Viewers find ways around Olympic broadcast restrictions

The US is witnessing a quadrennial surge of interest in the sport of complaining about NBC’s approach of saving the best Olympic action until primetime, writes Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson.

Figures from operators of virtual private networks suggest that viewers who cannot wait until 11pm to see Usain Bolt and do not have the pay-television subscription needed to see live footage on NBC’s web and mobile services have been looking elsewhere.

Expat Shield, a VPN that provides UK web addresses to overseas residents enabling them to view BBC broadcasts that would otherwise be blocked, reports that installations from the US shot up from an average of 250 a day before the Olympics began to 4,900 a day in the first week of the games.

Globally, it has seen installations jump from 3,400 a day to 10,600, said David Gorodyansky, chief executive of AnchorFree, the company behind Expat Shield. “It’s not necessarily meant for watching the BBC. That’s a byproduct of it,” he added: “I’ve no idea what [users] are doing once they install it.”

Others offering ways of accessing BBC content support the idea that it has found a US audience during the games. Nauman Khalid of LiveTVCafe.Net, a service offering live streams, said by email: “[The] Olympics generate a great amount of traffic for live scores and for live streams and in my research most of the Olympic live stream lovers are US citizens and they are trying to find ‘free live streams’ through Google.”

LiveTVCafe.Net had been getting 10,000-20,000 page views a day from the US, mostly for BBC channels, during the Olympics, he added.

Google searches for the BBC from the US spiked around the time of the opening ceremony, and have stayed above average ever since. Searches for other VPN providers such as Witopia and Tunnel Bear also jumped at the opening ceremony, according to Google Trends.

The Olympics is just a blip in the growth chart for VPN use, however, according to Mr Gorodyansky. “If nobody used us to go to the BBC, it would not change our business a bit,” he told the FT.

AnchorFree’s main product, Hotspot Shield, has been used to get around government firewalls, when China restricted access to Google or when uprisings swept through the Arab world. Mr Gorodyansky jokes that he no longer needs to read the news but just reads its server logs to see where traffic is spiking.

AnchorFree’s promise of secure, private browsing has attracted 70m customers and attention from investors. Goldman Sachs led a $52m fundraising round in May, bringing the total the company has raised to $63m since 2006. It plans to invest the money on new mobile products, adding engineers and opening up its service to third parties.

Mr Gorodyansky may not know how many of his new customers are frustrated NBC viewers, but he says: “In the world of the internet, the people that are restricting the web are probably going to end up losing.”

NBC’s ratings do not seem to have suffered too badly, however. On Friday it tweeted that its average 31.9m-strong nightly audience for London 2012 was the best for a non-US summer games since 1976, and second only to Beijing four years ago.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor