Balking at Pay Webcasts

Ah yes, it’s opening day in Baltimore. The birds are singing, the bats are cracking, and the streets are choked with hordes (OK, considering the Orioles’ record of late, reasonable numbers) of fans on their way to Camden Yards.

But I’m on a plane, missing it all.

Of course, if I’d actually arrived at my hotel in time to catch the game (the Os won, by the way), I could have tuned in to a free Webcast from WBAL, my local radio station, to catch the action as it happened, broadcast by my home-team announcer.

Free, at least for now.

If Major League Baseball (MLB) and RealNetworks have their way, I would have had to pay $9.95 for a subscription to hear what my fellow Baltimoreans are hearing for free over the radio waves.

Big deal, you say? Boo-hoo, you say? Hmm… maybe I’ll chalk that up to the fact that you may be a Red Sox fan. That’s understandable. But those of you who don’t care who wins should still care that a major organization is making such a boneheaded mistake when it comes to understanding how the Web fits into people’s lives.

What’s the Net Really For?

Forget the obvious MLB money-grubbing aspect. After years of paying $7 bucks for hot dogs (and having to take out a mortgage to add a beer), we fans have become used to being gouged in order to pay players’ ever-increasing salaries and MLB’s ever-growing licensing fees. I can deal with that. That’s not the problem. The problem is that these folks (and, I suspect, a lot of others) don’t get what the Net’s really good for.

By creating a new pay channel to hear something that’s free over the radio waves, MLB is throwing up its hands at the advertising possibilities of the Web. “The heck with it,” it’s saying. “We’re not going to muck around with business models that we don’t think are working. We know that people are listening to this stuff, and we want our cut.”

And people really are listening. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, 35 percent of Americans used streaming media in December 2000. The same organization found that home broadband access increased 150 percent in 2000, meaning that even more people are going to start consuming more bandwidth-intensive streaming media.

By creating this new subscription model, MLB is trying to create a new channel for content, a channel divorced from what we’re used to — being able to hear on the Net games originally broadcast over the radio. This has the effect of taking something that works for local broadcasters, something that allows them to reach a wider audience, and turning it into a new commodity that isn’t integrated with the local radio content provider.

How Does the Net Work?

So why should you care? Because, as many dot-bombs have discovered, the Internet works best when it fits directly into people’s lives. When it doesn’t ask them to give up their old ways but rather provides additional value and service. Many failed dot-coms believed that as soon as they put out their cybershingles, years of real-world habits would go flying out the window as everyone flocked to the next “next big thing.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in most cases. While technology changes quickly, people change slowly, so slowly that the money was often burned up before critical mass was reached. People don’t want to stop doing what they’ve always been doing unless what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working. But in this case, listening to local streaming Webcasts has been working.

If anything, the number of listeners will decline. Sure, some expatriate loyal fans will cough up the $10 bucks to listen, but a lot of folks who listened at work because they didn’t have a radio or listened because they were mildly interested won’t pay. This hurts not only the local stations but also the advertisers — advertisers who previously were receiving a larger share of the audience than mere radio waves could reach. Worst of all, this proposal adds no additional value and creates yet another example in the public mind of the Net being some “extra” thing in their lives that they may be able to do without.

What Should Be Done?

Instead of creating an artificial (and ultimately self-defeating) barrier to users, MLB and broadcasters ought to put their collective noggins together to figure out how to add value and increase measurable advertising through streaming media. Some technologies (such as Lightningcast) permit targeted advertising to be inserted into streaming media, allowing local ads to be streamed to far-off places. RealNetworks has technologies to fit ads into the picture. There are plenty of solutions.

Overall, as the Web becomes a normal (and, dare I say it, a slightly boring) fixture in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, we should realize that the Web isn’t everything. It’s just one piece of the total media puzzle. As marketers and content providers, we need to figure out how we can fit into the lives of our audiences — not put new barriers in their way in a desperate, shortsighted grab for revenue.

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