The Real Olympics

While tonight’s TV audience (what there is of it) is tuning in to the Democratic National Convention, journalists are looking around the corner to the Next Big Thing, which happens to be the Olympic Games. It’s going to be very exciting. But the big stories will not be on the playing field.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is trying to enforce a 15-hour news blackout on its events. That’s a total, complete, “we won’t tell you what happened” news blackout. The blackout is aimed (where else) at the Internet.

The reasoning goes back to my hometown of Atlanta, home of the 1996 Centennial Games. Most events took place during the day, others during the early evening. Kerri Strug broke her little leg near dinnertime. NBC viewers didn’t see it until nearly 11 p.m. But the web (and rival broadcasters) broke the news of her vault as it happened. This had a negative impact on NBC’s audience.

The problem is worse this time because of the time difference. Let’s say Kerri’s successor makes an identical leap at a similar time of day. That’s 3 a.m. EDT. NBC will want to hold that footage and the result until the end of its prime-time coverage, 20 hours away. (That’s 17 hours for those of you on the West Coast.)

So no web sites not even ESPN.com or CBS.SportsLine are getting press credentials to this Olympics. IBM paid $200 million in cash and services to run Olympics.com. What this means is that news coverage (not just broadcast coverage, but news coverage) has been sold the seller is now trying to enforce that contract.

The question is whether this will work. My guess is it won’t. Newspapers and TV stations will still get credentials the results will still trickle out. Once they get out, they’ll be spread around the world. NBC will see the same impact on its ratings as if online news organizations had been permitted onto the field.

The idea of “broadcast rights” has already been problematic in the age of the Internet. A broadband web site can become virtually indistinguishable from a TV station, so the question becomes how far the rights a key asset can extend. During an event, the rights holder has an exclusive, but in most cases, coverage (even the delivery of highlights packages) can begin as soon as the event is over.

The IOC is trying to extend this definition beyond all reason. Essentially, it’s saying that broadcast rights extend until the broadcaster has shown (or decided not to show) the footage, and that these rights extend to “any description of the event” including news coverage.

Unless the Internet successfully defies the IOC, it will be dangerous for everyone. Imagine if Major League Baseball and the NFL, NBA, and NHL could license and control news coverage of their sports.

You don’t think they want to they’re already trying to. Press passes have already been seized from news organizations that ran stories team owners didn’t like. The fact they were given back doesn’t change the precedent.

What if one of the political parties then offered “exclusive” rights to its convention to the highest bidder? When news becomes entertainment, where are the lines drawn?

If you think the fight between the RIAA and Napster was nasty, wait until this one gets going. Now that will be an Olympic event! I’m just hoping we get a chance to cover it.

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