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The 2008 Digital Olympics

August 20, 2008

As I write this, I am watching the Canadian Men’s Four in the Beijing Olympic scull finals ­­– on the same screen upon which I am typing, thanks to a live broadcast on a handy pop-out window provided by CBC television online. As I mix leisure with labour activities on the very same electronic device, I am struck by the thought that for the first time, a major international sporting event is being freely and officially broadcast internationally on a decent-quality digital stream. Some predicted Internet meltdowns, as a number of countries and their respective national networks have signed contracts with the IOC. The networks may broadcast within their borders, but must prevent cross-border viewing. YouTube has been given limited permission to show the footage on a special channel in countries where no networks have a contract with the IOC, making for an unlikely partnership between the information sharing Google company and the traditionally protective IOC.

Consumers get the televised Olympic action, in real time (i.e. with a 15 second delay), with exactly the same number of commercials (the whole point, from the network’s POV), at about 1/50th the resolution. Given this context, I agree with the Globe’s Jack Kapica who says the best way to watch is still on your TV set. However, given that there are so many other viewing contexts at work in today’s portable media society, it is not only convenient, but representative of a paradigmatic shift in the way traditional media outlets approach the new reality of the web. I wonder if this event is a stepping-off point for some networks and the advertisers who support them to broadcast digital streams regularly, and that the 2008 Olympics are just an opportunity to measure viewership and market response.

All of the options (and probably more) that people have formerly used to watch events such as Euro Cup on various proxy servers, torrents, ad hoc video hosting and their ilk are still available for the pirate-minded. That should not be necessary though, as CBC has made it too easy for folks to legitimately stream the whole thing.

It appears that traditional media outlets are finally beginning to understand that media attained through personal computers via Internet are a major choice of consumers of mass-media. Technological advancement has recently permitted consumers to dictate their viewing habits, regardless of network approval or facilitation. Noting that they cannot beat the tide, the IOC and global networks sidestepped a losing battle against the average consumer and inevitability itself, they decided instead to cash in and join the revolution.

I am heartened to see networks embrace the new technology as opposed to fighting their very viewers. Though the further commercialization of a relatively democratizing communications platform by commercial interests does not add much revolutionary spirit to the web, so long as net neutrality is preserved, it also does not take away its potential to be so much more than a passive tool for absorbing mainstream entertainment. After all, in Canada, anybody with access to a public library computer is still able to express their opinion or join an “anti” or “pro” Olympics movements online as they see fit.

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