Sunday, August 05, 2012

Olympics 2.012: NBCfail and the future

Photo via Nick Trask
LONDON is currently hosting the last Olympics of the twentieth century as well as the first of the 21st.  It is the last of the 20th century because it is the last to be dominated by the century’s most important technology: Television.  London is also the first 21st century Olympics as it is the first one where the audience has talked back to the organisers and their broadcaster partner proxies. Come Rio in 2016, the Olympics is likely be a very different spectator sport thanks to social media, the power of the Internet and a global movement for more audience power. 

The professional Olympics are huge money and have become partly slave to its sponsors who take ridiculous steps to ward off ambush marketing.  However in London as in previous Olympics, most of the shots are called by the television companies who broadcast the games. They pay an extraordinary amount of money to the International Olympics Committee and local Olympic Committees for the rights.  In America, the largest of the old-style TV hegemonies NBC has had the rights to the summer and winter Olympics since 1988. Four years ago they paid the AOC and IOC $2.2 billion for the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. NBC made the London Games the most-watched Olympics ever by tape-delaying marquee events to air in US prime time, maximising viewers and advertising dollars. 

Yet they are likely to lose money despite the large audience they have congregated for advertisers.  NBC lost $223 million on Vancouver. It was on tape delay despite being in the same timezone as LA. This allowed NBC to maximise ads but it frustrated audiences who for the first time were seeing results in real time through the Internet and social media. For the TV companies who had the content but who could no longer control the message, these external forces had become,as Jeff Jarvis called them, a "gigantic spoiler machine".

The spoiler machine has been on overdrive in the 2012 Olympics. London is four hours east of the US east coast and also on tape delay and the response has been overwhelmingly negative. NBC refused to show the opening ceremony in real time because it was “too complicated to watch”. An NBC statement defended the indefensible thus: “They are complex entertainment spectacles that do not translate well online because they require context, which our award-winning production team will provide for the large prime-time audiences that gather together to watch them. We will be providing clips and highlights of each ceremony online so viewers know what to look forward to in primetime on NBC.”

But when it got to actual competition, the “award-winning production team” stuffed up again. They advertised an interview with swimming champion Missy Franklin before showing her gold medal-winning race. These abject failures and others led to Steven Marx creating the “nbcfail” hashtag which went berserk.  But it was UK Independent LA-based journalist Guy Adams who led the most high profile attack with a series of criticisms online which eventually saw NBC call in favours at Twitter to suspend his account. 

Adams had tweeted the email address of an NBC executive in charge of Olympics coverage, when he was upset over the quality of that coverage, encouraging others upset to contact the executive.  “The man responsible for NBC pretending the Olympics haven't started yet is Gary Zenkel. Tell him what u think! Email:
Twitter claimed this breached their guidelines as it contained Zenkel’s email. Adams retorted Zenkel’s corporate email address was widely available.  The response to the ban was scathing. Novelist Irvine Welsh said the ban illustrated three tendencies of hegemonic power “1) hates criticism, 2) takes itself seriously 3) no sense of fun.”

NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus claimed they understood the problem but his words betrayed they hadn’t. “We listen. We read. We understand there are people that don't like what we are doing, but we think that is a very loud minority and the silent majority has been with us for the first six days," Lazarus said.  Well of course the “silent majority” have been with NBC for a week because they have no choice if they want to watch the Olympics. Silence is not assent. Not everyone took to Twitter or Facebook to complain but as they realise they can, more will.

As in drugs, the technology to beat the TV companies is changing quickly. The BBC offers a comprehensive ad-free service of the Games courtesy of British TV licence holders and the British taxpayer.  On the Internet they use “geoblocking” based on IP address to ensure only British audiences can view the content.  But just as the Chinese get around geo-blocking to access banned political sites, anyone across the world can view the BBC content by masking their IP address using a virtual private network.  As Melbourne's Monash University copyright law teacher Rebecca Giblin said broadcast television is a dying industry. As growing number of people are no longer willing to watch TV on someone else's schedule," Giblin said. "They want to watch it on their own terms when and where it's convenient for them."

With the US delaying the opening ceremony, dodgy sites like VIPBox.TV sprung up to fill the void.  It provides high quality live content at a price. As Mashable noted,  VIPBox.TV wanted to install a proprietary MPlayer on your computer “which comes with a bunch of crapware that you will want to decline, and it is one of those sites that can turn into a bit of a pop-up monster.” VIPBox.TV are the bootleggers of the 21st century. They flourish only because of prohibition.
Author, editor and futurist Jeff Jarvis said NBCFail showed how the people formerly known as the audience have found a voice to complain about the time-shifting “We in the U.S. are being robbed of the opportunity to share a common experience with the world in a way that was never before possible,” Jarvis said.  He said the argument that the time-shifting was done to make more money does not stand up. Instead it should have super-served its audience by giving them what they want rather than what Mark Lazarus and Gary Zenkel thought they wanted. “I ask you to imagine what Olympics coverage would look like if Google had acquired the rights,” Jarvis said “It would give us what we want and make billions, I’ll bet."

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