Important lessons being taught this week

We’re learning two important things about media this week — confirmations, if you will, that we’re knee deep in significant change.

The first is the story of NBC’s ratings performance of the 2006 Winter Olympics. MediaLife has a report suggesting that NBC may actually lose the February sweeps, something that wouldn’t surprise me.

NBC is now in a distant second place behind ABC in the February sweeps, with both CBS and Fox nipping behind. And media people say its chances of winning sweeps, a given in past Olympics, seem to grow slimmer by the day.
While counter programming certainly has had its impact, I believe there’s a lot more going on than that, as I wrote Wednesday. Now Jeff Jarvis now chimes in with some excellent observations, including the truth that there’s more going on here than meets the eye:
* The end of the Big Event — we’re no longer captive to the coverage or the hype because we exercise ever-increasing choice. This doesn’t mean there will be no Big Events (see: SuperBowls) but there will be fewer.

* The ubiquity of instant information — media no longer controls the timing of the story and the basic news is a commodity available anywhere immediately.

* The primacy of the niche — the Olympics are, in a sense, the ultimate niche event as some watch curling and some watch ice-dancing and nobody wants to be forced to watch it all and that is the natural state of media.

* The disillusionment with Olympic hype — we don’t buy the narrative of nobility as scandals and greed — reality, in other words — take over.

This portends continued angst for the broadcasting industry, because their core competency is based on big events, including breaking news.

And that brings me to my second lesson of the week. As I’ve tried to point out, the kerfluffle between Vice President Dick Cheney and the Washington press corps has heretofore missed the point that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times has done an outstanding job in coverage of the accidental shooting. Editor & Publisher talked to Kathryn Garcia and Jaime Powell, the two reporters who broke the story, and discovered that everything’s just fine in Corpus Christi:

When asked about the White House press corps’ continued grilling of Press Secretary Scott McClellan, the pair supported the ongoing interest, but disagreed with the harsh approach. “We need to ask every question we can think of,” Powell noted. “But until someone has proven themselves untrustworthy, I don’t think we need to act like pit bulls. That makes us look bad.”

For Garcia, the job of the Washington reporters is “to get to the bottom of things.” But, she added, “I don’t understand why they are so upset about it.”

She also had a message for those larger news outlets who have hinted that the Caller-Times should not have been the first called with the story, and perhaps could not cover it completely: “Sometimes it seems that they think we can’t handle it, but we can and we did everything right.”

How is this related to the Olympics, you ask? Simple, the role of the national press — and especially those in Washington — is reduced when local media entities can distribute content to the world. That’s exactly what happened here; the Caller-Times broke the story via the Web. This is the same dynamic at work that’s reducing a single network’s grip on a big event. We just don’t need the filters we used to require, and that, my friends, is bigger than most in the mainstream care to admit.

This is just part of the overall business disruption that’s impacting all media, and the solution, of course, is to embrace the disruption, not try to fight it.

Comments

  1. Your Olympic point #4 resonates, but all 4 points taken together do not necessarily pose so large a challenge that Olympic coverage cannot still be interesting to watch.

    Having tuned in briefly twice to the coverage, and quickly tuned away, one gets the feeling that the networks have simply forgotten how to cover athletic competition and why we watch in the first place. The coverage bespeaks a lack confidence that the competition itself is reason to watch, resorting instead to too many (one being too many) athlete human interest inserts.

    With all due respect to the athletes’s humanity, I watch to see them excel at what they do best, not to learn that they had to leave home at age 11 to practice their sport, and of all the heartbreak that caused (well of course it did). It’s not that we are unfeeling for the sacrifice great performances require, it’s that we assume the sacrifice and want to see the result.

    The quality of the coverage has effectively devolved into that enjoyed by daytime television watchers, which is the harshest criticism I can level at the producers. I can couch-potato with the best of them, but even I can’t sit through this bore-ing coverage. It’s too bad, because the genuinely inspiring athletic performances are still there to be had.

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