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Rio 2016 Olympics: how, when, and where to watch

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Three weeks of Olympic competition begin tomorrow in Rio, and there has never been more ways to tune in. That's a good thing, because NBC will be broadcasting 6,755 hours of the games. It all starts with the opening ceremony tonight — which, mind you, is going to be broadcast on a tape delay (but also in HDR!). No matter whether you're a cable subscriber, a cord-cutter, or prefer to follow along just on social media, we've got you covered.

Cable television

Most people will watch the Olympics the way they have for years: television. In the United States, NBCUniversal paid the IOC billions of dollars for exclusive broadcast rights through 2032, so your coverage is going to come from that company's suite of channels. Most of the action will be anchored on the main NBC channel, which you can pick up over the air. But NBC is also showing events, replays, and more on all of the other channels it owns, like NBC Sports Network, CNBC, MSNBC, USA, and even Bravo. Telemundo will carry the broadcast in Spanish as well. You can see a full schedule here, and this splash page from NBC will give you a good idea of what the channels will focus on.

If you live outside of the United States, be sure to check the Olympics website, which has a massive list of how you can watch from almost any other country.

4K UHD

NBC will be providing 4K UHD broadcasts of some of the events — 83 hours to be exact. That's cool! What's not cool though, is that only one of these broadcasts will be available per day, and they will always be aired the day after they happen. The 4K UHD broadcasts will be limited to swimming, track / field, judo, basketball, men’s soccer (just the final match), and the opening and closing ceremonies. The 4K UHD broadcasts won't be widely available, either. Comcast customers will find them on the Xfinity UHD app on Samsung 4K smart TVs, DirecTV customers will find them on channel #106, and DISH Network customers will have to flip to channel #146 or use the company's VOD service. For a full schedule of these broadcasts and more info on 4K UHD, click here. And if you live in Japan, you might even be able to watch it in 8K.

VOD / apps

Again, in the US, NBC controls the broadcast rights, so you're going to have to have a cable subscription with access to that network if you want to (legally) watch the Olympics on a mobile device or set-top box. The primary way of doing that will be the official NBC Sports app — you can find that on the App Store and the Google Play Store, but it's available on Windows Phone as well. It also works with all the major set top boxes: Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Fire TV. NBCOlympics.com will also carry streams.

Internationally, you're going to want to head back to the Olympics' broadcast breakdown page. They've gone through and linked out, country by country, all the apps that will work so that you can watch the games on the go.

Virtual Reality

VR might be worth a shot — if you own a Samsung phone

It's 2016, so of course the Olympics is offering up some virtual reality viewing. NBC and the IOC are pushing out more than 100 hours of VR and 360-degree content in the next few weeks. Of course, it's 2016, so that means that there's a gigantic catch here: the VR content will only be available on Samsung's Gear VR. That means you have to own a Samsung phone, and it also means it's not going to be some crazy immersive or interactive experience. NBC has a good list of what content you can immerse yourself in and when, as well as some tips on how to get set up. Sure, it looks like we'll have to wait until the next Olympics before there's true virtual reality content, but look on the bright side — now we all have a few more years to save up for an Oculus or a Vive.

Pedro Vilela / Getty

No cable subscription? No problem

Cord-cutting Olympics fans are in luck this year, even on the legal side of things. First off, you can always use an HD antenna to pull in the main NBC signal. But if you want to expand your Olympics-watching habits without a cable subscription, you have to do a little leg work.

Your best two options are Playstation's Vue service and Sling TV. Sling offers a $25 package that covers most of NBCUniversal's channels — NBC, NBC Sports Network, USA, and Bravo — but it's restricted to major markets like New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles, so you're going to want to check before you click. Sling TV works on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Chromecast, iOS, Android, Xbox One, and more.

Free trials of Vue and Sling will get you a long way

Playstation Vue has all of the NBCU channels in its base package, which starts at $40. It's a little less device-friendly than Sling — you can get it on Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Chromecast, iOS, and Android.

Here's the real trick, though: both services offer 7-day free trials, so you can string the trials together to watch most of the Olympics. Just remember to axe those trials at the end of each run so that you don't get charged.

Social media

Of course, television broadcasts are no longer the only media people care about these days. Social media has become a major component of how we view, consume, and understand the events that unfold around the world. (And even if you don't care about social media, you'll likely wind up seeing news stories about athletes' posts on morning shows, the nightly news, or just about anywhere else.) There is an endless well of web and mobile destinations or accounts that can help you keep up with the games even if you're not watching.

Let's start with Google, since that's the place most people start (and maybe even how you got to this article in the first place). Google wants to be your hub for the Olympics. That involves letting you set up alerts for events and results, offering medal counts, serving up athlete bios, and more. A lot of this will live in the official Google app, but the company is also making the information available in response to any Olympics-related searches you do during the games. Bing is also trying to do this (bless you, Microsoft), with the added value of using its "Bing Predicts" engine to try to tell you which events will be more worth your time.

Facebook has a partnership with NBC to produce Olympics content, most of which will appear in the form of Facebook Live broadcasts. You'll also find a few dedicated hubs and pages where you can follow posts about the Olympics. Instagram also wants to be your Olympics hub, because Instagram wants to do what every other company is doing. Olympics content will show up in the Explore and Search tabs, and I wouldn't be surprised if a story or two popped up as well.

Over on Snapchat, you can expect a run of live stories (mixed with real highlights!) from the Olympic games to pop up in the coming weeks. Something to remember when viewing those: Snapchat rolled out something called "Story Explorer" a little less than a year ago that lets you view other snaps from the same event that weren't picked for the main Story feed. It's an oft forgotten about feature, but it really shines during big events like the Olympics. Brands on Snapchat Discover will likely push a ton of Olympics-related content over the next three weeks — in fact, BuzzFeed will be running an official Snapchat Discover channel for the games — but it's the live stories that always feel most exciting, offering behind-the-scenes views and the sense of actually being there.

Twitter's Moments feature might actually be the most useful Olympics tie-in

Twitter is usually the most popular destination for real-time chatter about world events, and that promises to remain the case during the Olympics. But the company recently tweaked how its Moments feature works in preparation for the games, and it actually looks like it will be really useful for once. You can subscribe to specific sports or events in the Moments tab of the Twitter app and receive updates throughout the games, which is pretty cool, and a bit of a departure from the more ephemeral way that Moments has worked up until now. This cuts down on the need to seek out specific accounts or hashtags and lets you see hyper-focused content about the things you actually care for, or receive the event-related tweets, Vines, and Periscopes in your feed alongside the typical bad jokes and snark.

And that actually brings us to the most interesting part (in my eyes) of the next three weeks. There are more ways to watch the Olympics (and what happens around the games) than ever before, and yet the IOC is ready to crack down on GIFs, Vines, and other unapproved usage of Olympics footage. But the immediate repurposing and recontextualization of the media that we're all paying attention to has basically become a crucial part of how we consume that media in the first place. Can that dam really be put into place, especially during an Olympics that is rife with controversy? Or will the memes break it open, dissolving the IOC's stern warnings in the process? Stay tuned, because the Olympics start tonight.


Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media, which owns this website