Over 18 million individual viewers watched live events of the Olympic Games on national television websites or on Eurovision, the pan-European video portal, according to figures released by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).
This represents the largest online audience ever recorded for an Olympics at European level. In comparison, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin attracted an audience of less than two million, a score which was nevertheless higher than for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
According to the EBU, the growing audience is the result of increased Internet viewing options (120 million broadband video streams were offered by EBU members for the Beijing Olympics in comparison to 23 million for the Turin Winter Games). It is also reflects a "rapidly increasing acceptance of these new distribution mechanisms, especially among younger audiences," according to EBU representatives.
EBU members, which include the likes of the BBC, TF1 and RAI, are the main providers of sporting events such as the Olympics to the European public.
Put into perspective, however, broadband is still a nascent service, especially in comparison with other more traditional ways of watching sport. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Games, for instance, attracted an audience of about 2.3 billion television viewers across the globe, according to MindShare, a consulting firm.
Nevertheless, the EBU reckons that its members made some 15,000 hours of live content available online. An typical user visited the EBU video portal for 30 minutes, watching on average five different live streams per visit. After the Games ended, the audience unsurprisingly decreased, but many users continue to access videos on the Web to watch the most spectacular images again.
What's more, the increased Internet traffic for bandwidth-consuming services makes it more important than ever to upgrade telecommunication networks. After strong pressure from the main telecoms operators, the European Commission recognised the importance of facilitating the deployment of new infrastructure based on optical fibres, the so-called New Generation Networks (NGNs) that are able to support a much heavier data stream than current systems. A recommendation by Brussels is expected in the coming weeks (EurActiv 04/06/08).
However, there is currently no data available regarding the number of users of new broadcasting services provided on mobile phones. The take-off of new services was supposed to coincide with the Olympic Games and the previous European Football Championships in Austria and Switzerland. But the industry has so far been quiet about viewing figures.