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Is Social Media a Broadcast Right? University of Washington Plows New Ground

Limit in-game tweeting by reporters? How dare they? Fact is, the NCAA already does it, and it’s a little known fact outside the national media circles that cover NCAA championship events live. The University of Washington recently came under fire on a national scale for defining in-game social media as a broadcast right, and thus limiting its use by credentialed reporters. The policy, which is posted on the UW website, went into effect in August and is printed below:

Credential Holders (including television, Internet, new media, and print publications) are not permitted to promote or produce in any form a “real-time” description of the event.  Real-time is defined by the NCAA as a continuous play-by-play account or live, extended live/real-time statistics, or detailed description of an event.  Live-video/digital images or live audio are not permitted.  Each of the aforementioned descriptions is exclusive to the official athletic website of the host institution (GoHuskies.com), the official athletic website of the visiting institution, and any designee of the UW department of athletics.  Periodic updates of scores, statistics or other brief descriptions of the competition throughout the event are acceptable, as long as they do not exceed the recommended frequency (20 total in-game updates for basketball, 45 total in-game updates for football).  Credential Holder agrees that the determination of whether an outlet is posting a real-time description shall be in UW’s sole discretion.  If UW deems that a Credential Holder is producing a real-time description of the contest, UW reserves all actions against Credential Holder, including but not limited to the revocation of the credential.

UW and its designated personnel shall be the final authority on whether a Credential Holder or Credential Entity is following the Live Coverage Policy.

The new policy puts Washington in the forefront of college sports in defining how media outlets can broadcast live events. The inclusion of social media may be a new twist to the definition of broadcast rights, but it is a logical and forward-thinking vision. Some of the criticism of the policy is driven by a misunderstanding that UW is trying to squelch competition of current in-game products such as a highly visible UW Cover-It-Live blog. But the policy is less about competitive reporting and more about unauthorized broadcasting of live in-game events.

Carter Henderson, Assistant Athletic Director for Public Relations at UW, recently answered some questions to shed light on the thinking behind the new policy.

Recently, the University of Washington has come under fire for a policy that limits the number of in-game tweets credentialed reporters can make during a game. Could you tell us the “why” behind the policy?

Sure – absolutely. I wouldn’t say we’ve been “under fire” but there have been some interesting conversations about the policy. I’d be happy to give some background.

The policy was introduced during the 2011-2012 athletic competition year, and implemented in full in August 2012, prior to football season. There has been a lot made of the policy as it relates to Twitter, but while Twitter coverage is mentioned within the policy, it is actually only a small piece of a large puzzle. The policy is about live coverage, and it limits the number of descriptions of game activity a credentialed media member can produce during an athletic event.

The key distinction here is one of reporting versus broadcasting. The policy allows for a reasonable number of in-game updates (20 for basketball, 45 for football) for credentialed media members to report on the game, but if a reporter exceeds those amounts of updates, it is clear they are attempting to broadcast the game by giving play-by-play accounts of the action. We view this as an infringement on our longstanding broadcast rights.

There have been some rather sensational headlines about the policy, and some have criticized this as an “old media” policy, or one that doesn’t understand or appreciate digital media. In fact, our stance is the opposite. What we’ve done here is assigned such a high value to digital media that we’ve elevated the status of digital broadcasting to the same tier as radio and TV broadcasting. We have made live digital coverage a broadcast right.

In other words, it’s not that we don’t value or appreciate digital – we actually place such a high value on digital that we feel we can’t continue to just give it away. This is the same logic that most, if not all institutions, have applied to radio and TV broadcast rights for decades: the opportunity to broadcast an event belongs to the institution assuming the financial risk to host the event.

We understand that this policy is a progressive one, and that some individuals may not agree with it, or take the time to understand it. However, given the high value we place on digital communication, it was only appropriate for us to take the next step in solidifying the importance of digital broadcasting.

How is the policy implemented and who is monitoring the tweets?

The Live Coverage Policy was modeled after an NCAA policy for post-season coverage, and was distributed to all season-long credentialed media prior to the 2012-2013 athletic competition year. Athletic department staff, and Washington IMG employees help monitor.

Is it possible for a reporter to lose credentialing privileges for violating the policy. If so, has this happened?

We would hate for a reporter to lose their credential over this issue, but, adherence to the policy is a term of accepting the credential. We have not had to revoke a credential, and hope we never have to.

What are the main criticisms you get from reporters and how are you answering them?

Most media members understand the policy and the rationale behind it. Most reporters’ intentions are to report on the game rather than broadcast it, and, thus, they never run into any issues with the policy.  The few who seem critical are those who have attempted to establish revenue streams from live, real-time digital broadcasting. We remind these media outlets that the policy allows them to send as many game updates as they want (whether through a blog tool, a web-site, Twitter, Facebook or any other digital tool) pregame, during halftime, and post-game, and allows a significant number of updates throughout the game, which should allow them the ability to report on the game comfortably, without infringing on broadcast rights.

How has this policy enhanced the in-game experience of your fans?

We believe the protection of our live digital broadcast rights will allow fans to experience an enhanced in-game digital experience in the future. While drafting the policy, it was important for us to keep in mind the undetermined future of digital coverage and broadcasting tools. As technologies continue to evolve, no one knows what digital broadcasting will look like in the future, and it was paramount for us to retain the rights to produce one singular digital broadcast. Relative to the fan, this freedom will produce a much more pure and access-driven experience, again, similar to the radio and TV broadcast models currently in place.

Furthermore, allowing the institution to reserve the potential to any financial rights associated with digital broadcasting could result in more departmental revenues, which would, in turn, make programs more competitive – something all fans want to see. It is within the realm of reason that an institution could bundle their digital broadcast rights and sell them to a third party, just like radio and TV rights have been handled.

Are you using other online tools to engage fans during a game such as Facebook, Cover-It-Live or others? Does this policy extend to those venues as well?

We are. Part of the reason we felt so convicted about this policy was because we have made a tremendous investment in our live digital coverage. Our Director of Writing provides a thorough in-game live chat, while our new media team covers the event live through various social channels. We are also in the planning and testing stages of further digital broadcasting enhancements.

Our policy was built to acknowledge that any digital communication tool can be used as a mass-media platform, if the user intends. The policy is less about the medium, and more about the intent.

Do you use the same policy for other live events such as press conferences?

We do not, and do not have plans to. The policy is only built to protect live coverage of events.

This statement appeared in an online article about the policy: “Better to ‘draw the line in the sand’ now, the official said, than to wait until live tweeting gets even more thorough and some media outlet develops a lucrative model off real-time content off the university’s games.” This looks as though there was some concern that a media outlet may use a live Twitter feed of a UW game to develop a sponsorship model. Is that part of the intent of the policy?

Yes, and actually, we have already seen this come into play. Prior to the policy’s implementation, media outlets conducted live online chats which provided play-by-play descriptions of our events on websites containing advertising. We’re happy to facilitate the reporting of our events, but as the host of those events, we reserve the right to broadcast them.

As we began to explore how valuable the digital landscape will be in the future and how important it is within our communications strategy, we felt it was necessary to make these distinctions as soon as possible. As a measure of fairness to credentialed media outlets, we want them to clearly understand our positioning so that they can strategize their own coverage moving forward without any surprises.

Many thanks to Carter for answering questions on the University of Washington policy. So what do you think?  Wave of the future or media censorship? For me, it’s a no-brainer. This is part of the future of developing effective revenue models for college athletics, and the University of Washington is leading the way.

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