Andrew Keen: Forget Phelps, this year’s greatest Olympic winner has to be NBC

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The Independent Online

Back in the late Nineties, many new media pundits scoffed at NBC Universal’s decision to pay $894m (£476m) for exclusive American broadcast rights to this year’s Beijing games. Mass media spectacles on television are yesterday’s news, the pundits all said. In a fragmented media age, these scoffers went on, investing nearly a billion dollars in the broadcast rights to televise a single event was the act of a dinosaur doomed to business extinction.

Nearly 100 billion viewer minutes later and those new media pundits aren’t scoffing anymore. With NBC already realising advertising revenue of more than $1bn, it’s NBC’s current chief executive Jeff Zucker – as much as the swimming legend Michael Phelps – who has returned from Beijing covered with glory. And with the American television audience at this year’s games projected to be the largest in history, eclipsing the 209 million Americans who tuned in for the 1996 Atlanta games, those NBC dinosaurs who invested in dead old media now appear to be visionaries of a new new media age.

This media age is – surprise, surprise – a synthesis of the old and the new. In addition to NBC’s massively successful television Olympic coverage, the supposedly old media company has also invested wisely in digital coverage of the games. NBC’s mobile video users more than doubled over the first week, going from 210,000 viewers for the opening ceremony to 476,000 by the fourth day of the games. Internet viewers have been even more substantial, with 4.2 million viewers accessing the video content on for the opening ceremony and 7.8 million surfing to the NBC site on the first Monday of the games. Indeed, over the first four days of the games realised 291 million page views and 13.5 million video streams, obliterating its previous online record of 9.1 million page views and 1.5 million videos streamed for the June 2008 US Open golf play-off between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate.

But for all the success of NBC’s online coverage, the lesson of Beijing is that television unquestionably remains America’s platform of choice for the majority of media consumers. Ninety per cent of viewers of NBC’s Olympic coverage watched the games on television and only 10 per cent watched on the internet. So forget all the hype about the interactive YouTube Olympics, the fragmentation of viewing habits, niche media and the death of television. Ninety per cent of Americans still rely on the original tube. When the revolution happens, it will appear on TV first.

Back in June 2003, the record $1.18bn (a 46 per cent premium on the Beijing price) that NBC paid in an auction for exclusive broadcast rights to the 2012 London games seemed like a risky bet. Today, however, that deal – in which NBC outbid News Corp’s Fox network as well as ABC and ESPN – sounds to me like the best bargain in early-21st century media.

Good news for all impoverished citizen-journalists: virtue might pay after all., which claims to be “the first open media site where anyone can report from anywhere”, is now rewarding its most popular contributors with cash. This “Excellence in Citizen Media Initiative”, launched last week, pays $1,000 for content that |generates over 100,000 views, with $10,000 going to citizen-journalists with more than a million cumulative page views.

My only concern with this noble scheme is that it might reward vice rather than virtue. Unfortunately, it is stories about tits and bums rather than dispatches from Darfur that generate most |of the eyeballs on the net.

So, will this initiative to financially reward the most popular citizen-journalists turn into We’ll know in February, when the six-month scheme ends.

Sorry, Amazon, your e-book scheme has lost the plot

Is history about to repeat itself? First, there was the digital music player, Apple’s ubiquitous iPod, which is dislodging the CD and home stereo as the personal jukebox of choice for most of us. And now there’s the e-book, Amazon’s Kindle (still, unfortunately, only available in the United States), which is threatening to do the even more unthinkable and overwrite both the book and our personal libraries.

Kindle’s projected sales ($359, or about £190, for the stand-alone device and $9.99 per e-book download) certainly have significant potential. Mark Mahaney, the bullish internet analyst at Citigroup, believes that Amazon will sell 378,000 Kindle devices in |the US this year. By 2010, Mahaney forecasts, the Kindle will really go mainstream, with its estimated sales representing 4 per cent of total Amazon’s income and generating about $1bn in hardware and software revenue.

But I don’t share Mahaney’s confidence that the Kindle has reached its tipping point. As an obsessive-compulsive book collector, I’m simply not convinced by the value proposition that Amazon’s current business model offers readers. The current flaw with the Kindle is that it expects book consumers to choose between buying the analogue or the digital book. Take, for example, Buying In, Rob Walker’s fascinating new book about brand-building in the new media age (to be published in the UK next month under the title I’m With the Brand). At the American, I can either buy the physical version of Buying In for $16.50 or the Kindle edition for $9.99. Either/or – but not both, in a simple one-click purchase. So, unlike with a CD, which allows me to transfer the music on to my iPod once I’ve purchased the plastic disc, the acquisition of a book at Amazon doesn’t automatically enable me to download the digital version of the product on to my Kindle (or vice versa).

To repeat digital history and transform the Kindle into the genuinely revolutionary equivalent of the iPod, Amazon and the publishing industry must bridge this digital-analogue chasm.

Buying a book should grant me simultaneous ownership of the text in both its physical and its digital form. Such a readjustment would make Amazon’s Kindle a must-have for all book-lovers, rather than just a nice-to-have for early adopters of technology.