Figuring out how to watch the Olympics this year has been frustrating. NBC holds broadcasting rights to the Games in the US, so it naturally seized on the opportunity to boost subscribers to its streaming service, Peacock, by making it “the place to flock for the Games’ top moments.” Streaming the Olympics should’ve been as easy as signing up — except it wasn’t.
Peacock’s coverage was a problem straight out of the gate. The opening ceremony wasn’t streamed live on the service at all (though the closing ceremony will be), even though it was streamed live on the NBC Olympics website. The service is paywalling men’s basketball, seemingly to boost Peacock’s paid plans. And while live broadcasts and on-demand coverage of most other games and events are available for free on Peacock, finding out what’s on and where to watch it has been a chore, comparable to flicking through a cable TV guide. (Disclosure: NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media, parent company of The Verge.)
Watching on Peacock also means missing out on one of NBC’s biggest promises for the 2020 Games: 4K coverage. Peacock doesn’t support 4K, even while 4K feeds from the games are available on other streaming services. (A spokesperson for Peacock told The Verge that delivering 4K content is on its roadmap.)
That means you had to turn to TV or a live TV service if you wanted to watch in 4K. But 4K coverage has its own set of problems. Availability has been inconsistent in the US — it depends on where you are, what service you’re subscribed to, and what programming you’re watching. YouTube TV and Comcast, for example, offer 4K Olympics coverage in dozens of major cities, but other services like FuboTV and Verizon Fios only offer it in a few. If you’re outside those regions, tough luck.
NBC is also only providing 4K coverage of certain games at certain times. Live NBC coverage is streamed in 4K sometimes, in some places, while other markets will only get 4K re-airings the following day. This can lead to some real confusion if you’re paying extra for 4K features on a service like YouTube, with its recently introduced 4K Plus add-on. While all 4K Plus subscribers can see live events on the Olympic Channel and the Golf Channel, as well as next-day re-airings of primetime NBC coverage, 4K primetime coverage from NBC is limited to around 50 markets.
Basically, some folks are getting live NBC primetime coverage in 4K while others are not. A spokesperson for YouTube TV said it took all the 4K coverage that NBC made available to the service. NBCUniversal did not respond to multiple requests for comment about why 4K support was available in select markets and not others.
Despite NBC’s big hurrah about broadcasting the Olympics in 4K, it’s unclear whether the 4K footage carried by NBC is really even in 4K. Speaking with NBC executive David Mazza, IBC reported that NBC was upconverting some 1080p feeds to 4K. NBC would not confirm whether the feeds are 4K or upscaled 1080p when asked by The Verge.
Beyond the technical limitations, there’s also been some confusion around finding where to watch different Olympic games. Live programming has been spread across a bunch of different channels due to the scope of the Games — USA Network, CNBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel, Golf Channel, and Telemundo are all carrying coverage — so much so that NBC Olympics has regularly published guides to help find what’s on. Peacock’s digital-first platform could have been a huge help in sorting through the mess, but NBC just translated the experience of channel flipping to its app, offering little advantage to cord-cutters. If you do want to watch any of the Games live, you may have to do some additional legwork to find them.
A spokesperson for Peacock said that the service is currently experimenting and will use what it’s learning to inform its coverage for the Beijing Olympics in 2022. The spokesperson also said there wasn’t a specific reason the closing ceremony would be livestreamed on Peacock while the opening ceremony was not.
For many users, the Olympics was likely the first time they had a reason to subscribe to Peacock, which offers both a free and ad-supported tier as well as two paid tiers (one with limited ads and one that’s ad-free). And the tie-in with the 2020 Tokyo Games seems to be working. According to recent data from app analytics company App Annie, mobile downloads of Peacock surged 60 percent in the first few days of the Olympics.
But in practice, actually streaming the Olympics — and specifically the ability to access some events in real time and at higher resolutions — has been a mess. Offering the Games on Peacock was NBCUniversal’s high-stakes Hail Mary for boosting its subscribers, and hopefully, getting users to stick around post-event. But somewhere along the way, something got lost in the shuffle. And what we ended up with instead is a complicated system that made streaming an even bigger headache than it already is.