Getting the Big Picture




By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

August 22, 2008

Like most of you, I wanted to watch as much field hockey as possible from the Beijing Olympics. With NBC’s plans to broadcast 3,600 hours of the Olympics on an array of media, including 1,200 hours on seven television channels, 2,200 hours of live coverage on the Internet, and another 3,000 hours of on-demand video, I expected to see all of the US team’s six games, as well as the medal-round competition. Letting my fingers do the walking to, I found buttons for Results, then Field Hockey, then US-Australia, then Rewind, and pushed each one in succession. I ended up with a screen telling me about four other operating systems that would deliver, but not mine.

It’s all there on the ‘net, but sadly, not my ‘net. Macs. Drat.

When I got to the office, I mentioned the problem to the Big Kahuna here in the sports department, and he couldn’t connect on his desktop, either.

But the first office PC I tried played all the video, after I downloaded the free “Silverlight” video player, which is simple to do, and free. Apparently, only recent-model computers are able to install the plug-in. My home versions of the game are not new enough.

Microsoft describes Silverlight as a cross-browser, cross-platform, and cross-device plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences. Silverlight has four-stream simultaneous viewing, picture in picture, and streaming text commentary. A viewer’s Internet connection determines picture quality. The content can be viewed on many web browsers, but not non-Intel-based Macs. The content will remain on the NBC website indefinitely.

When I got to a computer that had the right stuff to play the videos, I was gobsmacked. It was fabulous. Here was the field hockey game, in its entirety, with good resolution (it’s all in high definition) and I could stop and start whenever I wanted. No cutting away to another beach volleyball game.

Field hockey plays especially well on the screen; the camera that captures the whole field shows the game developing, and the close-up cameras pick up the awe-inspiring stick skills of the international players. And the replays are so much fun: It’s possible to watch every detail of a penalty corner and see exactly how a goal was scored. In real time, the ball moves too fast to be sure.

The video is accompanied by live commentary, which appears in a box below the video screen, so if you’re secretly watching the Olympics at work, you can turn the sound off and still keep up. Actually for me, it was work. I wasn’t secretly watching; I was getting paid to watch. How cool is that? The commentary is linked to frames of the video so viewers can click on a piece of text and advance the video to that action. How cool is that?

If Internet viewing of the Olympics – and the even newer mobile phone applications – are the wave of the future, no one really knows. Beijing is the first time around for most of this technology. The breakdown for Sunday viewership provides a snapshot: According to NBC’s TAMi report, 95 percent were watching on TV (101,923,000 viewers) and 4.5 percent were online unique views (4,806,000). As for mobile phones, TAMi reports about 0.5 of the daily viewership dials up coverage on mobile phones. Digital drops in the bucket.

“We’re very pleased with the data,” said NBC spokesman Greg Hughes, “though we can’t fully understand all of it until after the Games.”

For Beijing, television is still king. And what a reign it’s having. Through the first 12 days, NBC Universal has attracted 203.3 million viewers, topping the 17-day viewership for the entire Athens Olympics. That makes the Beijing Games the third most viewed TV event in US history. Incredibly, more than 84 percent of all US television homes have tuned in.

NBC is doing a Michael Phelps in the television ratings, blowing the other networks out of the water. According to Nielsen Media Research, NBC primetime averaged a 17.1 rating, 29 share in the week of Aug. 11. NBC had the top seven shows and an average of viewership of 29.4 million.

The most viewed event of all time is the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, at 209 million over 17 days. Beijing seems certain to surpass that.

Fun and Games

No one is having more fun in Beijing than Cris Collinsworth, former NFL player and current football analyst. Collinsworth has the assignment of roaming the venues, taking the pick of the litter from the hundreds of stories. In a conference call from Beijing Wednesday, Collinsworth said, “I’m having so much fun doing this. Essentially what they wanted me to do was to come be a fan. I’m like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory, I got the golden ticket.”

Credit: Barbara Matson Globe Staff. Boston Globe

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