As the Olympics unfold, NBCUniversal is offering so much linear and digital Rio Olympic programming—6,755 hours overall—that not even the people behind it are quite sure how viewers should try to consume it all. "I have no idea. Good luck!" NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell joked to reporters last week.
But the task of sorting through all that programming and livestreams is less daunting for subscribers of Comcast's Xfinity cable service (from NBCUniversal's parent company) who have upgraded to X1 cable boxes. During this Summer Olympics, those customers have access to all of NBC Olympics' linear and digital feeds, which have been combined together in a special Rio Olympics hub via the X1 cable box.
"We've never had livestreaming integrated from the internet with live television in one seamless way," Brian Roberts, Comcast CEO and chairman, explained to reporters last month. He said that the X1 Rio experience represents his entire company "coming together."
And as X1 customers are accessing the Rio Olympics content, Comcast will be determining how to expand—and monetize—the new technology's capabilities.
"Everything we've done is really with an eye, how can we extend this to other parts of the programming landscape," said Matt Strauss, Comcast cable's evp and gm of video services, who has been working with NBC on their Olympics strategy since shortly after the Sochi Winter Olympics ended in 2014. "It's very rare to have an event which captures so much attention of the country over such a long period of time—17 days—that it really becomes an incubator for us to test different features and to almost use the Olympics as a sandbox."
During the 2012 Summer Games, the Comcast team focused on giving its subscribers "essentially unfettered access to all of this content, with an eye towards mobile and web, and giving viewers the ability to take their content with them on the go," said Strauss. "That was a very controversial decision. We spend a lot of time debating, if we do this, are we going to cannibalize ratings? What we found with London was the opposite: in Comcast households, we saw an average of a 5 percent lift in prime-time ratings. People who were consuming content on all these different platforms actually wanted to tune-in to the prime-time show."
The challenge was quite different for Comcast in 2016, as viewing habits have evolved and audiences are now "stitching together" content from various platforms and outlets, said Strauss. "For Rio, we wanted to break those barriers down. Our principle was how do we deliver every stream, every event, across all platforms, but also present it in a way that's easily accessible on the television."
Their solution was X1's "Front Row to Rio," which allows users to browse Olympic content by all 34 sports, individual athlete or nation. It also allows for even deeper dives, like the ability to sort gymnastics coverage by individual apparatus. Editors are also curating daily highlights, which will give subscribers shortcuts to the most popular and interesting events of each day.
In addition to pulling together NBCUniversal's linear coverage, X1 is incorporating the NBC Sports app, which offers access to as many as 40 different video feeds, as well as full-event replays and highlights. "We're trying to blur those lines as much as possible between content that is fed to X1 over the internet and is fed to X1 from traditional broadcast and cable," said Vito Forlenza, Comcast Cable's senior director for TV Everywhere content and product strategy.
Customers can "favorite" athletes, which "acts as a shortcut to the content you want to get to," said Forlenza. X1 offers access to the Gold Zone (from the NBC Sports app), which works like the NFL Red Zone to highlight "the most interesting events" going on at any moment," said Forlenza.
"We want to collapse windows and make content available almost instantly on demand," said Strauss, who notes that any on-demand footage of same day full events will count towards the live-plus same-day rating, as the feed will be replicated from the local linear feed, and fast-forwarding is disabled.
Currently, 40 percent of Xfinity's 22 million customers have X1, with 40,000 new boxes being installed each day. The company is targeting 50 percent penetration by year's end.
This new approach should unlock new monetization opportunities as well, especially through dynamic ad insertion, though for Rio, Xfinity was focused solely on showcasing the X1's capabilities. "There is also an opportunity as we continue to provide more choices, that it provides NBC the ability to monetize those choices as well," said Strauss, who said the technology could enhance live events like the Oscars, or popular shows like The Voice.
"We do think that there's an opportunity to take the frameworks that we've created for the Olympics and offer that to other networks, which could include additional opportunities to monetize outside of traditional video," Strauss said.