Like most of us, I've been watching more TV than usual for the past week, what with the Olympics on and so many interesting ads to watch. Squinting through Beijing's pervasive smog, I've even been able to see some interesting sports as well.
This is the first Olympics in the era where Web video is unremarkable, multi-channel HDTV is commonplace, and online content is actually starting to resemble TV (witness the smooth, full-screen streaming video of the ABC's iView service).
So I have to say that I was expecting just a little more from the Seven Network's coverage, which could easily have used both online and offline channels to let us choose from dozens of simultaneous events to watch.
As I write, however, Seven is broadcasting the medals ceremony for the 100m men's backstroke — and is showing the same ceremony on all four of its SD and HDTV stations. At the same time, Seven's streaming portal is showing a postcard-sized video of the men's weightlifting of such poor quality that it looks like the smog has infiltrated indoors.
The portal also offers heavily edited, two- or three-minute clips of completed events featuring Australians in all kinds of sports. The overall effect is a resounding thud on the impress-me meter.
Every Olympics offers a unique broadcasting proposition: while they're heavily watched when they're happening, they will not be shown again after the event. Live Olympics events are exciting, but pirated videos of Olympic events will not be sold feverishly through backstreet markets and dodgy online retailers; heck, post-Olympic discounting rarely even manages to clear out all the leftover merchandise.
Yes, the value of Olympics coverage is in its immediacy and accessibility, and for this reason Olympics footage would have seemed like a natural candidate for experiments in multi-casting. Just consider the online coverage in the US, where as I write NBC's Olympics site appears to be worlds ahead of what we're getting Down Under.
I say "appears to be" because the video isn't available in Australia, and the usual public Web proxies refuse to handle the volume of video coming through the site. What I'm led to understand, however, is that NBC has teamed up with Microsoft to offer an interactive Olympics portal showing up to four live events simultaneously in crisp, clear quality.
The site's live video menu tells me that, were I in the US, I could be streaming the men's basketball preliminary match between Croatia and Russia, an Egypt-Russia handball face-off, softball between Taiwan and Canada, Greco-Roman wrestling (see Roy and HG on this subject below), men's individual sabre and 17 other sporting events.
Now, I understand that Seven has millions in advertising revenues to protect, and that most people are still happy to come home from work and plop on the couch for a few hours of heavily edited highlights packages. So we cheer, and do our part for the Team Previously Known As The Green And Gold.
But Seven really could have done a lot better in developing a multi-channel strategy to help people really enjoy the Olympics — their way. Believe it or not, there may even be some interesting sporting competitions that don't involve Australia — but we can pretty much forget about seeing them, unless (a) Seven can't find another medals ceremony to show; (b) Bruce McAvaney has the day off; and (c) the network has used up its footage of reporters eating nasty Chinese "delicacies".
If there ever was an opportunity for the network to showcase the potential of internet video, this was it, and Seven has blown it. Perhaps its executives should have rung their mates at NBC in the US — from which the network already sources shows such as Heroes and Lipstick Jungle — and gotten some pointers on online coverage.
Of course, NBC teamed up with Microsoft in the US to deliver its content using Microsoft's Silverlight multimedia technology — and in Australia, Microsoft long ago sided with the Nine Network, which pretty much rules out the Yahoo-affiliated Seven from tapping into this particular revolution. Yes, the networks are that petty.
Just look at the week-long ban on Nine, supported by the IOC-reinforced culture of fear around exclusivity of broadcast rights.
Let's not forget Telstra. Its Next G Olympics offer is as cutting-edge as we're going to get when it comes to these Games, with Seven-backed broadcasting rights letting the mobile carrier offer content packs to its Next G subscribers for a flat AU$10 or AU$4 per day.
For their money, subscribers get access to highlight packs — no doubt the same ones available through Yahoo's online site — and live, streaming video of Seven's TV coverage (curiously, the service isn't available on the iPhone, the one Next G device on which watching video is actually tolerable; this is one of many examples supporting my argument that Telstra and the iPhone aren't exactly a match made in Heaven).
That deal probably put lots of money into Seven's coffers — but what about the millions of Australians that aren't Next G subscribers? Anecdotes suggest major sporting events like the Olympics are a tipping point for many people to upgrade their TVs or embrace HDTV at last, but do services like this really convince people to change mobile providers? And if you were switching providers for the video, wouldn't you want to get an iPhone?
How many people really want to watch live video-on-demand on their mobile phones, anyway? Mobiles, if anything, are ideal for the highlight packs since I don't think many people will spend hours watching an Olympics soccer match in 2-inch SquintVision.
Seven is supposedly so serious about the internet that it bought its own wireless ISP.
Last October, I argued that deal could make Seven the next Telstra.
For now, however, Seven seems quite content to let Telstra remain as the next Telstra, while it remains the same old Seven it always was — but with a patina of online video to silence people who want to watch the Games events they want, when they want them.
Perhaps the problem is just that Seven had no incentive to shake the tree, so to speak, since it knows it won't be doing the Olympics broadcast in 2012 and saw no reason to explore the online multi-casting that would have been a sensation.
Hopefully, Nine and Foxtel have bigger, better things planned in four years. Until then, I'll just sit back and watch yet another medal ceremony on Seven — or trawl YouTube for other interesting sports like this, this and this.
How are you getting your Olympics fix? Watching much on your mobile? Would you watch more if it were available online?