• 02.21.14

The British Are Streaming . . . For Free! So Why Isn’t NBC?

The BBC’s access to Olympics coverage highlights how expensive and broken the TV user experience has become.

The British Are Streaming . . . For Free! So Why Isn’t NBC?
[Image: Flickr user Atos International]

In the U.S., NBC has a death grip on Olympics coverage, aggressively keeping clips off YouTube and monetizing its broadcast at every possible turn. But the BBC tells a much different story. This winter, the BBC is broadcasting the Olympics live and in their entirety at no additional cost to viewers. To stream NBC’s live Olympic coverage stateside, however, customers must absorb the cost of both a pay-TV subscription and Internet connection respectively (not to mention withstand commercials) for access to the online broadcast. Sports enthusiasts within the U.K., however, can enjoy not only their national BBC television broadcast, but each and every Olympic event streamed live to their preferred desktop or mobile device by purchasing a standard yearly BBC license (for only £145.50 per color TV per year, no less)–ad free.


Depending on their device and Internet connection, users can access the best-quality video available to them. The service is available to all mobile and desktop platforms (iOS, Android, Kindle), with streams’ bit rate range from 56kbps (3G) to 3.5mbps for a 720p HD experience. “We have an offering of six live HD streams of every event in the Games, with 750 hours of live action. All streams will be delivered in RTMP, Adobe HDS, and HLS formats using Elemental encoders and distributed via multiple CDNs,” says Neil Hall, executive product manager for BBC Sport. “We’re now at that point where the technology and the devices that people have in their hands every day really can make viewing the content digitally a good experience, which really gives us the potential to delight audiences of each sport in a way that isn’t limited by a network schedule.”

With over 600 hours of streaming content to supplement the network’s standard 200 or so hours of television content, the BBC is making good on its promise to provide access to the Olympic experience from anywhere, with 600 additional hours of live coverage–that’s every event. Since their home Games in 2012, the BBC has experienced a staggering increase in viewership across the board.

“Cumulative TV reach so far is over 24 million, RedButton–our support interactive service–has reached 8 ½ million, and the website has hit 10 million,” explains Philip Bernie, head of TV Sport for the BBC. “We have an appreciation index where anything over 80 is very high, and it’s been regularly in the mid-80s. BBC 2, for instance, is beating by some distance the average [viewership] that the channel usually receives throughout the day. The benefit of the RedButton service is that we can, pretty much, show everything in different guises and so even the aficionado of, say, biathlon, which is not got a huge British following, will have the opportunity to watch that too.”

And they’re not done yet. The BBC has broadcast rights for both summer and Olympic Games through 2020, with hopes of extending well beyond that. “The BBC has shown the Olympics since they’ve been on TV,” says Bernie. “We believe that the Olympic Games is a key part of what British sport is about and a time when the nation really unites behind its sporting events.” And they do. Unlike American NBC’s streaming coverage which requires a pay TV subscription in addition to Internet access, Bernie declares, “the key prerogative for BBC sport is to make sure that, where possible, we show to the nation–free to air and promotion free- the better sporting events that bring the nation together and really unite them.”

About the author

Matt Hartigan writes about sports technology for Co.Labs. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 2006 where he studied English, Psychology, Fine Arts and spectatorship.