The Olympics are more than just the world’s premiere sporting event—they’re big, big media business. Just a few years ago, the closing ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics attracted a staggering 900 million viewers, with more than 219.4 million Americans tuning into the games at one point or another.
But what if you want to watch the Olympics without paying for cable television? There are options. Although NBC is offering Olympic video through a staggering array of platforms—everything from Snapchat to Twitter—it’s impossible to legally stream major events online for free. Olympic advertising rates for television are a massive revenue generator for the International Olympic Committee, which means that NBC (and other broadcasters worldwide airing the Olympics) have to meet strict standards for what appears on television first.
And the network was fiercely criticized and cursed during the 2014 Winter Olympics by cord-cutters who weren't able to easily watch their favorite athletes and competitions.
With that said, cord-cutters can find some very easy ways to watch the Olympics without turning to cable or satellite.
NBC is airing the Summer Olympics on broadcast television, which means that crowd-pleasers like track and field, basketball, and swimming can all be viewed on your local NBC and Telemundo affiliates without the need for a cable subscription. High-quality digital antennas can be purchased for under $30 from Amazon, Target, Best Buy, Walmart, and other retailers. This is the easiest way, all things considered, to watch the Olympics—and the antenna does come in handy afterwards when you just want to watch television and Hulu is taking forever to buffer.
In the United States, NBC has partnered with Instagram and Facebook, Snapchat, and BuzzFeed to offer video clips from the Olympic Games—a list that conspicuously excludes Google and Twitter.
Facebook will work with NBC Olympics producers to create Facebook Live content during the games that will include interviews with athletes and commentators. Highlights from the games will be turned into short-form videos for both Instagram and Facebook as well. In a bid to attract casual viewers, there’s also a daily general video offered on both platforms.
NBC has also entered into an experimental deal with BuzzFeed and Snapchat as well. Twelve producers from BuzzFeed’s video division will create content for a temporary NBC Snapchat Discover channel that will appear during the Olympics. This content will include both highlight reels and original material centered around the games. There’s synergy at work here: NBCUniversal invested $200 million in BuzzFeed last year.
Twitter will also be an easy place to watch Olympic highlights. Despite the lack of a formal partnership between NBC and Twitter, the network is setting up a special feed that will offer short video clips throughout the games at @NBCOlympics.
YouTube is sending 15 of its top creators to Rio to create original Olympics content mainly aimed at millennial viewers. The Olympics will also be an opportunity for celebrity YouTubers to show off the platform’s new livecasting product, which competes with Periscope and Facebook Live.
But American YouTube aficionados may be in for a surprise: NBC’s contract with Facebook means officially sanctioned YouTube clips may not be easily available to stateside viewers. However, viewers in foreign markets will have an easier time, thanks to partnerships with broadcasters including the BBC and Japan’s NHK, which include extensive YouTube highlights.
NBCSports.com, a companion second screen app called NBC Olympics: Rio News & Results (which will include results updates and video highlights), and the NBC Sports app for phones, tablets, Roku, Xbox Live, and other devices will all offer video from the Olympic Games.
The NBC Sports app, however, requires a pay-TV membership for full access. Only limited access will be available to those without a subscription. As of press time, viewers without a cable subscription can stream 30 minutes from NBC Sports on their first visit and then five minutes daily afterwards.
For streaming video, the main choice is NBC Sports, which is streaming all games that are not appearing on television. The Sling pay service, which is available over Roku, Chromecast, and many other platforms, is also offering streaming of the Olympics. Sling has helpfully put together a guide to watching the Olympics on Sling.
There’s also an added treat for Samsung users: NBC’s Olympic app is offering special virtual reality content for Samsung owners. Intended only for use with the Samsung Gear VR headset, NBC is blocking the virtual reality content for those without Samsung phones; Cardboard users on iPhones and other headset early adopters are out of luck here.