Technology: Bring The Olympics Online

Here's how I want to watch the 2014 Winter Olympics. I want to go to a Web site, choose an event—say, men's downhill skiing—and watch the whole thing from beginning to end, on my big-screen TV or my laptop or my iPhone. I'll skip the boring parts and rewind to watch the good parts again. I'll gladly pay an à la carte price per event, or pay one big fee for a pass that lets me see every Olympic contest. I'd even pay a premium to watch them live. I want to see any event I want, whenever I want to watch it, on whatever screen I choose.

The technology exists to make this happen today. Yet nearly two decades after the debut of the World Wide Web, this remains a pipe dream. NBC, which broadcast the Vancouver Olympics in the United States, did things the same old way: rounding up a bunch of highlights and broadcasting them during prime time, with less-popular events running on MSNBC and CNBC. Yes, NBC had an Olympics Web site. But it wouldn't put video clips on the site until they had been shown during prime time. So Americans had the weird experience of learning from a news report during the day that something fantastic had just happened, and then having to wait until that night's broadcast to see it.

Bloggers griped, but NBC wouldn't budge. Its research shows that people like me, who want to watch the Olympics online, represent a tiny (albeit noisy) minority—only 7 percent of the total audience. The other, bigger concern is the one that we keep hearing from every kind of media company: the Internet just doesn't deliver any money. For whatever reason, advertisers remain willing to pay big bucks to show their commercials on prime-time TV. But on the Internet? Not so much. "Trading analog dollars for digital dimes" is the expression that media companies use to describe the shift to the Internet.

So NBC clings to the old way of doing things. As it sees it, the prime-time show is the flagship, and it needs to be protected. To make matters worse, NBC was already expecting to lose $250 million on the 2010 Vancouver Games. Good luck persuading it to invest in a risky Web project.

It's easy to blame the network brass, to call them Luddites. But the suits who run NBC are only doing what makes sense. They're going where the money is. And why is there no money on the Internet? Because we, the audience, won't click on the ads, and we've demonstrated, again and again, that we won't pay for content.

That needs to change. Yes, selling coverage of Olympic events over the Internet would drain away some of the prime-time audience, but my sense is many of the online subscribers would still watch the prime-time show, too. And over time, the subscription dollars could become a substantial revenue stream. Instead of viewing the Internet as a threat to prime time, NBC should see the Web as a way to sell even more of its product to a small but passionate subset of its audience.

Building an online store is expensive and risky. It's a lot like the situation the music companies faced a decade ago: they didn't want to invest in an online marketplace because they weren't sure anyone would use it. Along came Apple with the iTunes store. That bet has paid off: Apple recently sold its 10 billionth song.

If the TV networks don't build an online marketplace, someone like Apple will. In fact, Apple, with billions in the bank, is actually in a better position to take that risk than the networks, whose core business is in decline. For now, however, we are living in a frustrating era of technological limbo—aware of what could be, but unable to get it. I'm hoping that by 2014, that will have changed.