Why I’m Concerned about the Olympics

Here’s what I wrote in the comment thread of a cross posting of my Future of Free to the MCDM’s Flip The Media blog:

[W]e should not expect everything to be free. We’ve gotten used to companies “experimenting” with the internet, trying to use the old advertising model to attract eyeballs to free content. But the equation never held up because there’s just so many more places to go on the Web.

What concerns me — and should concern anyone — is #1 we may be losing our “public spaces.” Read the MSNBC link in my post (”future of free broadcast TV”) — some network execs would like to be done with broadcast over the airwaves for good. They recognize that they can make more money on the cable model (fees for content) than on the broadcast model (advertising pays for the content).

So let’s just say broadcast TV goes away for good, and all visual content ends up either on cable TV (paid), or online (paid via iTunes, Comcast cable agreement, etc). Again, nothing wrong with that, as you say, we should pay for quality. And it costs to create and distribute that content.

But then we see large companies begin to “lock up” how we can access some of this important media. NBC says, oh, we own the Olympics, you can’t have access to any of those images until we’ve gotten our money’s worth, and actually, we’d rather you not talk about it either because you’re going to rob our audience of the “drama.” Maybe the IOC will ban athletes like Apollo Ohno from commenting on the results until after the media companies have had a chance to show the taped delayed competition.

There’s just an overall constricting of content and platforms in a desire to manage how we gain access to content, and even talk about it. This is not through some massive conspiracy. It’s just how large companies behave: control the flow, monetize.

And that presents problem #2: concentration. This is exactly what happened in the late 80’s when newspapers and networks began to fall into the hands of a small number of highly capitalized companies. This concentration of power in journalism just happened to coincide with the public’s drop in trust for journalists.

For the last 15 years, we imagined that the Web would be something other than the highly controlled media landscape of the 20th century — with lower barriers to entry, and a more diverse set of players. But our inability to cope with the online cacophony, combined with an economic crisis that demands a better ROI from private entities, seem to have precipitated the same co-opting of the Web that we saw with our public airwaves a few decades ago. And I find that worrisome. It’s hard for me not to equate Iran’s decision to ban Gmail and set up its own national e-mail platform with what’s happening here in the private sector. It’s all about who controls what.

2 comments

  1. Really interesting stance, Hanson. I instantly got and episode of “the Bachelor” in my head – everyone is prohibited from talking about the ending until we play out the drama – and I’m already seething about the tape delay and the lack of Canadian TV coverage permitted in this market so close to Vancouver. This potential for concentration and lack of truly “public access” to the signal really worries me, too. It perpetuates the digital divide.

  2. A couple things that will be interesting to see in the coming years as media coverage broadcast, online and cable gets sorted out worldwide:

    1. I wonder if the hyper-capitalistic (the U.S.) or hyper-controlling countries (such as Iran) will try to influence or even control the media in the more progressive nations and companies? For example, Canada was able to watch the Olympics on CTV all day and Europe via Eurosport practically had it on 24/7, and while people still complained bitterly about the coverage (see the message board http://uk.messages.eurosport.yahoo.com/Winter_Olympics/threadview?m=tm&bn=UKS-OL-winter&tid=225&mid=225&tof=-1&rt=1&frt=1&off=1 for an amusing thread) it was clearly a thousand times better than what we had with NBC in America. If CBC had won the rights to the coverage in Canada, then at least parts of the US would have been able to see the Canadian coverage (and perhaps people would have done some of their own distribution online). Will NBC try to keep CBC from winning it next time, so they still have a lock on it for the London Olympics?

    2. Will progressive countries with less athletes/populace (and less chances of winning oodles of medals) and therefore less on the line become actually more powerful and influential worldwide because their media is less restrictive and more expansive in their media coverage? Can a small country suddenly play a role in worldwide events because their media organizations stream every single alpine skier on the Super G? And, if this could happen with sport, what about with other events, such as regime change, or war or revolution? Perhaps this is an opportunity, albeit a potentially dangerous one, for smaller countries to play a different role in worldwide politics, that doesn’t involved tanks or guns.

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