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TVs and Tablets and Phones, Oh My!
August 4, 2012  | By Diane Werts  | 1 comment

Okay, you haters, go away. This means all you folks whining about the London Olympics coverage now being provided by NBC pretty much everywhere but your bathroom mirror.

I'm here to say that their ubiquitous coverage is, to a TV critic of more years than I'd like to admit, shockingly awesome.

Not the NBC broadcast network coverage, particularly — though if you want your handy-dandy digest of gloss and sentiment, there it is, packaged to the nines in high-def and hair dye.

I'm talking about the non-TV coverage that NBC has dispersed into the cosmic ether encompassing all of today's high-tech devices. The coverage on computers, on smartphones, on tablets — and, yes, even via the reliable living room flat-screen, this year getting its first heavy-duty dose of 3D.

I've sampled what NBC provides on all those platforms. And to me, it seems pretty darn awesome that you can watch (in relative terms) what you want, how you want, when you want, in formats you want, as "live" as you want.

Here's something I never thought I'd say:

Thanks, NBC! Great job on the Olympics!

If you haven't been sampling the alternative viewing options the company's been providing, here's a look at how (well!) they work.


Via broadband, NBC's Live Extra website is covering all 32 sports, all 302 events, with live streams to your computer at no charge — with one big caveat: It's only available to those who can prove they already subscribe to cable/satellite providers. (Nothing is free. Nor should it be. NBC spends millions covering the action, and getting some bucks back is only fair.)

So sign in with your cable email or other identifying info, and boom, it's all there for you to choose from, almost instantly. I've been continually astonished how well it works. Contrary to so many major naysayers on the internet, I had no trouble getting in, or clicking between streams and events. And neither my computer nor broadband connection is superfast.

(I'm using an early 2011 MacBook Pro, 15-inch screen, which reached a peak home-wifi downstream speed of 1MB; it usually hovered in the 500KB range, giving me a steadily watchable picture of 360p in either the standard video window or full-screen mode. A settings wheel at the bottom of the main video window lets you choose between five resolutions, from 240p to 1080p, or an auto setting that delivers what's best for your connection; that's how I got 360.)

NBC's Live Extra page is well laid-out to deliver maximum info. Friday afternoon's initial video window Matrix offered 16 thumbnails, showing 6 live-stream possibilities (basketball, boxing, volleyball, beach volleyball, handball, and Gold Zone, which is what NBC considers the premier current offering). Icons that click through to featured streams (including NBC cable simulcasts) appear just under the main video.

Below that is a listing of the day's active sports — 24 sports on Friday — and event times, by either your own time zone or London's. You can choose to watch simulcasts from Olympic cablers like NBC Sports or CNBC, or replays of previous competition, or live streams of current action (with Live choices denoted in red for easy recognition, with medal-awarding action denoted by a little gold G icon — very nice).

One thrill:  Most of the streams, and even replays, are RAW. That means, no announcers, no music, just crowd and/or sports sounds. The streams do include detailed graphics, all in English. So you get to see all the competitors introduced, all the post-event flagwaving, all the medal ceremonies and anthems. It's no static wide shot, either, but the same well-directed video you'd see shown on TV, with closeups and replays galore. Clickable options at your disposal include pause, instant-replay rewind and full-screen options.

You aren't limited to one stream at a time, either. A smaller video window to the right of the main window offers video previews of whatever else is live at the time. You can click to swap video between windows with virtually no lag. Below the preview window is a choosable list of streams (active live, coming up, most viewed) to help you quickly find what you want.

Are there commercials? You betcha. This IS television. And when NBC is running ads in the main window, Live Extra doesn't let you watch anything in the preview window till they're done. It's not ideal. But it's a small annoyance considering what you're getting. There's usually a single-ad in pre-roll, then ads of 15- and 30-second duration stacked up as many as eight in a break. (They seem to pop up only between periods, rounds, competitors or heats.)

Want to play with Facebook or Twitter while you watch online? They're on the Live Extra page, too. So are options to click to USA Medal Watch, Latest Olympic News, and Community of Support for Olympic athletes. Video, info — what more do you need?



I was in transit when the Olympics started — but I had already downloaded NBC's Live Extra phone app from Android's Google Play store onto my Samsung Galaxy Nexus. (It's also available for iPhone from Apple's App Store.)

Not  expecting much on my first try — especially since I was a passenger in a moving car, going max speed on an interstate — I launched Live Extra, and OMG, 10 seconds later, I was watching live Olympics action!

That's just sick! (In a good way!)

Web complaints abound about the phone apps. And it seems self-explanatory that you'd better have a recent high-end phone, plus a fast and steady 3G (preferably 4G) connection.  But my viewing experience, if not perfect, was utterly easy and enjoyable.

The scrolling welcome screen offers top-of-page highlights/headlines, midscreen one-click Live Now options and Spotlight replay choices, and screen-bottom (cable) Channels being simulcast. A toolbar at the screen's very top takes you to one-click access to any Olympic sport's video replays, or to an hour-by-hour schedule of upcoming events. You can even mark Favorites for yet easier access. Or click the settings "gear" icon to customize alerts and social sharing.

Did I mention the app is free? (Though requiring the same existing cable/satellite subscription as computer access does.)



If smartphone access to NBC Olympic streams is satisfying, tablet access proved superb for me on a Retina-screen iPad (current generation). The Apple App Store's Live Extra app for iPad matches the phone app for being quick to download and easy to use.

And wow — the video resolution is astonishing! It's a tiny HDTV, essentially, that you can watch pretty much anywhere. Our iPad is wifi only, so I can't speak to 3G/4G access — but there's nothing quite as cozy as watching the Olympics curled up in bed next to your significant other on a lightweight screen one of you can balance on a belly.

Of course you can't watch LIVE action in prime time — NBC has protected its big-money broadcast network block by not offering any simulcasts or live streams that compete with its 8-11 p.m. ET flagship hosted by Bob Costas.



This HDTV option is still in its infancy. Relatively few Americans have 3D TV sets, plus capable cable/satellite boxes, plus the necessary glasses to "dimensionalize" the signal — all of which are necessary to view NBC's first-time full-time 3D channel in the intended three dimensions.

Luckily, my household does. And while 3D TV still holds more potential than realization, it's fun to watch some of the events in comin'-at-you perspective.

So far, though, they're all on tape-delay of a day or so. And they arrive in the form of highlight segments of high-profile events — in random fashion. Our cable box's interactive on-screen listings haven't even been close to what action actually turned out to be showing on the screen.

The "full-time" channel on our Comcast system isn't really that, anyway — it only contains Olympic content between the hours of 4 or 5 a.m. ET and 6-ish or 8-ish p.m. ET, when NBC's "exclusive" broadcast presence takes over.

The 3D events are also "raw" coverage, with audio of crowd noise rather than slick play-by-play, although the mikes do at times seem to pick up some British TV announcers. And again, it's nice to see the athlete intros and medal ceremonies as cameras keep running.

But it's annoying to be subjected to frequent lower-third commercials (the screen's bottom one-third has ad video pasted over event action), especially since NBC seems to keep repeating only one or two of them. (I now officially HATE The Lorax.)

Also be aware: When you first tune to a 3D channel, it's likely to show two images either side-by-side or top-bottom. If you do have 3D capability, those images should "click" into position by themselves after a second or two, delivering what without the proper glasses looks like a blurry, off-register picture. Put on glasses, and there's real dimension to be seen — but it can be jarring if the cameras simultaneously capture something very close to the lens (a still photographer's long lens, an on-floor passerby) along with faraway event action.

Both the technicians who create these images and those of us who view them will need time to get accustomed to the way these things look. Or perhaps the technology simply needs to mature. For now, 3D remains a novelty rather than a real viewing option.

Rio 2016, anyone?

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