I have thoroughly enjoyed watching this year’s Olympic Games. There have been so many moving moments, from when Simone Biles walked away from competition for her well-being (but still cheered on her teammates) to when the men’s swimming medley relay team, which qualified in lane one as an underdog, set a world record and took the gold.
I love the Olympics. That is, when I can find them.
In the United States, watching the Games this year has been a logistical nightmare. The difficultly in figuring out which events are happening when, and how to watch them, undermines the 7,000 hours of otherwise carefully planned competition.
America’s roughly 13-hour time difference with Tokyo doesn’t help. But the problems are exacerbated by a complicated circle of broadcast rights, coupled with a strange combination of real-time coverage, prime-time replays, and sports streamed across a handful of different services.
We live in an age when one can find any childhood TV show to stream in seconds. You can have any food fetish delivered to your door in an hour. But if you want to see the 100-meter women’s hurdles finals before the results are in your news feed? Good luck. The capabilities that technology affords broadcasters were supposed to make our lives easier. Instead, they’ve made them harder—at least during this year’s Games.
Indeed, if you’ve found the simple act of viewing the Olympics to be absurdly difficult, it’s not just you. “This is NBC’s seventh go-around of livestreaming the Olympics on the internet,” says Jesse James Garrett, a UX consultant and cofounder of the human-centered design firm Adaptive Path. “And they still haven’t gotten it right.”
A sour deal
One problem is that in the U.S., broadcast rights belong to NBCUniversal exclusively. NBC is a TV channel, yes, but it’s also a series of cable networks, the NBC Sports App, NBC’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics App for TV, and the Peacock streaming app. During the Olympics, it’s also a streaming website.
NBCUniversal, like all other big media companies, knows that streaming is the future (streaming currently accounts for a third of all TV time, but Nielsen says that figure is growing quickly), and so it needs to build out platforms like Peacock to survive in that future. To get consumers using more of these services, NBC has sliced and diced Olympics coverage across all of its platforms. For instance, you can watch the full women’s gymnastics events only on Peacock. And if you plan to watch any sport in 4K? Just cross your fingers.
Streaming full-length Olympic replays sounds like it’s a perfect solution to having so many sports across so many platforms, but these streams are tightly controlled by ad dollars. Some are presented in six-hour-long chunks, preventing you from fast-forwarding (lest you skip a commercial), meaning that if you wanted to see something at hour five of the stream, you need to stream five literal hours to get there.
Is this just the way of the modern world? No. The rest of the globe doesn’t live this way because NBCUniversal doesn’t control the Olympics broadcast worldwide. When I reached out to UX expert and consultant Matt Webb, asking how the Olympics broadcast was playing out over in Britain, he had no complaints, and he hadn’t heard any from friends. BBC plays two simultaneous live broadcasts, and you can buy more coverage by subscribing to Eurosport. His one sore spot is the same thing that most of his country is complaining about. In 2012 and 2016, they could watch every event free through the BBC iPlayer web stream. Now that’s a paid privilege.
A FOMO-inducing presentation
In a larger sense, streaming has completely reshaped viewers’ expectations of what we should be able to watch. We expect to be able to watch absolutely anything at any time. And anything less than total access makes us feel like we’re missing out.
I’ve been watching the Olympics through Xfinity, which has a special page for Olympics content, showing live events and other sport-specific streams. Hulu has a similar system, as does YouTubeTV. Even NBC’s own Olympics webpage works like this.
On all of these platforms, sporting events are presented like thumbnails that you select to watch. It seems easy at first glance. I can open Peacock with a tap to watch a gymnastics replay. Or I can tune in to the live broadcast of swimming. It doesn’t matter if it’s cable, DVR, or an app stream. The designs have glued all of these disparate platforms together.
The issue is that there’s no perfect taxonomical view that shows all 47 separate events, and makes sure you can catch everything within that event. (Xfinity lets you pick your favorite sports to highlight, but in practice, it’s so buggy it’s useless. The tool literally misses the very events it promises to flag for you.)
As a result, while we always have options for which event to watch next, we never feel like we’re seeing all the options available to us—let alone options that are tailored to our preferences. “There’s this cloud of FOMO hanging over this Olympics experience,” Garrett says. “There’s so much uncertainty as to what’s going on; has this thing happened yet, what have I missed?”
So even if we can technically stream more Olympics than ever before, our expectations are raised, and we feel like we are seeing less of the stuff we want.
Another issue with streaming so much of the Olympics is that you need to opt in to what you want to watch next. Again, that’s perfect for catching the women’s volleyball final that you’d planned to see. But it also means that discovering a new event you like can be trickier.
Garrett discovered his favorite Olympic sport, trampoline, when he was watching TV in the middle of the night years ago. Likewise, I discovered curling when I woke up during the Winter Olympics with my hungry baby. “I was fascinated and captivated by it. I now have a favorite obscure Olympic sport as a result of the serendipity of the broadcast,” he says. “There’s no room for serendipity in the experiences NBC is putting forward.”
Serendipity is particularly important for the Olympics because it’s such a big event that you can barely wrap your head around it—even as a superfan. “People don’t watch the Olympics the way they watch other television, or even other sports,” Garrett says. “But they’re taking this unique, one-of-a-kind-on-the-planet experience, and shoving it into whatever shape their platforms allow.”
Streaming makes you choose your own destiny, re-creating that same feeling of staring at a wall of content in your Netflix queue, uncertain of what to watch next. “They’re using all the same interface structures and conceptual models for [Olympics] content that people just don’t consume that way,” Garrett adds. “You can tell in the design of these [streaming] services . . . they shovel as much content in front of you as possible until you finally submit and click play on something. They’re not particularly interested in getting you to the best possible thing.” We reached out to NBCUniversal for comment and will update the story if we hear back.
Good spoilers, bad narratives
Even when you figure out the event you want to watch, the actual viewing experience of the Olympics is often lacking. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, chances are good you know the outcome before you even watch the competition. But NBC isn’t doing much to hide anything, either.
Go to the NBC Olympics website, and it has a whole category for watching events in which Team USA won gold. Under each thumbnail, a headline elaborates on the results of the event. Yes, I can understand that you want to see the biggest moments of the Olympics. But NBC puts spoilers everywhere—assuming you haven’t gotten a push notification from CNN or The New York Times.
But what do the biggest moments of the Olympics mean when you know how they played out from news that’s literally on top of NBC’s streaming page, like “Mensah-Stock is golden in women’s 68kg” and “Biles wins bronze on beam”? Where is the suspense and the drama? Where is the tension born from overcoming all odds and getting the win?
Garrett points out that this problem is made only worse by how Peacock presents many events, cut down into 2- to 4-minute segments. These can be sharply edited, effective summaries of a medal placement. But they are also completely devoid of meaningful context.
“What you have with the national television broadcast that’s missing [in streams] is the concierge that Bob Costas used to be for us, to guide us through the mysteries and point us to the discoveries,” Garrett says. (Mike Tirico is taking that role this year for NBC’s TV broadcast.) “I don’t exactly know how you replicate that in a user interface, but I think some element of the curatorial is missing.”
Indeed, anyone who can run or swim fast enough can be an Olympian. But what makes the experience of watching Olympians compete so compelling is about more than the few hundredths of a second between the podium and the pavement. It’s the rich stories we get through extra video packages. It’s meeting the athletes’ families. It’s understanding their training. It’s the mini-snapshot into their rich, complicated lives that has brought them to this one moment: a single race or match. And in so many of the streams, this context is nonexistent, not because of a lack of resources, but through design.
NBCUniversal, unfortunately, has little incentive to do a better job. In 2014, it paid $7.75 billion for exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the U.S. until 2032. Viewership this year is down, with the opening ceremonies having the lowest ratings in 33 years. But literally no competitor is allowed to do the job better.
We can’t blame NBCUniversal for its shortcomings, at least not entirely. This monopolistic arrangement was dreamed up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the sports organization that strictly manages the Olympic Games—from pushing them on during COVID-19 to investigating innocuous statements athletes make on the podium.
The IOC’s tightly controlled, regionally fenced broadcast rights account for 73% of the IOC’s income. NBCUniversal supplies 40% of all IOC income through this arrangement alone. And there are no signs of that changing any time soon. As long as there’s money in eliminating competition from the Olympics broadcast, the user experience of watching the Games will take a back seat to the agendas of those who pay so much for the rights to broadcast it.