Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Psychic Costs of #NBCfail

Yesterday I did something that I do very sparingly.  I sent out a tweet on my usually dormant Twitter account.  What motivated me to break my Twitter silence? Here is the content of the tweet:

"Showing a Paige McPherson taekwondo preliminary match on tape delay at the exact same time she was fighting live in the quarters? "

I couldn't resist piling on with the "nbcfail" hashtag.  My frustration with NBC is much less than it was four years ago, when they embargoed live streams of any events they wanted to show on tape delay later.  But this year, everything is available live online (except for opening and closing ceremonies).  I didn't mind a couple of days ago when they showed taped equestrian (with no American contenders) rather than a women's volleyball semi-final (involving the American team).  I just watched the volleyball game online and ignored the TV coverage.  I've watched lots of swimming and track live online.  The only thing I've been genuinely annoyed by is having to watch boxing, taekwondo, and wrestling online, since the stream usually doesn't have announcers--and I actually could use announcers to help me understand what is going on (hence the aforementioned tweet).  (While I'm in rant mode, I should also point out my frustration with having to toggle around three different wrestling streams to find the matches I wanted this morning).

But while the online coverage this year has been baby steps forward, the prevalence of the "nbcfail" hashtag on Twitter and the relentless denunciations from media critics illustrate that NBC has a ways to go in appeasing a population that has grown accustomed to the on-demand, "real time" accessibility of information.  Dick Ebersol, the architect of NBC's philosophy, has long been vocal in defending his network's approach.  He's given frequent interviews during the last several Olympic cycles, pointing out that what matters is the bottom line, that it would be irresponsible for NBC to leave money on the table by showing events outside of prime time, and that the ratings back up his approach.  His most recent interview was given to Joe Posnanski a couple days ago, and he showed no signs of backing down.  Posnaski paraphrases Ebersol's defense thusly:
Ebersol says you can explain that clash of philosophy in two concise sentences:
1. The critics believe that the Olympics are a great sporting event.
2. Dick Ebersol and NBC believe that the Olympics are a great television event.
I'm automatically suspicious when I see someone boil an argument down into an either/or approach.  False dichotomy much?  John Koblin of Deadspin already wrote a great article showing how NBC could serve both audiences (people who want to see great sports and people who want to see great television), so I won't delve further into that issue.

But what I would like to further explore is the cost of NBC's willingness to alienate a segment of viewership.  They are fully aware that they have an American monopoly on coverage, that if you are going to alienate an audience, you want to alienate the ones who are going to tune in anyway.  A few stubborn sports fans will boycott, but most will tune in regardless of how mad they are.  So adding up the assets and liabilities, it would seem that the clear cut decision for NBC (assuming the false dichotomy is not false) would be to stay the course and ignore the critics.

But consider CBS executive Rick Gentile.  During the 1998 Winter Olympics, CBS followed the NBC model of coverage and showed skier Picabo Street winning a gold medal about 24 hours after she had actually won it.  Twitter wasn't around in 1998, but CBS caught flak.  This is what Gentile told the New York Times last year, 13 years after the fact: “The Picabo Street thing haunts me.”

Was it worth it for Gentile to sacrifice peace of mind for the bottom line?  A few years ago I wrote a blog post detailing how it would be in Alex Rodriguez's personal best interest to give all of his salary away.  Obviously, he didn't do this, but I still stand by the advice.  Because we can't definitively measure them, psychic costs and benefits are consistently undervalued.  Not only do we lack a good way to measure them, but most people aren't honest with themselves about how much they are worth.  How much would you pay to avoid having to listen to someone say mean things about you for the rest of your life?  Most people would respond that they wouldn't pay anything, sticks and stones and whatnot.  But in truth, there probably would be a psychological benefit that would warrant a fiduciary loss.  Dick Ebersol would most likely never admit that the cacophony of criticism bothers him, but if he's a human being, it does.

Obviously, NBC is not a human being, and therefore derives no psychic cost from being subject to criticism.  But to put things in corporate terms, NBC is a brand, and a brand identity can be impacted by criticism.  No, it's not likely that many people would refuse to watch Law & Order because they disagree with the decision to tape delay Olympic events.  But can an NBC executive avow with 100% confidence that the prevalence of a meme called "NBC Fail" will have absolutely no impact on the relationship between the network and potential sponsors?  Certainly, no talented NBC account executive will jump to another entity solely because they are embarrassed about tweets about taekwondo.  But I'm sure that overall corporate morale does play a role in getting and retaining talented workers, and I'm equally sure that constant public mockery is not good for overall corporate morale.

So, in short, ratings and the immediate bottom line aren't the only things that ultimately have the power to influence.  I wrote recently about the power of peer pressure.  Social media is a way that a disillusioned populace (perhaps even a vocal minority) may work upon a power structure.  The only drawback--there might be a bit of a delay before the results are seen.


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