One good thing about persistent evils is that they are instructive. We can generally rely that human ingenuity will continue to exert itself against the things that irritate us. Years pass, the enemy changes form, reinvents itself. But, given enough time, and a little luck, sometimes we win, and even evils of long standing fall asunder.
It helps, also, if occasionally evil rears its head nice and high, and gives us all a good, close look.
Even before I joined the ranks of the frustrated millions this weekend who tried to watch the London Olympics in anything close to a rational manner, I found myself thinking a lot lately about advertising, at the big picture level, of course :) Where is advertising going? How has the nature of advertising changed as we’ve experienced technological innovation in the last fifty years? The goal of trying to answer questions of the sort would be to arrive at some sense of where we are in the war against advertising. That sounds sensationalist, I know. But to declare that we are, or have been, at war with advertising is not really so controversial. It’s just my way of acknowledging that everybody pretty much hates ads. We can admit that out loud, I think. We tolerate ads, at best, as an inescapable evil. And though we may not often surface our contempt for ads to the conscious level, we each contribute to the daily fight against advertising in our own personal ways, by turning the page, by scrolling down, by changing the channel, by simply denying our attention in hundreds of different, progressively-adaptive ways. We also act collectively; and it’s in our swirling, mindless masses that we both perpetuate advertising at large (by continuing to use and consume ad-supported things), while continuously exerting our own transformative influence upon it.
That we do not altogether deny our attention, though we are always irritated by the presence of ads, proves we have at least some capacity to endure them. It has been generally true, throughout the modern age and across many mediums, that our capacity to tolerate advertising is related to the degree to which the ads detract from our enjoyment of the ad-supported thing, whatever that is. A pocket calculator you got for free because there’s a logo on the back is easy to enjoy. But that changes if the ads appear in place of your numerical result when you hit the equal sign, and you have to press a key before you can see your answer.
Ads can be almost completely non-intrusive or they can be very intrusive. For almost any ad-supported “thing” you can think of, there is a level of advertising intrusiveness that would go too far, that would detract too much from our enjoyment of the ad-supported thing.
I got inspired recently to start thinking about the point at which ads intrude too much on the ad-supported thing by Dalton Caldwell, CEO of App.net, and the conversation he started on the subject of a paid Twitter alternative. It is a powerful idea that the software we use the most could be made so much better for (Us) its users if we liberated it from having to serve the needs of advertisers.
This made me realize, more generally, that we have gone beyond the stage where ads are merely encroaching more on the ad-supported thing. What we are moving towards now is having the thing itself transformed to better support the ads.
Behold the 2012 London Summer Olympic games, and observe the hand of evil. That people are unhappy with the manner in which NBC (et al) have made the games available is, of course by now a well-known understatement.
Twitter has yet again emerged as the social platform where people go to really tell you how they feel. You can follow the live hate ticker at #NBCFail. For all its democratic utility, however, Twitter appears to have capitulated to censorship. But that is another kind of evil altogether, for another time.
The reason for the avalanche of hate on NBC boils down to this:
"The easiest way to understand why NBC wants to force you to watch the Olympics in prime time is to stop thinking about what audiences want and start thinking about advertisers want. NBC paid about $1.2 billion for the rights to broadcast these games. To make back most of that money, NBC needs to sell extremely expensive commercials. The most valuable commercials aren’t sold online to be viewed on browser tabs on 12-inch display screens. They’re sold on prime time TV. So NBC has a clear interest in funneling our Olympic attention into the prime-time TV slot."
What’s interesting and alarming to me in this (as a notable moment in our struggle against Ads) is that we have seen a cherished event of Global significance not merely encumbered by advertising, but transformed by advertising into something less.
As anyone who’s been watching the games can attest, what we’ve been given by NBC is not so much the Olympics as it is the “Olympics Show on NBC”. Let’s be sure to digest the full magnitude of this change, and its implications for the future. Make no mistake about it; gone is the sense of commitment, the sense of responsibility to bring us the Games in a certain way. What we have now is a brand new production layer that now sits between us and the event. And the aims of that production layer completely disrespect our expectations for consuming a live multi-day sporting event. Gone is the expectation that you should follow a competition from the beginning to its end, that you should get to see most if not all of the salient competitors. Gone is the simple idea that events should be shown in the order they occurred, such that the context of the competition can be understood as you watch it.
What we are left with is just ad-optimized content, the insidious consequence of advertising imperatives winning over all other considerations. This is far worse than just ads intruding. This is outright destruction. It does, however, beg the question what, if any, rights do we have to demand that the integrity of live event coverage not be disrespected in these ways? Maybe those rights have already been sold.
I hope that the public backlash from these choices will reverberate with the IOC, and that they will in the future seek to better protect the sanctity and absolute importance of the Olympic Games.
I’ll give the last word to Robert Scoble, because he hit on what is ultimately our best response to these unwelcome changes:
“I really hate NBC for tape delaying the Olympics. I am getting back at it, though. I DVR’d the show and am skipping the commercials.”
Losing the Olympics on TV as we’ve enjoyed them for decades may be unavoidable, but I’ll be damned if they force me to watch the ads :)