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Zucker Defends NBC’s Online Olympics Restrictions to Congress

Congressional members scrutinizing the Comcast/NBC U deal are concerned that less free web content will follow

NBC Universal president-CEO Jeff Zucker defends the network’s decision to limit web access to Vancouver Winter Olympics content to cable subscribers in a letter to the congressional anti-trust committee looking into its deal with Comcast.

Saying that the plan put in place for the 2002 Olympics games in Barcelona didn’t work — NBC offered cable providers three-pay-per-view channels and an “Olympics Triple Cast” — Zucker in the letter said NBC has looked to other models in subsequent Olympics.

This year, while NBC broadcast full coverage of the Olympics on NBC and on some cable channels, web users were limited to highlights unless they were cable or satellite subscribers.

For 40 hours after the West Coast broadcast of an event, web viewers without verifiable cable subscriptions couldn’t watch replays of the entire event.

That frustrated some consumers who wanted to see event coverage and worried consumer groups and some senators who have expressed concern that Comcast’s deal for NBC Universal will lead to less free content being available on the web — and more being restricted to cable subscribers. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., asked Zucker to explain this year’s limitations.

Zucker in the letter back said the restrictions on web coverage helped NBCU pay the cost of obtaining Olympics rights and broadcasting the games – a cost he pegged at more than $1.8 billion.

He also said that the web availability of coverage could change in the years ahead.

“The Olympic Games are very important to NBC Universal and we hope to continue bringing Olympic coverage to American viewers for many years to come,” wrote Zucker. “We believe that our approach was a benefit to all consumers. Given the rapid evolution of online video, we also expect that new and different viewing options for future Olympics will continue to be developed."

Zucker said the “level of investment” needed “to produce first-rate Olympics coverage” and pay rights fees necessitated some sort of hybrid approach to content, that included some content being made available only to subscribers.

“Without this hybrid approach to ad-supported broadcast households and [cable] households, NBC would simply not be able to bring our complete Olympics coverage to the American people,” he wrote.

He also noted that even with the hybrid package, NBC lost money on the Olympics.

An aide to Sen. Kohl said the senators is reviewing Zucker’s response to the questions and others he was asked.