#NBCFail: A Traditional Media Company in a Digital World


“Sport and mass media enjoy a very symbiotic relationship in American society” (McChesney, 1989, p. 49).  Indeed, from the first closed-circuit televised broadcast of the Olympics in 1936 to the digitally-delivered Olympics of 2012, the Olympic games provide a compelling environment with which to explore the nature of the symbiosis.  In particular, the London Olympics, the first to have a immersive digital media experience in addition to the traditional broadcast experience, sheds light on the conflict created by new forms of media and how new media threatens traditional commercial mass media business models in the world of sports coverage, perhaps upsetting the symbiotic balance.  NBC Universal, which owned the broadcast rights to the London Olympics in the United States was heavily criticized for their coverage, accused of forcing audiences into viewing paradigms of an earlier era, failing to use new media to its potential, and putting the commercial interest over the public interest (Deitsch, 2012; Holmes, 2012; Moore, 2012; Stanley, 2012).  Most of the criticism centered on NBC’s failure in three dimensions, real-time versus prime-time, cultural deafness in a global village, and tone-deaf coverage selection, prompting a new Internet meme, #NBCFail(Sandomir, 2012; Stanley, 2012).  Despite the criticism, NBC’s coverage was a commercial success with the largest audience in media history (CNN, 2012).  The London Olympics demonstrate that the mass media is dealing with a new reality as a result of a networked audience.  Mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and new media expectations, attempting to step into the digital world while remaining tied to earlier paradigms.

Little does more to reflect the symbiotic relationship between media and sports as much as the financial arrangements between the media and sporting agencies.   In the case of the London Olympics, NBC paid the International Olympic Committee $1.18 billion for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the games (BBC, 2012),  fees that provide the bulk of International Olympic Committee revenue (Associated Press, 2008).  One could argue that the games would not exist in their present form without IOC broadcasting revenue streams.  Moreover, with such hefty prices for broadcasts rights, NBC needed to assure that their coverage would generate significant advertising sales to make the broadcast a commercial success in a media environment where audiences have been fractured between traditional mass media and networked media.  At risk, was not only the commercial success of the deal, but also NBC’s brand reputation in delivering a high-quality media experience that serves public interest in the media event.

By all accounts, the NBC broadcast of the Olympics was a commercial success.  NBC had originally expected to lose $200 million on the broadcast, but ended up making a small profit as a result of larger than expected advertising revenue (Heistand, 2012) and the largest audience ever recorded for any media event (CNN, 2012).  Moreover, NBC executives have linked to their primetime success to their digital programming, suggesting their digital coverage drove viewers to primetime audiences and calling their move into digital coverage “a big, bold, swing” (Heistand, 2012, p. 1).  However, critics have argued that NBC’s digital coverage was missed opportunity because the network continued to think of coverage in traditional, monopolistic terms, assuming that viewers didn’t mind not seeing the events live, and couldn’t get the information elsewhere (Stanley, 2012).  Indeed, NBC’s choice, to delay coverage until primetime, or only offer live digital streams to paying cable customers angered many viewers, although savvy Internet users streamed live coverage directly from the BBC using Internet proxies to circumvent NBC (Moore, 2012).  Rather than a bold move into digitalized networked communication, NBC appeared to use digital content simply to draw the audience to primetime coverage, their traditional revenue source.

Moreover, criticism extended to whether NBC understood how the world had changed as a result of networked communication.  NBC       appeared to be deaf to the multi-cultural nature of the Olympic broadcast, opting to select coverage primarily of U.S. athletes and with color commentary that appeared to understand little of the world outside the United States.  For instance, Moore (2012), described viewers embarrassment of the spectacle:

Having to watch trained TV anchors link Kazakhstan to Borat, describing Luxembourg as a central European nation, note that Uganda’s athletes come from the country of Idi Amin, mispronounce the names of Niger and the Cote D’Ivoire, and otherwise support every ugly American stereotype. (p. 1)

While NBC may be excused their coverage selection given that competition for revenue drives programming choices to the lowest common denominator (McQuail, 2010), the mono-cultural commentary displays both arrogance and ignorance of multicultural character of the global village enabled by the networked world.

The widespread criticism suggests that NBC appeared to underappreciate a variety of audience expectations, including the desire for the shared experience for live Olympic coverage, the expectation of niche, tailored content inherent in the digital world, and the desire of the audience to view the Olympics anywhere, anytime, and on any device.  The resulting outcry from audience members over NBC’s botched monopoly coverage showed up on Twitter with the hashtag #NBCFail, however NBC executives appeared to discount the outcry as dissent from small minority (Richter, 1985), an attitude that demonstrates their misunderstanding of the network form of mass communication.  For example, while over the last three days, there have been a mere 19,800 tweets with the hashtag #NBCFail, those tweets have made more than 15.5 million impressions (Hashtracking, 2012).  Furthermore, the popular #NBCFail meme has transcended Olympic coverage and has entered popular Twitter discourse on NBC’s coverage of football, the mars rover, the election, NBC Nightly News, and even their fall line-up.  While NBC’s Olympic coverage has been a commercial success, the damage done to their brand may be incalculable.

The #NBCFail meme is symptomatic of NBC’s failure to meet the expectations of an audience that become accustomed to new media in a networked world.  Audiences expect to get coverage anywhere, anytime, and on any device.  In addition, audiences have higher expectations of the social nature of global media events, expecting platforms than enable them to share the experience in a multicultural setting.  However, while traditional media companies have the financial power that affords the opportunity for exclusive coverage of global sporting events, they are at the same time, unequipped to transition their business models inline with higher audience expectations, given it requires them to creatively destroy the very business model that provides that financial power.  In fact, #NBCFail could have as easily been #ABCFail or #CBSFail, given most mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and business models that center around new media expectations.

References

Associated Press. (2008, November 18, 2008). EBU urges IOC to stick with European broadcasters  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/wire?section=oly&id=3710990

BBC. (2012, August 14, 2012). London 2012 was ‘biggest ever US TV event’  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19253273

CNN. (2012, August 13, 2012). Nielsen: 2012 Olympics most-watched event in U.S. TV history  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://marquee.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/13/olympics-closing-ceremony-a-ratings-win/

Deitsch, R. (2012, August 10, 2012). Mark Lazarus responds to criticism. London 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/olympics/2012/writers/richard_deitsch/08/10/NBCs-Mark-Lazarus-responds-to-criticism/3.html

Hashtracking. (2012, August 19, 2012). #NBCFail  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://beta.hashtracking.com/ht-pro-rpt/cjeffers-nbcfail-2012-08-10/

Heistand, M. (2012, August 12, 2012). NBC: ‘We took a big bold swing’ with digital coverage  Retrieved August 19, 2012, from http://www.usatoday.com/sports/columnist/hiestand-tv/story/2012-08-12/NBC-London-Olympics/57015258/1

Holmes, L. (2012, August 6, 2012). Good Business, Bad Quality: How NBC Is Both Right And Wrong On The Olympics  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2012/08/06/158198998/good-business-bad-quality-how-nbc-is-both-right-and-wrong-on-the-olympics

McChesney, R. W. (1989). Media made sport: A history of sports coverage in the United States. In L. A. Wenner (Ed.), Media, sports, & society (pp. 315 p.). Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Moore, H. (2012, July 30, 2012). NBC fail shows network’s commitment to ‘the last great buggy-whip Olympics’. Olympics 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/30/nbc-fail-buggy-whip-olympics

Richter, P. (1985, December 12, 1985). General Electric Will Buy RCA for $6.28 Billion  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://articles.latimes.com/1985-12-12/news/mn-16152_1_general-electric-will

Sandomir, R. (2012, July 29, 2012). Olympic Viewers Have a New Reason to Complain, and the Means to Do It. Olympics  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/sports/olympics/nbc-olympics-delay-and-streaming-bring-complaints-on-twitter.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

Stanley, T. (2012, August 6, 2012). NBC’s Olympic coverage has been a damning indictment of outdated monopoly media  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100174920/nbcs-olympic-coverage-has-been-a-damning-indictment-of-outdated-monopoly-media/

 

 


Exploring Global Climate Change


• Politician: What are the odds that human behavior is causing climate change?

• Scientist: Highly likely.

• Politician: So you are saying it might not be us?

Global climate change is perhaps the most complex challenge ever to face humanity. It remains to be seen whether humanity is up to the challenge and can frame a global response to mitigate the risk to the planet and human society, because there is significant debate on the issue and policymakers around the globe appear to disagree on the science and the response because of political, social, and economic reasons. The public debate leaves concerned individuals confused about whether and how to take action and with more questions than answers: Is climate change real? Is climate change a result of human activity? What impact will climate change have? What needs to change? In their book, The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, Dessler and Larson (2006), provide a definitive guide that summarizes both the science and the political dynamics of climate change, and includes recommendations for policymakers. Through Dessler and Larson’s treatment of the issue, this author learned that the climate is definitely getting warmer, that human activity is probably responsible, and more importantly, that inaction is irresponsible, given the possible outcomes.

Climate change may ultimately affect the lives of every person on the planet; therefore, individuals need to understand the science of climate change and the dynamics of the debate in order to make informed personal and political choices. Often, information on climate change contains bias for or against a particular position. Dressler and Larson are surprisingly effective at maintaining a detached, rational, and unbiased perspective, clarifying the differentiated roles between scientists and policymakers and separating positive and normative arguments to provide the reader clarity on the climate change science. After providing background on the inherent skepticism of the scientific community, the author’s then summarize the overwhelming, peer-reviewed, consistent, evidence of the warming of Earth’s surface temperature; including direct surface air temperature, glacier data, sea-level change data, sea ice data, ocean temperature, satellite measurements, and data from a variety of climate proxies. The earth is getting warmer, but is it a result of human activity? The author’s conclude that human activity is likely the cause of increased warming, because of the measureable increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and their basic physics. In addition, the rise of CO2 correlates very closely, in both magnitude and frequency, with the rise of the surface temperature. Again, the author’s do an excellent job separating the positive and normative arguments, while summarizing the science of climate change. However, when discussing the potential impact of climate change, there was far more uncertainty, but informative descriptions of promising efforts to reduce uncertainty through computerized climate models. Of course, the primary argument for change was one of risk; given climate change is happening, is probably caused by greenhouse gas emission, and is likely to have far reaching and perhaps devastating consequences for human society, inaction is responsible.

When the discussion turned to potential solutions, post-Kyoto political and economic solutions to reduce emissions occupied most of the dialogue, giving adaption and geo-engineering strategies short treatment. In addition, the potential solutions did not incorporate enough perspective from social sciences that might offer benefits to those seeking to address the need for change. For instance: What leadership lessons can environmental scientist draw from other fields? What is the psychology of climate change? What mass communication phenomenon is at work in the public debate and who are the gatekeepers? How can digital media reshape the debate?

In the end, this author found Dessler and Larson’s work to be an excellent guide to understand the science and politics of global climate change. Before reading this book, this author was like many, who allow the misleading public debate to legitimize inaction. The earth is warming because of human activity and if emissions are not reduced right away, the consequences will likely be disastrous. Inaction is simply irresponsible.


Communications 305: A Digital Media Journey


Life often dishes out irony as if humans required it for sustenance.  I began this class thinking myself a digital native, although I had yet to hear the term.  Working for major software corporation for many years, I ran successful Content Management and Collaboration technology consulting practices that helped our customers take advantage of web technologies and thought myself well-versed in the implications of digital communication on things like security, identity, brand, presence, and other dimensions of the implementation discussion.  I expected to come into this class and excel simply based on the fact that this was a realm I understood and I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.  For while my understanding was perhaps sufficient to help a customer address a need, I missed the big picture that a solid theoretical foundation provides.  In addition, I could have likely added far more value to my customers by helping them think through the implications of digital media on their business, relationships with customers, relationships with partners, and opportunities and risk to their brand reputation.  Life is full of ironies.

             During the course, I started a blog to chronicle my personal journey to graduate with honors, but more importantly as a personal exploration of digital media, and found myself grappling with issues I had previously only encountered as a thought experiment during the class; a powerful way to learn, indeed (Rock, 2011a).

There are a number of perspectives that have influenced my thinking during the course.  I was struck by the simplicity and elegance of Symbolic Interactionism as a theoretical framework, and because it leads to an important philosophical question about the growth of meaning; how will humanity transform as the volume of interactions grow exponentially as the rest of the world joins the network?  In the past, interactions tended largely to be bound in both time and space and now neither is true, there are very few boundaries in the virtual world.

Social shaping of technology is another theoretical perspective that influenced me during the course.  I believe there are deterministic elements of technology that ties to the capabilities that technology affords, and yet observe that often people use technology in ways that designers never envisioned.  Who would have thought during design that Twitter could help overturn an authoritarian regime?  From a purely business point of view, social shaping theory means that we in the software engineering business need to pay close attention to how our products are used.

Of course, the question that most dominated my thoughts during the course was the democratic nature of the medium.  The Arab Spring opened my eyes to the fact that something very different was happening in the world and digital media was at the center of it.  I realized very quickly, that digital media was having profound implications on humanity and wondered at the implications for family, my business, nations, and myself.  It appears to me that Internet and the World Wide Web are significantly shifting the balance of power between individuals, minorities, and dominant hierarchies and believe that humanity may be on the cusp of a new understanding of what it means to be human.  Long have our differences been used as a means of controlling access to resources and our entire system of economics is based on that idea.  I think that the Web is going to give us an opportunity to rethink what it means to be human and how to share.  I know that others see the Web as simply a reflection of humanity, but I do not ascribe to that view because the balance of power is changing, myths are being exposed for what they are, and once dominant entities have given way, while others continue to fight.  It may sound like I am subscribing to some utopian view, and in the end, perhaps I am.  However, throughout history, most power struggles have been violent, and if we look to the example of Libya, this power struggle between Netizens and the dominant hierarchies that control them has the same potential.  I am a firm believer that the natural state of humanity is freedom and so the idea of such a powerful equalizing force appeals strongly to my ideals.