15 August 2007

another early warning signal

I dont' want to forget mentioning this National Football League news in a previous edition of the Boston Globe:
In a high-stakes struggle for control of NFL news in cyberspace, the league has prohibited news organizations from airing more than a total of 45 seconds per day of online audio or video of team personnel from its stadiums. The action could foreshadow other major sports leagues imposing similar restrictions.
First the NCAA kicks a reporter out of the stadium for live-blogging a baseball game. Now this. No, they're not exactly the same thing, but both events resemble the canary in the coal mine to me. Communications technology innovation is dramatically outpacing even industry's ability to control content, to the point where sports leagues are now simply clamping down. After all, there are billions of dollars at stake. What they provide journalists is only the beginning.

The leagues and the networks know they have to develop new ways to make content more accessible and interesting to meet the demands (and abilities) of the increasingly sophisticated consumer. But I suspect the "innovation discussions" aren't actually about technology - they're understandably focused on property rights.

Of course, sports leagues ARE quite innovative in communications technology -for example, they 've struck commercial agreements with videogame developers to keep their brands fresh. But the tech-based innovation only occurs once the licensing and distribution questions have been resolved. Innovation happens everywhere now, and the lines of who "owns" content that takes place in venues of public accomodation, is broadcast over public airwaves, and is reported by journalists are blurred more every day.

From a reputation standpoint, the property rights vs. technology innovation debate carries significant risks for the leagues (and the networks they own) as well. The recording industry was, arguably, well within its rights to protect its intellectual property from peer-to-peer networks, but its reputation took a serious hit.

Sports leagues are, in effect, starting to tell journalists which technology tools they can and can't use when they do their jobs. If they continue this course of action, the leagues must prepare for more criticism and scrutiny from journalists.

If they continue dictating those terms to consumers, they need to be careful, because consumers will either innovate their own trapdoors to content, or worse - find something else that interests them. The NFL is currently much more popular than, say, the National Hockey League or the National Basketball Association. They need to think about how they protect their intellectual property without erecting virtual tollbooths that separate content from consumers. There are a lot of options out there.

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