Rebel Viewers: #NBCFail and the Decline (and Rise?) of the Shared Olympic Media Event by Chris Finlay

//CGCS presents Part 3 of our post-Olympic Games special report on the implications of Social Media permeation at the 2012 London Olympic games. This time, we present a look into Pirate Broadcasting, the use of the #hashtag as a gathering point, and the future of Olympic Games coverage. For preceding installments, and the rest of our CGCS Media Wire coverage, click here.

Dr. Christopher J. Finlay is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.

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On July 26th, 2012, Steven Marx, whose twitter account reportedly had only 17 followers at the time, posted a complaint about NBC, the official International Olympic Committee (IOC)-ordained American broadcaster of the London 2012 Olympics. At the end of the post, a simple hastag: #NBCFail. According to Mashable.com, the hashtag’s popularity skyrocketed in the earliest days of the London Games, having been used over 20,000 times by July 29th, 2012.

Now, we’ve seem similar hashtags before. #CNNFail was employed by countless international and American CNN viewers who expressed their anger when the network appeared to be caught off-guard by the early volleys of protesters in the Arab Spring. We’re also seeing examples of variations of this hashtag in the political sphere, such as #RomneyFail.

A search for any of these #FAILS will provide pithy, amusing tweets, but ultimately, we should consider whether these hashtags have any significant sociopolitical utility in the global public sphere. At first glance, these shallow tweets (less than 140 characters) don’t really register as contributing to national or international discourse in a meaningful way. They are all too often new media equivalents of a single punch line in a much larger late-night television monologue: clever, but forgotten by morning. But, thousands of savvy Twitter users have also recognized the community building and information sharing potential of the hashtag. Every time a user searches for a specific hashtag, Twitter returns a list of users (and, of course, their tweets) that can be understood as forming a loose community of sorts. If you want to join that community, simply include the hashtag of your choice in your posts. This community-through-filter approach has been used to share information that traditional media can’t or won’t share.

#CNNFail is a prime example. In early 2011, a makeshift #CNNFail community traded information ranging from the usernames of people on the ground to links to broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, who hadn’t been caught unprepared. In effect, #CNNFail gave media consumers a modicum of editorial control, forcing CNN to devote broadcasts to the emerging Arab Spring and helping journalists find sources and fact-check material.

Did we see the same chain-of-events with #NBCFail and the Olympics? No…and yes?

No: Years in advance of a Games, the IOC auctions national and regional broadcasting rights. In 2003, NBC paid $2.201 billion for the rights to be the exclusive American broadcaster of the 2010 and 2012 Olympics. In 2011, NBC decided to continue their relationship with the IOC, pledging $4.38 billion dollars to broadcast the Games through 2020. In the digital age, these agreements have expanded to include all platforms, from cable television to mobile. While other media organizations may cover stories coming out of the Olympics, only NBC has access to the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) feeds and services. In effect, NBC has a monopoly on Games coverage in the United States. Unlike CNN during the Arab Spring, NBC broadcasters planning the coverage of the London 2012 Games didn’t think they had to compete with other broadcasters. Simply put, the political economy of Olympic broadcasting invalidates any justification for indulging the editorial demands of the #NBCFail crowd. As a captive audience, #NBCfailers had little choice but to grumble and watch the time delayed festivities in London. And, according to the ratings, no matter how miserable they were, they certainly watched! As the Games came to a close, NBC announced that with more than 219 million American viewers, the London Games became the most watched television event in American television history. In second place?: NBC’s coverage of the Beijing Games, a similarly re-cut and time-delayed mess, which managed to bring in 215 million American viewers.

…and yes?: As a rule, the internet has very little respect for regional media rights. That’s why we don’t see as many delayed European releases of American movies as we did a decade ago. And it may be why this summer the American CW network managed to make headlines when The L.A. Complex debuted with the lowest ratings for a broadcast drama premiere in history. Among the many excuses was the suggestion that The L.A. Complex, a Canadian import aimed at a young demographic, had already premiered months earlier in Canada and so pirate episodes were readily available to those most likely to be internet savvy. From torrents to pirate streams, the internet continues to challenge the entire regional media rights structure. And, as The L.A. Complex example may demonstrate, piracy and other internet-enabled region dodging activity can directly impact the perceived popularity and thus advertising revenue associated with what had once been protected content. Of course, it may just not be a popular show.

Speculation about the L.A. Complex aside, what we can say is that #NBCFailers did act similarly to #CNNFailers by suggesting alternative information streams. Instead of Al Jazeera, #NBCFailers linked to instructions for using virtual private networks (VPNs), such as hidemyass.com’s service, so that American viewers could watch streaming Olympics coverage from other rights-holding broadcasters (RHBs) such as the BBC.

There are countless anecdotal posts on Twitter and the blogosphere about how VPN’s enabled American viewers to access the London Olympics live and uncut. But, there’s little hard data at this point. The potential for a region-hopping Olympics is there, but NBC certainly isn’t in The L.A. Complex territory just yet. There’s no need to bow to audience demands just yet and with the news that NBC might just make a small profit on the London 2012 deal, there’s little concern about advertising revenue. So, what’s all the fuss about a small group of audience rebels? I’d like to suggest 2 reasons for taking these VPN and Twitter enabled-folks seriously.

1 – Political Economy: There are clear vulnerabilities in the IOC’s nation and region based global broadcasting structures. Broadcasting rights account for 47% of Olympic marketing revenue. NBC’s calculated risk to ignore the #NBCFail community’s complaints resulted in barely measurable collateral damage and thus a small band of rebel viewers may not have cost the network and, by extension, the IOC a penny this summer. But, the next Summer Games isn’t until Rio 2016 and four years is a lifetime in the digital age. What was a cleverly calculated risk in 2012 may well be damaging hubris in 2016 if NBC doesn’t change its broadcasting strategy. And, the IOC is all too aware of this, as evidenced by the ever-tighter stranglehold of licensing-related lawsuits and other actions to secure and monetize Games broadcasts. When else, for instance, do you find significant portions of the web presence of a global broadcaster such as the BBC off-limits to the majority of the world?

As we move from London 2012 to Sochi 2014, Rio 2016 and Pyeongchang 2018, our collective technical prowess will develop and the IOC, NBC and other RHBs are going to have to explore ways to work in a media sphere without sharply patrolled regions.

2 – The Global Public Sphere: Olympics researchers have long analyzed the hegemonic effects of Olympic broadcasts. My own Olympics research is indebted to Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, whose Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, presents a systematic analysis of the components of significant media events. While the term media events is applied quite liberally and too often loosely in Olympics research (NBC’s 2012 Games coverage, for instance, doesn’t meet Dayan and Katz’ live coverage criterion), the general argument is compelling. The 2012 Olympics can be understood as television with a halo, a ubiquitous broadcast endowed with symbolic significance that unites viewers. Dayan and Katz suggest that contests such as the Olympics achieve hegemony though emphasizing rationality. They emphasize global, as opposed to national, community because we all, regardless of what passports we hold, recognize and abide by the same rules of the game. This is evidenced not just by how regularly enemy nations abide by fair play rules, but by the response when those rules appear to be violated. Witness the nationalist frenzy in Canada around a controversial call by a referee in the Olympic women’s soccer match this summer or how quickly questions about the age of Chinese gymnasts in the 2008 Olympics became the focal point for quasi-racist nationalistic chest pounding in the American blogosphere.

Of course, this notion of a rationality-fueled global comunitas can be disputed or at least modified by operationalizing the insights of Clifford Geertz, whose writing on deep play presents sports as the symbolic identification of the viewer with the athlete or team and, by extension, the nation. I suggest that while both hegemonic rationality and deep play are certainly on display in the Games, the mixture tends to be uneven as nationalistic fervor tends to edge out most borderless fellow-feeling. National comunitas, though, is a powerful effect of the Olympic Games, as politicians from Ronald Reagan to Hu Jintao have understood and capitalized on.

We should then understand the Olympics not as a single global telecast, but as a single mega-event that generates multiple national interpretations. These national media events certainly have hegemonic properties, but, as I’ve suggested in my research on the Olympic Games, they are perhaps best understood as facilitating national discourse about shared ideas, policies and other issues. That is, the Games can be understood as constructing, contributing or reinforcing national if not global public space. But, in order for this function to be meaningful at the level of national public space, citizens should encounter the same interpretation of an Olympic Games.

No matter how diluted, the NBC coverage opened a space for over 200 million Americans to share the same stories and, by extension, mediate on shared values, aspirations and, in some cases, obfuscations. But, if more and more access BBC or other RHB coverage in the future, then the national public sphere potential of the Games may well dwindle as NBC’s Olympic stories will inform smaller and smaller portions of the discourse of America’s imagined community.

One might be inspired to assume that such a fate would spell the end of the Olympic Games as opportunities for community. At the national level, maybe. But audiences aren’t shutting their eyes. They’re simply looking elsewhere.

Perhaps we’re actually seeing the birth of a new Olympics-inspired global comunitas. Perhaps, instead of promoting global hegemony through rational contests, we’ll see more Olympic audience members exploring a variety of deep play discourses. And, perhaps the rebel audiences for future Games will creatively engage with these different national interpretations of the media event. Imagine viewing and becoming simultaneously caught up in the thrilling narrative of victory and the agonistic narrative of defeat in the same athletic contest. Or, the jarring effect of realizing that your nation’s proudest athletic achievements don’t even register in the Olympic narratives of other nations. It’s a simple notion, really: global community via perspective as opposed to a slavish respect for rationality, a communal identity informed by a collage of conflicting and complementary national narratives, Olympic citizenship as mash-up.

This summer, #NBCFail remained a long distance from global comunitas via mash-up. But, the seeds, however humble, are there. If they continues to grow, rebel audiences have the potential to challenge not just the political economy of Olympic broadcasts, but also the role of media events in global citizenship.

Dr. Christopher J. Finlay is an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. In his recent research, he has analyzed the place of the Olympic Games as a tool for public discourse and citizenship at the local, national and global level. He is currently working on a series of related projects examining the influence of new media on the production and reception of the 2012 Games and Games-related content. Christopher’s interest in new media and citizenship extends to other indices of identity as well. He is developing a project exploring the impact of mobile media and location-based services on the cultural geography of homosexuality in the United States. Christopher received a BA (political science) from Simon Fraser University, an MA (political science) from Carleton University and an MA and PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

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