Saturday, November 15, 2008

Keeping the Genie in the Bottle

It happens every year around this time. When the NFL Network starts their broadcast schedule of regular season football games, there is a national uproar. Since the network is carried on very few cable outlets (due to an ongoing dispute between the network and cable companies over compensation), and since pro football is overwhelmingly popular in this country, much attention is focused on the supposed inability of football fans to get what they have been accustomed to over the years---the ability to watch games from the comfort of their couches.

A google news search reveals no shortage of stories devoted to the plight of the football fan: "No Clear Resolution in NFL-Cable Rift" screams a Washington Post headline this week. "NFL Network Continues Its War of Words with Big Cable" trumpets the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times reveals that in addition to two wars and economic crises, our elected leaders are on the case: "Senators Criticize NFL for Favoring League's Cable Network." And the San Jose Mercury-News aptly states: "The Annual NFL-Comcast Gripe-fest." Most of the news organizations covering this story discuss alternative options for fans who can't access the NFL Network through cable. They point out that most satellite services offer the channel. They also report that many fans are going to neighborhood sports bars that have access. However, not one of the news stories I surveyed mentioned that with minimal effort, everyone with a broadband Internet connection that wants to watch NFL Network games can do so without leaving the house and without paying a cent. (Of course, the providers of this content are not legally authorized, but considering it is a foreign website with multiple ways of disseminating the feed, there is little that the NFL can do).

You would think that the existence of this option would alter the dynamics of the of the NFL/cable feud. You would think that at the very least, it would alter the dynamics of the discussion of the feud. If news stories are reporting on people driving to sports bars, wouldn't it be a legitimate to also report that people are being driven to their computers?

I wrote a few months back about conspiracy theories, and though I am not wont to admit the veracity of most such claims, especially claims that include allegations of a media cover-up, I am now inclined to believe that there is, to some degree, a conspiracy among media outlets to suppress information about the availability of on-line content.

I don't believe such a conspiracy existed eight years ago when mainstream media coverage (and Metallica) inadvertently made Napster a house-hold brand name and its founder Shawn Fanning a Warholian celebrity. And even though Napster was dealt a legal death-blow, the victory was Pyrrhic for the record companies, who today can only dream of the kind of profit margins they turned in the pre-Napster era. But I think it can be argued that it wasn't the mere existence of Napster that killed the record companies golden goose, but rather the mainstream attention that Napster received. Especially in what was then a largely dial-up world, the pre-2000 users of Napster represented what could be described as a subculture of technology-savvy sophisticates. But once the world at large got wind of the possibility of free music, the genie was out of the bottle.

I think that mainstream news media companies, who are often owned by corporate entities that also have interest in selling various types of copyrighted content, learned a lesson from this. Today, virtually every form of popular media is easily available at no cost through multiple sources on-line. In addition to music, one can effortlessly access movies, television shows, video games, books, comic books, radio shows, and live feeds of television networks. But there is now little coverage given to this phenomenon. The Pirate Bay, a file sharing network that, with 25 million users, is roughly equal to the peak that Napster hit after Metallica sued them, has 423 hits this month on Google News, most of them on web-only technical websites. By comparison, itunes, which by some accounts has less than 25 million users, has 15,630 hits.

So while clearly there is a flourishing community of on-line users accessing forbidden content, there is also a gigantic underclass of consumers who are blissfully ignorant of what is out there. And corporate America (and their media partners) seem willing to concede a certain segment of the market in order to keep tapping the wallets of the uninitiated.

It will be fascinating to see how long companies are able to delay the inevitable. At a certain point, one would have to think that this dam must burst. Next week I will propose a plan for compensating content providers in a world where everything is free.


Blogger Nanette said...

I will be interested to read of your plan, Azor. I would also be interested in your ideas for changing the "blissfully ignorant" status of those who don't know about all the great free stuff out there to blissfully aware.

Are you as hopeful as I am about Lawrence Lessig serving as one of Obama's unofficial advisors? Personally, I think he'd be an interesting first pick for the first-ever CTO (Chief Technology Officer) position that Obama allegely wants to create.

1:21 AM  

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