted to watch, tune in to the relevant channel, and even channel surf between events when things got slow between heats.

When I went to a friend’s house in Den Haag, we decided to tune into the Olympics then as well, on a real television set! And I felt frustratingly limited. We got to watch one of three channels –– that means we got to watch one of three events. And all without the blissful lack of commentary that could be found on the streaming channels (incidentally, one of TechCrunch’s few technological complaints leveled at NBCOlympics was the lack of commentary; I happen to think this was a feature).

So the Dutch equivalent was marvelous. And it was only a live solution, too –– there were hardly any event clips put up after the fact. And from what I’ve seen after getting back, NBC’s version was at least as good, if not orders of magnitude better.

So how was the project an loser?

Even by TechCrunch’s own books, the whole thing was still in the black. NBC tested out an entirely new way to broadcast, one that represents how everything should be done in the future, and users got unprecedented choice in what they watched. Yes, there were mistakes and misjudgments in planning and execution, but nothing is done perfectly the first time, and Hulu well shows.

I would never call such a forward thinking attempt to innovate a loser.

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