As the Winter Olympics approach, I can’t help but think back to the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Although I enjoy the Olympics, it’s memorable for me because I headed up a team at Synacor, Inc., at the time and we effectively launched TV Everywhere online during the Vancouver games. HBOGo was soon to follow, but the Olympics was the first real widespread rollout.
During the summer of 2009, NBC started talking to cable companies and technology providers like Synacor about streaming live Olympic content online for the Vancouver Olympics. TV Everywhere had already started with some experiments, but nothing had been done across the full subscriber base of cable providers and telcos. NBC had an ambitious plan to try to make content available online to everyone who was paying their cable company to watch it on TV.
It was a bit strange that NBC, a broadcast network, would launch an initiative that required a cable subscription. But it shows how much even the broadcast networks rely on cable revenue and of course the rights to the Olympics aren’t cheap. As it turned out, access was based on being subscribed to CNBC and MSNBC, the network’s cable properties.
Synacor is a technology provider for many cable companies and telcos and once we had the basic plan from NBC, we needed to reach out to every customer and figure out how we were going to allow their subscribers to log in to view the Olympics. We had a base of people who already had a login because they used the email service provided via their provider’s broadband package, and we provided the email service. But what about checking what channels they had in their line-up? And then the real curveball, what about video subscribers who didn’t have a broadband package? Or even worse, what about subscribers who got broadband from a telco (DSL) and video from the cable company?
Needless to say, we had our hands full. I spent months on the phone with the tech teams at all of the providers figuring out how to get access to their subscriber data. We needed to map channel line-ups to existing accounts, have a way for new users to provision new accounts, and allow users who didn’t even know they had accounts to reset their passwords.
One of the hardest parts was creating accounts for TV-only subscribers. There were technical challenges because many of the online systems were tied to the user having a broadband internet subscription. Even more difficult was convincing people that these subscribers would even have a way to access the content. How can they watch online video without our broadband account?
Bolting Things Together
The Olympics run on fixed dates and they weren’t going to push them back a few days if we weren’t ready. It was a scramble right down to the last minute to get people set up. We ended up with 14 of our customers signing on and it was a full-time effort to get everything in place.
The authentication and authorization process was a federated identity system using SAML. Basically that means setting up a trust relationship between two parties (web sites) such that a user can get logged in with one (Synacor) to get access to content at another (NBC). Getting one of our clients set up first involved getting all of the user and channel information on a regular schedule from their back-end business system into our identity system. Then we needed to exchange identity information and metadata with NBC to register that customer’s login page with the NBC Olympics website.
It was hard enough to do this for one login, and we had to do 14. NBC set up a partner portal to help with the process and by the end, my team had the process down pat. Regardless, we were still putting things in place at the last minute as our customers rushed to complete things on their end.
After a few late nights, my team had everything in place and we waited and watched our monitoring systems as the opening ceremonies started.
Let the Games Begin
Thanks to the efforts of my team, we launched on time. We watched and worried and wondered if we had enough capacity to handle the load. We wondered what would happen if the many backend systems we had integrated started to slow down or stopped working altogether. And we looked ahead to the men’s hockey final at the end of the games and wondered what the volume would be 15 minutes before the gold medal game started.
As it turned out, we didn’t need to worry. For us, the load never used more than 10% of our capacity. And as the games rolled forward, other providers did have problems, so rather than risk having angry subscribers, NBC eventually opened up access to some of the more popular events. Regardless, we were happy to be able to say that throughout the events all of our customers had fast logins with no problems.
Still Work to be Done
The online numbers generally were low and there are a few reasons. For the U.S., the games were close to the same time zone making it easy for NBC to put events on linear TV during times when people were home. The events were limited to hockey and curling, so not all content was available. Finally, sports in general has a different usage profile than other content. People want to watch it live and the audience is much lower for replays, especially once the outcome is widely known.
From a technical perspective, I viewed it as a big success. We integrated a large number of systems and the technology worked. Users who knew their credentials were able to get in and watch video and other exclusive content.
But other lessons we learned then are still being sorted out and they are essentially the lessons around web identity in general. How can we make it easy for people to log in? Users need to know their credentials, need to be able to self-provision if the don’t have them, and retrieve passwords when they have forgotten. And as much as providers don’t like it, they need to allow users to select their own identity provider even if it’s someone else.
As the winter games are gearing up, NBC has announced they will allow 30-minute free passes to get people engaged with TV Everywhere. Unfortunately, I think the issue is that it’s still too hard for legitimate customers to get logged in. Providers need to streamline their systems, make it easier for users to learn their credentials, and allow subscribers to use other logins they know like Google or Facebook. I’ll be watching NBC’s numbers with interest to see how far TV Everywhere has come in 4 years.