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Olympics go for Web gold

17.7 mil users have streamed Games video

A staggering 17.7 million people have streamed video of an Olympic event on their computer or cell phone during the first five days of the Beijing Games.

That’s a cool 705% jump from video streaming for the entire 17 days of the 2004 Athens Summer Games, which saw 2.2 million webizens stream video in total.

“These numbers are beyond our wildest dreams,” said NBC president of research Alan Wurtzel, speaking from Beijing in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

But even more significant to NBC Olympics prexy Gary Zenkel, who was also on the call, is that despite the availability of 2,200 hours of live streaming on the Internet, the NBC network’s primetime coverage is harvesting more viewers so far than any other Olympiad based outside the U.S.

“The Internet is not cannibalizing the audience for the NBC network,” Wurtzel said. “Instead, it’s actually fueling buzz and interest and driving people to NBC’s primetime schedule.”

But one former network sports executive said NBC is holding off lots of content for streaming until after it has run on broadcast TV. “That’s clearly about preserving television viewership,” the exec said. “I just don’t agree with holdbacks. You can’t really hold this stuff back any more.”

While streaming video is smashing all records, page views on the Internet and on cell phones are robust as well. For the first five days of the Beijing Games, people have chalked up 373.9 million page views, a number that’s 63% higher than for the entire 2004 Summer Olympics (229.9 million overall).

The most popular event among online enthusiasts was the 4-by-100 freestyle swimming event won by Michael Phelps. He dominated the page views as well, said Wurtzel, who called Phelps’ gold-medal bonanza “an important driver of viewers” to the Beijing coverage.

Wurtzel said another number that took NBC officials by surprise is the 1.5 million streamed Olympics videos that people “have shared with others in a viral community way.”

Despite their explosive growth, the Internet and cell phones are still in their infancy as sources of sports coverage compared with broadcast TV. Wurtzel said 90% of viewers in the U.S. still get their Olympics coverage exclusively on TV, with 9.8% of the remaining 10% watching a combination of TV and their computer and cell-phone screens. Only 0.2% rely exclusively on the Internet.

Asked how people in the U.S. will view the 2012London Summer Games, which NBC will carry, Wurtzel said, “The 800-pound gorilla will remain network television. Digital viewing will double or triple, but those gains will help the core franchise,” which is the NBC primetime schedule.

By then, NBC will be able to publish a combined rating through a new initiative called “Total Audience Measurement Index,” which will gather into one metric the people watching on broadcast and cable TV, on the Internet, on cell phones and via video-on-demand.

But sports fans on the West Coast were not as bullish about the Games. Such fans are especially frustrated by the tape delay that prevented them from viewing major swimming events until several hours after they occurred. Similarly, videos on overseas media sites such as the BBC can’t be viewed until they’ve aired in that specific region.

During the conference call, NBC execs deflected questions about the strategy, stressing instead that consumers preferred to watch the Olympics on their flat-screen, high-def TV sets and not on small computer screens.

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