NBC Tears Down Its Pay Wall for Olympic Hockey Matchup

In a decision that might surprise some viewers who have become frustrated by NBC Universal’s (s GE) handling of online video content, it streamed the entirety of the quarterfinal Men’s Hockey matchup between the USA and Switzerland live at 3:00 pm EST, the same time that it was broadcasting the match on NBC. And it did so without requiring users to log in to the site, making the video open to anyone who tried to access it.

NBC has spent the last two weeks being lambasted by critics for the way it has handled live events from the 2010 Winter Olympics, both in its TV scheduling and its online coverage. The broadcaster has consistently held back live coverage of some marquee events, using tape delays to aggregate larger audiences during primetime hours. And it has restricted access online to only those fans who prove that they are paying cable subscribers.

That approach to the Olympics has not only frustrated fans, but it could have driven some potential viewers to look for coverage elsewhere. Despite being the go-to outlet for the 2010 Winter Games, NBCOlympics.com was ranked third among sports sites featuring Olympics coverage during the first week of the games. With 6.5 million unique visitors during the week of Feb. 8-14, NBCOlympics.com lagged Yahoo (9.3 million unique visitors) and ESPN (8.4 million uniques), neither of which has rights to Olympics video content.

But today, not only was the match between the US and Switzerland available online at the same time as NBC’s broadcast, but it was also available to all users — not just those that had authenticated with the site. So why, after spending much of this year’s Olympics trying to keep users from being able to access its video live, did the broadcaster make today’s hockey game so easy to watch? Could it be that NBC is having a change of heart? Or maybe it’s learned that being too restrictive is actually hurting its overall audience numbers?

Our guess is that NBC realized that the match could actually garner more eyeballs if it were made available online in the US, due to the large number of people at work who wouldn’t be able to tune in otherwise. The decision might not make its affiliates happy, but at the same time, but those viewers who tuned in for the game from their desk jobs probably weren’t going to be watching the matchup from a big screen anyway.

NBC has yet to respond to a request for comment, but we’ll let you know if we get any answers — and whether today’s streaming of the games was a one-time event, or if the broadcaster plans on making more of its video available through the front page of NBCOlympics.com.