Less is more: Why the Olympics broadcast beats online

NEW YORK — When it comes to the Olympics, too much choice can paralyze you with indecision. With five television channels, online streaming, virtual reality and Snapchat, where do you even start?

Catch curling on the USA Network, and you might miss that superb — or disastrous — figure skating routine that will be talked about on social media and in the office. Tune into a stream of figure skating, and you might miss that medal-winning run down the slopes.

With an event as sprawling as the Olympics, sometimes the straight-up linear TV broadcast is best, even if you’re watching that online. Experts make the choices for you; all you have to do is lean back on your couch.

That’s not to say alternatives to the main NBC broadcast are pointless. Die-hard fans of biathlon can choose that and nothing else. Snapchat users who might have skipped the Olympics entirely might at least catch the few minutes of live video offered there each day.

NBC’s websites and apps let you catch up on what you missed — though with more than 175 hours of programming on the main channel alone, catching up might have to wait until after the games end.

Among the online standouts:

— THE GOLD: Online streaming brings equality.

NBC focuses heavily on Americans and a handful of medal contenders from other countries in popular sports. To see otherwiseobscure athletes, you’ll have to catch one of the online streams. Every event is being shownin its entiretyonline, complete with graphics, slow-motion replays and commentary from the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Broadcasting Services. It feels like a broadcast —justnot an American-centric one.

— THE SILVER: Virtual reality offers alternative perspectives.

The 30 events in VR work better as a behind-the-scenes companion than as a replacement for television. For instance, after an athlete starts sliding down the skeleton track, you see crews with brooms fixing the ice for the next competitor. With figure skating, you can linger at the “kiss and cry” area as competitors wait for their scores; television typically cuts to replays.

— THE BRONZE: Apps let you personalize.

If you enjoy watching skiers and snowboarders fall — justadmitit, you do — Comcast’s Xfinity Stream app can give you clip after clip oftumbles and face plants. Likewise, you can get clips of just upsets or thrilling finishes. Comcast also organizes video by sport and selected athletes. Hulu’s live-TV service lets you pick your favourite sports, although its offerings aren’t as extensive as Comcast’s. For everyone else, NBC’s app gives you plenty of ways to drill down. You can also customize phone notifications by sport or selected athletes.

How, then, is broadcast better?

For one thing, watching online takes work. With luge and skeleton, for instance, it takes five hours to watch all four runs down the track — longer if you add training runs. There’s no easy way to jump straight to an athlete who isn’t prominent, such as the lone competitor from the tropical country of Ghana. The ability to jump to any athlete is limited to figure skating and some alpine skiing events.

As for VR, you might feel as though you’re in an Olympic arena or on a mountain, but only television can offer close-ups with its zoom cameras. Figure skating, for instance, feels distant; the VR camera’s wider shot is of a mostly empty ice rink. With luge, each athlete whizzes by in a second, whereas TV can capture the entire, 45-second-plus run with multiple cameras.

Complain all you want about interruptions in the broadcast for puffy profiles, but they offer a nice break from what looks to an untrained eye like skier after skier making the same run down the slope. (That said, snazzy technology superimposes two skiers on the same image, so broadcast viewers can compare and contrast their runs.)

Also welcome in the broadcast are segments on Korean culture and politics. It’s easy to miss those when filtering for specific events or athletes.

Watching NBC’s broadcast doesn’t necessarily mean watching with an antenna or cable TV set-top box, sincethe network also offers an online “enhanced view” of its broadcast. The broadcast video appears in a smaller box, leaving room elsewhere for medal counts, trivia and other context. NBC’s researchers prepared about a thousand info cards ahead of time. In addition, markers let you jump to specific segments within a broadcast, whether that’s snowboarding or figure skating.

And subscribers to Sony’s cable-like online TV package, PlayStation Vue, can watch up to three channels at once on a PlayStation 4 console. That makes it possible to have curling on without missing the main action on the NBC broadcast network.

Ultimately, these online enhancements have their roots in television. Watching everything online would take you two and a half months — without sleep. Even if NBC’s broadcast couldn’t cover everything live, you can count on it for a taste of the 102 events in 15 sports that make up this year’s Winter Olympics.

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