Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Speaking of DVRs - Hopper, CNET, and CBS

Interesting story to start the week - as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) came to an end, the folks at CNET generated nominees and selected winners for their customary "Best of CES" awards for innovative technologies and services.
  In the running was the Dish Network's new "Hopper" service and set-top box.  The Hopper is essentially a DVR service that automatically records all prime-time programming from the 4 major broadcast networks in the U.S. (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC) for replay, while allowing viewers the option of automatically skipping commercials embedded in the broadcasts.  In fact the ad-skipping feature is a prominent feature in Dish's Hopper advertising and promotion.  And it was among the publicly announced nominees for "Best of CES" awards.
  Then came an announcement on Jan. 10, from CBS, which owns CNET.  Dish and the Hopper were banned from any CES awards - reportedly due to a "policy" that prohibited any CBS-owned outlet from reviewing or commenting on any product or service that was "under litigation" from CBS and its various companies.  All four of the major broadcast networks, including CBS, are suing Dish over the Hopper service, alleging its service is a violation of copyright.
  Some intrepid reporting from The Verge has brought to light some of what happened behind the scenes, and it doesn't look good for CBS.
  First, if there is such a policy, it seems to have been created as an excuse for the Hopper ban, as CNET, as well as other CBS outlets, have reviewed and/or commented on the Hopper service without repercussions through last week.  Another hint that the policy was hastily devised came yesterday as CBS had to clarify that the ban wasn't on covering companies and devices involved in litigation, but only reviews - and specifically promised not to interfere in CNET's "actual news" coverage.  (Which raises the question - are "Best in Show" selections reviews, or news reporting on what technologies and services are generating the most interest?).
  Second, it turned out that the Hopper wasn't just precluded from the competition, it had already been selected as the "Best of Show" by the CNET editorial staff.  According to the reporting, when CBS top executives learned of the pending award, the word came down directly from CBS CEO Les Moonves' office to spike the award.  It fell to CBS Interactive News senior vice president and General Manager Mark Larkin to tell the CNET editorial staff that they would have to drop the Hopper and come up with a new "Best of Show" winner.  Larkin reportedly told the CNET staffers that he had fought strenuously against the interference, but it came down as a mandate from the top. 
The news raises questions not only about CNET's editorial independence, but concerns over why editors at the site have remained mum on the events surrounding the decision to remove the Hopper as winner of its "Best in Show" award. It suggests a growing influence of CBS' corporate interests in editorial decisions at its digital news subsidiaries. One source says that both Larkin and (reviews lead Lindsey) Turrentine fought for full disclosure, but were rebuffed by CBS.
  Interestingly, in a suit brought against CBS Interactive that sought to claim that parent company CBS was responsible for its subsidiaries' actions, the CBS lawyers argued that holding CBS responsible for CNET "would create grave uncertainties for writers and publishers — including search engines, web encyclopedias, blogs and most technology journalists."  A later statement from CBS tried to argue that this was an isolated incident, prompted by fears that Dish would use positive reviews in CNET to undermine CBS's lawsuit allegations.

  The incident will further blacken the famous CBS eye, as well as CNET's reputation among its readers.  Even if there is no lingering impact on straight news reporting, I think the top executives at CBS don't realize that CNET's reputation is built at least as much on the independence and integrity of its reviews, as it is on the independence of its news coverage.  This instance has shattered the credibility of CNET reviews - particularly now that there is clear and formal policy instituting corporate control over what products do, and do not, get reviewed.  It's a small jump from that to influencing the outcome of the review itself.  And there's not too much basis for believing that CBS and its top execs will behave nicely in the future.

Source - Exclusive: CBS force CNET staff to recast vote after Hopper won 'Best in Show' at CES, The Verge

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