#NBCFail and the new Heidi Game (updated)

I have been watching the olympics faithfully, but not on NBC. It’s one of the unexpected benefits of visiting my homeland, Nicaragua. Unlike NBC, our local licensee, Canal 10, is showing the London games live, and though their commercial breaks are often clumsy, at least they’re not the subject of a widespread backlash, nor has anyone from Canal 10 taken to Twitter to complain about whinny viewers. Nope, that was Vivian Schiller, NBC’s Chief Digital Officer.

I understand tape delays. It’s like Les Moonves says, if you don’t use the tape delay, you wouldn’t have anything to show during prime time. If you make your money from selling commercials, prime time is where you want to show your premium content. The thing is, though, that you can still monetize the olympics while airing the signature events live, and without infuriating your audience. In Canada, CTV is doing just that. Its live telecast of the opening ceremony broke audience records for Canada, just like NBC’s did for the US. The big difference is that while NBC is garnering a lot of ill will from the audience that uses social media, Canadian viewers love CTV. I just wish NBC would stop pretending that tape delays are live. Why not call the olympic prime time coverage what it is, a highlights show?

However, the issue is not just about tape delays. American audiences are using Twitter to complain about NBC’s handling of the olympics as a whole. For instance, their decision to replace Akram Khan’s tribute to the victims of the London bombings of 2005 with an interview with Michael Phelps drew plenty of criticism.

NBC felt the edit was justified, though. It’s something routine, they said. Moreover, they did not stream the opening ceremony because they insist that it was just too complex for the internet. The opener needs context, which their anchors, Meredith Viera, Matt Lauer and Bob Costas would provide . The thing is that the context included memorable gaffes, such as Meredith Viera’s offhand comment about Tim Berners-Lee, and Matt Lauer’s quip about Madagascar. If this was an attempt at humor, Viera and Lauer failed, at least according to those annoyed viewers who took to Twitter.

As if this wasn’t enough, NBC has repeatedly spoiled its own primetime broadcast. The network holds back the main events, such as the Ryan Lochte – Michael Phelps show down in the 400 IM, only to reveal the outcome prior to the telecast. Missy Franklin’s gold medal performance in the pool was likewise spoiled, when the network decided to air a promo of her interview in the Today Show just minutes before showing the actual swim.

Spoling is nothing new. It’s a common activity that has emerged within what Henry Jenkins and others have come to call participatory culture. Spoiling is like a game, a challenge that extends the pleasure that people get out of watching television (see Jenkins, 2006). However, when NBC spoils itself, there is no challenge and no skill required. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how participatory cultures operate online. These are cultures that take shape because of the technologies that allow people to create, share, and debate easily, and to feel that “their contributions matter” (Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robinson, 2009, p 7).

NBC’s heavy handling of criticism on Twitter shows the opposite. The network clearly underestimated the backlash its complaint against Guy Adams would garner. Alerted by Twitter, NBC filed a complaint against Adams, a freelancer for The Independent, and got him  suspended from Twitter  for publishing Gary Zenkel’s email address. Zenkel is the president of NBC Olympics, and Adams encouraged irate tweetizens to email their complaints to this NBC executive. This is a violation of the Terms of Service, according to Twitter, though it is debatable that a corporate email should be considered private information. If it is, discontented twitter users didn’t buy it, and neither did The Independent and other critics. In fact, the entire incident was characterized as censorship of the worse variety, and also as hypocritical. After all, Spike Lee was not banned for tweeting what he thought was George Zimmerman’s home address. Twitter took plenty of flack for its role, and it reinstated and apologized to Adams. NBC rescinded its complaint, and now the network admits that they “didn’t initially understand the repercussions” of their action against Adams. That’s a pretty big admission. It makes me wonder if NBC understands how Twitter operates as a culture.

Granted, the peacock network is achieving its ratings objectives, but it has done so at the expense of the goodwill of some of the most media savvy fans of the olympics. These individuals are part of a new type of culture that has been enabled through our ability to connect, access, and share information. Yes, American audiences are watching NBC, unless there are other choices. Some of the more media savvy viewers are already bypassing NBC altogether. It’s not that hard. Just go to Reddit or Lifehacker, or read Jeff Jarvis’ column and you can learn all about it.

It’s obvious that today’s audiences are more savvy and can become vocal quite easily because the tools to express discontent are readily available. It’s the same tools we use to find out the results of olympic competitions before NBC’s primetime telecast. However, NBC goes on, and I can’t help but wonder if the peacock network is intent on matching the infamous Heidi Game of 1968.

To NBC’s credit, they did apologize for the Heidi Game. As of this writing, they haven’t acknowledged the barrage of negative comments posted on their Facebook page, and the only gesture to the audience, as far as I can tell, is that Jim Bell, executive producer of the olympic telecast, has responded to complaints through Twitter. For instance, here’s what he said about spoiling the results.

It’s a start, but is it enough? Bell also shared this entry from Business Insider on Twitter. I don’t think that something  titled  “Shut your pie-holes, people: NBC’s Olympics Coverage is Perfect” is going to win too many points for NBC. Surprisingly, the thousands of Twitter users availing themselves to the #NBCFail hash tag haven’t latched on to that one.

Let’s just hope that NBC gets better at harnessing social TV for the next olympic games. After all, they did buy the rights until 2020.

Death by Twitter

On Saturday, January 22, Onward State “killed” Joe Paterno. It took two tweets: The tweets have since been removed from Onward State’s feed.  The image above is a screen capture I took from Poyntner’s account of the incident. According to Poyntner, the timeline is as follows: (1) Onward State reports Joe Paterno’s death through twitter. The site subsequently goes down, apparently over flooded by incoming traffic. (2) 94.5 FM breaks the story on its own, but credits no sources. (3) CBS picks up the scent. They tweet a link to Joe Paterno’s obituary on their site.  It’s off to the races at that point, as the Huffington Post, Anderson Cooper, Poyntner, and Breaking News redistributed the story. What do all these sources have in common? None of them tried to confirm the reports before clicking the “tweet” button. Joe Paterno, as it turned out, was not dead yet. Paterno’s son and a spokesman for the Paterno family denied the story.

https://twitter.com/markcviera/statuses/160904588176793601

The question is, how could this happen? Shouldn’t professional journalists know better than to parrot anything from Twitter without checking?

Well, media do know better. As Eric Wemple points out, we should give “Bonus points for all the outlets that didn’t take the bait.” The AP wire, for one, did not take the bait because it couldn’t verify the original report. After all, when your source is Twitter chatter, you should be wary. Didn’t Jon Bon Jovi get the death by twitter treatment last December? As it turned out, Jeffrey Goho, a musician most of us had never even heard of before, started the rumor using Twitter. This time, established media outlets did nothing, that is, until Bon Jovi debunked the Goho’s hoax with a selfie.

So, what’s the difference between the Bon Jovi hoax and Paterno’s death by twitter? What made CBS hurry, when we all know that exaggerated rumors about celebrity deaths are a recurrent theme on twitter?

Here’s one possible answer: It’s all about the source. Granted, I’m not up to date on student run blogs. I had never heard about Onward State. This does not mean that the site isn’t a legitimate news source. Indeed, the site has been profiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Mashable as an up and coming student blog to watch. More ironically, though, US News and World Report described Onward State as being “as new as Joe Paterno is old.” Ouch!

But, what does this tell us about Onward State? It says that, up until the evening of Saturday, January 21 of 2012, Onward State was not seen as a little fringe blog. It was a little blog that could play with the big boys and girls of journalism. Unfortunately, today is January 22 and things have changed. Now, Onward State has become an example of how not to be a journalist.

My colleague, Andrea Duke, characterized Paterno’s death by twitter as one of those moments that remind us of the “whoops power of social media.”  She writes,  “You CANNOT report hearsay.  You CANNOT report assumptions.  You CANNOT report news that may or may not be true JUST to be the first to report it”

Yes, and this is also one of those moments in which we should reconsider how news is reported. We do rely on established news organizations to give us the facts, which means that we trust them to fact check. In this sense, Onward State is not the only outlet at fault. They made a huge mistake, and they have apologized profusely for it. In fact, Onward State has published two accounts of what happened, and how it happened. In one, the site’s founder, Davis Shaver, describes the controversy as “one of the worst moments of my entire life.” In the other one, managing editor Devon Edwards announces his resignation. He writes,

“I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State might be cited by the national media. Today, I sincerely wish it never had been. To all those who read and passed along our reports, I sincerely apologize for having mislead you. To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family, most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we at Onward State caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude. Right now, we deserve all of the criticism headed our way.”

By comparison, this is what Mark Swanson of CBS Sports had to say:

Really? One paragraph is all we get from CBS? That’s unfortunate, and it’s shameful. Sadly, I don’t think anyone expects Mark Swanson to step down as managing editor of CBSSports.com. Fortunately for him, the blame can be shifted to a student run blog, whose own managing editor admits he made a huge mistake.  Edwards writes, “getting it first often conflicts with getting it right.” What’s CBS’ excuse? Why were they more careful about reporting Peyton Manning’s alleged retirement (breaking news, according to Rob Lowe), than when they decided to run the Paterno story? An answer like, “because Paterno was actually dying, and Rob Lowe doesn’t have Manning on speed dial,” does not exempt a news organization from its duty to fact check

Getting it before CNN does not beat getting it right, or at least trying to get it right.

On Sunday, January 22, 2012, Joe Paterno did pass away. Last night’s odd turn of events has become a footnote to a long career. Yes, he had triumphs, and also scandal, but this post isn’t about Joe Paterno’s career. This post is about last night. Frankly, I could not help but think of other times news media has gotten it wrong. I thought about Dewey defeats Truman, but more importantly, this story reminded me of the 2000 election miscall. Four years after one of “the most egregious election-night gaffes in the modern television era,” television news anchors were more than cautious when calling the 2004 election for Mr. Bush.

That probably explains how the Washington Post used Twitter to announce Mr. Paterno’s real death this morning