SBJ/July 23-29, 2012/Olympics

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  • Comcast authentication rates soar

    Early returns suggest that Comcast’s plans to authenticate the London Olympics — making sure the Games’ online feeds are available only to cable and satellite subscribers — will be the cable industry’s most successful verification process to date.

    The company has been working for years to develop a system that allows its subscribers to have a seamless approval process that allows them to watch NBC’s Olympic coverage on their computers, tablets or mobile devices. The effort to develop a seamless process is more crucial this year since NBC plans to stream every Olympic event live on its website.

    Signs are promising, at least for Comcast’s systems.

    In the week leading up to the opening ceremony, Comcast was reporting a 90 percent success rate for authenticating its subscribers. That means that 90 percent of its subscribers who tried to authenticate (around 100,000 total) were successful, as of last week. Only 10 percent of the Comcast subscribers who tried to authenticate were not able to do it.

    “That’s the highest we’ve ever seen with authentication,” said Matt Strauss, Comcast’s senior vice president of digital and emerging platforms.

    Comcast’s 90 percent success rate for the Olympics so far is significantly higher than the cable operator’s previous authentication efforts around big events, such as Turner’s “March Madness on Demand.” It’s also higher than success rates around other authenticated streams, like WatchESPN and HBO Go.

    Comcast’s early results are important for the entire cable industry, which has been trying to figure out how to keep control of its programming as it migrates online. Early authentication results from other cable operators are not known.

    The cable industry’s early authentication efforts have been confusing and cumbersome. Many systems require consumers to take several steps and share personal information for verification. But Comcast has changed the process to the point that some of its subscribers are unaware that they’ve even been authenticated. Up to 75 percent of its authenticated subscribers completed the process in-home, where Comcast recognizes IP addresses. An action as simple as clicking on an Olympic link via NBCSports.com or Xfinity.com, after logging into a Comcast email account, can lead to authentication.

    For Comcast, most problems have come from subscribers trying to log in from work. NBC Sports is allowing a one-time four-hour pass to people who have problems logging in.

    The challenge for Comcast will be twofold. Not only will it try to keep the success rate high as the Olympics draw closer and more consumers try to watch online or via mobile devices, but the country’s biggest cable operator also needs to ensure that other cable and satellite operators are prepared to deal with the crush of people who will be trying to access Olympic video online over the next two weeks.

    Each cable and satellite operator uses its own authentication system, and many do not have the experience Comcast has in testing such systems.

    As an early supporter of TV Everywhere, the concept of streaming channels to more than one device, Comcast has been one of the earliest cable operators to test different authentication systems. Much of Strauss’ job for the past several months has been to share best practices that he’s learned with other cable operators, programmers and even some competitors.

    “I’ve personally gotten on the phone with certain distributors — ones that you wouldn’t expect me to get on the phone with — to share some of what we’ve learned in an effort to have them take on some of those tactics themselves,” he said. “We’re not doing a victory lap if Comcast is at 90 percent and another distributor is at 20 percent.”

    Speaking from Comcast Labs on the 35th floor of Comcast Center in Philadelphia last week, Strauss talked about the amount of time and effort the cable operator has been throwing behind authenticating NBC’s online coverage of the Olympics.

    Strauss’ team of about 100 executives has been solely focused on working out authentication kinks for at least the past nine months. Comcast executives are in the middle of a “road show” to 22 call centers across the country to train technicians. Comcast plans to fully staff those call centers throughout the Games.

    “We’re doing a full-court press to figure out all the different touch points in advance,” he said. “We have escalation plans in place with NBC and Adobe [which provides the Flash player to view video] if there’s issues to get them resolved. If there’s an issue with the authentication, we’ve got plans in place to get an answer within five minutes.”

    While each operator and each programmer have their own process, what’s unique about the Olympics’ authentication process is the fact that Comcast and NBC’s sports media competitors seem to be rooting for the effort to be successful. It’s not often that ESPN and Turner will pull for an NBC Sports initiative to succeed. But the Olympics’ online success could mean a quicker adoption for TV Everywhere.

    “Just like everyone else in the marketplace benefited from the big events that are on ESPN, we think we’re going to benefit more so from a big event that is fully authenticated, as opposed to one that creates confusion in the marketplace,” said Sean Bratches, ESPN’s executive vice president of sales and marketing.

    Matt Hong, Turner Sports senior vice president and general manager of operations, agreed.

    “Turner, ESPN, NBC and the [cable and satellite operators] are aligned on the strategy, which is a great thing to see,” he said. “We’re pushing for many of the same things.”

    Comcast and NBC executives believe the London Games will be a defining moment for TV Everywhere. If subscribers have problems viewing a big event like the Olympics online, it could delay the process from taking hold.

    “I think the London Olympics will be a watershed moment for TV Everywhere and verification — and a moment when multichannel distributors demonstrate their commitment to TV Everywhere by standing behind their promise to make that process as easy as possible,” said NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

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  • NeuLion to stream HD Games in China

    Video service provider NeuLion has been hired by national broadcaster CCTV to stream the Olympics live in HD for the first time in China.

    The deal is the result of a partnership NeuLion struck with CCTV five months ago. It will provide a main broadcast feed and six to nine live events in high definition for tablets, computers and mobile devices throughout the Olympics.

    China’s CCTV provided a more advanced mobile offering during the 2008 Games than U.S. rights holder NBC did. But U.S. rights holders have jumped ahead in the quality of the sports video they deliver to tablets, mobile devices and computers. NeuLion’s HD feed represents an effort by the country’s biggest broadcaster to catch up.

    “The interest in the Olympics here in China is big and our audience will be very excited,” said Wang Wenbin, general manager of CNTV, a subsidiary of CCTV.

    The premium Olympic video content will be free to Chinese consumers. CCTV and NeuLion plan to turn premium video of other sporting events into a pay-per-view service.

    “The opportunity with a population four times the size of the U.S. and much more interested in premium service is huge,” said Chris Wagner, NeuLion’s executive vice president of strategy.

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  • USOC targets $100M in retail sales

    A new strategy that has its licensed products being sold in a diverse retail footprint, from Bloomingdale’s to Wal-Mart, has U.S. Olympic Committee officials thinking about a different kind of Olympic gold.

    “Our hope is that for the first time when an Olympics are held outside of the U.S., we will achieve $100 million in [retail] sales to help our privately funded [national governing bodies] and athletes,” said USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird.

    Retail sales of $100 million are considered the hallmark of a successful licensing program. If the USOC’s 35 licensees and their retailers combine to reach that goal, it
    The USOC’s licensed goods include a separate Team USA line.
    will be because of a broad-based distribution plan that has a separate Team USA line in midtier and mass retailers, and top-shelf USOC apparel in stores such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and stores of Polo Ralph Lauren.

    Ralph Lauren, an official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic team, developed an upscale fashion line of branded apparel for adults and kids, some of which will be worn during the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies.

    While the company took considerable heat over providing clothing for USOC athletes that was made in China, it subsequently announced that clothes for the 2014 Winter Games will be made stateside. Ralph Lauren is still bullish about its USOC rights and quietly renewed them through the 2020 Games.

    Nike is the USOC’s other official outfitter and manufacturer of the jackets athletes will be wearing on the medal podium. It is also the largest licensee, and its extensive line of apparel and footwear bearing USOC marks will be sold at its own stores and through sports specialty channels such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Foot Locker and Champs.

    In midtier retailers such as JCPenney, Old Navy and Gap, and mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target, there’s a separate “Team USA” line of adult and children’s apparel from Outerstuff, some of which carries Olympic rings.

    “We’re hoping this is kind of an evergreen product,” said Outerstuff CEO Sol Werdiger. “There should always be a Team USA, even after the Olympics.”

    Outside of apparel, Fathead is in as a USOC licensee for the first time and Oakley is making Team USA sunglasses for sale in Oakley O Stores, Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters. WinCraft is making towels, pennants, stickers and glassware and is featured in a large promotion with USOC/IOC sponsor Procter & Gamble in 2,300 Wal-Marts (SportsBusiness Journal, June 18-24).

    Other USOC-licensed products include a unisex jewelry line from Alex and Ani, nutrition bars from PR*Bars, and Olympic Barbie and Hot Wheels products from Mattel.

    In addition to the Ralph Lauren renewal, Outerstuff is signed through 2016, with Nike and Oakley’s rights running through 2020.

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