I’ve seen the Olympics, and it is convergence

It struck me suddenly on the morning of Friday, July 13th - the morning the site for the 2008 Olympics was announced - that the Olympics could no longer be considered a media event. It has even outgrown the classification of media spectacle. It has morphed into something new that exhibits unique characteristics. We have never seen anything like it before. The Olympics is functioning more like a medium unto its own. In fact, it is behaving like a convergent medium.

It struck me suddenly on the morning of Friday, July 13th – the morning the site for the 2008 Olympics was announced – that the Olympics could no longer be considered a media event. It has even outgrown the classification of media spectacle. It has morphed into something new that exhibits unique characteristics. We have never seen anything like it before. The Olympics is functioning more like a medium unto its own. In fact, it is behaving like a convergent medium.

This is very exciting if so – this would be the first time we have witnessed true convergence in Canadian media. All the efforts and resources exerted by CanWest Global, BCE, Quebecor and Rogers appear to simply be consolidations of disparate media. Three or four media have consolidated into three or four media under one owner. They sit at the feet of this new ‘Olympic Convergent Medium’ like mere mortals at the foot of Mount Olympus.

The Olympics haven’t always been this way. Throughout my career I’ve planned and placed millions of media dollars into the Olympics. I evaluated the medium much the same way I evaluated spots in any televised sports event. The Olympics of years gone by were simply international, multi-week versions of the World Series or the Stanley Cup finals. You evaluated a package of spots, some titling, an in-store promotion or two with a feature thrown in for good measure. There was a cost and an audience that produced a premium cpm. The exercise was to keep the premium a small as possible.

What I witnessed during the weeks leading up to the recent announcement was something very different indeed. I witnessed content in control of media channels, not the other way around. On the morning of July 13th the media involved in the convergence included CBC-TV, Newsworld, CBC Radio One, TSN, CTV, Citytv, the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, various Internet sites, plus millions of words of mouths and thousands of bodies converged onto closed-off city streets.

This was true convergence because it exhibited the two key characteristics.

The first requirement of convergence is synergy. The impact of the bid process was certainly greater than the sum of its parts. The parts consisted of a city council, a bid leadership group, a challenge, volunteers and money. The impact was moderate media coverage for months, heavy coverage for weeks, intense media focus for days leading up to an excruciating layering of weight for hours leading up to the 11a.m. (EST) announcement. The monetary value of the Olympic media coverage had to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The second requirement of convergence is that something new is created. An American sports writer, Frank Deford, was quoted in the July 13th National Post as saying, ‘The most important Olympic competition now is between cities fighting to host future games.’ The race everyone in Canada observed was remarkable. Toronto had no chance to win this race yet millions of dollars were spent to participate. The IOC is considered to be a flawed organization yet millions of people were upset when Mel’s mouth flapped. Political leaders from all three levels of government appeared in the same place at the same time for fear of not being seen to be supportive of the bid that had no budget.

Convergence has indeed created something new; it has created a new sport. The players are modern city-states. In the Ancient Olympics, city-states had to exist within Greece…now they exist all over the world. The reward for winning the race is the ultimate gold medal; the awarding of the Olympic games. The competition has even taken place before our modern day Zeus: Juan Antonio Samaranch.

There’s drama, tears and joy. There’s intrigue, political maneuvering and destroyed careers. There’s immense wealth on the line. It’s got everything. But like all wonderful convergent spectacles, I must wait for the next race. If we could just skip over next year’s winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and get right down to the real show…Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 winter Olympics.

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Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.