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Olympics Fans Have Multiple Viewing Options

The Athens Games will be beamed to computers and cell phones as well as televisions, though Americans won't be able to see live video online.

The 100-meter dash and other cherished Olympic moments will for the first time be beamed to computers and mobile phones during the Athens Games. But while many Europeans will be able to see them live on the Internet, Americans will have to settle for tape delay.

After conducting trials involving about 100,000 homes during the past two games, the International Olympic Committee is permitting more than a dozen broadcasters to show video of the Aug. 13-29 Olympics online.

But the footage will be highly restricted to protect lucrative broadcast contracts, which are sold by territory--$793 million paid by NBC alone. Web sites must employ technology to block viewers from outside their home countries, so U.S. Web surfers won't benefit from the BBC's live coverage. They'll have to settle for highlights posted after NBC broadcasts, which are already largely tape-delayed.

On top of that, U.S. viewers must verify their identity using a credit card from Visa--an NBC advertiser--though they will not be charged.

Not a Visa cardholder? You're out of luck.

Some European broadcasters are limiting video to high-speed, broadband customers only, seeking to keep foreigners from connecting via international phone calls.

Norwegians, meanwhile, must be subscribers of one of three main Internet service providers.

"Of course you get frustrated you can't do everything you want, but compared to four years ago, this is incredibly much better," said Kristian Elster, who works on the Web site for Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

He anticipates complaints from Norwegians abroad who must rely on another country's television coverage and not his Web site to view events popular in Norway or featuring such Norwegian athletes as rower Olaf Tufte.

News sites not affiliated with official broadcasters may not carry any competition video at all--even though TV stations that haven't bought rights can show three highlight segments a day of up to 2 minutes apiece. The exception is for some news conferences, but only with a 30-minute delay.

European broadcasters, in particular, had pressed for online rights as they expanded their general Web offerings, and NBC eased its resistance to putting video online after seeing the broadband audience grow.

"We pay a lot of money for the rights," said Andrew Thompson, head of new media for BBC Sports. "It's our duty to try to offer these rights wherever, whenever, however they (Britons) want to get hold of them."

Marc Joerg of the European Broadcasting Union, which paid nearly $400 million for the BBC and other European networks to carry the games, said the IOC authorized online video this spring after NBC and the Europeans agreed on technical standards to keep footage within geographic boundaries.

Fans are the ultimate winners, Joerg said. Even with some 12,000 hours of total TV coverage across Europe, "you cannot cover all," he said. "Broadband and mobile technology can complement the traditional television coverage."

NBC will offer clips of key events in every sport and a daily highlights package at NBCOlympics.com. Footage will appear only after it is broadcast--NBC plans 1,210 hours of coverage spread across NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo, USA, Telemundo, and a high-definition channel.

Brief highlights from NBC will also be available in the United States for customers of AT&T Wireless Inc.'s mMode information service.

Two technology companies will encrypt the video and help NBC's Web site keep out non-Americans. The computer's Internet address will be checked to make sure it goes through a U.S. service provider. The site will also measure how long it takes data to travel and will thus weed out visitors from afar.

While NBC, whose eastern viewers are seven hours behind Athens, will show only highlights post-broadcast, others plan live coverage--also for free.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC Web site will simulcast five television feeds and carry as many as 30 highlights at a time.

The Web site for Dutch broadcaster NOS will show the main television feed and make three others available exclusively to broadband customers.

Norway's NRK, threatened with expulsion from Sydney after mistakenly running Olympic video online in 2000, plans to simulcast the TV coverage and show extras--possibly including less-popular sports.

"Field hockey is completely uninteresting for most Norwegians but it's pretty big in Pakistan," Elster said. Thus, NRK is considering such coverage online for its Pakistani minority in Oslo.

But Swedish television SVT plans only a handful of highlight clips on the Web. Ulf Nilsson, its online sports editor, said the site ran out of funds for more because setting up barriers to foreign surfers was so expensive.

Ironically, customers of Swedish mobile provider TeliaSonera, however, will be able to view SVT's footage live wherever they are--and choose among 20 to 30 clips if they have the right phones. Of course, if they're outside of Sweden roaming charges will make that expensive.

Many professional sports leagues guard their footage, too, but none to the same degree as the IOC.

The recently completed broadcast contracts for the 2010 and 2012 games automatically come with new media rights for the first time, though how far they extend remains to be worked out, said Michael Payne, the IOC's director for global broadcast and media rights.

Less clear is the demand.

"Internet video is usually low quality. Looking at it, sometimes you couldn't even tell who the person is," said Rick Savoia, a software manager in Natick, Mass. "The quality isn't there to spend the time to download and watch when I can, if I have to, TiVo it (on a digital recorder) and watch it on the big television."

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