Culture, Technology — August 2, 2012 8:30 am

The Olympics and Your Money, But Not Really At The Same Time

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The Olympics are all about your money. This column is about both the Olympics and your money.

SEPARATELY.

Is your mind blown? As a guy who believes strongly in the power of the written word, I hope so. As a humble tech columnist and human who believes in the brainpower and common sense of his audience, I doubt it.

Alas, here we go.

FIRST, THE OLYMPICS

NPR tells me there’s a hashtag circulating on Twitter: #NBCfail. If you are an NBC executive, this is not good news.

The good news, NBC Executive, is that you’re still making money hand over fist. According to Warren Olney‘s “Which Way LA,” the splendid radio program from which my hashtag intelligence comes, NBC spent about $1.8 billion to get the exclusive broadcasting rights to the Olympics. Apparently they announced today that they’ll recoup that investment in ad dollars.

The root of the hashtag has been a series of frustrations NBC has dealt to its viewers: annoying commentators at the opening ceremonies. An interview with Michael Phelps broadcast over a segment of the ceremonies on NBC that remembered the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London. The inability for many fans to watch events live as they happen and the selectivity of the primetime tape-delayed broadcasts.

Let’s look briefly at the factors involved here: NBC paid a lot of money for the games. NBC needs a huge audience to make that investment worthwhile, because a huge audience is the only way they can charge huge dollar figures for ads. To get the huge audience, they make decisions to make the games as palatable as possible to the lowest common denominator of that audience: they have commentators crack dumb jokes. They remove the bad feelings a tribute to terrorism victims would engender by erasing the tribute. They put the most interesting things in primetime because that’s when people watch TV.

These are decisions based on the sizable economic imperatives posed to NBC. But there is, in good ol’ 2012, a new imperative competing with NBC’s economic interest. We’ll call it the Instant Gratification Imperative.

It’s tempting to call the IGI the “I want it for free” Imperative, but it’s not that. Twenty-first century consumers have shown time and again they are willing to pay for media, even when accustomed to getting things for free–iTunes came about after Napster, not the other way around. Wikileaks is actually closer to the exemplar of the movement than anything music-related. The web (or large sections of it) doesn’t mind paying for things anywhere near as much as it minds filters and inconveniences. If it’s available somewhere, the web wants it now, and the way it was when it was created, and without hassle.

NBC’s exclusivity and its corresponding ability to dictate nonsense to its audience runs afoul of the IGI, and its brand is tarnished by it. This is a shame, especially in light of One Shining Example of the way it could work: CBS’s handling of NCAA March Madness.

If there’s an organization more concerned with profit than the International Olympic Committee, it’s the NCAA. Similarly, CBS is a major network paying for the (very expensive) rights to deliver all facets of a sporting event to its audience, even though much of the time those facets may be going on simultaneously. They’ve solved the problem brilliantly with NCAA March Madness On Demand, a system with a flat fee up front (it was $3.99 for the entire tournament this year, if memory serves) that allows customers access to any game as it happens live.

NBC’s app for the Olympics forces on would-be viewers an arcane model that flies in the face of everything the IGI would dictate. You have to be a subscriber to a pay-TV service in order to watch videos live. That’s absurd: why not take the money of non-subscribers for a flat rate–I bet you could charge double or triple what March Madness charges–and thereby add all-important eyeballs to the viewership figures you quote to advertisers? CBS’s model proves it can be done with a major sporting event and NBC seems lame for not being able to match or surpass that model on a bigger stage.

It’s an insult on top of an injury, and NBC is no Kerri Strug.

AND NOW, YOUR MONEY

Briefly here–your financial life changed yesterday, and odds are you missed it. Almost all new smartphones are shipping with Near Field Communications (NFC) chips these days. NFC tech allows your phone to make payments linked to a credit card system. If you’ve seen Mastercard PayPass terminals at McDonald’s or Rite Aid, those stations use NFC.

The foremost purveyor of NFC in phones in the United States to date is Google. The app that controls it is called Google Wallet, and it was hamstrung until now by a system that only worked with a very few Mastercard-powered credit cards and Google’s own prepaid virtual card.

Well, no more. As of yesterday, the system works with all major credit and debit cards, thanks to an end-around whereby Google routes your Visa or Amex transaction through a virtual Mastercard. It’s a huge play in the world of mobile payments, where the likes of Verizon were hustling to get their own NFC systems up and running to compete with El Goog. That was a lot more likely in a world where Google was limited to one or two Mastercards; now that the gates are open to all cards, Google may have struck a dominant, decisive blow before the contest got going in earnest.

And you thought the only boxing going on was at the Olympics.

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