How to Watch the Winter Olympics Online

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Feb. 5 2014 6:09 PM

How to Watch the Winter Olympics Online

NBCOlympics.com live stream
NBC will be streaming the Sochi games online for cable subscribers, but cord-cutters will have to slalom through an array of legal and technological obstacles.

Screenshot / NBCOlympics.com

NBC has been showered with praise for its decision to stream every event from Sochi live online on NBCOlympics.com and its NBC Sports Live Extra apps for iOS and Android. It’s the first time that’s been done for the Winter Olympics, though NBC did the same for the London Games in 2012.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

That’s great news for Olympics fans who want to watch everything as it happens, since the network’s primetime telecasts will obviously be tape-delayed. The big catch: You have to be a cable or satellite subscriber.

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The online streams will include both the same live coverage you’d get on NBC’s cable channels and world feeds of individual events, NBC told me. The only thing that NBC won’t be streaming online are Friday’s opening ceremonies. “We want to put context to it, with the full pageantry it deserves,” NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus semi-explained to Variety. (As viewers learned in 2012, that’s NBC-speak for Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira chortling at their own ignorance.)

Cord-cutters, on the other hand, have nothing to cheer about, unless they live outside the United States. To access the coverage, you have to log in through your cable or satellite provider or try your luck with a live stream from overseas.

On one level, it’s understandable that NBC would prefer not to make its full suite of live coverage available to people who don’t pay for its cable channels. The network paid $4.3 billion for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics through 2020, and it wants to maximize its return on that investment. It does feel a little insulting, though, that those who have Internet service but not a TV can’t even watch the same network telecast that’s available for free over the air. Fox, by contrast, made its live stream of the Super Bowl available to everyone.

For those determined to watch some of the Olympics live without signing up for cable, there are a handful of potential loopholes.

First, you can pick a few scraps of online coverage via a “temporary pass” that NBCOlympics.com will offer to unverified users. That’s good for 30 minutes of live streaming the first time you visit the site, but just five minutes a day thereafter, so you’ll have to plan carefully.

Second, you can of course watch NBC’s primetime coverage over the air if you have a digital antenna. The broadcast coverage starts Thursday at 8 p.m. eastern, and you can find a full listings of times and events here.

Third, perhaps you know someone who has a cable-TV username and password and would be willing to share. You’d probably be breaking the law to take advantage of this, but that doesn’t stop a lot of people from doing it—or even writing New York Times stories about it.

Finally, depending on your scruples, you can take advantage of the fact that the United Kingdom and Canada do not discriminate against cord-cutters. As Forbes’ Amadou Diallo explains in his excellent guide to watching the Sochi Olympics without a cable bill, both the BBC and the CBC will offer extensive free live coverage of the events to online viewers in their respective markets. The catch is that your access will be blocked if you try to watch from the United States. It’s possible to get around this restriction using a virtual private network, or VPN, which can be configured to replace your normal IP address with one based in a different country.

As with logging in via someone else’s account, this is clearly against the terms of service for both the BBC and the CBC. Forbes’ Diallo goes into a lot of detail about the legality/illegality of using a VPN to watch overseas coverage. The short version: It’s very unlikely you’ll be prosecuted. So I guess the question is, just how badly do you want to watch the Winter Olympics?

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Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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