These games wont stream, but others do

Olympics video highlights won' t hit PC screens, but other events are scoring big among U.S. Web surfers

NBC has the domestic video rights for the Summer Olympics, on-air and online, but probably won' t be able to wow U.S. Web surfers with replays from the Sydney games.

Apart from the technical limitations of streaming video, NBC's problem with Sydney is a rights issue: There is no practical way for NBC to segregate video delivered on the Web to U.S. Internet surfers only. The best it will be able to do is deliver clips over cable modem or DSL services.

The network is currently negotiating with @Home, Road Runner and Telocity, a DSL service that has a relationship with NBC Internet, according to Gary Zenkel, senior vice president, NBC Olympics. NBC is also talking to companies touting technology that could limit online video transmission on the Internet by geographical location. But it isn't convinced that any of the technologies is foolproof, according to Zenkel. "If we do any streaming of competition," he says, "it will be to closed subscriber systems, and it will be where nobody outside a U.S. address can see."

Given the small audience that would have access through those networks-and the unreliable quality of Web video-NBC isn't sweating it. "The quality of video that' s being distributed online today is not very good," Zenkel says, "and, for a universe of a million people, it' s not worth expending the resources."

In fact, he says, NBC never had any certain plans to stream highlights from Sydney.

That' s a distinctly different tone, however, from the one NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol set last year when he enthusiastically described the prospects for the NBC Olympics site: "Our [Internet] guys can show whatever they want once we're off the air."

Considering the limited audience with connections fast enough to enjoy Olympics highlights this time around, that' s probably a moot point. But when you consider the $3.55 billion NBC paid for Olympics video rights through 2008, the network will almost certainly want to reach the growing broadband audience in future years.

"The Internet doesn' t observe national borders, and it never will," says Dan O' Brien, Internet analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "The structure of the deals have to be modified to deal with this."

He believes sports will be at the forefront of the surging interest in streaming video as broadband connections make it a mass-market phenomenon. "People are interested in big events, but then there are other fans who can' t get enough of a certain sport or a particular athlete."

The online coverage of the 17th hole of the recent PGA Players Championship proves his point. The hole, surrounded by water, made every approach shot an adventure. And New York City-based start-up Microcast made the most of it, drawing 5 million hits by streaming continuous coverage through the first two days on the PGA Tour site.

Given the results, according to Donna Orender, senior vice president of programming, production and new media for the PGA Tour, the technology will likely be used again on other tour events: "It exceeded our wildest expectations."

Microcast is also in conversations with Trans World Sports about coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament and other tennis events, according to Microcast President and COO Jim Brandhorst, who adds that cricket and soccer are other possibilities.

Non-mainstream sports that simply don't get TV exposure are prime material for the Web, according to Forrester's O' Brien: "The Internet provides a way for a lot of content to reach an audience that isn' t well served by the broadcast medium."

And even audiences that can see their favorite sports on-air are seeking more video of events they crave online. Over the first weekend of the Men' s NCAA Tournament, CBS SportsLine received more than 93 million page views, a "good percentage" of that representing PC users playing game clips, according to CBS SportsLine Vice President of Marketing and Sales Mark Mariani. "That' s just so important right now," he says. "And moving forward, as the experience is better for the user, video highlights will be a big event."

The NCAA tournament is already a big event generating big business for CBS SportsLine, which sold $4 million in sponsorships for this year' s coverage.