The Salt Lake Scramble: Online Coverage of the Olympic Games

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The crux of the problem is the IOC's concern that Internet coverage will deflect revenue from its current cash cow, namely television broadcast rights. TV rights accounted for just over half of the $2.6 billion total take on the Sydney Games. NBC alone has paid a total of $3.5 billion for the rights to Olympic broadcast coverage through the 2008 Games. In order to protect its broadcast partners, the IOC has committed itself to an online policy that has some new media outlets up in arms.

To make sure that no online coverage of the Games left Australia without the IOC's tacit approval, no accreditation was given to online journalists outside of the NBC/Quokka camp. Online journalists from media outlets, such as ESPN.com, Sportsline, and Europe-based Sports.com assigned to cover the Sydney Games were forced to buy tickets to the events or watch them on TV, and were not able to conduct athlete interviews or attend press conferences. Olympic athletes were even forbidden from keeping online journals.

Even more than accreditation of journalists, friction between online and broadcast interests centers on access rights to stream video coverage online. Adding fuel to the fire, U.S. television ratings for the Sydney Games were down 32% from the 1996 Atlanta Games and 19% from the 1992 Barcelona Games. Meanwhile, the online sites that covered the Sydney Games saw enormous traffic. Much of this is, of course, due to the 18-hour time difference between Sydney and New York that made live stateside coverage of the Sydney Games nearly impossible.

Still, the problem of online broadcast rights is concern enough that the IOC held a World Conference on Sport and New Media at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland in December 2000, where for two days sports officials and media interests from around the globe debated the influence of online sports coverage and its ramifications for broadcast television. Few new conclusions were reached, it seems, though two minor concessions were hinted at by Richard Pound, then-chairman of the IOC marketing commission. First, the IOC will allow a limited number of online journalists to be accredited for the Salt Lake Games; and second, consideration will be given to the possibility of allowing streaming video for smaller events not receiving broadcast airtime, if and when such video can be limited to geographic territories.

The prospects of this, though, still seem unlikely. According to MSNBC's Dorogoff, "The IOC does not allow any international TV rights holder—including NBC—to globally stream Olympic video over the Net. In 2000 from Sydney, NBCOlympics.com was able to work with a video streaming service that geographically limited access to the continental USA, and there was post-event streaming of NBC highlights. If NBC, SLOC, and MSNBC/MSN can identify a secure system that would limit video to USA users—to the satisfaction of the IOC—we may consider streaming some of NBC's post-broadcast, Olympic highlights for Salt Lake City. However, this has not yet been determined at this point."

The problem seems to be less in the technology than in the rights negotiations. After the conference, Pound told reporters, "Historically, we have sold rights in a particular territory. Until you can guarantee that the signal will be restricted to your territory, you cannot put real-time video or real-time audio on the Internet." Then, in a January address to the annual Sports Summit conference in New York, Pound told the assembly of sports media and business interests, "The indisputable fact remains that, while the new media may be the wave of the future, today, television remains the only viable option for the IOC to deliver the widest possible coverage of the Games and to generate the revenues needed to sustain them." Pound went on to illustrate this point, saying, "3.7 billion different individuals watched some part of the Olympic Games on television, while only about 20 million logged on to Web sites for Olympic-related information, and much of this interactive traffic was the result of being directed to Web sites from the television broadcast of the Games."

Apparently there isn't much money to be made from online Olympic coverage, but there is money to be lost. You really can't blame the IOC then for wanting to protect its intellectual property rights so aggressively. In its efforts to enforce its online policies, the IOC hired U.K.-based Copyright Control Services (CCS) to scour the Web for cases of intellectual property rights infringement during the Sydney Games, and will do so again for Salt Lake.

According to CCS Managing Director Dave Powell, during the Sydney Games, CCS searched over 100,000 Web sites and monitored more than 3,000 sites on a 24/7 basis. While stating only that CCS detected and acted on a 'significant number' of copyright infringements, Powell elaborated, "Typically, those infringements involving unauthorized 'e-broadcast' of Olympic material were located throughout the world in Russia, South America, Europe, etc. I expect the number of sites we'll be constantly monitoring will increase for Salt Lake because the increased consumer uptake of broadband connectivity is now enabling individuals to stream high-quality video."

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