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Review: Online Olympics is ambitious, but not TV

Aug. 11, 2008, 5:45 p.m. (ET)

NEW YORK (AP) NBC Universal is running an unprecedented 3,600 hours of Olympics coverage on television and the Internet, most of it live online, letting fans track their favorite sports in a way not possible even if they'd gone to Beijing.

Excited by the prospects, I set my alarm for 4:45 a.m. on Sunday to catch cycling, handball, archery and rowing events on NBCOlympics.com as they happen half a world away in China - 12 hours ahead of New York.

Of course, I ended up hitting the snooze button on my alarm clock for another two hours. Fortunately, some of the events I missed were available later on-demand. And NBC's enhanced video player brings up to four simultaneous feeds - live, on-demand or a combination - allowing me to keep up.

Although NBC is saving popular sports like gymnastics, swimming and track and field for its prime-time TV coverage, NBC's online ambition is valiant, one the network has largely pulled off well thus far.

The video isn't full-screen, but it is crisp, with little stuttering, even during Monday's workday when Internet traffic tends to rise. You can even see the sweat soaking one of the tennis players.

But the Internet won't be replacing television anytime soon. At most, it's good for sneaking in some tennis at work or watching events that are not likely to get more than highlights on TV.

(Disclosure: The Associated Press has an agreement with NBC to distribute video links to the network's content online.)

The Internet video is free. I have to watch a 30-second ad before the event, usually for NBC owner General Electric Co. I also need Microsoft Corp.'s Silverlight technology - also free and relatively simple to install, even on my Mac.

Most of the video is restricted to U.S. subscribers of an NBC broadband partner. Cablevision Systems Corp. is the only major provider not to have a deal with NBC, so its subscribers are officially ineligible. But NBC doesn't verify what you enter and gives you three tries to figure out that subscribers of AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. qualify when using a New York ZIP code (hint, hint).

NBC does check your computer's Internet Protocol address to make sure you are in the United States, where NBC has the rights to broadcast the games. Elsewhere, you'll have to go through your country's Olympic broadcaster. If your region doesn't have one, some on-demand video is appearing on YouTube in those territories through a deal with Google Inc.

With my computer set up, I was able to watch badminton, judo and soccer, along with the medal ceremony for archery, using NBC's quad-screen "control room." I could choose what runs on the four screens and pick which of the four is larger at any given time.

These feeds are broadcast quality, with multiple camera angles, graphics and other gizmos you'd expect from a television production. NBC is simply showing the feed made available worldwide to broadcasters that lack their own cameras.

What I don't get is on-air commentary. Instead, text commentary appears for a handful of events from partners like Tennis.com. The commentary isn't as extensive as the chatter you'd find on television, but the basics are there. (It's wonderful for obscure sports like equestrian, though I'm left to wonder why the horse doesn't get a medal, too.)

It's also great for work, where I usually have my sound turned off and might not want to let on I'm not really working.

Besides the quad screens, NBC is offering "picture-in-picture" viewing. You could watch Michael Phelps' medal-winning swim, for instance, while following the Angola-Germany men's basketball game on the bigger screen. That is, if you can figure out what "PIP" means and know to click on it.

That gets to one of my main complaints. I had to figure out a lot by trial and error. For instance, if I switch to a full player from the quad-screen mode, I lose my other three feeds. I couldn't find a way to toggle back and forth, and I'd have to choose the other feeds again, and for on-demand clips, watch them all the way from the beginning.

Furthermore, the video isn't always labeled well. How am I to know that "Preliminary-Round Coverage" refers to beach volleyball or that "WATCH: Germany vs. Great Britain" means women's field hockey?

I can search video by sport or country but not both. So there's no easy way to know, for instance, which boxing segment has that competitor from Sweden - nor is there a consistent way to jump directly to that bout. At most, if the event had text commentary, I can scan it and jump to a particular segment.

Most importantly, the video lacks the basic functions of digital video recorders like TiVo. You can't pause or rewind live feeds, or watch a key play in slow motion. With on-demand clips, you can slide a bar to move forward or back, but you merely jump to that point rather than see video speedily as you would with DVRs and VCRs.

Still, NBC should be commended for going this far with video.

Although it isn't shown live, I can get multiple on-demand feeds of gymnastics, where up to six different events are going on simultaneously. I imagine I'd get the same with track and field when that starts next weekend.

I recall that during the Sydney Games in 2000, the closest NBC had to video were still shots grabbed from its television footage. While Europeans began showing live online footage from Athens, Greece, in 2004, NBC offered only delayed video. At the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, NBC's live video was limited to one hockey game.

This time, more than 2,200 of the 3,600 hours of total coverage is online, the bulk live - up to 20 feeds simultaneously.

Beyond video, NBC's Olympics Web site has profiles of athletes, medal standings and complete results, even for events that have yet to air in prime time. I inadvertently learned that the United States beat China in basketball as I was still watching the first quarter on my TiVo.

I also signed up for various e-mail and cell phone alerts. Be forewarned: Because many of the medal events take place in the middle of the night, you'll get continually interrupted if you choose the gold medal text-messaging alerts. I learned the hard way.

NBC is certainly on the right track. I can't wait to see what we'll get with video and other online features in 2010, when the Winter Games go to Vancouver.

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