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What would Marshall McLuhan think of #NBCfail?


August 2, 2012

Doug Hadden, VP Products

I wonder how senior media executives in the 21st Century seemingly ignore the more obvious lessons by the late Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was often touted as the guru of media in the 1960s, so you would assume that executives at NBC might have clued on by now. Apparently not. In the social media advanced stage of the global village where time and place are becoming meaningless and information is speeding ever faster – NBC decided to re-introduce the latency of time and place in Olympic coverage. The twitter hash tag #NBCfail has become a mainstream media phenomena.

1. Television is Obsolete by McLuhan’s Definition

Obsolete does not mean that television is not used or has no value. It means that television is no longer leading change. TV has moved from figure to ground. Social media is now figure. This means that television has become content for social media. And, that television has changed in the wake of social media – in the same way that the telegraph led to the detective novel. (Telegraph brought people closer together and more involved, hence the need to make novels more involved.) Cable news and reality television seem to be phenomena for obsolescence: competing against the always-on social media with something more sensational.

Lesson: NBC Olympic coverage should have thought of social first, TV second.

2. Tribalization of Television

Television networks compete to gain advertising by delivering eye balls to advertisers. Analog and digital television operates in limited environments or “channels”. Digital media, outside of cable and satellite, operates with almost unlimited numbers of channels. This means that social media users can join “tribes” of people whose interests are on the “long tail” whether it’s water polo or modern pentathlon. (Or, in a country like the United States where there are many immigrants, following the sports start of the “old country”.) McLuhan saw electronic technology as enabling social “retribalization“.

Lesson: NBC should have enabled micro delivery on the internet – and monetized it rather than forcing users to have cable accounts.

3. Specialization and Narrative

McLuhan saw media modernizing to a “post literate” society. I think that McLuhan would have understood the power of twitter and the use of hash tags. NBC has tried to introduce “time and place” into Olympic coverage by presenting an American narrative or context. This is a specialist view that Americans are somehow unable to understand the narrative to many sporting events. “The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy.”

Lesson: NBC should have focused on content delivery and left context to social media – let people find out more about what interests them by providing links on the NBC web site that hyperlinks to additional information.

4. Medium is the Message

NBC and the IOC are attempting to control information deployment. The IOC seems to be more concerned about official sponsorship revenue than anything else. Both are controlling ownership of Olympic content. The message is that people don’t matter – sponsors do. And, that repurposing, sampling, mashing up etc. is to be avoided.

Lesson: NBC should enable repurposing of data to create viral social media. Instead, content is tightly controlled – and the only thing that has gone viral is the poor quality and lateness of NBC coverage.

5. Violence and Identity

McLuhan saw sports as an expression of violence under controlled circumstance – with rules. He also saw violence as caused by identity: “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity…So loss of identity is something that happens in rapid change.” NBC seems to have adopted the notion that the Olympics are American-centric. The site (which is meager and burdened by advertising) highlights 5 videos. 4 videos are about American achievements and 1 videos how to get live (with a liberal definition of “live”) free (with a liberal definition of “free”).

Lesson: It is appropriate to highlight the achievements of athletes from your home country. NBC should provide more coverage of athletes from other countries. It might provide some empathy – or some context about how we’re more similar than different.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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