Want to Watch the Paralympics? Now You Can—Not on NBC, but on YouTube


Where NBC falters, YouTube steps in.

When we talk about why we love watching the Olympics, we usually talk not just about competition, but about human interest. We're drawn to stories of athletes struggling and striving and persevering. We become invested in the competitors not just as foes on a field, but as people who decided to pursue feats that precious few of their fellow humans could ever even imagine accomplishing.

Under that logic, the Paralympics, which began on Wednesday, should be approximately 5,000 times more appealing than their Olympic counterparts. The feats achieved, and barriers crushed, are almost unfathomably greater for the group of athletes who are currently competing in London. But while U.K. broadcasters, as one example, are offering more than 400 hours of coverage of the Paralympic events -- 150 hours of them in prime time -- their U.S. counterparts are airing only highlights packages. Four hours' worth of them, in total. And not on NBC itself, but on NBC Sports.

This has all meant that, if you are an American who would like to watch the Paralympics, there have been exceedingly few methods available to you.

Until today, that is. A few minutes ago, YouTube announced that it will offer streaming coverage of the Paralympics. As YouTube's Tommy O'Hare notes in a blog post,

The channel will feature 500 hours of live competitions accompanied by a real-time commenting feature for viewers in the United States and Canada. Additionally, others around the world have access to over 1000 hours of on-demand catch-up footage of current and previous games, interviews with Paralympic athletes and other behind-the-scenes footage.

O'Hare elaborated to me in an email: "We're excited to offer full, around the clock coverage of this Summer's Paralympics, fulfilling our goal to broaden access to sporting events of all kinds."

Around the clock vs. four hours! Nice. It's worth noting how valuable this kind of experiment could be -- not just to YouTube, but to NBC and the people who are, de facto, its customers. NBC is betting that there's effectively no public interest in the Paralympics. YouTube is betting otherwise. And, being a digital product that streams instead of schedules, YouTube is freer to do that betting than NBC is.

Which is to say: The Paralympics streaming is both a win for viewers who want to watch the proceedings and a win for the Internet as a proving ground. NBC, being what it is, has to make educated guesses about what kind of coverage people want. YouTube, being what it is, can experiment and gather data. It might find that NBC bet right: that the audience for the Paralympics is slim. But it might find that NBC underestimated the public's appetite. Either way, this is the Internet as its own kind of athletic field, where public preference rather than athletic prowess is put to the test. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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