Olympic Games coverage & what IOC and NBC can learn from the open data movement
Today, the Games of the XXX Olympiad are coming to a close. Every four years in August, the Olympic Summer Games become part of people’s lives around the world. In 2008, 4.7 billion people or 2/3 of the world's population saw part of the Beijing Olympics, according to Nielsen. Naturally, conversations during those two weeks (and afterwards) keep coming back to the Games. And in an increasingly connected world, conversations about the Olympic Games are going global on Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media.
One would think that NBC as the exclusive broadcast and online rights holder in the US would help inform and facilitate that global conversation about the Games. But as a never ending stream of rants (follow #NBCfail on Twitter) and ample coverage on blogs and news sites show, they are failing their audience. Top events including the opening and closing ceremonies are not broadcast live but delayed until prime time to maximize ad revenue. Online streams are only available to subscribers of specific cable packages, and they are low-res and choppy on top of that. Broadcast content posted online by fans of the Olympic Games gets removed quickly because of copyright infringement. And NBC prime time coverage fixates on American athletes, largely ignoring foreign athletes and sports where Americans are not likely to medal. I would love to see the best of Olympic sports without a national angle, but that’s nowhere to be found in the US.
The open data movement is currently gaining a lot of traction. Governments and organizations get several benefits and opportunities from opening up their data. Open data obviously increase transparency by providing interested parties a closer look. More accessibility of data will enable others to hold data publishers accountable, but also to provide feedback and input. “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people in the world don’t work for you” (Sun co-founder Bill Joy). Opening up data provides those smart people a chance to create products, services, analyses and insights from the data that the data publisher could never have dreamed of. And by enabling innovators like entrepreneurs, developers, journalists and others to develop innovative and (potentially) useful products and services, it can power whole new ecosystems like the ones around weather data and GPS data. Open data can help data publishers and at the same time contribute to the greater public good.
How does this relate to the Olympic Games? According to the Olympic Charter, "The International Olympic Committee (IOC) takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games." How would the IOC get the ‘fullest coverage’? By opening up data from the Olympic Games and ideally video, audio and imagery along with them and making them available so that innovators can create more products and services that audiences want.
Obviously, that won't happen because the licensing of broadcast rights provides a major contribution to the budget for the Olympics. For the US alone, NBC spent $2.3B for broadcast and online rights for the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Olympics, and $4.38B for rights to all Games until 2020. So the IOC won’t be able to simply share the complete feed from the Olympic Broadcasting Services for free. But there are a few things they can do:
- Share comprehensive data from the Olympic Games, including information about the athletes, real-time feeds with results, and other data. Right now, the IOC is still not using its data treasure troves to create an open data Olympics, and still, some amazing visualizations have brought more insights about the London Olympics.
- Work with broadcasters to remove those legacy national viewing restrictions online (e.g. you can’t watch BBC in the US). These national Olympic Games video monopolies stifle competition and lead to sub-par coverage (did I mention #NBCfail?). Allowing competition between broadcasters from different countries will force all of them to provide the coverage that their audiences want (until they do this, there is always TunnelBear).
- Prevent broadcasters from creating walled gardens around the content and ensure live coverage of all events. Sports need to be watched live (especially since the ubiquitous social media are natural born spoilers), and Jeff Jarvis argues that this also makes economic sense.
- Ask broadcast partners to share their content as "open content" and allow audiences to reuse and redistribute broadcast content. Broadcasters will have exclusive rights for first broadcast, but innovators and the crowd can then repackage the content, show highlights, show coverage from different countries, and so much more. This will create buzz, stimulate conversation, and may just drive up broadcast viewership overall. For now, however, people that want to share stories will have to get creative, like the Wall Street Journal with its home made highlights.
The Olympic Games are iconic. They show that sports, competition and team play are important around the world. They can inspire us to lead more healthy and active lives (a message that would be more consistent if we could get rid of those counterproductive McDonald’s and Coca-Cola commercials and endorsements during the Games). By taking a lesson from the Open Data movement, the IOC and NBC have a huge opportunity to expand coverage and audiences for the Games, and make watching, following and talking about them even more fun, in person and online. Fingers crossed for Sochi 2014.