TV Jamaica (TVJ), The Voice, Exclusive Rights, Tessanne Chin etc

A few weeks ago, when the current season of The Voice had just begun there was a bit of an uproar in Jamaica because one of the two local TV stations, TVJ, bought exclusive rights to it and then refused to show it live. They showed it two hours later when they figured they would snare the largest number of viewers. What made matters worse was that those who normally watch the show on cable as part of a bundle of American programming they have paid for suddenly found their access to NBC’s broadcast of The Voice denied simply because TVJ had bought exclusive rights to the show.

Infuriated viewers took to social media and complained enough that by the second week’s broadcast TVJ had agreed to carry the show live on one of its subsidiaries. The problem was that there was some kind of technical snafu that prevented The Voice being broadcast till an hour into the show.

People who had looked forward to watching Jamaican singer Tessanne Chin wow the judges for the second week running were upset and once again took their complaints to Twitter and Facebook. TVJ management later said it was shocked by the intensity of the reactions and the vitriol expressed by viewers. In retaliation TVJ executives tried to pit cable viewers against non-cable viewers by suggesting that somehow the former (privileged fatcats) wanted to deprive the latter (downtrodden masses with no options but local TV) of the pleasure of watching The Voice.

How they figured this is beyond me. The cable viewers didn’t object to TVJ broadcasting the Voice, what they objected to was being deprived of access to the cable channel they normally watch the show on. Similarly there was a strong suggestion that those who objected to TVJ’s buying the exclusive rights to The Voice and then not showing it live were somehow encouraging theft of intellectual Property.

I found myself in a radio discussion on RJR (Radio Jamaica) with Oliver McKintosh, President and CEO of Sportsmax, Chris Dehring of the West Indies Cricket Board and Gary Allen, Managing Director of the RJR Group that owns TVJ, where there was a tendency by the corporate representatives to lecture listeners about IP rights, about respecting rightsholders, about how this was no different from stealing physical property etc etc.

I was more than a little bewildered. Had anyone suggested that TVJ steal rights to The Voice? When?? Who?

Judging by Gary Allen’s statements on radio that evening, RJR’s motives for buying exclusive rights to The Voice were largely humanitarian. They had noticed that the participation of a local singer, Tessanne Chin, was exciting a bit of interest amongst Jamaicans and felt called upon to respond. As Allen elaborated:

When we recognized that this programme is one which is going to expose the talent of one of our artistes and that it is creating so much interest, our primary thing was, at that stage–not everybody has access to cable, we have a responsibility and a mission as broadcaster to try and bring content that is of interest to the widest possible audience. And therefore we were also very interested in exposing this beyond the cable audience. People who have cable very often forget that there are tens of thousands of people in Jamaica who do not have that access and to whom we should extend our services.

Aren’t Jamaicans lucky to have such a magnanimous TV station, one willing to spend millions of dollars buying exclusive rights just so their viewers can have access to Prime Time American TV programming without depending on cable? Conversely how quick TVJ’s top honchos were to throw us cable viewers under the bus! How little we matter to them. Tsk tsk tsk. Perhaps they’re not aware that the number of Jamaicans watching cable is as high as 70% according to some cable providers.

When it was President and CEO of Sportsmax Oliver MckIntosh’s turn to speak, he said he was a ‘bit disappointed’ with the reactions of those who had protested on social media and promptly went on to talk of piracy of content. Chris Dehring interrupted, objecting to the use of the term piracy because “it makes it sound almost romantic”, and insisted that it–whatever ‘it’ was– be called stealing.

“Just because there are a number of cars sitting on the wharf for 9, 10 months, you can’t just jump into a car and drive it off…If everyone’s allowed to steal which is essentially what is being proposed here…” he continued.

How analog they all sound I thought, futilely trying to point out that TVJ’s cardinal sin had been acquiring exclusive rights to a popular show and then not showing it live, particularly when it was the kind of reality show that demanded audience participation in the form of texting, voting and tweeting. It’s called interactivity and it has revolutionized the way content is presented, consumed and distributed globally. Those who want to profit from making content available, from providing access to it, cannot afford to overlook the huge transformation sweeping the creative industries.

I remembered all this as I listened to David Pakman (@Pakman), the keynote speaker at JSTOR’s Ithaka Sustainable Scholarship Conference in New York City recently. Pakman co-founded the Apple Music Group in 1995, co-founded MyPlay (pioneer of digital music locker), and was COO/CEO of eMusic for five years.

Pakman talked of the profound technological shifts that have taken place, the move from analog to digital for instance, and the tendency nowadays toward something he called ‘mass customization’. It had all started with the internet and its effects on the way music was consumed–in essence the fallout of ‘debundled’ content being made available. “The story of music is the story of unbundling,” said Pakman as he moved into explanatory mode.

The CD or music album was a bundle; you had no choice but to buy 10 songs bundled together for the one or two hits among them. “Then singles came along and ruined the bundle,” he said. The sale of albums had shrunk not because of piracy but because of debundling. Traditional incumbents try to bundle and the legacy costs of businesses are predicated on bundling.

Bundling is more expensive, it artificially raises overall costs. Information wants to be distributed friction free–and what flows best? Atomic units–which are more user-friendly.

The world is moving towards debundled content, journals too will be unbundled, with articles not papers, being the units of sale, Pakman said, making the link to the field of scholarly publishing that had brought together his audience of journal editors, librarians and publishers.

The Internet is a bi-directional medium–the user is also a producer, he explained, bringing up the interactivity I mentioned earlier. New aggregators are the social platforms not the publishers, and content discovery has shifted to social media where those with Twitter and Facebook clout have become the new ‘influencers’.

The latest American shows are fully aware of these new trends and have adapted to them, sensitive to the bi-directionality or interactivity mentioned earlier. The last episode of The Voice even incorporated Twitter into its voting process.

You can buy the exclusive rights to such shows but you can’t do that and treat them as if they’re the kind of traditional uni-directional, analog content that’s on its way out without raising the ire of your viewers. The sooner management of all the top media entities here realize this the better it’ll be for all concerned.

Oh, here’s a good one on the national Tessanne Chin mania by Dionne Jackson Miller. It’s a hoot. Enjoy!

Ten Reasons We’re All Rooting For Tessanne Chin

Aaron Swartz, JSTOR and academic paywalls…

Back in 2011 when Aaron Swartz was accused of downloading four million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers, i didn’t know anything else about him. The fact that he was a co-founder of REDDIT and some sort of digital prodigy or cyber whiz kid only came to my attention after his tragic suicide last week. As Deepa Kurup noted in a Hindu article dated January 15, 2013:

On Saturday, the open Internet lost one of its most passionate and talented champions, one who spoke up often against the inequalities of information flow and access on its World Wide Web. Aaron Swartz, all of 26, committed suicide as a result of depression, which many believe was triggered by the federal charges he was facing for hacking into the JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) academic database in 2011. Back then, Swartz had downloaded millions of academic research papers from the subscription database and planned to release them for free. In 2008, he had pulled off a similar hack with public court documents.

Swartz was first noticed when he co-authored the RSS standard (for feeds) at 14, soon after which he became a tireless crusader for free access on the web. He was the chief architect of OpenLibrary.org, a free public catalogue of books under the Internet Archive project, an early member of the Creative Commons team, and more recently, led a successful campaign against two key legislations — SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) – that sought to clamp down on intellectual property rights violations online.

…So in a fitting tribute on Monday, academics across the world paid tribute to this legendary hacker and advocate of a free and equal Internet by putting up PDFs of their copyrighted works online. On the micro-blogging site Twitter, the hashtag #PDFTribute trended all day, triggering a progressive and open debate on copyright, academic work and access.

In retrospect one is left feeling bereft at the loss of someone so young, gifted and bold; there are also residual questions about his action and his target, JSTOR, which is by no means the Darth Vader of academic archives. That honour better belongs to academic repositories such as EBSCo or journal publishers like Elsevier whose products each cost thousands of dollars in annual subscriptions. In fact Elsevier has come under sustained criticism from the  academic community and others.

JSTOR on the other hand is an entity I’m very familiar with. As managing editor of a small journal published in the global South (Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies) archives such as ProQuest, Gale and more recently JSTOR, have proved invaluable resources for making material published in our journals more easily available online. JSTOR in particular undertook the digitization of our entire printed output dating back to 1953, a very valuable archive of social science articles on the Caribbean by some of the most important researchers located here over the past six decades. This has made quite a difference to academic research on and about the region judging from the number of downloads of our articles in the one year since SES has appeared in JSTOR. For every download we get a small fraction of the price charged by JSTOR for its bundled journals, but its a sum that didn’t exist previously and that adds up to a not insignificant amount each year.

JSTOR also allows us to access their usage statistics, showing how many times a particular article was downloaded, what the most accessed article and issues are, month by month. Again for small regional journals such as ours, this kind of information is invaluable and assists in measuring the ‘Impact Factor’ of the research we publish. The huge citation databases of the North rarely take note of journals such as SES which have relatively small subscriber bases and are located in the South.

And that brings me to another thing–the frequently levelled complaint that academic content is inaccessible behind steep paywalls–on the contrary our subscription fees are very reasonable. We charge US$60 for an individual and US$90 for institutional subscriptions of four issues of SES per year. Yet we don’t have a huge subscription base and barely make enough to earn our keep from year to year. Economies of scale are a major problem for us. I wonder how many journals such as ours are included  and made available through JSTOR? Can this be balanced against the price of accessing material through them?

The Hindu article goes on to level another charge: “All the more relevant in the context of a developing country like India, many complained that outside university networks, it was impossible to access academic works.”
Again I can’t overlook a recent JSTOR initiative designed to address this very problem. As publishers we were all informed about the new Register & Read (R&R) program which was launched in early 2012 and now makes 1200 journals available for online reading. Its rationale was explained in an email:

We have an opportunity today that we believe is worth exploring together. Content on JSTOR is increasingly found by people that do not have access to it through a JSTOR participating institution. They do searches on Google, follow links to articles, and are then met with a closed door at JSTOR. In 2010 alone, we turned away nearly 150 million attempts to access our publisher partners’ content.

Rather than turning these people away, we think it makes more sense to welcome them, understand them better, and see if we can’t better meet their needs through a variety of access models developed with our publishers. While we already have in place the ability for publishers to sell single articles to individuals through our Publisher Sales Service and offer individual access to specific journal archives through publishers and societies, these efforts are only meeting the needs of a small number of these potential users.

As a first step, we are planning to launch a new ‘front door’ for JSTOR later this summer with the aim of improving the user experience,  gathering information about users, and testing some ideas about increasing access and publisher revenue. Users coming to the site will have a new option to “Register and Read.” Registering with JSTOR will give them read-only access to 3 articles that can be refreshed every two weeks. The articles can be purchased and downloaded if the publisher has enabled this capability through our Publisher Sales Service. Registered users will also receive unlimited access, including download capabilities, for most journal content published before 1923 in the United States and 1890 elsewhere.

Of course JSTOR wasn’t initiating such a programme for humanitarian reasons. In return for users registering and answering some questions:

…we will be able to: see how many users elect to register; understand who the registrants are; track which articles interest them; and know how frequently they sign on. We will also learn how having the option to read online impacts article purchase, and, working with our publisher partners, try out new promotions of additional articles, journal subscriptions, and society memberships based on their identities and behaviors.

Over time, we will be able to use this data to determine the potential demand for and to test a range of access options, including some that exist today (e.g., single article sales, journal subscriptions, etc.) as well as new models like online article rentals, day passes or even annual individual subscriptions to JSTOR. Our aim will be to meet the needs of more people around the world, in collaboration with and in ways that bring new revenue and readership to our publisher partners.

So this post is just to add some detail to what otherwise  seems like a very black and white scenario and to present for what it’s worth ( a few paisa surely?) the point of view of a small journal editor based in the global South. If Swartz was still around there”s one thing I’d want to ask–how and why did he decide on JSTOR as a target rather than any of the other worse offenders?

Beyond that I also have a doubt about whether  everything published in academic journals has a transparent use value for the public at large. I hear Swartz and others who maintain that information can and must be free. By and large I subscribe to such views myself. But to simply equate academic articles with useful information is misleading and perhaps untrue. Such articles have academic value and value within a citation economy on which universities rely for assessing academic value. That is all. Much of the ‘information’ gets dated very soon and like canned goods has expiry dates beyond which it is of  little or no use to anyone. Except academics. These are issues we need to have  more nuanced discussions about.