For years, Seattleites had one advantage enjoyed by few others in the U.S: Being able to watch the Olympics on television without NBC’s unbecoming American chauvinism, commercial interruptions, and distracting commentaries — and watching them live rather than on tape delay. Our salvation was the CBC, the national Canadian broadcaster whose Vancouver TV station, CBUT, is available locally on Comcast/Xfinity (Ch. 99 and 619 for HD) and whose marvelous coverage was anchored in sports reporting, not national flag-waving.
Those days are gone. The CBC was outbid for the 2012 London Olympics by the Canadian CTV network, to which we have no live access in the lower 48. R.I.P CBC.
Luckily a white knight has come to our rescue, and that knight — to everyone’s surprise — is . . . NBC. Under its new Comcast ownership, NBC let it be known this week that it will carry every London 2012 Olympic event covered by a TV camera on NBCOlympics.com. (The XXX Olympics Summer Games will be held July 27 to August 12.)
There is only one restriction, albeit a mild one: While the network is promising all events will be streamed live on the website, not every event will be archived. In other words, if you want to see a key event, such as 2008 Olympics multiple Gold Medal winner Michael Phelps swim in a championship event, you'll be able to watch it live online, but won’t be able to replay it until after the race airs on NBC during its primetime scheduling. Fair enough.
At press time, NBC was mum on how its coverage will play out on its other networks. Comcast/NBC now owns 13 networks and its Olympics website is getting pumped up to handle multi-millions of people tuning in simultaneously to watch live events online on computers, tablets, and smartphones.
The Comcast cable network has roughly 22 million subscribers to its virtually unlimited on-demand capabilities and its Xfinity mobile services. There’s already an Xfinity.com online channel devoted to the upcoming Olympics, with a few videos looking back to the last Olympics in addition to a look forward to 2012. I could find no similar channel through the on-demand Comcast service on my TV. Maybe this online only channel is a harbinger of the upcoming Olympics.
I also decided this week to do some channel-surfing on my Xbox — mostly to see how well Microsoft is succeeding in evolving its best-selling gaming console into the ultimate center for home entertainment. It’s a little early to pass final judgment on this new venture, but what I found after several hours of using the Xbox-as-TV entertainment was somewhat underwhelming.
The Xbox water-into-wine project is one of Microsoft’s major initiatives this year, along with pushing Windows 8 and Windows Phone mobile smartphones. While the company’s gaming business itself tapered off after the release of its latest Xbox — the entertainment division, which includes the Xbox, dropped 16 percent (to $1.6 billion) from last year according to its latest quarterly earnings report — Microsoft still looks to the Xbox as its major weapon for the domination of the home entertainment market.
With roughly 66 million Xbox gaming consoles installed worldwide, the strategy of leveraging those already-installed boxes and adding on entertainment channels sounds like a good idea. Competitors like the Roku box, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, and all new TV sets and Blu-ray players with built-in Internet access are hardly standing still.
I’m not sure what I expected when I opened the Xbox for TV entertainment: Some fresh and original programming, perhaps, or a knockout visual experience that captured my attention the way a top-rated Xbox game like Mass Effect 3 might.
The first step was dealing with the new Microsoft Metro design look. Tiles of varying sizes either open an application or are portals to other activities. The design protocol is theoretically a smart way to navigate content, but I found it tedious to deal with. There is no way for users to simply look at a list to choose their destination; they have to deal with the Metro interface.
I also tried using Xbox' powerful Kinect controller to leap from program to program with both hand gestures and voice commands. It worked, but added little to either the Xbox operation or enjoyment.
Then I looked to be entertained.
Currently, the TV entertainment consists of 18 apps. Taking a closer look at the lineup, NetFlix and Hulu Plus require monthly subscriptions. Xfinity, HBO Go, Major League Baseball, and PLEX require that users have the proper cable service and are already paying for these specific premium services (Comcast —Seattle’s biggest cable company and my cable provider — doesn’t offer access to PLEX even if you want to pay for it). CinemaNow, Vudu, and Microsoft's Zune are pay-per-view movie services. FIOS is available as 'live TV' but Seattle residents can't access it — the Verizon-based service is no longer offered in our area. Crackle, an Internet movie service from Sony, is free; however, I found its movies terribly dated.
I could identify only two free cable services: SyFy and ESPN3. The remainder — TMZ, Daily Motion, YouTube, VEVO, and MSN — are widely available Internet sites.
To access any of this programming, you must also have an annual Xbox Live membership; pricing starts at about $50.
My next project was to see what the Xfinity service offered on Xbox and how it worked.
What I found was essentially the same on-demand service already offered by Comcast/Xfinity for its TV subscribers, organized by networks, hot shows, or genre such as dramas, comedies, and sports. With one key distinction.
Comparing several channels to their on-demand counterparts, I found the Xbox listings behind in several instances when it came to viewing recent shows. CNN's newest network shows, like Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper, and Erin Burnett, were more than 24 hours old.
Given Microsoft’s existing Xbox base, they certainly have the opportunity to be a leader in the home entertainment field. Unfortunately the company seems deaf to the reality that their offerings are hardly compelling or original. Just offering access to services easily available from other sources is not enough to secure a dominant market position — even with their head start as a gaming console.
Most — if not all — of its competitors are moving rapidly into original programming, clearly understanding that just being there and offering programs already available from many other sources is not enough to secure today’s fickle customers. Netflix, Hulu Plus, Yahoo, Starz, and You Tube, among others, are either already offering original programming or gearing up to do so. Amazon.com may be planning to jump into original production as well.
Last December, a rumor surfaced that Microsoft was toying with hiring TV executives to develop original Xbox programming. At the time, the company refused comment. If there are such plans afoot, Microsoft would be wise to let the public know. Depending on its current Xbox offerings to win the home entertainment battle may well turn out to be a disappointment, and Microsoft is not a company that can afford to disappoint the public one more time.