Thursday, January 06, 2011

The NBA Game Time app and smart TV's trajectory

I swear this will get to a discussion of sports media shortly, so bear with me...

Earlier this month tech aficionados (and journalists) flocked to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Though companies like Apple increasingly bypass CES to announce launches of their newest iSomething (and much of the gadgets previewed at CES will never actually materialize for consumers), the show is, nonetheless, an opportunity for major media and electronics companies to show off their newest wares and make promotional "announcements" (covered as stories in-and-of-themselves by the media).

While I won't pretend to be a tech aficionado or someone that really follows this dimension of the media industry as closely as others, C-Net's Tom Krazit noted that this year's CES saw "an increasing focus on so-called 'smart TVs,' or TVs that can access content from both the Internet and the cable jack or satellite dish." To give you an example of what that would mean for the consumer television experience, here is John C. Abell of Wired's take on Google TV--the smart TV operating system that the new media giant is rolling out:

It’s not about web surfing or e-mailing from your couch, but rather getting easy access to programs off the web as easily as you’d change channels. And, thanks to the broadcasters themselves, a lot of professional content already lives online. In Google’s perfect world you pick up your remote and search for Star Trek and get it, whether it’s on Netflix, your media library or your cable company’s on-demand list. Google gets into your living room with a new way to provide search, and all the ways it has to make money off that.

Google TV, to clarify, is not, itself, a television. It's an operating system that will run on Sony's Internet TVs, Logitech's "Revue" set-top device, and other manufacturer's devices. Much recent media attention to Google TV has focused on release delays and the choice of broadcast networks and video distributors to block their content on Google TV (Michael Learmonth of AdAge provides a fascinating explanation for this blocking); however, a content aspect intriguing from a sports media perspective was an October deal between Google and NBA Digital to bring the league's "NBA Game Time" smartphone app to Google TV for the service's launch. (Note: I'll refer to NBA Digital and the NBA Game Time app as "league" ventures in this piece; in reality, though, NBA Digital is a joint venture of the NBA and Turner Broadcasting System).

NBA Digital's landing an app on Google TV is, perhaps, unsurprising. The league already has a wide set of features for its Game Time mobile app available, employing price discrimination among several add-on options (the free app offers scoreboard and in-game box scores; add-ons of $3.99, $9.99, and $39.99 offer customization, out-of-market radio feeds, and the League Pass TV package, respectively). Further, the league was already heavily invested in Google's Android operating system for its NBA Game Time app; NBA Digital VP, Bryan Perez said that this put the league in an advantageous position to repurpose the mobile app "for the living room."

The NBA Digital/Google TV relationship raises important questions, though, for the future of sports media (and media in general). In his historical work on "Material and Cultural Factors in the Evolution of the Sports/Media Complex", Sut Jhally points out that during the 1920's, sporting events (and other cultural fare like music and theater) served as "bait" for the sale of radio sets as a consumer product. As the market for radio sets became saturated in the late 1930's, an audience--and, importantly, a sports audience--became available that could be packaged and sold to advertisers. Sports, then, as meaningful cultural fare, served not only the instrumental function of manufacturing demand for a consumer electronics product; it also played an important role in producing a saleable audience of radio listeners where none previously existed. Since commercial television adopted a "radio with pictures" approach, we can think of sports' role in the formative days of radio as a important (and by no means inevitable) contributor to the subsequent structure of 21st century commercial electronic media.

Similarly, we can look at the NBA Game Time app as "bait" for the sale of devices running the Google TV operating system and, potentially, a contributor to the construction of a new type of relationship between television consumer and the media industry. While it would be highly presumptuous to say that the implications of Google TV compare with the evolution of commercial radio (and the commercial television model that followed it), there is no shortage of claims that Google TV and other smart TV technology could "revolutionize" television consumption (as Forrester Research's James McQuivey suggests would happen with the sale of 10 million devices by Google and its partners).

The stakes appear to be particularly high for video distributors (i.e., cable, satellite, Netflix). For instance, the introduction of smart TVs could make traditional cable or satellite line-ups obsolete, allowing consumers to "cut the cord" on a distributor's services (excuse me for calling the cable line-up part of "traditional" media). On the other hand, smart TV companies like Google TV know that much of the professional network content that would attract consumers (both on TV and the Web) is the proprietary content of distributor-conglomerates. As the New York Times' Brian Seltzer put it, "All involved know that connecting the Internet to television and vice versa could solidify the distributors’ place in the food chain — or greatly erode it."

More fundamentally though, we can speculate about how a search-based consumer television experience like Google TV may impact decision-making by content creators. Again, this has implications for both sports media and content creators across the media environment. Take, for instance, the growth of a company like Demand Media. As an On the Media segment explained, Demand Media uses an algorithm to identify trending search terms (that match advertiser keywords), but which the online environment offers little content relevant to. It then offers around $15 per article/video for freelancers to quickly create content relevant to that search.

Strategies like those of Demand Media and others (including traditional media outlets) speak to the development of search-driven (and often cut-rate) processes for creating media that consumers appear to want (or, perhaps more accurately, a more efficient strategy for packaging relevant media consumers for advertisers). For all the business logic of producing content along these lines, we should all reflect on the social impact of media structures organized around giving media consumers "what they want." Indeed, Dr. Hardin recently discussed on this blog how cultural assumptions about women and sports shape public interest in women's spectator sports events, as well as media producers' valuation of those events as desirable media content. A sports media environment geared to consumer search practices may intensify the implications of these cultural assumptions, providing media producers further justification to marginalize and trivialize such content--they're just giving us "what we want."

Finally, it should be pointed out that the NBA Game Time app will be available as an app. Viewers will not have to stumble upon this content through the Google TV search function to access it. NBA Game Time is, in a sense, elevated--economically and culturally--in the Google TV editorial hierarchy, along with other "apps and optimized websites that will bring added features to the TV and take advantage of the larger screen." Indeed, apps do allow content creators to create more rich media experiences for users that enter the app's "walled garden." At the same time, the growth of apps also raises questions about how providers like mobile carriers, Apple, and Google TV hierarchize their app offerings, serving, in effect, as the "gatekeepers" for app-based media. For concerns specific to sports media, how might practices of hierarchization (and marginalization) in the app market impact the potential of women's and alternative sport to compete with commercial sport offerings for public interest?

In the sporting landscape and the broader media landscape, the ascendancy of Google TV (or other smart TV offerings) raises challenging questions about the trajectory of the media/society relationship. For the broader media environment, I'm reminded of C. Edwin Baker's stress on the importance of "structural diversity" within the media system. Every ownership and subsidy structure is susceptible to corruption in its own unique way; a diversity of media structures provides a safeguard against the widespread impact of any specific corrupting influence. Despite its convenience, we should be wary of "the tyranny of search" as an increasingly ubiquitous logic for structuring the relationships between audiences, media producers, and advertisers. Google doesn't have to violate its "Do No Evil" slogan for search to shape media and social relationships in a variety of ways, some of which are troubling.

For thinkers interested in sports media, pulling together research on this topic served, for me, as a valuable reminder of the importance of locating our sporting interests within the broader media and social landscape. Jhally's work provides one avenue for this type of thinking, but it's just one among many. Putting sports media "in motion" with other political, economic, social, and cultural developments challenges us to make our research more relevant to diverse publics.

--T.C. Corrigan

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