NBC, with help from Microsoft and several other technology companies, is attempting an unprecedented online presentation of the Summer Olympics...

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NBC, with help from Microsoft and several other technology companies, is attempting an unprecedented online presentation of the Summer Olympics.

Beginning early this morning with women’s soccer, the television broadcaster is planning to put 2,200 hours of live, streaming coverage of the Games in Beijing on NBCOlympics.com, which will use a custom video player built on Microsoft’s Silverlight 2 technology.

The effort is one of the most ambitious combinations yet of Internet and television coverage of a major live event and comes with a host of business and technology challenges.

If successful, it will showcase the Internet’s ability to amass large audiences around niche topics — in this case less-popular Olympic sports that rarely see television coverage — and profit from them.

“It’s amazing how much more accessible all these tail sports are that you would never see on air,” said Rob Bennett, general manager of entertainment, video and sports at Microsoft’s MSN portal. Think wire-to-wire coverage of fencing, table tennis, trampoline and archery, to name a few.

Forrester Research analyst David Graves is expecting a “a great super-glitzy, long-tail event.”

“These are events that are not, in most cases, big enough to warrant being on one of the main channels,” he said. “But the Internet doesn’t have that problem.”

The Olympics could also be a huge boon for Microsoft’s Silverlight, a new competitor to Adobe’s nearly ubiquitous Flash technology for online video and rich Internet applications.

To get the full experience, NBCOlympics.com viewers will have to download a Silverlight plug-in — a quick, straightforward process.

The video player is designed to adapt to a viewer’s Internet connection, giving the best picture it can handle smoothly. The player offers four-stream simultaneous viewing; picture-in-picture; community-sharing features; data overlays; and streaming text commentary from NBC Sports editors that’s linked to specific frames in the video.

Viewers of on-demand events will be able to click on text describing the finish of a race, for example, and the video will advance immediately to that point.

“That I think is going to help redefine the way that people experience sports online and any live content online,” Bennett said.

During the 2006 Winter Olympics, NBC had only two hours of live event coverage online. Several factors drove the broadcaster to significantly up the ante.

Video production and distribution technology has improved. More Americans have broadband Internet access. And the demand for online video in general is huge: In April, Americans viewed 11 billion online videos, according to comScore.

Also, the time difference between Beijing and the U.S. makes live, prime-time broadcasts awkward.

NBC and Microsoft are relying on several partners to run the technology behind the scenes. One is Limelight Networks, a content-delivery network that has delivered some of the largest online video events ever.

Earlier this summer, Limelight helped Disney deliver 860,000 plays of the tweener movie “Camp Rock” in a 24-hour period, said Paul Alfieri, a Limelight spokesman.

Other huge online video events include this year’s U.S. Open playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate, which had more than 600,00 concurrent streams, and Oprah’s Book Club, which topped out at 525,000.

How big might the Olympics get? Bennett said the system is designed to handle 600,000 concurrent streams or more, and backup content-delivery networks are in place should demand go through the roof.

While NBC’s online presentation is enormous, it’s not abandoning television by any means. The broadcaster will delay online presentation of marquee events such as gymnastics and swimming until after they’ve aired on its broadcast and cable channels.

In the second half of 2007, after NBC announced its plan to dive in to online Olympic video, Microsoft and NBC started talks about how to broaden their partnership.

The two have had a long-standing relationship, thanks to the MSNBC joint venture they started in 1996.

During past Olympics, MSN directed its huge traffic to coverage on NBC Sports. It will do so again, beginning today, with a prominent bar at the top of the page featuring headlines and highlights from NBCOlympics.com.

In June, Microsoft had nearly 107.3 million unique U.S. visitors to its MSN and Windows Live pages, according to comScore.

Bennett, the MSN general manager, said the company’s success in July 2007 with Live Earth, a global concert to raise awareness of climate change streamed to viewers around the world, positioned it as an experienced partner for NBCOlympics.com.

NBC had planned to use Flash for the video player. But Microsoft got its Silverlight team in front of NBC executives and persuaded them to give the new technology a try. Bill Gates announced the win at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The capabilities of the Silverlight video player fulfill much of the Microsoft chairman’s vision for the next-generation of television delivered over the Internet.

NBC is selling its own ad packages spanning the broadcast and online presentation of the Olympics. According to MediaWeek, NBC had sold 85 percent of its online inventory through mid-July.

“[Advertisers] are becoming comfortable with Internet television, particularly uses like this, where they know that it’s a high-quality environment,” said Forrester analyst Graves.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com