Questioning The Price Of Selection

The divergent power of selection was once the domain of television and newspapers that fed the masses the news and interpretation they deemed fit. The seemingly pervasive Internet has joined their ranks in unexpected ways, as evidenced by the Olympics--and that is the fault of consumers as much as it is NBC Universal.

NBCU is jealously guarding its nearly $900 million investment in U.S. rights to the Beijing games by rigidly controlling access to live and delayed events on TV and online, where consumers are accustomed to real-time events and communications.

That NBC, like the Chinese government, lauds its control of the Internet and the flow of information is a delusional outgrowth of walled gardens on branded Web sites constructed to preserve image--and in NBC's case, advertising as much as content. It's one thing to own and protect copyrighted rights to content; it's another to manage it in ways that selfishly defy reason and consumer rights.

That clearly was the case with NBC's decision not to allow West Coast viewers to watch Michael Phelps compete live for his eighth gold medal Saturday evening--forcing determined fans to find alternative live feeds online, mostly on foreign Web sites. NBC's rationale (the same as for its taped delay of China's tightly orchestrated opening ceremonies) is the need to maximize profits and ad dollars from television prime-time ratings--where 99% of the Olympic viewing, not surprisingly, has occurred. Who cares that West Coast viewers just wanted to be part of a rare celebration of national pride in real time? NBCU's bottom line is more important than the Olympics as a unique opportunity to expand universal respect and understanding. So much for celebrating the likes of Jamaica's Usain Bolt winning the gold by setting a new world record for the 100m dash; or watching, listening to and learning from the international attendees and athletes. The goal here is NBCU being able to crow about the power of network TV, as long as big events are manipulated and blocked from the Internet--at least for the initial 12 hours.



NBCU's idea to use its new digital capabilities is allowing consumers to relive Olympics moments and points of view that the company and the Chinese government choose to make available, knowing full well that there is painfully little offsetting cyber perspective. But that's not the only way that interactive media by and for the people is taking a giant step backward.

With NBC granted more generous access to people and places in and around Beijing than most other members of the world press, it is incumbent upon the network to provide more enterprising, balanced coverage of important matters and issues beyond the games. However, viewers are not getting a complete picture of the games, their many facets or the host country. Maybe NBCU is cautiously waiting to explore the enigma of China after the games are over in order to avoid jeopardizing its standing there. For the most part, it's the world of China and the Olympics according to an oppressive, neurotic Chinese government and an all-too-compliant NBCU, fearful of on-air sanctions and possibly jeopardizing corporate parent General Electric's continued industrial Asian business.

The power of selection is everywhere--and something we all should be (but aren't) aware of in a rapidly emerging digital world in which we already take for granted access to all things, all the time. Truth be told, so much will never be seen or heard--as much a result of individuals as corporate monoliths and governments.

At the other end of the spectrum is the power of selection--which is squarely in the hands of consumers, who may not realize the long-term implications of their choices. It could be as simple as the fading popularity of bound school yearbooks with adolescents now entrusting their personal written and pictorial memories to Facebook. Purdue is among the many universities that no longer publish a bound yearbook, and gets little demand for DVD versions.

Fine for now, maybe--but how will they pull out the memory book decades from now to give their children the old high school tour de force? Even if it is all saved to a disc, flash drive or server in the clouds, all it will take is a major technology shift (remember VHS cassettes and 8mm film?) or criminal tampering with the relatively fragile and deep Internet system to wipe out a lifetime of memories and documents. While the traditional school yearbook also is selective in its composition, it likely provides more of an all-around snapshot of school days than a select personal collection of random comments and photos.

But, then, so much of our recorded impressions, research, information and communication is floating around in cyberspace rather than in a tangible physical form that promises permanence, although it can be destroyed or lost. Complacent consumers still smitten by interactivity seem all too willing to accept slivers of digital fact and recollection siphoned through individual, corporate, media, marketing, political and algorithmic filters.

The point here is recognizing and understanding the ultimate implications of the selective, fleeting nature of written and visual material that shapes our impressions, actions and memories. It can be as altered as it is incomplete in a viral as well as a physical form (such as pre-Internet news reports, books, letters, films, and TV programs). Nothing is ever really balanced or forever; but it's a mistake to think that viral is somehow better. We're beginning to understand its deficiencies and vulnerabilities.

Hearing NBCU and GE executives boast about utilizing and learning from their use of digital technologies during these Olympic Games is akin to digital consumers proclaiming that the Web is the be-all and end-all. No way, on both counts. It is what we allow others to make it--or not. It is what we demand it should be.

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