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TV networks are playing games with sports coverage

Ned McGrath and his friends are the kind of guys who must keep television executives up at night.

The 23-year-old Elmwood Village resident watches TV almost exclusively online. He gets by with Netflix and Hulu, and he sees very little reason to subscribe to cable or satellite television.

But there is one thing tenuously pulling him back.

“Cable is dead, except for sports,” McGrath said.

This isn’t lost on television companies, which appear bent on holding sports coverage hostage until all those cable-cord cutters come running back.

Take the Olympics. NBC hoarded most of its live-event coverage for paid subscriber channels – those available to cable and satellite television customers. If you wanted to watch over the airwaves – which generally offer a better high-definition picture today because of digital technology – you were stuck with NBC’s prepackaged prime-time coverage.

That left you watching edited snippets of competition that bounced between sports and forced you to stay up to see gold-medal performances that happened hours earlier.

It wasn’t bad TV, but it was a bit anachronistic in an era in which people have become accustomed to watching what they want on their own terms.

NBC did offer tons of live streaming on its website, but it locked out those who aren’t subscribers to its cable channels, aside from a 30-minute trial.

It’s not that I think free Olympics coverage is an American birthright. It costs a lot of money to air the games and to produce coverage.

But to not even offer an option to pay directly to live-stream the games made it seem as if NBC and its parent company, Comcast, were withholding the Olympics as punishment for those who had defected from cable.

I might be in the minority, but I would have paid to have full online access to the games. I would also pay for access to online Sabres games – a package that the NHL offers anywhere but in the home market. But I don’t want to pay for these sports by having to buy dozens of other channels.

In Canada, where the CBC had the rights to broadcast the games and offered online streaming to viewers, the company agreed to block that stream to Americans – even those of us a few miles away who grew up watching CBC with antennas.

Like McGrath, Michael Kenline doesn’t see a future in cable television outside of sports. He tried cutting the cord, relying on his Internet connection to watch TV last summer. But when the Bills season started, he grudgingly returned to satellite TV.

He watched the Olympics on his own time. To do that, he hooked up his phone to an Apple TV and to his television to stream the events.

“I don’t think I should be paying all that money just to be able to stream from my phone to my TV, using two other pieces of equipment that they don’t even offer,” said the 26-year-old financial planner.

With a giant cable merger proposed and net neutrality threatened, Kenline doesn’t put a lot of faith in television viewing getting any better.

NBC’s Olympic offerings might look a lot different in two years. But this time around, the games in prime time seemed a lot less about national pride and sportsmanship than they did about re-enforcing outdated television habits.