sep 13
2004 Post-Mortem

Perhaps now, as the leaves turn orange and we've almost forgotten what Michael Phelps even looks like, enough time has passed that you'd be willing to hear me talk about the Summer Olympics. Please, dear reader, don't reach for the gag button in the back of your throat, because, as I'm about to outline, if there's one thing I've learned about the Olympics, this is one topic that the American media loves to hate.

Caveats & background: I worked on for nearly a year. However, the opinions below are mine and only mine. Even though I've had many conversations about the production, delivery, and business and of the games, what follows is not the opinion of NBC or IBS or the IOC or capitalism or athleticism or This Great Country or whatever else gets tossed into the ring every four years. Also, I have very little to say about what you saw on television. I'm talking internet today. I've already talked about it in other places (such as Wired News and LostRemote), but this is a collection of some final thoughts.

In some ways, this is an essay responding to my friends and colleagues, many of whom were out in full force critiquing the olympic games -- or perhaps more accurately, the media's creation of the games.

It probably started when Chuck K. wrote a column for Esquire titled "Boycott the Olympics, Save America". It showed up in my mailbox the exact day he was in town to visit. At some boozy point in the dark hours of the night, I dismissed his point by telling Chuck that someone writes that column every four years. Or, more precisely, every four years since the end of the Cold War, which was about the time that hating the Olympics become a national past time for the ironic class. I can't remember what happened next, but in the morning we saw some heroic gibbons swinging from branches at the Minnesota Zoo, which gave both of us much pleasure.

All apologies to Chuck...

And then Matt H. did some analysis on PVRblog, which pointed out some notable concerns with the site. I disagreed with some the legal/business parts of his analysis. We'll get to this later, but the short version is: it's going to be a while before we figure out how digital rights management will make a reality of the dreams we have for personal media. I highly doubt that everyone will ever be satisfied with video delivery via the internet for events like this -- at least not in any Marshall-McLuhan-cum-Phillip-Dick media vision thang that my mind can concoct. We might see some non-streaming (i.e., downloadable or exchangable) video asset management technology by 2008. With all the technical and legal decisions that need to be made in that area for this to happen, I'm not sure if I'm "optimistic" or even "hopeful" about what it will look like though. I am positive that it will not satisfy everyone.

All apologies to Matt...

Later on, Andy B. followed up the video-download issue by pointing out clips that were available on Usenet. Like a Slashdot flamethrower, there's a lot of "we told you so" when it comes to filesharing video, but ultimately, you're gonna have a very hard time convincing me that more than a dozen people in America had the tolerance to watch more than five minutes of video with this delivery method. And don't even get me started on BitTorrent.

All apologies to Andy...

Which brings us to Staci K.'s critique in OJR. Let's just get this out of the way: I agree with some of Staci's points. The world never moves fast enough for those of us in this industry. And we have the right -- perhaps even the obligation -- to act indignantly when it doesn't.

Nonetheless, there's something that bothers me about this I-want-more-more-more-video angle, which manifests itself with clockwork predictability. When we first started talking about how would be one of the seven platforms for presenting the games, the first thing I said was "no matter what we do, video will be criticized."

When deciding on a strategy for what we provide to an online audience, we asked a simple question: "What will people want?" If all you read about was OJR, you'd get the sense that people are demanding a 24/7 online Olympics video channel -- despite the fact NBC was already providing six television channels with 1200 hours of video. When you think about this for even more than a second, you realize immediately how you use an Olympics website: to complement television. You want stats and scores, you want biographies, you want context, you want analysis, you want stuff the tv doesn't give, you want storytelling done right, you want a medium that extends the story. And maybe you want a little bit of video. Actually, you want the tv schedule about 100 times more than you want video. Only a few of you are going to watch sketchy online video all day at the office (which is what a vast majority of our viewers are). I find being called an "early adopter" denigrating too, but let's face it...

I understand why a journalist would choose video when writing about the site. Heck, if I were doing industry writing about the site, I might talk about video too. The problem with this is that it ignores 95% of what our audience is expecting. Where was the story about our massive real-time results feed, which has failed repeatedly in the past? How about some analysis on the how the affiliates have used Ozone? And how about the multimedia context that TV can't provide? How about the writing and analysis? Or how about this simple angle: how the internet deserves a bit more respect than being a shovelware medium for a broadcast product.

It's not that I expect an unctuous, rosy hue to shine over the coverage -- I expect to be challenged to do better. But I also expect some sense of what people are actually doing online to come through. The rare person who did watch video online probably watched the "Who's Carly Crushin' On?" clip. Welcome back, ironic class.

All apologies to Staci...

And finally, that brings us to Nancy F., the one writer here who I'm not familiar with. Here's what she wrote in the New Yorker

    The Internet is partly what caused people to become impatient with the Sydney Games. We already know what happened, the whining went. It was on the Web. But this time around the Web, which is now as integral to our lives as our television sets, served as a well-stocked convenience store for viewers who couldn’t spend seventy hours a day in front of the TV. NBC’s site supplied a full array of results, athlete bios, detailed schedules, fun facts, and archived stories (and, of course, stuff for sale). While watching the gymnastics, I kept waiting for one of the announcers to explain what the story was behind the strange-looking new vaulting equipment, but I had to go to the Web site to find the answer.

Right on, someone who approached the site from the perspective of an actual user experience. Sorry Nancy, no apologies to you.

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