Troy Wolverton: Tuning in Olympics made easier with new tech

San Jose Mercury NewsFebruary 12, 2014 

With the Winter Games in Sochi under way, Olympics fans have an easier time than ever following the event, thanks to new technologies being embraced by NBC and pay TV providers.

Consumers have access to more video than ever before from an Olympics, and are able to watch some of the less popular events on their televisions more easily. Fans interested in only the most exciting moments -- and who can do without the overwrought profiles of athletes and other emotional "fillers" -- are able to cut straight to the action.

And some Comcast subscribers are finding it much easier to watch their favorite athletes perform, get updated scores and medal counts directly on their televisions and tune into particular events as they're happening by clicking on a link from Twitter.

"The Olympics are a big moment for NBC and Comcast," said Sam Schwartz, chief business development officer for Comcast. He added that the Games are where the companies "push our technological capabilities."

In the past, NBC, which has carried the Olympics for many years, has limited the amount of video available or constrained where consumers could watch it. The Sochi Games mark the first time that every event will be streamed live online. That will total 1,000 hours' worth of coverage, more than double what was available for live streaming at the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

But NBC isn't just offering more video. It's working with its partners, particular corporate parent Comcast, to make it easier for viewers to find and watch it.

One new feature involves a service called SEEiT, which Comcast announced in December. It allows the company's customers to click on a link in a Twitter post to instantly either tune in a show on their televisions or mobile devices or set their DVR to record it. The company plans to use SEEiT extensively during the Games to promote events on Twitter.

However, many of Comcast's new Olympics-related features are available only to customers who have its recently released X1 set-top box. That box provides advanced capabilities, such as the ability to run apps and to access menus and program guides that are stored in the cloud rather than on the device.

Comcast hasn't said yet how many of its customers have the X1, other than that they number in the millions. But it's safe to say that the number of customers who have them is a fraction of its total subscriber base.

One new feature coming to the X1 for the Olympics is the ability to run a version of the same NBC app previously available only for smartphones and tablets that provides streaming video from the Games. That app, dubbed NBC Sports Live Extra, will offer the bulk of the video available from the Games and offer the only coverage of some less popular events.

It marks the first time the app has been available on a set-top box and the first time that Olympics coverage streamed over the Internet has been easily available on a TV. In the past, if you wanted such streaming video on your TV, you either had to plug your computer into your television or use a program to wirelessly stream video from your computer to it.

The app could prove popular with Comcast customers, said Brett Sappington, a director of research at Parks Associates, a consulting firm.

Consumers "want the video they can get on their phone (and) see it on the biggest screen they can," he said. "It's not really the app itself that consumers care about, it's the content that it provides."

Comcast is offering other new features for X1 users. Those subscribers can find areas on their set-top box that allow them to quickly access coverage of particular athletes or events.

Comcast is also revamping the X1's Sports app for the Olympics. Users who run the app find medal counts, up-to-date scores and information from ongoing events and the ability to immediate tune in to coverage of those sports.

AT&T U-verse customers can find a similar application available on their cable boxes. Subscribers who open the U-verse Olympic TV App can see updated medal counts, view prerecorded videos from the Games and even see a "multi-cast" view, where they can watch up to four video streams at once from the various NBC networks that are covering the event.

As with the sports apps, some Olympics-related features are available more broadly than just to certain Comcast or AT&T customers. One notable feature is a service called Gold Zone, which is available through NBC's website.

The feature is inspired by the NFL's RedZone channel, which jumps from game to game, tuning into particular contests only when a team nears the end zone. Gold Zone similarly jumps from event to event within the Sochi Games, focusing on the finish lines of particular contests and of winning moments within them.

The new features that Comcast and other pay TV operators are making available come as Comcast in particular has been losing subscribers, noted Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. The company is trying to use technology to better retain existing customers and to lure new ones, he said.

"Comcast has been trying their hardest in last several quarters to turn the ship around," Kagan said.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at twolverton@mercurynews.com or follow him on Twitter @troywolv. Read more from him at www.siliconbeat.com/author/twolverton

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