The Quixotic Quest to Avoid Olympic Spoilers on Social Media

Olympic fever hit me young. One of my earliest memories is of a coloring book featuring the raccoon mascot from the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics that my mom gave me when I was three. I colored in the pictures of the raccoons skating and bobsledding while I watched the Olympics on our old boxy television. From then on, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I always took two weeks out to gorge on the Olympics, as the technology that delivered them to viewers evolved.

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I've passed on my enthusiasm to my kids. When my daughter was two and half, coverage of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was practically the first television I allowed her to watch. One day she saw an elderly neighbor of ours swimming shortened laps in the decidedly not Olympic-sized oval pool at our condo complex. She pointed and said, "A champion!" She pointed out champions everywhere -- joggers slogging down the street, slackers pedaling cruiser bikes, they were all champions.

During the Beijing Olympics, I managed to mostly avoid hearing results of competitions before I was able to watch them on the evening network TV coverage. But there are now more ways than ever to take in Olympic coverage -- network and cable TV, iPad apps, live feeds streaming on the Internet, and the athletes' Twitter and Facebook updates, to name some. The ubiquity of real-time coverage threatens to undermine what I most enjoy about the Olympics: the drama, the thrill of not knowing how the competition is going to turn out. So I will try to digitally sequester myself as much as I can during the London Olympics.

Against the Digital Grain

Why am I trying to go against the modern digital grain? When I was in high school, I almost won a 300-meter hurdles competition. There I was, charging down the track. I could hear my teammates chanting my name and saw no competitors in front of me. I was beginning to taste the thrill of victory that I'd heard so much about during my obsessive Olympics watching. Then I tripped over the second-to-last hurdle and landed flat on my face on the track. I picked myself up in time to collect my customary fourth place.

My loss was not at the level that an Olympian who has trained her whole life experiences when she makes an unfortunate mistake, nor would a win have been as great. But when you're rooting for an athlete, what you're really doing is rooting a little for yourself -- for the little bit of you that you see in every champion. And so, when you can see the win within her reach, and then something goes wrong, your own mishaps make you feel her pain. And you share a little of the athlete's glory when she wins, because you've been through the nerve-wracking experience together.

When, however, you hear through Twitter or a news site that an athlete tripped over a hurdle, and later you watch the race, it feels like all you're watching it for is to see when and how the calamity happened. This rubbernecking feels unwholesome somehow. It's less like the participatory feeling that watching a live sporting event can give and more like the why-have-I-sunk-this-low self-loathing that watching reality TV provides.

I have a few advantages in my quest to digitally sequester myself, chiefly that I am somewhat behind the rest of the country on my gadget acquisition. This is in part because I try to limit my online time, but mostly because on my meager writer earnings, I can't afford all those pesky monthly fees. So I don't have cable or satellite TV, and I still rock a flip phone without a text or Internet plan like it's 2005. I will try not to visit Facebook much during these two weeks. However, I can't give up Twitter. It's just too fun.

A Two-Week Olympic Sequestration

During the first few days of Olympic coverage, my quest to digitally sequester myself has yielded mixed results. As I watched the Opening Ceremonies, I checked out Twitter, figuring that since this wasn't a competition, there was nothing really to spoil. I enjoy visiting Twitter during events that millions of people are watching together -- it's like throwing a party without having to cook and clean. But apparently the majority of the people I follow live farther East than I do, because I was reading lots of tweets about the parachuting Queen and Mary Poppins taking on Voldemort hours before I could see this in Colorado.

So I shut off my computer and enjoyed watching Kenneth Branagh, dressed kind of like Abe Lincoln, wandering around on that Hobbity hill in the pastoral portion of the Opening Ceremonies. If I'd had Wikipedia fired up, I could have learned that the top hat costume was meant to portray not Lincoln, but Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a British engineer whose "designs revolutionized public transport and modern engineering."

But I didn't need Wikipedia to tell me that Branagh is a great actor. His expression of joy and awe at the sight of the illuminated Olympic rings rising above looked so much more intelligent and convincing than the slack-mouthed stupefaction of the volunteers nearby him, who were perhaps feeling the same awe but weren't trained to express it through their faces. Branagh's eyeballs tracked side to side as he gazed at the spectacle, the way actors' eyes do when they give each other meaningful looks. Give that guy an Oscar.

Nor did I need Wikipedia to tell me who Tim Berners-Lee was when he appeared in the modern section of the ceremony. I had my software engineer husband to tell me that he established the first web server, and that in the opening ceremony he was sitting at a NeXT workstation, the computer he used in his pioneering work on the World Wide Web. My husband further informed me that Steve Jobs founded NeXT in 1985, the year he was fired from Apple. See! In the absence of the Internet, family members can also be fonts of information. However, my husband said, "I didn't know Tim Berners-Lee was British. I thought he was Swiss." So the same rule applies for information derived from Wikipedia and family members: trust, but verify.

Family Members Ruin It


On Saturday, the first day of real competition, I fared less well on my digital seclusion. I avoided checking the Internet or listening to the radio, but at the birthday party for my dad that day, most of my family was armed with smartphones and iPads. My brother and my husband started a discussion that made it clear to me that Michael Phelps had not won the gold in the 400-meter IM. "Stop!" I said. "No more!" I ran away from them. So I was able to at least preserve the mystery of who had won the race until I watched it a few hours later and saw Ryan Lochte take the gold.

It will be hard for me to find time during weekdays to sit down and watch live Olympic coverage on the Internet, so as the London Olympics unfolds, I will continue my quest to maintain my ignorance until the moment when network TV chooses to enlighten me. I know, it's retrograde, but it's the best strategy I can come up with to maintain that Olympic magic that I first experienced as a kid.

However, I don't think I will be able to resist sneaking away from my weekday duties to watch a Colorado girl, Missy Franklin, in her swimming finals. She goes to the same high school that my little brother attended, which for some reason makes me feel like I have a stake in her wins. She's already won her first gold medal and is expected to contend for six medals.

She's taken it as her mission to bring some joy back to Colorado. At a news conference last week she said, "The only thing I can do is go to the Olympics and hopefully make Colorado proud and find a little bit of light there now." She tweets @FranklinMissy, and you can bet your gold medal I'll be following her.

Jenny Shank's first novel, "The Ringer," is a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. Her satire appears in the new "McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals."

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Comcast Says Surprisingly Good Ratings Will Let NBC Break Even On Olympics

No grousing about NBC’s Olympic coverage from Comcast executives today: On the company’s earnings call, Comcast EVP Steve Burke said prime-time ratings for the games are way ahead of the company’s estimates, and that the cable giant now expects to break even on its coverage, instead of a projected loss of $100 million to $200 million. (An earlier version of this report incorrectly attributed Burke’s statement to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.)

Comcast Says Surprisingly Good Ratings Will Let NBC Break Even On Olympics

No grousing about NBC’s Olympic coverage from Comcast executives today: On the company’s earnings call, CEO Brian Roberts says prime time ratings for the games are way ahead of the company’s estimates, and that the cable giant now expects to break even on its coverage, instead of a projected loss of $100 million to $200 million.

NBC Sports Chairman Defends Olympic Tape Delay: ‘Not Everyone’s Inalienable Right To Get Whatever They Want’

There are no certainties in this world but death, taxes, and how unbelievably cringeworthy NBC’s coverage of the 2012 London Olympics has been so far. The network has been criticized for everything from editing portions of the opening ceremony for the American audience to tape-delaying everything so everyone has to wait a few hours before they can watch the events. Today NBC sports chairman Mark Lazarus responded to the criticism surrounding the tape-delay by basically scolding the critics for being a bunch of whiners who have this ridiculous idea that viewers should be able to watch live events live.

RELATED: NBC Faces Wave Of Social Media Criticism For Tape-Delayed Olympics Coverage, Spotty Live Stream

Lazarus made the comments in an interview with SportsBusiness Journal, claiming that NBC’s stellar ratings mean people are generally content with how NBC is covering the games.

“I think what we’ve proven is that the American viewing public likes the way we tell the story and wants to gather in front of the television with their friends and family — even if they have the ability to watch it live either on television or digitally… I inherently trust that decision is the right one and that people want to see these events.”

This would be a slightly more impressive claim were it not for the fact that NBC has exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics. But people who have been devotedly watching the games are still unhappy with the coverage. Everyone thought the opening ceremony was spectacular, but a lot of people didn’t care for the commentary delivered by Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer, which resulted in the Twitter trend #ShutUpMattLauer. So it’s a false start to say that just because people are watching it, they’re happy with it.

Lazarus then defended the tape delay as a smart business decision, acknowledging that he has seen all the criticism unfolding on Twitter.

“As programmers, we are charged to manage the business. And this is a business… It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want. We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders and to present the product the way we believe is best.”

Take a moment to process this line again.

“It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want.”

This is not a plea for more slices of pizza at a birthday party. This is not a demand for consumer-friendly jetpacks. This is not a proposition for world peace. This is just a simple request by the viewing public to watch people swim in pools, throw javelins, and run around racetracks when they actually happen in real life.

And by the way, I’m not disagreeing that it is ultimately a smart thing to watch the games in primetime. A lot of these events are going on during the day, when everyone is busy. But here’s a thought: what if the events are made available to broadcast live as they happen, and then get reaired during primetime? You know, so long as Brian Williams opens NBC Nightly News by screaming “Spoiler alert!” and no one runs any ads promoting interviews with gold medal winners before the network actually airs the races they won the medal for in the first place.

This is becoming such a disaster for NBC, even other news organizations are jumping on the bandwagon. USA Today opened a headline with the Twitter trend #nbcfail, while Slate has used the hashtag in six different tweets since the games began. Earlier today, Fox News’ Ed Henry retweeted the @NBCDelayed account, a parody Twitter account mocking the network for the tape delays.

Of course, Howard Kurtz, master of internet culture that he is, had his fun earlier today mocking people for having “too much time on their hands” in criticizing NBC. Yes, how dare consumers publicly voice their displeasure with a company for not providing them with what should essentially be a fairly easy service to provide.

I have not been watching the Olympics at all (my interest in sports is limited to bocce ball and Wii Tennis), but I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about the BBC’s coverage of the games so far. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to watch in the United States because of region blocks. Though people have already found ways around it. Heidi Moore, a writer for The Guardian, details here how she has been able to watch the BBC’s live coverage of the Olympics through VPNs and proxy services.


Follow Josh Feldman on Twitter: @feldmaniac

5Across Classic: Olympic Athletes on Social Media

We decided to pull up this 2010 episode of 5Across about athletes using social media because of its relevance to the current 2012 Olympics, especially as the roundtable includes two U.S. Olympians: Natalie Coughlin and Donny Robinson. Not much has changed in the last couple years, except that even more athletes are on social media -- and more are connecting with fans and slipping up. UPDATE: One more thing has changed: Now Coughlin has 12 medals after winning a bronze at London.

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Back in the day, the only coverage of a sporting event came from the accredited media. But now, you can find out more from fans in the seats taking pictures and posting to blogs -- or from the athletes themselves who are getting hooked on Twitter and Facebook status updates. In fact, Major League Baseball has warned players it is watching what they tweet, and the Manchester United soccer team took over social media accounts from their players.

There is an obvious shift in power, with athletes trying to find their own voice on social media, and fans getting to have their say online. Where does that leave traditional sports journalists? Having to adapt, both by monitoring social media for more news (and missteps from athletes), and using it to keep in touch with readers. We convened a special roundtable discussion and party for 5Across to celebrate the 1st anniversary of the show, with special guest Olympic athletes Natalie Coughlin and Donny Robinson. We talked about the shifting landscape for sports media, the balancing act for athletes sharing personal details with fans, and the faux pas that happen when you give a star a global megaphone.

5Across: Athletes on Social Media


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Guest Biographies

Andrew Braccia was one of the initial investors and currently sits on the board of SB Nation, the largest and fastest growing network of fan-centric online sports communities. He joined the investment firm Accel Partners in 2007 bringing with him a decade of experience at Yahoo. His primary areas of investment interest include consumer Internet and software businesses with a focus on web search, digital media, online gaming and online advertising.

Natalie Coughlin is an Olympic swimmer who has won 11 medals in the 2004 and 2008 Games -- winning a medal in every event she has competed in. She is the first woman to win back to back gold medals in the 100 meter backstroke. She was a judge on "Iron Chef" and competed in the show "Dancing with the Stars." You can follow her on Twitter @NatalieCoughlin or become her fan on Facebook.

Award-winning columnist Ann Killion has been following the world of sports for more than two decades. She worked for many years at the San Jose Mercury News and is now a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and Comcast Bay Area Sports Net. She is also communications director of Vivo Girls Sports, a social network for girls who like sports. You can follow her on Twitter @annkillion or read her blog here.

Hannah Patrick works at Sports Media Challenge where she focuses on training, consulting, and media analysis for major sports celebrity clients such as Shaquille O'Neal, Danica Patrick, and MotoGP World Champion Nicky Hayden. She also championed SMC's efforts with the innovative social media segment for SportsCenter's Blog Buzz segment. Hannah develops new media strategies for a wide-range of clients including the Big Ten Network, Conference USA, and ESPN Regional Television.

Donny Robinson is a professional BMX bike racer, having won a bronze medal in the 2008 Games, and a World Championship in 2009. He was the first man to win world titles in all four BMX classes. He lives in Napa, Calif., and you can follow him on Twitter @DonnyRobinson.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Personal Details

Best Practices

The Numbers Game

Athletes Behaving Badly

Democratization of Media


Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Darcy Cohan, producer

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and the Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ



What do you think? Do you follow athletes on social media, and which ones do you think do it best? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

To see photos from the 5Across shoot and anniversary party, visit this Flickr set.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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London 2012: The Thrills (and Agony) of the Social Olympics

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It's an Olympic achievement. Not just the London Games, but the social media infrastructure behind them.

People definitely engaged online during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. But new apps, better mobile devices, and an Olympic policy encouraging athletes to use social media mean that fans will have more access and interaction with Olympians than ever before.

An International Olympic Committee (IOC) portal lets fans interact with their favorite athletes, and avoid the firehose of unrelated posts. The IOC also has accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and Flickr.

News organizations, teams, and sponsors also boast Google+ Hangouts with athletes, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, photo streams and more. In other words, online platforms are not just strategic communications tools -- they are now part of the Olympic experience.

The Way We Watch


NBC's TV coverage is usually delayed several hours so segments of the most popular events appear during prime time. This year, however, the network is offering streaming video of events as they happen. The network also made noteworthy partnerships with Facebook and Twitter. Its news division and local stations also cut a deal with Storify to help curate the flood of social content from the Games.

"The 2012 Olympic Games will be more social than ever," Vivian Schiller, NBC News' Chief Digital Officer, said in a press release.

The 2012 Games are also a showcase for "social TV." People can follow the buzz online to decide what to watch after work, then log on and share that experience as they watch.

Syracuse University social media professor Dr. William Ward notes that the opening ceremonies, for example, attract all kinds of people -- including those not normally interested in athletics. "That has the potential to create a lot of engagement among fans, and non-fans who are just curious," he said in an interview.

Reality Check

We've all been inspired by televised profiles of athletes whose rippling muscles and dramatic wins are scored with rousing music that seems to elevate them to super-human status. Now we can now see them as human beings -- warts and all.

And that brings a new set of issues.

The IOC even developed guidelines to deal with social media. The guidelines encourage athletes to use first-person accounts, similar to diary entries, that abide by the Olympic spirit. They forbid, however, video or images of the competitions, and comments about competitors.

And already, the need for such guidelines has been underscored.

The many firsts of the 2012 Games include the first athlete to be kicked out of the Games because of a tweet. The Greek team expelled triple jumper Voula Papachristou for a tweet that she said was a joke, but was criticized as racist.

Some wonder whether the added element of carrying your country's pride in your pocket could add unnecessary pressure or distraction.


Shannon Miller, America's most decorated gymnast, had never used a computer before 1996 (the year she won two gold medals), but now stays in touch with fans through Facebook and Twitter. Miller, who will provide analysis this year for Yahoo Sports sees both sides. "I wish we had had that opportunity to connect directly with fans back then, but I also know it was probably good to be able to stay focused on the competition and limit any distractions," she said via email. "At least I get to connect now."

And while Miller sees the danger of reacting rashly in an unguarded moment, she notes that such danger isn't restricted to social media. "There is that same possibility in an interview as well. We all have off-days or times when things don't come out quite as we intended or your auto-correct doesn't quite get it correct."

Challenges and Potential of Social Media

Ward also sees both the potential and pitfalls of social media for Olympians.

"A lot of these athletes are younger people who may not be savvy on branding and marketing; they're there for the first time and away from their home and family," he said. "That could be a problem if they use social media in a way that is not appropriate."

But there is also unprecedented opportunity for fans to engage with their heroes like never before.

"The benefits outweigh all of that in terms of sharing all these firsthand accounts and perspectives," he said.

Social media is also an important tool for Olympic hopefuls with an eye on the future. Athlete Andia Winslow, who hopes to qualify for the U.S. skeleton team in the 2014 Winter Games, says a video of her first day starting from the top of the bobsled track attracted both awareness and critical financial support.

"The mobility and ease of instantaneous crowdsourcing and crowdfunding is especially exciting as many athletes and smaller federations remain nationally unfunded," Winslow wrote in an email interview. "During the season, athletes train full-time and for those of us living in the Olympic Training Centers, it is often difficult to secure flexible employment. Without [that] support, I would not be able to train as I do!"

Uncharted Territory

As the 2012 Games begin, athletes will share with their fans, and probably prove themselves to be imperfect once or twice. Coaches will read what competitors post to gain an advantage. The media is forging onto new screens well outside the living room. Glory will be shared, and secrets will be spilled. Just as many businesses have realized that ignoring or banning social media just doesn't work. The Olympics -- and the media outlets covering it -- are leaping off the high dive and plunging into risky, revealing, and hopefully rewarding new territory.

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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NBC Sports Chairman Lazarus: London Olympics are a ‘grand experiment’

Mark Lazarus is no stranger to big sports events but the 2012 Olympics trumps them all. Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Sports Group, joined NBC Universal as part of the Comcast merger, becoming chairman of the NBC Sports Group more quickly than anyone imagined when sports broadcast legend Dick Ebersol opted out just after the 2011 upfront. Ebersol is in London as an advisor but Lazarus is in charge of NBC’s Olympics. We caught up by phone Wednesday while he was at NBC Olympics headquarters in London. Here are a few highlights from our chat about digital strategy, the latest revenue numbers, authentication, metric goals, the heavy commitment to live streaming and more:

On digital revenue

paidContent was first to report NBCU’s $25 million in digital revenue for Beijing and that the network was more than doubling that revenue for 2012 to $55.5 million, based on $900 million in overall ad revenue. NBC announced Wednesday that it has passed the $1 billion mark in ad revenue and digital revenue rose with it. Lazarus told me six or seven percent of that is from digital. The new number is more than double that of Bejing, about $60 million, and if it winds up on the higher end, will be nearly triple. It’s small compared to the overall revenue number — but serious.

Lazarus calls it proof that advertisers not only want linear on broadcast and cable, but also online and mobile. The bulk of that is from desktop or laptop; mobile continues to be the least monetized, he added.

On streaming

In previous years, NBC has been both willing to experiment and uncomfortable giving full live access to the kind of events that would be in the prime-time spotlight. NBC offered 2,200 live hours from Beijing and only two events — curling and hockey for Vancouver, about 400 hours. The barrier to watching events that were being offered live in other countries drove Olympics fans crazy. For London 2012, NBC is going all in. I asked Lazarus if that was a decision he inherited or one he made.

“We made those decisions when I got into the role. They had a working plan that was not as ambitious as it sounded. We had a straw-man discussion about how people were consuming media and watching the games — and we made the decision to stream everything live.”

The reasoning? Lazarus explained: “There are a certain number of fans who want the immediacy of watching it live. Since most of it will have to be authenticated or verified, it brings value to our cable and satellite partners.” Plus, he believes “people will still gravitate to our primetime programs.” That’s not just a gut feeling. “All the research we’ve seen and all the trends in the industry show that putting things more out there leads to greater and wider interest.” He expects the live streams to lead to more buzz and energy for primetime, not detract from it.

“The Super Bowl is a good example. It was the biggest digital event with 2 million uniques and 750,000 on concurrently — and also the most watched television show of all time. Of those 2 million uniques, 1.6 million were watching television while having a digital experience.”

On authentication/verification

Why keep most programming on over-the-air NBC behind an authentication wall? The vast majority of NBC viewers watch via cable or satellite operators paying for rentransmission consent.

What about people who don’t pay for broadcast access? Of 114 million television households, Lazarus says roughly 100 million are cable or satellite subscribers. “Maybe 14 million don’t pay,” he added. “When you’re doing 5,500 hours live, if there’s five or 10 percent [of streaming programming] you don’t need to verify, that’s a whole lot of hours.” That would be 250 to 500 hours.

“We also have more Olympic coverage on free TV than ever before ever before –270 hours.” So cordcutters will have some streaming access without doing backflips and those who don’t pay for TV will be able to watch some of the Olympics on their sets.

The time delay made it even more important to Lazarus and company to provide the live streams.

NBCU is pushing all of its primetime Olympics viewing to NBC. The other channels set for multiplexing during the day — NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC, Bravo — will have their regular programming. “During the day we have a lot of options for people but there’s a lot of content. In prime time, the only place to watch the Olympics will be NBC.” (Well, the only legal place. I’ll bet digital dollars to your digital donuts that some people will spend a lot of time trying to watch through other means.)

Why not offer a digital subscription? “We think the verification process is that form of payment,” Lazarus said. “We don’t think they should pay twice.”

What would he tell peers making similar decisions about whether to go the authentication route?“We all have our own business models. We each have different events we do our own ways. As an industry, we have to push to simplify verification so our customers can consume all this. Let’s make verification easier for the consumer — as an industry.”

On social media

In recent days, NBC has announced partnerships with Twitter, Facebook, Storify and more. I asked if there is any incremental revenue in the Twitter or Facebook deals or is it all about marketing? Lazarus was quick to reply: “Marketing; it’s not a revenue play for us. We’re using them to market and promote the games, to personalize, make a connection. We have a unique opportunity to utilize some of the biggest talents in the world of sports, in some cases, entertainment and news … In a way it’s a personal plea — even though it’s one to many, you sort of feel it’s one to one.”

For Lazarus, it’s all a work in progress:

“This is a grand experiment. This is a billion dollar laboratory. We’re playing with a lot of things for the first time and on this scale.”

On success

How will Lazarus gauge success? “The overall measure for me for success is more than 200 million Americans watch some portion of the Games, which would make it a top five American all-time event.”

He also would like to surpass the Beijing digital assets by 50 percent and on mobile, would like to have a significant number of people use the smartphone and tablet apps.

“Some measure is making all of this technology work together. Looking at total uniques and page views and how many streams, we think we’ve got enough technology… if we’re pushing the limits, that will be a success.”

Was there anything you couldn’t do with digital? “We’re streaming more content, more simultaneious streams than ever before. We’re challenging the technical limits. It’s not about what we couldn’t do. it’s about focusing on delivering.”