How the web is changing how we watch the Olympics

August 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

The London Olympics have ended and the post match analyses have begun. A significant part of that is always how many people were able to view the world’s biggest sporting show and how that compared with previous games.

An important aspect is how are people viewing the games. Just as these have been billed as the first social media games (the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver notwithstanding), they are also perhaps the first major internet games.

The changing viewing patterns are being driven by the explosion in smart phone numbers, the emergence of tablets and the increasing uptake of internet television.

Due to my last post which was broadly about the Olympic games and social media, I was asked to appear on the new incarnation of Media 7, a media-issues programme that used to be hosted on TVNZ7 before the plug was pulled. The new programme, Media 3, now screens on TV3 and is available on demand. You can check out the first episode here.

In segment I appear in, I made the observation that there was an increasing proportion of viewers in the United Kingdom who were using tablets and mobile phones (and not geo-blocked as the rest of the world was to the BBC’s extensive coverage of the games) to access live streaming of Olympic events.

That combined smart phone/tablet statistic is 41 percent. Contrast that with television with 3 percent. Internet television may be growing quickly but it is still small, and the computer is still the default setting for online viewing with 56 percent. But what’s clear is that a significant number of people used the internet to access one of the BBC’s 24 live streams  to do their Olympic viewing by.

A friend of mine, Ajay Murthy, who is a digital producer, confirmed this. He anticipates that the components of the pie chart will change quickly in the short to medium term as the computer segment declines as the others take an increasing share – particularly internet television.

The interesting part is that more and more people want live events available on mobile platforms and they want increasing choice. To its surprise, the BBC found that each of the channels narrowcasting particular competitions live found significant niche audiences.

Ajay told me:

“There is a story about the ascent of connected TV here. The percentage is much higher than even I expected. So many viewers chose IP streams despite there being multiple dedicated channels on TV with the same coverage. The streams had geo-blocks in place so the majority of views will have been in the UK, except for the minority outside who have virtual proxy networks setup.”

According to this article by the Auckland-based technology writer, Juha Saarinen, the BBC delivered over 2.8 petabytes of video data to viewers on a single day during the London Olympics which is some kind of record. To put this into context that exceeds the entire online traffic for the coverage of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, an event that comes a close second to the Olympics as the world’s most watched sporting event.

The International Olympic Committee also concluded that social media was driving interest and viewing among groups that previously had relatively little interest in the games. It says that NBC viewing statistics in the United States showed teenage viewers up 29 percent when compared with the Beijing Olympics four years ago.

When broken down, the IOC says its figures show that there was a 54 percent increase in the number of teenage girls watching the games – something it attributed to social media peer sharing.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, it appears that mainstream free to air and pay television still rule when it comes to live sports, mainly because there is little choice unless you organise a fast broadband connection and a VPN. Otherwise, it was no good trying to watch BBC, NBC or the Nine Network’s online coverage because all that content was blocked to New Zealand viewers.

Instead, we had to rely on six extra Olympic channels (if you are a Sky Sports subscribers) and one free to air channel – Prime – which dedicated most of its air time during the sixteen days to bring us 24 hour coverage – some of it live and some of it recorded – and which included a 90 minute highlights package every evening.

And the lack of video on demand catch-up coverage to see the breadth and depth of sporting competitions that didn’t involve New Zealand athletes was frustrating, unlike the extensive bank of videos that TVNZ provided during the Beijing games when it had the rights four years ago.

For Rio in four years time, New Zealand’s ultra-fast broadband network will be embedded and we can hope for a quantum leap in online Olympic coverage. It will be a good yardstick of where we are in the digital stakes in 2016.

I want to thank Russell Brown, Lacey Graham and Sarah Daniell for the opportunity to be on the first programme of Media 3. Oh, and did I already say where you could watch it?

[photo credit: Canadian Press / Rex Features]


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