Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Of SyQuest Cartridges and The SEC Media Policy

When TigerBlog first began to work at Princeton, doing media guides was on the order of 20 or 30 times harder than it became. TB shudders at the memory of tasks that were so time-consuming back then that take literally seconds now.

For starters, there was the method of placing photos into publications. Our photographers back then (all of 15 years ago at most) shot games with something that barely exists anymore, something called "film." Then we here at TigerBlog HQ would have to send this "film" stuff out to an actual photo shop (as opposed to what everyone now thinks of when you say PhotoShop), where more ancient forms of expression known as "negatives" and "contact sheets" led to "prints." Then, these prints were sized using either a ruler or some wheel thing whose exact name TB can't remember, and a percentage of the original photo would be calculated. This percentage would be written on a post-it note and then attached to the actual photo, which was taken to campus printing, where the only scanner on the Princeton campus existed. A guy named Jim would scan them - and TigerBlog HQ would be charged $5 per scan.

These scans would then be put on storage devices that looked like 8-track cartridges (for those who don't know what those are, they were what you listened to music on a long, long time ago; TB's first car, a 1977 Dodge Diplomat, had an 8-track player in it). At the time, these cartridges could store 44 MB of information (which isn't a whole lot); eventually they doubled in capacity to 88 MB. To do a major Princeton guide, TigerBlog would have to spend hours dragging files back and forth so that the scans for a particular section would be on the same cartridge as the text file itself.

Yuck. TB can't believe how much time he wasted doing that, and any number of other tasks related to a publication. For instance, the scans had to be placed directly into a box created on the page, and it took forever to line up the scans correctly. If they were done right, a dimple would appear on the corners; if not, there'd be extra white space between the line and the picture. Today, you can do this simply by placing the picture on the page and then clicking on the "rule" function, which does the rest automatically. As for dragging the files around, today that is all done automatically when the publication is "packaged."

Eventually, the 8-track storage cartridges (they were either called SyQuest or Ehman; TB can't remember) disappeared in favor of Zip disks, which could store more information. Those eventually vanished too, in favor or CDs and ultimately DVDs, or simply connecting to a printer and placing the file directly onto their FTP site.

What does any of this have to do with the Southeastern Conference's new media policy? Plenty.

Basically, the SEC wants to protect the exclusivity of its contracts with ESPN and CBS, which will bring the league and its schools $3 billion over the next 15 years. That's billion, with a b. That's $3 billion more than Princeton's deal with ESPN brings in, by the way, though at least Princeton doesn't pay anything to ESPN. As an aside, this shows the difference between "we're happy for the exposure" and "we're financing athletic departments and other parts of the university with TV money."

Anyway, the SEC came out with a policy that basically sought to prevent anyone who was not ESPN or CBS from showing any part of any game other than the most basic highlight packages. The policy also sought to prevent anyone – fans, that is – from doing likewise with any new forms of technology. Beyond that, the SEC sought to limit how much information in written and photo form, including on social networking sites, could be put out from SEC events.

The response led to the revised policy, after the SEC was pretty much universally criticized and mocked for being over-the-top paranoid. The basic points were:
1) who is going to watch a cell phone version of a game when the game is on ESPN?
2) how are you going to enforce this in the first place?

TigerBlog's response is that the SEC is being smart in protecting its investment. When Princeton and ESPN were going through their agreement (which probably is 1/100th the size of the SEC's), TigerBlog wondered if TV as we know it would even be around in five years, in 10 years.

Think about it. Right now, if you use your cell phone to record video of a game, it's going to be grainy, shaky footage and it won't last very long. Five years from now? Maybe your phone will have an HD camera in it, one that can shoot for hours at a time.

Suppose you want to watch the 2019 Alabama-Tennessee game. Suppose you hate one of the schools, and your choices for watching it are ESPN with its regular announcers or some Tennessee fan who can provide similar quality video with hysterically funny anti-'Bama commentary (or vice versa). How much of the audience would choose the second? And what if you could get that video on whatever device is around then and watch it however you want?

What is the future of ESPN anyway? Is it being able to watch Alabama-Tennessee or anyone of hundreds of games on an ESPN360-type platform?

The big question is enforcement. Will the SEC reach the stage where it is searching bags for cell phones and banning them from the stadium, along with presumably alcohol and guns and the rest?

The SEC isn't being paranoid here. It's being smart and proactive, even if it ultimately can do nothing to fully protect itself in the long run.

The point is that just like SyQuest cartridges and Zip drives and 8-tracks and film and developing costs, eventually current technologies are going to evolve to the next thing. Whether that next thing is TV the way you're always watched it remains to be seen.

Don't believe it? Well, just when doing media guides became easier, they also became obsolete.

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