Sydney 2000: The day they banned the Net down under

If you want to watch the 100 metres final live from Sydney, you'll have to get a plane to Australia. Wendy McAuliffe investigates why the Net has effectively been banned from the Olympic games

Video streaming of Olympic events is forbidden on the Internet this year. The International Olympic committee (IOC) managing the event has sold £1.45bn of exclusive broadcasting rights to twenty world-wide customers; but the Games' Web presence will be tightly controlled. This somewhat archaic decision was made nearly a decade ago by the IOC which this year reportedly felt compelled to protect the contracts it had already sold to terrestrial television companies. The problem with Internet broadcasts is the time difference between Australia and the rest of the world. The Internet would put those companies at a serious disadvantage and with no practical solution in sight, they decided to stop live Net coverage. The only site allowed to broadcast coverage of the games is NBCOlympics.com, the official American TV broadcast partner for the Olympics. It had to fork out $750m for the privilege and will pump video streams of Olympic highlights over a 'walled garden' broadband service. UK digital-rights-protection alliance NetResult will be working together to scour the Internet for commercial infringements of Olympic content. "It's not an anti-Internet campaign, it's a commercial decision," says Caroline Towney, managing director at London-based Active Rights Management, one of the three partners running NetResult. "The Internet is a super opportunity for sport, but we mustn't replace one commercial strand with another," argues Towney. "The coverage that sport generates is part of its product; commercial value will be lost for the sporting industry if the Web takes broadcasting rights away from TV." The current relationship between terrestrial television and the Internet is one of mutual suspicion. "TV is hostile towards the Web for taking away a chunk of its revenue and audience, and the Web is suspicious of TV because they are often misrepresented by TV programmes about the Internet," says Nick Rosen, chairman of the Online Research Agency. Channel Four's production of 'Big Brother' is the only example to date of the two working successfully together. Steven Nuttall, head of sports at Sportal.com believes the relationship between TV and the Web is complimentary rather than competitive. "The Internet isn't going to kill TV in the same way that TV didn't kill radio," he argues. He points to the lack of precision that currently defines Internet broadcasting, but believes that going forward there will be more clearly defined rights windows for the Internet. "It will be obvious what is reserved for interactive content and what is more suitable for TV," Nuttall adds. The implementation of online copyright law is a sticky and controversial issue owing to the global nature of the Web. TV broadcasting rights are currently defined according to territory, but the Internet offers myriad ways of circumventing territorial protection measures. "The Internet is still a lawless place; it's a lot harder to police than the TV industry," says Rosen. Experts are in agreement that for the 2008 Olympics, terrestrial TV companies will be unable to maintain their control over Internet broadcasting. "It is tomorrow's technology, but television companies will soon have to embrace it is as the third broadcasting medium," admits Michael Hails, publicity commissioner for BBC Sport. Towney argues that the major TV broadcasters will have a head start in exploiting the benefits of Internet broadcasting, as they will be able to use their air time to cross-promote interactive services. Nuttall on the other hand expects that sporting federations will choose to compete with TV broadcasting companies, becoming media entities in their own right. The Internet could enable individual sports to create their own channel on the Web, allowing them to directly take control of their fan base without a third party sitting in the middle. "Terrestrial TV is going to remain a cultural experience for the next five to ten years, where we all watch the same thing at the same time," says Towney. Looking forward however, Rosen believes that "in ten years time the IOC will have caught up with the technology, and addressed the public preference to access information as a matter of their choosing". What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said. Take me to Sydney 2000
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