A Swiss broadcaster has been granted permission to boldly take Olympics-event video where it has never gone before — the Internet.
The deal is a cautious experiment for the International Olympic Committee, which is eyeing the future role of new media in the world's premier sporting event. But it also underscores a persistent fear among major sports entities: Internet distribution poses a danger to their business game plans, which have long been based on television-rights fees.
TSR — the French-language affiliate of Switzerland's SSR national television network — will be the first distributor to gain Internet broadcast rights for next month's Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Don't leap for your computer just yet, though. TSR was required to guarantee that video streams would only be distributed in Switzerland, in keeping with the IOC's standing policy to limit Internet distribution within an operator's country of origin.
"What I think is interesting in this case is obviously the IOC, given its extreme reluctance … is obviously looking at the issues," said TSR interactive division director Philippe Mottaz. "This is a very limited experiment on a trial basis, in terms of first of all population and scope.
"But nevertheless, it indicates the willingness of the IOC to explore as much as they can what the consumption is of the Games on another medium than TV."
The IOC's hammerlock policy on Internet distribution is a bow to broadcasters, who fear Web availability would damage their lucrative commercial-TV rights. Since many Web outlets either serve multiple countries or can't restrict such content to within their national borders, no organization previously had been able to obtain permission to stream video over the Web.
"For us, initially looking at the Internet, we embrace that as a means of reaching more people, the more that can get our message or see our event the better," IOC marketing manager David Aikman, who is in charge of licensing, said in a statement. "But you've got to put that in a realistic financial business model and today the Olympic Games couldn't survive without the revenue that comes from the sale of broadcast rights."
To meet the IOC's requirements, TSR will team with Bluewin AG, an asynchronous digital subscriber line subsidiary of telco Swisscom AG.
Bluewin will make the video available only to customers in Basel, Geneva and Zurich, under a larger streaming trial that involves TV channels, video-on-demand and live events.
"It's a single operator who is putting up a restricted ADSL network, so it is on a subscription basis only — available to subscribers who will then pay a subscription to access our service," Mottaz said.
Though TSR would not disclose the number of customers in the trial, existing technology would set a limit of 2,000 simultaneous viewers, the network said. And the network will do more than require subscribers to log in and authenticate their subscription: Each image will be electronically watermarked and fingerprinted.
"In any case [where] there will be some kind of a picture that makes its way onto a site, it will be easy to track it down to the source with the computer and the logging information," Mottaz said.
TSR expects to stream some 240 hours of video from Salt Lake City, from the opening ceremonies through the closing ceremonies. Clips will be encoded for full-screen, VHS-quality video at 1 megabit per second.
"What we will be doing as well is putting up stuff that was not seen on the air," Mottaz said. "We have made editorial decisions about the coverage and there are some things we will not show — only as excerpts.
"Subscribers will be able to find it on the site as well, so it is quite a significant amount of material that they will be able to watch."
On the Web site, customers can pick and choose events, including the downhill skiing contests favored by Swiss viewers. Video will be packaged with such data as team standings, individual results and times.
"It's quite nifty because not only do you have the stats in terms of timing, but you've got other data — how many races were won in the past, and you can select by country. You can select a number of pieces of information about the race," Mottaz said.
TSR will also offer a split-screen race video format that might present two skiers making their runs and compare where each won or lost time during their descent, for example. The site will also offer video-on-demand for sports enthusiasts who missed the day's SSR broadcast, given the difference in time zones.
"It's a very bad time on TV, so if you miss it you can go home, and if you subscribe to the service, you can catch it up later," Mottaz said.