Storytelling, #nbcfail, and the upstanding guy Jeff Jarvis

My wife and I just watched NBC’s evening coverage of the US Women’s gymnastic team winning the team gold medal and Michael Phelps win his 19th Olympic medal.  Lots of commercials, but compelling tv.  I’ve been enjoying watching the evening coverage so far. Yes, even though it wasn’t live.

That’s why, aside from the issues with the coverage of the opening ceremonies, I’ve had a hard time getting on board with the #nbcfail movement. Jeff Jarvis articulated what he saw as the root of the problem for NBC in a post on Sunday.

The problem for NBC as for other media is that it is trying to preserve old business models in a new reality.…The bottom-line lesson for all media is that business models built on imprisonment, on making us do what you want us to do because you give us no choice, is no strategy for the future. And there’s only so long you can hold off the future.

The problem is that people are tuning into NBC’s coverage.  Lots of them.  Indeed, record numbers of them.  Maybe there’s a future in good, old-fashioned tv channels after all. Perhaps the rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

So what gives? It seems to me that people want different things out of media. At times, we want the stream. We want data—as much of it as we can get—with an exuberance that only the new can impart. But people also want stories. Indeed, we have a deep need for them.  We experience our lives as an unfolding story, and we are shaped profoundly by the stories we tell.  Data doesn’t fill our need for stories.

Which is why it doesn’t surprise me that people are tuning into NBC’s coverage. People want the story, not just the facts.

The problem is that data folks are getting all the press in the tech and journalism world these days. Have been for a while, actually. Storytelling is a bit out of fashion, it seems to me. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. have turned our attention to the  moments. The moments are  fascinating, but they remain moments—fragments of larger stories that we can have a hard time putting together. Apps like Longform can remind us of the big picture, but they are few and far between in the digital world. The stream is the Gospel of our age.

Which is why I appreciated Jeff’s post yesterday. For those who might not be familiar with his work, Jeff Jarvis is a prof at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism who focuses on news in the new info and tech world. He also has an astounding amount of experience in the world of publishing and journalism. He’s an influential guy who speaks frequently about the demise of the old media business model and the ascendence of the “people formerly known as the audience.” The preceeding quote is, I think, a fair representation of his approach to a good deal of what is happening with the demise of old media.

Anyway, in this case, Jeff did something that is all to rare in both the media and scholarly worlds: he admitted that he called it wrong and revised his interpretation of the situation.  The post is great (funny and worth a read, if for the penultimate line alone), but here is the key bit:

If I went too far — which, of course, is what I do for a living — I might argue that once we could get all the sports from the Olympics live on the web and apps, then we’d abandon old-fashioned broadcast channels and fragment ourselves silly.…

But, of course, that didn’t happen.…

Viewers still want channels and the value they add. Not only would I argue that all the spoilers and chatter online are driving audience to prime time but the audience is telling NBC they’d prefer to watch a well-produced channel than the internet.

Put another way, realtime video and Twitter don’t tug at the heartstrings and make you tear up.  Good stories do. That’s the value that NBC adds.

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