The Ultimate Guide to Watching the Olympics – Wall Street Journal

There’s an Olympics for cable subscribers, for cable cutters, for people sneaking it in at work, and for those who just want weird highlights on Snapchat.

The Olympic motto is faster, higher, stronger. This year’s Games will also be clearer, bigger and closer.

For the first time, viewers at home can watch Missy Franklin splashing toward the pool wall in stunning 4K detail. With no more than a smartphone, we can go live to every single event in every single sport—4,500 hours of Olympic drama. And we’ll be able to teleport in virtual reality onto the diving platform to experience David Boudia flying right by our noses.

When the Olympics begin Friday, we won’t just have the best seat in the house. Thanks to leaps in technology, we get a seat that doesn’t even exist in Rio de Janeiro.

Home-entertainment gear is changing fast and the Olympics are, in many ways, its biggest live test. For the past few years, we’ve been upsold equipment that sounds cool but hasn’t been immediately useful, like Ultra HD 4K and high-dynamic-range TV sets, souped-up cable and streaming boxes and those goofy-looking VR headsets. During these geek Olympics, you’ll be able to make good use of all the above and then some.

For U.S. broadcaster NBC and the Olympic Broadcasting Services, an agency of the International Olympic Committee which produces much of the coverage, Rio is about figuring out how to keep viewers interested when the TV in the living room is competing with phones, tablets and whatever new screen is invading our lives.

“This is the first Games where digital broadcasting will be as important as traditional,” says Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of the Olympic Broadcasting Services.

Digital tech is helping NBC smooth over an issue that has annoyed fans at past Games: the dreaded tape-delay. Even with the relatively slight time difference between Rio and the U.S., NBC is going to delay broadcasting the Opening Ceremony to keep it in prime time. But fear not, NBC will stream each individual sports event—and for the first time, its own channels—live on the Internet in its NBC Sports app.

There’s an Olympics for cable subscribers, for cable cutters, for people sneaking it in at work, and for those who just want weird highlights on Snapchat. NBC even made an Olympic-themed emoji keyboard.

It’s all a little overwhelming, so here’s your cheat sheet to the gear, apps and subscriptions you’ll need to get the most out of the Olympics.

Comcast’s X1 cable box

If you want it all

Although the Olympics only lasts 19 days, you’d need to watch around the clock for 281 days to take in all the video at your fingertips. That shouldn’t stop you from trying. Tuesday Aug. 9 alone will award medals in nine events, with women’s synchronized diving, team gymnastics and shooting as well as men’s and women’s judo all happening around the same time.

More: See the Olympics schedule.

In the past, watching the Olympics on TV required sorting through a big mess of nine NBC-owned channels, plus separate streaming apps and video-on-demand services on different devices. This time around, it’s much simpler to access it all—at least if you subscribe to Comcast,
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the cable company that owns NBC.

Comcast’s spiffy new X1 cable box, now in the homes of about half its subscribers, essentially allows you to program your own Olympics. (If you don’t have an X1 box yet, call Comcast and ask for one—it won’t cost either way to upgrade.) The box organizes coverage by what’s on live now, and then by your favorites by sport, athlete or country. It’ll blend together not only the 2,084 hours of Bob Costas and tear-jerking drama on the regular channels, but also the 4,500 additional hours of live coverage streaming online.


You can pull up the X1 Sports App on your set-top box to layer extra info on top of the screen, like medal counts and lane assignments. A channel called Gold Zone shows nothing but highlights. Much of this you can control with your voice via the X1 remote control. Say “Gabby Douglas,” and it’ll take you to a page where you can see everything the star gymnast has been up to.

People who subscribe to Time Warner,
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Cox and other TV providers won’t miss out on all the extra live stuff NBC channels aren’t broadcasting. You’ll just have to download, log in and use the NBC Sports streaming app on an Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, Xbox or Samsung
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smart TV. Some other TV providers, such as Dish, are also offering an NBC Olympics app on their high-end boxes, with access to medal counts and schedules.

The NBC Sports app as seen on an iPad

If you want to watch at work (or on vacation)

One app every Olympics fan should download right now: NBC Sports. Formerly called NBC Sports Live Extra, the app will livestream every Olympic sports event and all primetime coverage on phones and tablets. You can catch up on highlights, and sign up for push alerts when events you care about are live.

If you’d rather watch on your computer, point your web browser to NBCOlympics.com. (If your boss is lurking, memorize these key commands to minimize the window: Windows key and the letter D, or on a Mac, Command—M.)

Here’s the important fine print: It isn’t exactly free. Anyone can stream for half an hour, but then the app and website ask you to sign in with a cable TV subscription login if you want to watch more than short highlights. What you can access in the app will depend on how much cable TV you pay for—for most sports, you’ll need at least a basic cable subscription that includes the USA Network. A second Olympics app, called NBC Olympics: Rio News & Results, requires no subscription but provides just news, medal counts, video highlights, and TV listings.

And there’s one thing you won’t find live in the app: the Opening Ceremony. NBC wants you to watch in prime time with a tape delay, either on the big screen or streamed.

Comcast allows up to five people streaming on a single account at the same time.

If you’re a cable cutter

If you’ve liberated yourself from cable subscriptions, watching the Olympics isn’t easy, but it is doable. Unfortunately, NBC isn’t selling streaming-only subscriptions, like Netflix
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or HBO Now, to its NBC Sports app. You need a cable subscription to log in—so if you don’t have one, you could “borrow” one. (Your cable provider might limit the number of people streaming on a single account at the same time; Comcast, for one, allows up to five.)

Or, here’s a Plan B: Subscribe to a streaming-only TV service for the month of August. For $30 or $40, depending on where you live, you can get PlayStation Vue on a Roku, Amazon Fire TV or (of course) PlayStation, which includes NBC’s cable channels and access to the NBC Sports streaming app. (In some cities, they offer the local NBC station, too.) Or for $25 you can get Sling Blue on Roku, Apple TV, Xbox and Fire TV—it has NBC channels but not access to the NBC Sports app.


And if you want to be free of all subscriptions, you could put a digital antenna on your TV to watch over-the-air NBC via your local affiliate. Or if you don’t own a TV, install a SlingBox on a friend’s cable box so you can stream that TV to your laptop.

If you’ve got an Ultra HD TV

These Games will be the first really big event to watch in Ultra HD 4K, which boasts four times the resolution of plain old HD. All those extra pixels can buy you important detail in events like swimming, where there’s often just a hair’s difference between gold and bronze. In 4K, we’ll see every bead of sweat on Usain Bolt, and maybe spot some famous faces in the stadium.

You need a 4K TV to see 4K. Last year in the U.S., six million such sets sold—a figure expected to double this year. And even with one, you might not be eligible to get the Olympics in 4K. Only three U.S. cable companies are making the 4K video available: Comcast, Dish and DirectTV. And they’re only offering one event per day, including track and field, basketball, soccer, judo and swimming—all tape delayed to the next day.

One more very cool thing: Some fancy new TVs are capable of high dynamic range, or HDR, a lust-worthy tech that shows color with much more lifelike highs and lows. Compatible TVs will be able to see the Opening Ceremony in 4K and HDR, meaning the Olympic flame in your living room promises to look almost as bright as the real thing.

Olympic gold medalist Esther Lofgren tried out virtual reality last year in  Philadelphia.

If you want to be virtually there

Haven’t spent much time trying VR yet? Rio is the moment to dive in. Almost literally: Imagine watching from the 3-meter diving board while athletes in the 10-meter competition whiz past. Or peering from a corner of the ring during a boxing match? Not even judges get that close, but that’s the sort of teleportation you’ll achieve for 85 hours of Olympics VR broadcasts.


To participate, you or someone you know will need to have a recent Samsung Galaxy phone and the Gear VR headset, sold for $100. The NBC Sports app on the phone converts into a screen for VR when you slip it inside the headset. (Sorry Oculus Rift and HTC Vive owners, you won’t get this.) The video will let you experience events in 360 degrees, so you’ll want a swivel chair to make it easy (and safe) to take it all in.

All the VR coverage will be available after a one-day delay. For the Olympic Broadcasting Services teams capturing the 360 footage, it’s a live experiment to figure out what sorts of coverage make sense—and won’t leave audiences reaching for the Dramamine. They’ve already nixed underwater shots out of concern it could feel “suffocating.” Most of the cameras won’t move while filming, save perhaps one during the Opening Ceremony that organizers are staying pretty hush-hush about.

Comcast’s new X1 cable box, now in the homes of about half its subscribers, essentially allows you to program your own Olympics.

If you want to watch just the juicy bits

The best view of the Games may come from the athletes themselves. Olympic regulations prevent athletes from broadcasting video from inside sports venues, but many of the biggest names use Facebook,
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Twitter
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and more to give a glimpse of what it’s like to be a world-class athlete. On Snapchat, Simone Biles is taking her followers inside the Olympic Village. Ryan Lochte recently Instagrammed a meeting with his “confidence coach.”

Take a few minutes to follow your favorites from the nearby list of the most active. NBC also has teamed up with BuzzFeed (partly owned by Comcast) to create a series about the Olympics, which they’ll be posting to Snapchat Stories.

Remember the “wardrobe malfunction” in Sochi? To make sure you don’t miss Rio’s most viral moments, NBC has a “highlights factory” with 100 employees posting the best bits on Facebook. Snapchat, too, will be highlighting the best “live stories” photo and video from Rio. Perhaps that’s where we’ll find this year’s follow-up to London’s buzzed-about frown, the memorable “McKayla Maroney Is Not Impressed.”

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com

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