I'm an American and I want to watch the Olympics. What do I do?
July 28, 2012
If you’re like me, you woke up this morning and realized the Olympic Games are on and it might be incredible to watch the world’s best athletes compete for medals and national honor.
Flip on the tv
You might have a TV like me that you’ve never used to watch broadcast TV. So, plug in an antenna or spare cable cord, and try to tune yourself some channels.
I didn’t go out and buy an antenna, but I was able to tune quite a few channels. A bunch of commercials, some religious channels and Telemundo.
Telemundo’s olympics coverage comes in CRYSTAL CLEAR in HD on my TV. BUT, Telemundo’s coverage is all in Spanish, and my Spanish is poor. Surprising that it’s so clear with the spare coax cable I used as my antenna.
But no NBC…
Download the NBC Olympics App
While I was hard at work, Kate was downloading the NBC Olympics iPad app. I bet it just works, right?
Watch it on your computer
So, go to NBCOlympics.com. In the top right, you’ll see “Watch the olympics live”.
Ok cool… I want to do that.
Oh wait - there’s fine print.
“With a cable, satellite or telco TV subscription that includes MSNBC and CNBC, you will have access to live streams of EVERY Olympic event”
Ok, whatever, I’m going to “Click here & get ready” to see what happens.
Ah, so I sign in through my TV provider…
Ok, I don’t pay for TV… but this looks A LOT like how you sign in for HBO GO.
One thing I’m wondering at this point is:
NBC is an over the air TV broadcaster. They paid the government for the right to broadcast their stuff over the air to the public.
Why do I need a Cable TV subscription to view content broadcast over the airwaves online?
I have a Verizon Fios account so I’m gonna try that to see what happens.
But what’s this? A Temporary Viewing Pass.
o_O 4 hours free watching the Olympics. Then I’ll need to pay for a cable subscription. BOO.
FAIL. There is no good way to watch the Olympics in the United States without a cable subscription
It’s a real shame. And even with a cable subscription, with my 4 hour pass, I got to see that watching the Olympics is littered with advertisements and bad user experience every step of the way.
But what if I wasn’t an American? Could I stream the Olympics?
Sure! In fact, if you’re in the UK, you can legally stream every event of the Olympics live, and commercial free.
Note: Further down I talk about mandatory TV Licenses. That + taxes is what makes it legal for people who live in the UK to stream tv. It’s owned by the public.
Really? How does the BBC experience compare if you’re in the UK and want to watch the Olympics?
Well, you’d go to www.bbc.co.uk and see something like this.
Click on the Live event (or iPlayer)
I took a crappy, small screenshot, but trust me when I say they list every single event that’s currently, live.
You click on the thing you want to watch…
Then it starts playing, commercial free, interruption free and in pretty close to HD.
What about if you’re on the iPad?
There’s the official BBC iPlayer app. But there are also a variety of services that list the public streams of those services.
Here’s what you’d see on TVCatchup.com
There’s also watchtvnow.co.uk
How do you get it on your TV though?
Airplay to an Apple TV. You can stream video you’re watching on the iPad, iPhone or Apple Computer to your TV.
Brits would get a screen like this on their iPad when it’s all working
Note the URL shows it’s the official BBC stream, and it’s playing on the TV
OK, but I’m not a Brit. I’m an American. How can I watch the Olympics online?
VPN services allow you to connect to a server in another country and pretend to be there. It’s effectively routing all your traffic through some computer in London so to any website, you appear to be the computer in London.
All of the screenshots above of what a Brit experiences were taken from my apartment in New York.
update: In the comments on Hacker News, someone recommended Unblock Us. I’ve tested it and it works great. You change your DNS settings, so it’s more steps to turn it on / off, very simple and inexpensive. I have no clue how it does what it does.
Ethical and Legal Considerations
In the UK people pay £145.50 per year (US $228) for a TV License for their household. Additionally, people living in the UK pay taxes that go towards paying for the ridiculously high standard of TV broadcasting that the BBC provides. There are no commercials on BBC channels. Sporting events are broadcast uninterrupted. Live TV and old shows are available online to stream for free.
If you live in the UK and consume TV (no matter what device you use), you must pay for your TV license.
Legally, I’m unclear of if an American connecting on a VPN to a live stream in the UK is breaking the law. I would guess that it hasn’t really come up with the TV license people yet.
Ethically, the bandwidth for the stream is being paid for by UK TV License payers. So leeching the stream diminishes the available bandwidth for the people who are paying for it.
So, could you pay for a TV License and be free and clear?
Potentially. But the site is set up for people with physical addresses in the UK. I used to live there, so could try and use an old address and then ethically (and legally?) stream TV from the UK over a VPN.
Update I bought a TV License using my previous address in the UK. Ethically, I consider myself in the clear. Do you?
All things considered, I’d watch the BBC stream
I’ve given up on the NBC coverage of the olympics. Connecting to a VPN is one click on both my laptop or iPad and I can connect both of those to my tv to sit on my couch and watch any event in the Olympics.