Thursday, August 20, 2009

SEC New Media Policy: Reaction to Upheaval

As the SEC's new-media policies made the front page of the New York Times today, it seems like it is the appropriate time to weigh in. A couple of thoughts (and see the UPDATE at the end, per Rovell's post on this issue this morning):

The "revised" policy revolves around "fan" (not-for-profit) use versus "commercial" use.

That is why you can write your real-time Facebook or Twitter update -- or even post a photo or video clip -- without drawing the ire of the SEC. It is both logistical and common-sensical. Besides, your fans are your best (and cheapest) form of advertising.

Does the SEC have a point about game video? To a point. Rights-holders pay a lot of money for game video -- arguably the one piece of "uncommoditizable" content left in sports media.

Anyone could say what happened. Anyone could post the 3-5 "highlights" of the game. Anyone can gather or repurpose widely available post-game quotes. Anyone can have an opinion. What anyone can't have is the full (or expanded) video version of the game itself. That value is worth paying for and that value is worth protecting.

I would offer two "out" clauses to the SEC's policy:

(1) "Fair use": If I am a news (or even news-ish) or blog outlet trying to sincerely serve my audience with a very limited piece of intellectual property, that should be OK. (Where it gets murkier is when those outlets are cynically trying to monetize that IP on the backs of someone else financing it.)

I am only talking about actual game footage -- things like post-game press conferences or on-field interviews conducted by the outlets themselves should be available to all (mainly because they are entirely commodified). Still, read to the bottom for more on this...

(2) "Fan use": If you have no interest in driving revenue from the photo or video -- but, say, merely want to create a cool mash-up that displays your love for the team and lets fans rally around some cool game footage -- I think the rules can and should be more relaxed. This includes bloggers who have a blog for fun, not as their business.

The reality is this: Open is almost always better than closed, as it relates to fan interaction with your product.

What is the distinction between "fan" use and "commercial" use? This goes back a long time; I can remember back in 1995 and 1996, when the NBA made a huge stink about "owning" game statistics in real-time in any format, which 15 years later, seems as absurd as it sounded back then. The same thing has come up recently with who "owns" players' fantasy stats -- which the courts have ruled in favor of "open access."

But I find it hard to listen to media companies complaining about wanting unfettered access to uncommoditizable content owned by rights-holders out of one side of their mouths, then scheming/freaking out about how to make money from it out of the other side.

The SEC's initial policy was ridiculous, mostly for the way it alienated the fans -- not the way it alienated the media. Like a good company in the customer-friendly age of new media, the league quickly iterated when faced with a (reasonable) backlash.

I contend that the policy remains in "beta" form (even if the SEC has no idea what "beta" means.)

Let's see how things go over the first few weeks of the season, then iterate again accordingly -- based on some compromise between reasonableness and rights-ownership. (And I don't mean to suggest those are the ends of the spectrum.)

I am going to be charitable and offer the SEC at least some props for attempting to create a policy here, then modifying it based on good feedback. Even if their policy was tone-deaf to the realities of media today (and tomorrow).

I am also going to say that the world is only getting more open, not less. And that "control" of your product is less about dictating specific terms than offering a wide framework for everyone to work within. It will ultimately help your product.

Let's be clear: It is a much bigger problem for media companies and others who want to make money off the SEC than it is a problem for fans (or bloggers) who just want to talk about the SEC. (Read the update at the end of this post for more on this.)

Once again, it comes back to the dramatic change in the underlying dynamics:

The SEC will find it relatively easy (and of long-term value) to "go direct" to fans with their product (particularly if they can double-dip by signing up paying rights-holders).

The folks with the real issue are the traditional (media) "gate-keepers" who historically have charged (either sponsors or subscribers) for the privilege of mediating the relationship, even if they haven't paid for the rights to the product itself.

Yes, it is incumbent upon the SEC to iterate its own policy and business strategy, based on reactions from fans and media. But the media must iterate its OWN business, too.

Locking out the media won't work, obviously, and the media surely has the power to generate incremental changes, as they have and will continue.

But -- based on the SEC's reaction -- the real power is actually in the hands of fans.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: CNBC's Darren Rovell has an absolute must-read about this issue, and he makes the point that no one else has really brought up: The SEC's campaign against unauthorized use of in-stadium photos and videos by "bloggers" is, as I see it, a straw man with no straw.

First, I'm not even sure how many of a team's good bloggers are actually in the stadium, rather than at home. (Watching at home not only provides the best angles, but the best way to post blog updates and reactions, both immediately and for the high-quality post-game posts that the blog's audience is going to demand.)

Second, even if they are at the stadium, the team's good bloggers are not wasting their time or energy taking a bad digital or cell-phone photo or trying to frame up their Flip video to catch the play of the game. They are watching the game.

Give the bloggers a little credit: They know that mainstream media will do this for them and it is -- at best -- of peripheral value to their audience, who get those photos/video elsewhere; the bloggers' job -- how they built the audience -- is on the analysis, not the photo or video footage. Their audience has been built on great analysis, which can only come from watching the game -- not worrying about snapping in-stadium photos or video.

As I pointed out to Darren: Cynical Web sites that use crappy self-made photos and videos from the stadium will fail in two ways:

(1) Their multimedia will never be as good as the photos or video fans can get elsewhere, from professional multimedia outfits with the rights and expertise to take good photo and video. (And everyone agrees that unauthorized use of those photos/video is wrong.)

(2) Fans want added value, not a cynical attempt to get them to click on a Google ad or a gambling ad. Fans will ultimately abandon these sites if they don't offer quality analysis. In-game photos and video are simply not enough of a differentiator.

I'm just not sure there's a "there" there.

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