Five-ring Circus

Apple TV Was the Best Way to Watch the Olympics This Year

A man uses his mobile phone to watch the curling men's round robin session between South Korea and Sweden during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
A man uses his mobile phone to watch the curling men’s round robin session between South Korea and Sweden during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
WANG ZHAO/Getty Images

Growing up, watching the Olympics was a simple affair. I’d switch on the TV and watch whatever sport was being broadcast. It wasn’t necessarily live—in fact, it almost never was—and it may not have been a sport I cared about. But we all went through it together.

That’s all changed. Now we’ve got high-speed cameras providing detailed slow-motion playback, 360-degree virtual reality views of events, and social media ensuring that every highlight and lowlight of the games reverberates throughout digital space. We’ve also evolved beyond that single broadcast template: NBC can now stream multiple sports concurrently. While you can watch on its website or mobile app, with this year’s nearly concluded Winter Olympics games, its Apple TV app really shined. For the first time, Olympics fans may have finally got the comprehensive coverage a 21st-century audience deserves. If this trend continues, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are going to be an interactive, informative, even transformative experience.

NBC Sports first debuted Olympics coverage in its Apple TV app with the 2016 Rio Olympics, after its website struggled to keep up with the streaming demand of the 2012 Summer Olympics. With Rio, the second time the network would offer live video (the first was London in in 2012), NBC planned to livestream all 34 sports, a total of 4,500 combined hours of coverage. It fulfilled that goal, but as a viewer, it left something to be desired. Viewers without cable subscriptions were unable to access all the content they were promised. And the app’s functionality was wonky. Navigating the overall interface was difficult and sometimes buggy, and with so many events happening at the same time, it was easy to miss a livestream of interest. Once a stream concluded, the app would automatically jump from highlight clip to highlight clip regardless of whether you’d seen it already, which proved frustrating.

With the 2018 Winter Olympics—the first winter Olympics in which NBC would be live-streaming all 1,800 hours of sports coverage—NBC seems to have finally gotten it right. Its Apple TV app worked beautifully, with a simplified and streamlined interface and “enhanced” viewing options that really transformed the Olympics-watching experience. Oftentimes, you may watch a sport and not know much about it. If the commentators do their job right, before the end of the event, you should have a general understanding of the way scoring works (unless it’s figure skating) and top competitors participating in the competition. But that’s not always the case. NBC’s enhanced stream, available during select competitions, helped fill that potential void and add a useful, but not overwhelming level of context.

Instead of the video stream taking up the entirety of the screen, information modules lined the right and bottom edges of the screen. Typically, the right-hand side was divided into three sections, each with various facts about the sport, the athlete, or the current conditions in Pyeongchang. This feature was superb, often answering questions shortly after I’d mentally asked them, and providing personal details about the athletes onscreen that drew me into the telecast, even if it was a sport I might not normally find interesting. The bottom panel of the screen might tell you what sport you’re currently watching—useful for the network’s main feed, which would swap between different events as they concluded—or details about the U.S. athletes participating on-screen. Who knew that short-track speedskating star Maame Biney plans to study chemical engineering in college next year?

But like an athlete, NBC can’t rest on this win—it needs to start preparing tomorrow for the next games. There are plenty of places, particularly in the Apple TV app, that could use some work. If you want to go back and watch a specific moment—like when men’s freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy kissed his boyfriend on-air—have fun scrolling through hours of recorded content first. And if you want to plan out your viewing schedule ahead of time, navigating through the calendar of events was not terribly straightforward. The app also continues to discriminate against those who don’t subscribe to cable, offering non-subscribers just a 30-minute trial viewing period each day. This infuriating roadblock has dropped the app’s rating to 2.1 in Apple’s App Store.

Overall, NBC managed to stay basically crash-free, thanks in part to some pretty favorable conditions: The Winter Olympics is a smaller event, which helped make its app navigation more manageable; it had a number of personable, quirky, and informative presenters; and it’s now had more than half a decade to work on its app game. Still, this is the kind of comprehensive, multifaceted coverage that today’s sports need—particularly as more people continue to cut the cord and move away from traditional TV feeds.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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