Shazam! NBC may have just given us a glimpse into our transmedia future

Now that the Olympics are over, we can reflect on the performances we witnessed not only from the athletes (awful, great, and everything in between), but also from the network that brought London into our living room and onto our smartphones (ditto). NBC caught plenty of flak for tape-delaying a giant portion of the events rather than broadcasting them live. For frustrated sports enthusiasts and vitriolic Twitcrits armed with the #NBCFail hash tag, that was something of a mortal sin, not least because in this media-saturated age spoilers pervaded the atmosphere like a greenhouse gas.

There are economic factors to consider, however. NBC paid about $1.2 billion for exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Olympics. The company had to recoup that money somehow. Rolling the marquee events, highlights, and personal stories into a single primetime package consolidated eyeballs and, by extension, boosted ad revenues. The strategy seems to have worked, as ratings for the London Olympics were reportedly the highest of any in decades. People clearly tuned in despite the time-shifted broadcasts. NBC Research President Alan Wurtzel even told Reuters reporter Liana B. Baker that people appeared even more likely to tune in when they already knew the results.

Of course, it’s tough to credit any strategy, alone or in combination, when the company had a monopoly on coverage. Television viewers didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so the only solid conclusion one can draw from NBC’s ratings success is that a lot of people wanted to watch the Olympics and did.

Whatever you think about NBC’s broadcast strategy, though, you have to give them some credit for pushing the envelope just a little further on the digital front. The company’s transmedia approach to covering the Olympics was a promise, even if not quite fulfilled, of a future in which the Internet and TV (and, really, all media) finally, harmoniously, converge into a kind of unified and, yes, very social experience.

I got to hear about some of the ingredients of that digital strategy when I was invited, along with other local journalists and members of the Online News Association, to NBC4 Studios in Burbank for a sort of digital show-and-tell.

Mekahlo Medina, the local affiliate’s tech and social media reporter, tried to capture the spirit of this drive toward digital convergence when he reminded us that “TV is social and always has been.”

Medina put up a black-and-white slide showing people gathered around an early television set and pointed out that families and friends used to make TV viewing a social event. Advance slide and we see some dude on the couch, feet on an ottoman, a laptop glowing on his lap and a smartphone in hand while he’s watching TV…alone. The implication here is that even if technology seems at first to have isolated us, social media is making TV a shared experience again as people interact with their friends remotely. Interesting theory.

That said, on the social media front, a lot of what we saw has become rather standard fare (or at least should be) for any news outlet, TV or otherwise. Among the takeaways, which should sound familiar by now:

– create a Twitter hash tag to help guide or at least aggregate the conversation
– retweet, reply and favorite your followers on Twitter
Storify events when appropriate
– encourage user-generated content using social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest
– ask questions on Facebook to get users more engaged
– create dedicated Facebook tabs for special content

But I did hear at least one useful tip I had never considered. NBC4 did a Facebook countdown by posting a new cover photo every day leading up to the opening ceremony.

For now, changing your cover photo counts as a significant activity in Facebook’s algorithm, at least according to Olsen Ebright, the producer who headed the social media charge. The result is that your Facebook page will surface on your fans’ walls every day. It’s a strategy that could be useful for other Facebook campaigns, too.

So, how did the local affiliate fare with its social media strategy? All told during the Olympics, NBC4 saw an above-average gain in Twitter followers, and its Facebook likes roughly doubled, according to stats Ebright shared with the group.

Outstanding numbers to be sure, but it’s tough to conclude that any of the aforementioned tactics had much to do with them. As it turns out, it was the tried-and-true approach of a big-giveaway contest that appeared to generate the sudden spike in Facebook likes. The prize? A check for $40,000 to help some lucky fan pay his or her mortgage for a year.

In fact, a series of contest giveaways (iPads, $400 gas cards, theme park tickets) and a campaign for charity were probably the main reasons shot to 350,000 Facebook fans from about 20,000 just last fall.

Call it an investment. Ebright told me that four years ago Google searches were still the largest referrer to their site, with Facebook providing a smaller but still sizable share. More recently, the two have alternated in the top spot, and during the Olympics, Facebook consistently surpassed Google as the single biggest referrer of site traffic to

Not every news organization will be able to afford such big prizes, but NBC4’s success is a sobering reminder that if you want people to come inside to see your content, you first might have to offer an incentive just to open the door.

As impressive as NBC4’s execution of its social media strategy was, though, the really exciting stuff came from the mother ship. There were two standout strategies — at least for this observer — that got to the core of what transmedia can mean.

One of them was a little gem of an innovation that comes, surprisingly, from the world of music: Shazam. For those who aren’t familiar with Shazam, it’s an app for your tablet or smartphone that can “hear” music and identify whatever song you happen to be listening to. That may not sound like an obvious tool for a journalist, but Shazam has recently entered into partnerships with other media organizations, including NBC, to offer some intriguing applications for their audio recognition software.

Nabisco tapped Shazam to help market one of its trademark crackers, Wheat Thins, by linking a TV ad to Twitter and Facebook.

“Through Shazam’s technology, the audio in the television ad identifies the sound and links to a pre-written Twitter post. Those who tweet the post get a free sample of the product,” wrote Laurie Sullivan, reporting for

But NBC appears to be the real test case. Shazam put that partnership front and center on its website, encouraging users to “tune in and tag” Olympic moments at anytime while watching NBC’s coverage.

So with what were the curious, tech-savvy members of the audience rewarded? I can’t say firsthand, since I’m an on-again, off-again cord-cutter (that is, I try to save money by ditching cable and instead get my TV shows and news via the Internet). But according to the site, when you hit the Shazam button on your phone or tablet while watching any of NBC’s Olympics coverage, you were treated to any of a number of goodies, including:

– a schedule of events
– athlete bios, news and photos
– up-to-the-minute results
– the latest medal tally
– interactive viewer polls

It only takes a little imagination to extend what NBC and Nabisco have already done with the Shazam app.

A lot of people, for instance, listen to the news as audio while they drive or otherwise move about. A tech-savvy media outlet could reach out to its audience while a major story is breaking and locate potential citizen journalists near the event. The CJ’s hear the request, hit the Shazam button, and get a special link that they can use to submit photos or video straight from their phones.

TV stations could link their viewers directly to extended Web content with a touch of a button. They could direct their audience online to get charts and other data visualizations, exclusive Web videos, relevant stats, helpful background and explainers to give context. All this without making anyone get up from the couch, say, to scan one of those increasingly obsolete QR codes.

And, of course, there’s the already-proven social media application. It’s like having a share button on your TV and in your radio. Your audience sees it or hears it, Shazams it, and shares it on their favorite social media network. Now their friends and followers have a direct link to your story.

The other exciting glimpse into the future of transmedia coverage was also the most obvious — the oft touted if much trashed attempt by NBC to live stream every event via the Web and mobile devices.

I won’t go too deeply into the details, since this territory is well trod (follow any of the links at the top of this post). The short of it is that for the first time fans of the Olympics had access to the raw uninterrupted stream of events both prominent and obscure.

Using NBC’s smartphone and tablet apps or its Live Extra website, anyone tired of the main event on TV could switch over to the live stream and watch something else, like badminton or trampoline (did they really make that an Olympic event?!). They could even watch multiple events simultaneously.

Cool, right? Well, yes, though I do wonder how many people would tune in if C-SPAN did something similar. (“Split your screen and get four simultaneous committee meetings live from the capital!”)

And this is where the complaining starts. The streams were not without their hiccups. A lot of complaints centered on poor video quality and service interruptions, which, in the 100-meter dash, could well mean you missed the entire event.

The Android app, for its part, garnered a measly average of 2 stars from the user reviews in the Market. Which brings us back to those angry Twitcrits.

In defense of NBC, I might offer this: no new technology, especially when deployed so ambitiously, ever comes off flawlessly.

Louis C.K. said it best when he told Conan O’Brien in a clip that went viral on YouTube, “Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

In his four-minute rant, Louis mentioned an airline passenger who, having just discovered that he had in-flight access to the Internet with his laptop, gets upset when it stops working.

“How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago!”


Lessons from Penn State: Journalists should stop idolizing athletes and coaches

I took my 9-year-old daughter to her first Mets game last week. They lost. The Mets lose a lot these days. She asked me at the end of the game if I was mad that the Mets had lost. I explained to her that it would have been nice if the Mets had won, but I really wasn’t mad that they had lost.

Loss is one of those subjects that can be tough to wrestle to the ground with kids. I don’t care about the Mets losing. I care about the loss of innocence. All parents face this as their kids grow older. As parents we try to shield children from the realities of life for as long as we can. It can be difficult.

Parents split up.

People die – often senseless deaths.

But sport has always provided a combination of beauty and innocence. Most of us are attracted to sports and athletics at a young age and find joy in the sheer excitement of competition. I’ve watched a lot of sports over the years and have always marveled at what athletes – both men and women – can do in times of tremendous stress.

For my daughter, the innocence extended to the simple things – she counted the number of planes that crossed over Citi Field during the game. She barked back at the hot dog guy patrolling the stands while he woofed it up. She took countless pictures of the ball field on a beautiful New York summer night.

I’ve always loved sports…and I’ve tried hard to pass that love onto my kids. I’ve been able to sit close and have access to athletes while working as a sports journalist, and I now teach a Sports Journalism course in the UMass Journalism Program. I’ve watched and covered everything from women’s softball to the NBA…and everything in between, even soccer.

But at some point the love of sports and what athletes do on the field crosses over into blind idolatry. It’s inevitable. We place athletes on pedestals, holding them up to standards impossible to maintain. Most sports fans go through a loss of innocence at some point – when the athletes we love begin tumbling off their pedestals. For me, it was when the news about drug use by Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden began to emerge in the late 1980s.

But I had fallen into the idolatry trap. And it’s tough to shake — I still haven’t seen a swing sweeter than Strawberry’s.

One of the first things I tell UMass Sports Journalism students is to stop idolizing athletes and coaches. I actually tell them that in order to be good sports reporters, they need to stop being fans. Some might consider such guidance overkill – sports journalists get into a business that fills their nights, weekends and holidays because of their love of sports, right?

Perhaps, but maybe if those covering Penn State had been a little less involved in preserving the legend of Joe Paterno, the vile crimes occurring there would have been exposed earlier.

One of the top reasons why sports journalists at UMass decline to challenge comments made by coaches is their fear of losing access. It’s the fear of every journalist, really. Why did the members of the White House press corps not challenge assumptions about the presence of WMD’s in Iraq? Was Joe Paterno idolized and protected by members of the media as well as the university and government?

Which brings me to the real question: Where is the journalistic outrage over the decision to allow football to continue at Penn State?

I asked friends on Facebook whether the so-called sanctions on Penn State were enough. I received some of the same weak-kneed responses that we’ve seen in many places: The players should not be held responsible for actions above them and the program should not pay for the actions of one person.

Well, the players can transfer. And what we saw at Penn State was a wholesale failure of leadership on many levels as well as a wholesale failure of journalism. In the end, politicians, university officials, law enforcement and journalists refused to challenge the legacy of Joe Paterno.


Idolatry and the almighty dollar.

Consider that the $60 million fine equals ONE YEAR of football revenue at Penn State. The television money – which is substantial – remains untouched. Some have written that it may take a decade for football to recover at Penn State.

A decade? Why allow football to continue at all?

Isn’t there a line where we say, “Enough is enough?”

Katy Culver, who teaches Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me recently, “sports haven’t lost their innocence, but when they’re used to cover up the rape of children, they’ve lost their soul.”

As another college football season starts gearing up over the next month, sports journalists need to understand they are doing no one any favors by going about business as usual and buying into the company line to protect their press box seats.

Some thoughts on how to go about changing sports journalism:

  • Begin by challenging the status quo.
  • Take a hard look at the money being spent on football and other programs.
  • Don’t worry about access and your position in the pecking order.
  • Start worrying about what you don’t know.

The pros and cons of newspapers partnering with 'citizen journalism' networks

Bleacher Report, which calls itself “the Web’s largest sports network powered by citizen sportswriters,” made a big breakthrough for itself on Feb. 22… and the citizen journalism movement.

The company announced it was beginning a partnership with Hearst to introduce local online editions in the newspaper publisher’s four largest markets, including San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, the Houston’s Chronicle’s, the San Antonio Express-News’ MySan, and Essentially, headlines will be pulled into the main sports page, highlighting local content from Bleacher Report’s citizen journalists.

For the newspapers involved, the partnership represents an extra stream of advertising revenue and, most importantly, a commitment to increasing coverage of local sports.

In many ways, the success or failure of this partnership will help determine whether citizen journalism is the “integral piece,” as cited by many experts, that will help newspapers both survive and prosper in the current media landscape.

Sports pages are a particularly excellent venue for this test. They lure the coveted young and middle-aged demographic who are passionate and vocal about their favorite teams and favorite sports … and more than willing to provide their written opinions for free.

While citizen journalists such as these might look, think and act like paid, professional journos, they’re not – at least in the traditional sense – and not just in the salary department.

Indiana University journalism professor David Weaver doesn’t even think citizen journalists should be the correct term in this discussion. “Citizen communicators” would be better, he says, because “without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot qualify as journalists.”

In a project conducted by, Prof. Weaver and other experts around the country shared their thoughts on the pros and cons of citizen journalism, and its possible role helping newspapers. Here are some comments.

The Positive

“The newspapers that survive will be the ones that make the most of the benefits of the online world. Citizen journalism can in many cases provide free content and the internet provides the ability to reach a much larger audience. The old media that combine their resources with the advantages of new media will thrive. The old media that try to cling to their old methods of doing things will die.” — Derek Clark, who runs

“Probably some events get reported by citizen journalists that would not be reported without them. Reporters can’t be everywhere and cannot know about all events taking place in their communities. In that sense, citizen journalism may help to broaden the
kind of events that are reported.” — Prof. David Weaver.

“With smaller staffs chasing fewer stories, citizen journalists could help local papers keep a broader mix of stories and community reporting in front of readers. Citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for reporting hyperlocal news (news that is specific to one community) because people care about their community and have a hunger for finding out what is going on.” — Thom Clark, president of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago.

“Are you a local newspaper? 90 percent-plus of your income from print adverts targeted at people in the area? Then you should be looking for the local citizen journalists who sit
next to their police scanner and report on the drug busts and local fires. Assume you will have to invest in improving their writing skills, be relaxed about them publishing elsewhere, and pay them enough money to make it worth their while to give you first option on material.” — Brian McNeil, pioneering Wikinews journalist.

“Citizen journalism can help local newspapers survive by making them a more interactive product. Readers who post comments, articles and photos on their local newspaper’s web site might feel a stronger connection to the paper and be more likely to read the print version and the online version of the paper.” — Larry Atkins, adjunct professor of journalism in Arcadia University’s English, Communications and Theatre Department.

The Negative

“I don’t think citizen journalism should dominate or even play a minor role in the operation of mainstream newspapers. I’m sure there is a place for it … a valuable place … in alternative media. I think it’s been the mainstream newspaper industry’s embrace of new editorial formulas and approaches that has been leading to its demise (although) my opinion runs contrary to what most inside and outside the industry believe.” —Adam Stone, publisher of Examiner community newspapers in Putnam and Westchester counties.

“[Citizen communicators] are best at reporting breaking events, and not likely to be very helpful for in-depth, analytical or investigative reporting.” — Prof. Weaver

“Newspapers are brands that bestow credibility, authority, gravitas on their content. I don’t think ‘citizen journalism’ (is there agreement on what this term even means?) can sustain the type of reporting that produces Pulitzer prize winning pieces.” — Richard Roher, president of Roher Public Relations.

“Local newspapers should not rely on citizen journalists to help them survive. Most citizen journalists are not paid anything for their work and lack the motivation to help a for-profit entity continue to make a profit. Citizens cannot and should not be viewed as free labor.” — Dr. Kristen Johnson, assistant professor, Department of Communications, Elizabethtown College, Pa., who has authored several papers on citizen journalism.

Gerry Storch is editor/administrator of , a media analysis/public issues discussion site that bridges the gap between a blog and a book. He has been a feature writer with the Detroit News and Miami Herald, Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader with the News, and sports editor and business editor for Gannett News Service. He holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.