I’m far from the only person who finds baseball’s exclusive deal with DirectTV to be, frankly, offensive. (The recent quasi-compromise is a complete smokescreen.) MLB has officially gotten itself in the business of forcing consumers to choose between two competing distribution channels. This is an effort to make a lot of money, yes, but it’s also an effort to bring more consumers to MLB.tv, which shows the Selig’s deputies don’t have the best grasp of their audiences viewing habits. The DirectTV deal not only pisses me — and you, and everybody else who currently has cable — off, it’s yet another example of baseball’s time-honored tendency to win the battle and lose the war. As John Henry told me in Feeding the Monster, baseball isn’t just competing with football and basketball and hockey for people’s attention, it’s competing with The Departed and the new Halo and YouTube and every other of the million entertainment options out there. And when you take away the opportunity for people to spend more time watching baseball, you’re simultaneously giving them more time to enjoy some other form of entertainment. The web has long prized the notion of “stickiness” — how much time a user spends on any given site. That’s an increasingly important metric across all entertainment options. Baseball is losing out on a chance to stick itself to me. And if I can’t watch the three weekday games and get to know the players and heighten my involvement with my team of choice, my overall connection to MLB is going to lessen. What’s more, online TV still has a long way to go, and MLB’s audience isn’t all that likely to sit in front of their computers for poor picture quality and choppy feeds. So, sure, baseball is making some money now, but it’s not going to accomplish one of its main goals — getting viewers to migrate over to MLB.tv — and it sure could end up making fans feel less connected over time.
But so what, right? It’s not like this story is just breaking. But another one is, a story in which NESN is showing it has internalized MLB’s battle/war valuation all too well. According to an article in today’s Herald, NESN (which the Sox own 80% of) will no longer permit local stations to air highlights while a game is still in progress. Think about that. You’re watching American Idol and at the tail end of an ad break, there’s a teaser for that night’s newscast. But now you won’t get, “Papi hits another two homers as the Sox face off with the Jays; full report at 11.” (Or at least you won’t get a video clip to further draw you in.) That means you’ll see less of those teasers. That means fewer people are likely to stay up and watch the sports highlights. And that means fewer people are going to realize in the middle of the game that, hot damn, they’d rather watch Ortiz crank some into the bleachers than be bored by Paula and Simon bitching at each other. And that means it’s likely that NESN’s boneheaded move with actually translate into fewer people tuning in to the team’s broadcasts. (Can you imagine another TV network actually telling its competition that they were not allowed to run what amounts to free ads in the middle of the programming? Neither can I.)
As the Herald notes, this move could very well be an antecedent to the day when NESN only allows local stations to air highlights if they license — i.e., pay for — them. If that’s indeed true, I’d expect there to be a helluva fight. There are plenty of implications here, not the least of which is U.S. copyright law’s fair use doctrine, which states that the use of copyrighted material for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting…is not an infringement of copyright.” Two of the four considerations the law lists as factors in this type of fair use are “the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation” to the work as a whole and “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.” There’s not a chance in hell that the Sox will ever be able to argue that a minute or two of highlights are a substantial amount of the entire game or that watching the evening news somehow threatens NESN’s ability to benefit from its copyright. (In fact, I’m surprised none of the local stations have brought this up in relation to the use of clips that are aired while the game is still being played…but that could be because promotional ads (“news at 11…”) are, by definition, commercial in nature, while the newscasts themselves would certainly count as “news reporting.”)
I usually defend the Sox when they’re accused to trying to soak every last penny from their franchise; after all, I’d be thrilled if the team sells a million more Red Sox Nation memberships if that translates into more money for the team’s baseball operations. But this feels like one toke over the line. And it feels remarkably stupid as well.
(I’m not a big believe in the cabal — sorry, Tony — but it is interesting that this story doesn’t seem to be on the Globe‘s Red Sox homepage. The Globe, of course, is owned by The New York Times Co., which also happens to be the largest minority owner of the Sox. Or, to simplify things: the Times Company makes lots of money off of NESN.)