The Olympics' Internet Explosion

By David Strom

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It used to be a standing joke in my home that the summer Olympics was all about watching non-stop gymnastics. But there is no better place to demonstrate the diversity and ensuing explosive growth in Internet video than this week's Olympic games from Beijing.


NBC is planning on broadcasting via the Internet more than two thousand hours of live video programming, covering 25 different sports. Compare this with the winter Olympics two years ago in Turin, where a single hockey match was broadcast live over the Internet. Clearly, this is more than just gymnastics all the time, and offers an unprecedented opportunity for sports fans to tune in without having to suffer through any "up close and personal" mini-biographical interruptions. It’s all sports, all the time.


All told, approximately 3,600 hours of event programming will be provided both as a live video feed and available as stored streams for later viewing. Just the live programming is about double of what was broadcast four years ago for the Athens Olympics. 


"The amount of video being delivered for this year's Olympics exceeds all the prior summer games broadcasts in terms of hours and complexity," said Matt Adams VP of Broadcast Solutions for Omneon of Sunnyvale, Calif. Adams heads up the Olympics project for the company, which is one of the many key technology suppliers for the games.


The video demands for this year's sporting spectacular are bigger, too. It isn't just broadcast TV and Internet, but a range of both high definition and standard definition—support for both mobile and streaming players too. Adams has "lost count" of the number of different video formats that will be generated for the various devices.


"Our biggest challenge is the scale of what we are doing and the many different standards of the various new media formats," he said. "It seems like every day NBC is signing up a new distribution outlet with a new format." Anystream.com is handling the transcoding of the various video formats.


What the viewer will see is a custom media player on the Web site, NBCOlympics.com, which was developed using Microsoft's Silverlight programming tools by Schematic.com. All of the content will be available free of charge, and up to a dozen simultaneous streams will be running at any given time during the actual sporting events. The content can be viewed on a variety of Web browsers although non-Intel-based Macs are not supported due to Silverlight v2 limitations.


Matthew Rechs, the CTO of Schematic, said, "We have done a lot of different video players for different clients. What is unique about this one is bringing content that has never been seen before online. Up until relatively recently, a very small amount of the games were televised. Now you watch every minute of whatever contest that you want to see." 


NBC's Web site also has extensive searching features so that fans can filter video feeds by sport, country or even particular athletes. Fans can watch up to four live streams from the same event at once. The picture-in-picture feature lets fans watch a program displayed in inset windows while another program is displayed on the full screen.


Fans can also view expert commentary that is displayed over the video, and also access rich meta data such as results, and athlete information while they’re watching, plus they can receive email alerts to ensure they catch their favorite events live.


New Era, New Challenges


Hosting the games halfway around the world as well as trying to meet the insatiable appetite of international sports fans in this You Tube era combine to pose special challenges. There are actually two different video production processes, one for handling the live TV and Web streams, and one for assembling edited packages after an event has taken place for a variety of video formats.

For the latter process, NBC will be capturing all of this video footage in Omneon's MediaGrid Active Storage System for use by producers and editors who will then create the highlights packages and other programming elements. Incoming HD feeds from Olympic venues are digitized through 24 Omneon MediaDecks and up to 100 terabytes of files are stored on the MediaGrid array in Beijing. These are then replicated to other arrays back in the U.S. Omneon creates "proxies" or MPEG-4 low-res copies of the incoming feeds and transfers them from Beijing to NBC's New York City headquarters.


New media producers working at their desktops use these proxy files to decide on how to put together the various programs, and then an XML script is used to assemble the final high-res version that is digitally shipped from China.


"This is the largest storage grid we've operated so far," said Adams. Omneon works for a variety of broadcasters and private companies that want to deliver video content. Using this setup will cut down on the amount of overall HD video transmitted across the Internet, although some serious bandwidth is still needed for this Olympics.


AT&T is managing three OC-3 150 Mbit lines from Beijing for both the live broadcast and the stored video streams. As a comparison, 20 years ago the Calgary Olympics used mostly coaxial cable in the pre-Internet era to move its video streams around from the various Olympic venues to the central broadcast center.


The events will be shown on a wide variety of TV stations including MSNBC, CNBC, USA, Bravo, Telemundo, and various international affiliated broadcasters, as well. And if that isn't enough and you really want more to watch, Amazon.com will also offer videos for sale on its Web.


”It’s our goal to deliver the best Olympics experience to the broadest audience, “ said Perkins Miller, Senior Vice President, Digital Media, NBC Sports and Olympics. So far, it looks like they’ve succeeded. Let the Games begin.