Black Friday/Cyber Monday: Media Holidays

As much as Thanksgiving kicks off the Christmas/Winter Holiday season of family, friends, and good cheer, Black Friday and its partner Cyber Monday have become the official kickoff of the unofficial shopping season that turns all that good cheer into stress, anxiety, and insomnia.

But it’s all bunk, or at least it is now.  You’ve heard of “Hallmark holidays” – invented celebrations that exist only because greeting card companies want to sell more cards and trinkets.  Right now, Cyber Monday and Black Friday are “Media Holidays”: They exist only because constant media attention feeds the perception that these non-events are actually events.

The evolution makes sense: for years, Black Friday was the most optimum day to do Christmas shopping.  The day after Thanksgiving is either an official day off or a vacation day for many workers, and after a day of turkey and relatives, people wanted out of their houses.  Depending on where you get your information from, the moniker comes from either retail sales finally going into the black for the year or Philadelphia shoppers behaving like, well, Philadelphians.

The advent of online shopping meant online shopping during Advent, and thus came Cyber Monday – that first day back at work when office workers would get back to their desks and shop online.  Part of it was procrastination for those still suffering a hangover from the leftovers (or maybe a leftover hangover), but part of it was because in the early days of Amazon, the best internet connection many people had was the one at their work desk.  Often, the T1 they plugged their business computer into was exponentially faster than the dial-up NetZero that their family used for limited connectivity at home.

The reality is that advances in residential broadband, smartphones, and mobile networks have made the concept of Cyber Monday ridiculous, especially given that many retailers’ “Black Friday” sales extended from the Monday before Thanksgiving through the weekend and almost all were available online during that same time frame.  And there’s really no reason to go outside at all if most of the sales are available online – you can do just as much shopping in your pajamas watching Christmas movies on Black Friday as you can bundled and waiting in the black of night for some kid making just over minimum wage to unlock the doors at Target.

What keeps these non-holidays going is the media element. Much like many places of business that aren’t selling things, Thanksgiving weekend is slow for many media outlets.  Black Friday deals and images of shoppers camping out make for ready-made content on every news program, from the local news up to the national networks.  Social news helps too: tweets and status updates that come with the voluntarily miserable experience of shopping at some insane hour with family and friends are fun to read.

Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) provide an interesting yearly phenomenon that fills time on the news – so interesting that both days continue to outlive their original purpose.

Be vewy quiet; the FCC is hunting wabbit ears

Over the weekend, Outside the Beltway had an excellent critique of a New York Times op-ed from Helen Rubenstein, who was suddenly upset that she couldn’t siphon internet from her neighbors.  Rubenstein is a Brooklyn college professor (thankfully of writing and not ethics), and apparently feels that she should get a service for free that other suckers pay hundreds each year for; OTB rightly calls her out for her self-centered attitude.

Buried in her complaint letter to no one in particular, though, is a hint that his is more than simply an op-ed from a spoiled academic who demands everything for free:

In an ideal world, the Internet would be universally available to anyone able to receive it. Promisingly, the Federal Communications Commission in September announced that it would open up unused analog airwaves for high-speed public wireless use, which could lead to gratis hotspots spreading across cities and through many rural areas.

In 2011, there may be similar announcements to the one Rubenstein references.  The Obama FCC makes no secret that they like the idea of pushing broadcasters off the airwaves to make sure there’s more room for the internet.  Their vision of the future would keep traditional TV stations on cable, but would limit their ability to broadcast over the air.  (If you don’t use rabbit ears, you might not notice; if you do use rabbit ears, it would be time to call Comcast.)  Wireless internet providers and cable companies would win; traditional over-the-air broadcasters would lose.

The sales pitch to the consumers will likely be similar in tone to Rubenstein’s op-ed: Wouldn’t you love for the internet to be everywhere, like TV is now?

Notably, the FCC’s goal of replacing over-the-air TV signals with internet signals isn’t due to a lack of available bandwidth, but because the segments used by television is the prime segment of the broadcast spectrum (or, as a former FCC official once described it to me, the broadcasting equivalent of “beachfront property”).

This is a Washington, D.C. policy battle where a five-member panel will determine winners and losers.  Voters can expect both sides trying to drag them in – and whether or not she was recruited by the proponents of re-allocation to pen her op-ed last week, Professor Rubenstein has kicked off the fun.

(Disclosure: I previously worked at a public affairs firm that represented the National Association of Broadcasters – who, as you might expect, were and are very concerned about this issue.  I don’t work for that firm anymore and NAB is not a current client. Sure, I sympathize with them… but they haven’t paid me to do so.)

Al Franken’s comical take on net neutrality

If you thought Al Franken would give up the laughs just because he sued his way into the Senate, think again.  The SNL alum has some of his best writing since the Stuart Smalley movie up on CNN.com, which gave him a platform to discuss internet regulation:

“Net neutrality” sounds arcane, but it’s fundamental to free speech. The internet today is an open marketplace. If you have a product, you can sell it. If you have an opinion, you can blog about it. If you have an idea, you can share it with the world.

And no matter who you are — a corporation selling a new widget, a senator making a political argument or just a Minnesotan sharing a funny cat video — you have equal access to that marketplace.

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.

So here’s the internet we have: a free and open landscape where the merit of ideas matters more than how much money you have.  So we want to oppose net neutrality legislation and regulations that would change that landscape, right?

Apparently, not in Al Franken’s world.  Franken likens the evolution of telecommunications companies to his work on network television, and the media consolidation that went on in that medium.

Back in the 1990s, Congress rescinded rules that prevented television networks from owning their own programming. Network executives swore in congressional hearings that they wouldn’t give their own programming preferred access to the airwaves. They vowed access to the airwaves would be determined only by the quality of the shows.

I was working at NBC back then, and I didn’t buy that line one bit. Sure enough, within a couple of years, NBC was the largest supplier of its own prime-time programming.

There are two rebuttals to this.  First, networks buy programming from other providers all the time.  In fact, one of the biggest hits NBC had this decade, Scrubs, was produced by Disney ABC.  The second point is… well, how is that all-Universal-produced prime time lineup working out for NBC right now?

Today, if you’re an independent producer, it’s nearly impossible to get a show on the air unless the network owns at least a piece of it.

True, but has getting a show “on the air” ever been less relevant for success?  An enterprising content producer wouldn’t get the same audience online that he or she might get on a broadcast or cable network, but they aren’t being shut out of the media landscape.  If that’s the yardstick for success, wouldn’t we have to say the internet as it is works just fine?

Franken starts to make an analogy between internet services providers and cable companies – which is, incidentally, the argument on net neutrality’s side that makes the most sense.   But that assumes the market stays static – that is, that everyone continues to have a wire coming into their house, hooked up to their desktop computer, delivering the internet for the whole family to gather around.

But that isn’t where internet consumption is going.

At the risk of using myself as an example let me use myself as an example: in the morning, I usually check work and personal email on my Blackberry before rolling out of bed.  I check my home computer to see if the Yankees won the night before.  At work, I check sites like Politico routinely, and if an issue I’m working on is about to come up for a Congressional vote I might dial up CSPAN and watch online.  After work, I might go over to Starbucks with the laptop to work on a post or answer emails, using their WiFi.  Count ’em up – that’s four internet providers in a single day.  If I was traveling, there might be more connections – airports, hotels, even planes.   I dare you to try to keep content away from me.

The internet is not a utility like cable, it’s a communications infrastructure.  The providers can’t afford to simply keep content from you, because you can figure it out and change easier than you can if, for example, Comcast refuses to put the NFL Network on a basic cable tier.

Regulating the internet like telephones, or cable, or even broadcast radio and television doesn’t work because those are different technologies and consumed differently.  But don’t blame Franken’s lack of insight on the fact that he made his bones in old-school broadcast network television.  After all, he’s been trying to appeal to net neutrality cheerleader Google to wire Duluth for broadband.  Maybe he’s just trying to scratch their back in hopes they will return the favor later on.

“Who wants Google in Minnesota? Me, Al Franken.”

Sen. Al Franken is pushing for Google to come to Duluth, Minnesota and wire the whole place for internet.  It’s just one of many examples of cities begging Google to come and save them from choppy YouTube videos.

As the FCC debates broadband expansion plans that are beginning to sound like entitlement programs, Google is showing that acting in their own self-interest can have a public benefit:

Google makes its money connecting people with data and showing them ads along the way. Anything that increases the number of people on the internet and the amount of data they seek is good for the company. On most ISPs, YouTube videos can stutter or stop due to low connection speeds, even from “high-speed” providers. One way or another, Google seeks to quicken the net by connecting cities to high-speed fiber optic lines that transmit data with modulated light (updated) rather than the wire-based electrons employed by most ISPs (fiber-optic Verizon Fios [sic] excepted).

That said, these municipalities should remain vigilant.  No matter how free the broadband is, there are legitimate concerns about Google’s privacy record.