NEW YORK — When NBC started large-scale live streaming of the Olympics in 2008, the network put the bounty of action behind a paywall that made the coverage available only to cable and satellite TV subscribers.
The network held firm to the philosophy through the next five Games, three in the winter (2010, ’14 and ’18) and two in the summer (2012 and ’16), even though consumer behavior didn’t. Early adopters of cord-cutting weren’t shy about hoping NBC would give them a way to watch events — a legal one, that is — even though they knew NBC’s corporate parent Comcast had little incentive to do so.
Next month, the wall will start to come down. NBC announced Wednesday that it will put live gymnastics and track & field action on the free-of-charge tier of its streaming platform Peacock. There will also be live U.S. men’s basketball team games on Peacock’s paid tier, which is $4.99 a month but free to Comcast subscribers with X1 cable boxes.
In addition, Peacock will have on-demand replays of other sports on its free tier. The full range of that offering hasn’t been set yet, but it will be useful for cord-cutting fans who don’t want to watch live action from Tokyo in the middle of the night here.
“We want to expand the audience, and we think Peacock is the vehicle to do that,” said Matt Strauss, the chairman of Peacock, who lives in Cherry Hill.
“There’s clearly been a shift where more and more users want to access content through streaming,” Strauss said. “You’re continuing to see people who have more options now, where they might just want to get broadband and a streaming service and not necessarily subscribe to traditional paid television. So we’re giving people choices, we’re giving people more access.”
All of the live events on Peacock will also be available for pay-TV subscribers to stream online in the usual ways: NBC’s Olympics website and apps for phones, tablets and connected TV devices like AppleTV and Roku.
Why will the basketball be behind Peacock’s paywall? Strauss’ answer was pretty simple: the network simply decided to do it.
“It’s going to be accessible in other places, but for Peacock, we thought it was an interesting opportunity to learn,” he said.
Peacock will also have a pile of supplementary content, including a daily highlights show hosted by Rich Eisen and a women’s sports show with Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz and former Olympic track and bobsled athlete Lolo Jones. The platform already has documentaries and archival footage of events including the 1996 women’s soccer gold medal game, which wasn’t televised at the time and has never been available in full until now.
But the big-ticket items will be the live events, which will feature some of the top American names at the Games. Sha’Carri Richardson seems ticketed for breakout stardom on the track, and gymnast Simone Biles might be the biggest star of all. And of course the men’s basketball team will draw attention no matter who’s playing.
“I think it’s where the overall media world is going,” said Rick Cordella, Peacock’s executive vice president and chief revenue officer, and a longtime champion of NBC’s expansion of online sports streaming.
“You see it, you feel it,” he added. “You see some of the sports that are now being simulcast both on broadcast TV and on streaming services … I don’t think it’s anything new necessarily that we’re doing, it just may be new for this event.”
When it comes to Olympics coverage on traditional TV channels, there will be the usual broad offering on NBC’s broadcast network and many cable outlets, including NBCSN, USA, CNBC and Golf Channel.
The big broadcast network will have a lot of live content in the morning U.S. time, which is nighttime in Tokyo, including the first live TV broadcast of an Opening Ceremony since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. The last live TV broadcast of a Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony was in 1996 in Atlanta.
“With the proliferation of all these different platforms, it allows us to cater to both the super-fan with everything streaming all the time, but then you can come over to the network in prime time and get a highly curated, most-popular sports [show] in prime time,” said Molly Solomon, the executive producer and president of NBC’s Olympics production. “And then you go over to the cable channels, and the real estate there really allows us to show long-form coverage of games and events.”