UPDATES WITH RESPONSE FROM NETWORK SPOKESMAN: NBC said Monday that the problems experienced over the weekend with its Olympics live stream had been worked out.
But after a morning of signing in and getting bounced offline repeatedly, and then spending long stretches looking at freeze frames instead of action while the little wheel on the screen went round and round in the afternoon, I have to admit I saw both of Phelps' races in real time Tuesday -- sort of.
I didn't actually see him touch the wall at the end of 4X200 freestyle relay where the American men took the gold and made Phelps the most decorated Olympian in history. The image froze just before he was about to finish the race -- and when it finally unfroze, he and his teammates were starting to celebrate.
Close enough, I guess.
But many of my colleagues watching with me in a conference room at the Sun didn't think so.
"This is just a ridiculous way to watch," one editor groused as our little group disbanded.
No one laughed when I jokingly suggested we should be grateful to NBC for bringing us together for a moment of community with its policy of not showing the big moments of the Olympics of live TV - forcing viewers instead to watch prime time delayed coverage if they want to witness such moments of history as the ones with Phelps Tuesday.
As I wrote Monday (read it here) and as anyone on Twitter knows, there is a lot of anger at NBC for its tape delay policy. I believe NBC's handling of the matter and the hostile reaction to it in social media offer a fascinating study of a media company frustrating the very on-demand expectations for information when and where consumers want it that the media company itself helped create. We in the media have all pledged to be there where and when you want us if only you will follow us onto all our new platforms.
This is not just another story about the transformational media epoch in which we find ourselves. It's testimony to how radically audience attitudes and expectations have changed in the last few years - and how difficult it is for some giant media corporations to understand that change as evidenced by NBC digital chief Vivian Schiller retweeting a message denigrating those who complained about tape delay.
Each time I sought comment, NBC Sports stressed that it was not denying viewers the chance to see anything live. Viewers could, the network insisted, go to nbcolympics.com, sign in and watch every second of competition live.
But you have to be a cable or satellite TV subscriber to be able to sign in. And there were problems with the live stream over the weekend for those lucky enough to make it to the online promised land -- problems that I continued to experience Tuesday despite what the network said.
In the morning using Internet Explorer on a laptop at home, I was unable to ever get a live stream. I was told that I had successfully signed in and I did get to watch ads for BMW,Coca-Colaand other products, but as soon as they ended and the competition was supposed to be shown, I got a message that said, "Internet Explorer stopped working... An application caused the program to stop.
I did this mad dance for more than four hours, before trying another laptop and Firefox to see if I had better luck. Shortly after noon, I was suddenly watching the women's gymnastic team live and in real time -- and I was suddenly feeling better about NBC.
But then, I lost the stream again and again and again.
I came into the office to make sure I saw Phelps race.
We only lost the stream once or twice Tuesday afternoon, but we had someone working the computer like a jazz musician lowering the resolution to save band width. It almost worked - some of the time.
The live stream was at its worst as Phelps swam the last legs of the relay that earned American gold. Most of the time what we saw was a frozen frame with the wheel helplessly, maddeningly, stupidly spinning and spinning. I can't fault the camera work or announcing in any major way, but it certainly wasn't NBC's. It sounded like the BBC or, perhaps, a feed from Australian TV that NBC just piggybacked into.
I guess the network didn't want the real-time live coverage Tuesday afternoon to be so good that viewers wouldn't tune in for the network's tricked-out prime-time package -- when viewer eyeballs could be monetized to the absolute max for advertisers.
After this column was posted, NBC Sports spokesman Greg Hughes called from London to say that he believed the problems with the live stream experienced in the Sun conference room were the result of band width issues at the Sun, not the fault of NBC's live stream.
"We had no reports of problems with streaming the Michael Phelps record breaker," he said.
Hughes acknowledged problems with the live stream over the weekend and said that given the "cutting edge" nature of the technology used, NBC Sports, expected there might be problems during periods of peak load during the week. But he said that was not the case Tuesday with the races involving Phelps.
The Sun digital specialist who had been lowering resolution said that he had changed computers earlier in the day and that the one in use for the Phelps events was "perfectly capable of handling high definition." He also pointed that there were no problems with the commercials, just the live stream of the events. He questioned the notion that the problems were strictly on the Sun's end, but he did not totally dismiss the possibility that lack of band width could have contributed to the frustrating viewing experience.
In fairness to NBC, they did offer a window to live, real-time coverage of Phelps' epic moments Tuesday -- even if it wasn't open to everyone, and it was difficult to see through at times.
But they didn't make it easy, and in a world where consumers have been promised coverage when and where they want it, the network should not be surprised by the blowback from viewers angry about being forced to watch when and where NBC wants them to.
As for me, I'll come back to nbcolympics.com live stream for the chance to see huge events like Tuesday's in real time. But I won't put up with the dodgy connections and constant disconnects for anything less.
As for the complaints, one word of warning: Given the volatility of social media, such blowback is often followed by blowback against the blowback. I would not be surprised to see some of that in coming days.
Meanwhile, I've tried to report this story down the middle and give NBC Sports credit where credit is due.
For the record, NBC Sports said late Tuesday, that 31.6 million viewers tuned in for Monday night's prime-time coverage.
For the first time in five nights, that is not a record-setting mark. In 1976, 37.7 watched the Olympics in Montreal on the same night.
Still, the biggest audience in 36 years is not too shabby -- even as the chorus of complaints over tape delay continues.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post had an incorrect time element involving a day of the week.
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