Why is NBC’s Olympics video-streaming website so awful?

Olympics rings

In the run-up to the 2014 Olympics, NBC tooted its own horn. Every event, the network boasted, would be streamed live, online. Viewers wouldn’t have to wait for the primetime broadcast or dodge social media spoilers all day. Instead, they could watch the drama unfold, as it happened, on NBC’s website.

What NBC didn’t explain is that the website would be maddening to use.

There are some minor quibbles we might have overlooked. Take the technical glitches, for example. Commercials interrupt the action at bizarre, seemingly random moments, and the video’s prone to constant buffering. And NBC employs “B team” announcers for its webcasts. These aren’t the top-notch commentators you’ll hear in primetime, but less-knowledgable, less-interesting foreign analysts.

But these are small-scale infractions, compared to the website’s cardinal sin: it’s utterly inscrutable and impossible to navigate.

NBC’s Olympics site includes no comprehensive menu for finding video streams. There’s no straightforward schedule you can click through to find your favorite event’s full replay. The search functionality is laughably useless. Even the overhyped “Gold Zone,” a daily stream that shows the best action as it happens, is difficult to find. Gold Zone’s URL changes daily, so you can’t bookmark it. Instead, you must somehow track down each day’s brand-new link. (Thank goodness for Twitter.)

Other video content is even harder to find. Take the medal ceremonies, for example. I’ve always loved seeing how athletes respond on the podium. They spend years toiling in obscurity, and then they get one moment in the sun. They’re sleep-deprived, homesick, and surrounded by patriotic fans and their family. When that anthem kicks in, strong emotions inevitably surface. This all makes for great TV drama.

But try—just try—to find medal ceremonies on NBC’s website. You’d think there’d be a “medal ceremonies” section—a single page dedicated to the heralded hardware handout. There isn’t. The only page I found, “Medal Ceremonies — Day One,” includes a broken video stream and an apologetic disclaimer: “This event has concluded; event replay will be available at 3:00 PM EST.” This, six days after “Day One.”

Why is NBC’s Olympics website so awful? The network spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its Games coverage. Why not throw a few million into UX design? Is the network really this inept?

I suspect not. My conspiracy theory: NBC intentionally borks its streaming site, so that viewers are forced to watch on traditional broadcast TV.

See, TV’s in a weird transition time. The writing’s on the wall: eventually all video will be online video. But the telcos are tough negotiators. They’re loathe to see their valuable satellite and cable customers cut the cord. So, they strike deals with the networks that prevent NBC (or ESPN or AMC) from streaming shows to non-subscribers. These days, you’re forced to authenticate as a cable or satellite customer if you want to stream your favorite shows.

And even if you can access online content, the networks would prefer that you didn’t. In terms of ad revenue, Internet video can’t compete with ‘broadcast’ television. More traditional TV viewers means higher ratings. Higher ratings mean higher ad rates. Higher ad rates make for more profitable broadcasts.

So it’s in NBC’s best interest to make the website impossibly frustrating. They’re hoping that you give up and turn back to the more reliable cable box. That way, the network can boast about its “forward-leaning” media strategy—without sacrificing its lucrative Nielsen numbers.