Why #NBCFail matters beyond the Olympics

Listen to me discuss NBC’s Olympics coverage and other news of the week on WBEZ’s “848″ program here.

While most consumers have been perfectly happy with NBC’s Olympics coverage on prime time cable, broadcast TV and online via livestreams and apps, a largely social-media powered stream of objections has converged around the #NBCFail hashtag. There are as many complaints as there are Olympics sports but the biggest objections related to NBC’s tape-delayed coverage and its shutdown of Independent correspondent Guy Adams’s Twitter account. While Simon Dumenco of Ad Age and Megan Garber of The Atlantic have great takedowns of some of the other arguments, there are a few points in this kerfuffle that bear some discussion. These are a few that occurred to me. Fair warning: There’s been so much discussion of this, I’m skipping over some of the bedrock arguments and backstory to get to some of the “where do we go from here” ideas. This is a bit rough and open-ended so bear that in mind.

1. If it’s “just sports” then it can be “just _____.”

One comment I’ve heard often in this conversation is #NBCFail is mostly a “first-world problem” because the discussion is about the coverage of sports and sports isn’t “real news.” But one person’s distraction is another person’s “real news.” Once we say sports is not worthy of real news coverage it becomes easier to say books, consumer tech, music or movies are mere distractions and not worthy of serious consideration either. And once we say something isn’t deserving of careful consideration it makes it easier for publishers to talk less about how it can be covered well and more about how it should be packaged and sold.

2. Is NBC tarnishing its news brand and ultimately making it less likely to monetize those users?

NBC is leveraging its full news power only when it can do the most good for its business interests, not for its consumers. NBC’s tape delay strategy is moot in years when the Olympics are in the same time zone as the U.S. because NBC carries these events live. So it’s not as if it always chooses to emphasize its news interests over its business interests but in the case of sports, or at least the 2012 Olympics, it chooses the latter.

If you’re to be taken seriously as a news publisher, you have a requirement to publish as complete a news experience as possible at the moment when the information will have the most value to your audience. The consumer is paying you – or subscribing to a platform that includes your content – based on the perceived value of that news as well as for the convenience factor of acquiring it. The friction here seems to be that many people want a la carte coverage they can pay for without having to subscribe to a major cable provider. It will be interesting to see NBC explores the creation of raw news feed channels via something like Roku (as well as online) and provides the packaged version on its other more-established channels. It may find its building an entirely new audience segment. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense economically, but might in years (months?) to come. But NBC seems to be losing the opportunity to build this audience in its owned channels and finds some of that digital audience doing elsewhere (see #4 below).

3. What gets treated as the news and what gets treated as entertainment?

NBC doesn’t seem to think providing the big screen/HD TV experience several hours later is a problem. That seems less like a strategy you employ for news and more like one you employ for entertainment. If it’s entertainment, it generally doesn’t matter when it’s broadcast or consumed. But news certainly has a time-sensitive component to it (the dismissive phrase “That’s old news” comes to mind here). The weight of that news is relative to the timing of it.

What stops a publisher from waiting to tell you about news until it can maximize the profit in the telling of it? If you have a big scoop and can figure out how to package it as a multi-day event, why not wait until you have an advertiser to run ads around that coverage before releasing it? There’s an argument to be made that NBC is doing exactly that but I’d hate to see what the end result of that strategy means for news consumers.

4. News coverage is mostly determined by who controls and publishes on the platform

For years now, users have been determining what news is and how it is published, largely through Web and social media channels. It’s no longer the sole province of large print and TV publishers.The conversation sparked by the #NBCFail hashtag has made this more obvious than ever but also showed just how much control big news organizations that A) partner with or B) own the platforms have over the platforms with the biggest reach.

Many people will bootleg news content (like providing an overseas livestream of the Olympics opening ceremonies) not because they want to hijack a revenue stream for themselves but just because they don’t like the idea of a closed system. With a platform like Twitter, it’s easier than ever to find raw feeds which satisfy those whose desire for news of an event outweighs the number of easily-available news sources. (I didn’t have to seek out a livestream of the opening ceremonies; I saw a link for it on Twitter from people I already follow.)

Barriers or inconveniences to the consumption of news (like having to download special equipment, make changes to obscure computer settings or watch a poor quality, buffering livestream) will start to seem like less of an issue to consumers as the real-time value of a news event increases. For me, the value of watching the opening ceremonies live seemed greater because people I followed on Twitter were discussing it. Unfortunately for publishers, the real-time news value is different for each person so it’s tough to know what publishing streams are monetizable and which ones aren’t without either experimentation or waiting to see how users themselves innovate.

As for the Guy Adams temporary Twitter account shutdown, Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic has a good summary.

NBC may not have known this tweet existed were it not for someone at Twitter who notified NBC of both the tweet and a remedy. Whether the information is public or private is debatable but NBC’s proximity to power, due to its (non-monetary) Twitter partnership, allowed it to get the account suspended without a thorough consideration of this point. Twitter acknowledged it should not have done this, but with the service already looking for more ways to monetize its product for publishers it’s clear they’re interested in hyper-serving this particular user base.

Let’s say an upstart publisher decides to start covering the heck out of the Olympics. Maybe it’s a traditional television channel, maybe it’s Web-only. Perhaps they find a way to provide a broadcast-quality stream of the BBC through fair use. Or they find a way to leverage content from athletes’ personal social media accounts to provide unique value. What’s to stop NBC – which is owned by Comcast – from shutting down that publisher on its Web and cable television systems? Nothing. Or what if NBC develops a “strategic partnership” with iTunes and asks Apple to remove another news publisher’s app because it feels that app infringes on its exclusivity agreement with the Olympics?

As with most issues surrounding social media and news distribution, the best practices in these scenarios are still being sorted out.

1 comment for “Why #NBCFail matters beyond the Olympics

  1. James Sylvester
    August 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    This is a thoughtful piece. What it illustrates is that the interests of NBC’s “audience” do not coincide with NBC’s business interests. Given its essence as a profit-making entity, NBC will logically fashion a strategy that maximizes its revenue: gain a monopoly over (buy rights to) a desired product (the Olympics) and then ration that to prime-time hours to gain market power over an even more powerful product, an “audience” which can then be sold to advertisers. It’s the American way.

    What is dismaying is that NBC seems to maintain some pretense that they are providing “sports coverage” when in fact what they are producing is an edited “reality show” (Seacrest’s presence is a giveaway) that they calculate contains the right elements to attract as large an audience as possible. As to motivation, I suppose no broadcaster or large corporation ever went astray by underestimating the gullibility of its audience. Still, the entire package seems to be very cynical, very corporate, and, when “refashioned” for “sake of drama” or laden with assumed narratives to be of questionable ethics. I think, however, that they are pushing it when they go to 20 min per hour of commercials in primetime and interrupt their online feeds every few minutes with ads that can interrupt supposed “live coverage.”

    Apart from that, I think the quality of their “reality show” coverage is pretty bad, completely apart from anything involving tape-delays or the theoretical availability of live online coverage.

    This experience may prove to be something of a watershed and a harbinger of a different era in providing video to households. The age of funneling a captive audience to rationed content in primetime is inevitably doomed when there are ways to access “internet TV.” When we all have “internet TV devices” to access content on demand from international providers, this experience will look quaint.

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