The AirPlay Network

Week One of the Age of iPad was barely weekended when Keith Olbermann was removed from his position at NBC/Comcast. I missed his final show, mostly because I stopped watching it and all the cable news channels once the election was over. But then I remembered we are now in the Age of iPad, and guess what I found when I turned on Apple TV. There it was right in the podcasts section, ready to stream.

Parsing the language I heard the same thing we heard earlier when Steve Ballmer fired Bob Muglia, when Eric Schmidt was kicked “upstairs,” when I was asked to leave along with my wife and a friend from the Crunchies because the room was too full. In the last case, I refused to move, waiting until the venue manager moved on to people more her size. I wonder what would have happened if Muglia just said, no, Steve. I’m not going anywhere.

We’ll get back to Eric and the boys in a minute, but in the Age of iPad, all is not as it seems. Take Olbermann for instance: firing him seems like exactly what NBC doesn’t want. It dredges up the recent Leno fiasco in a visceral way, suggesting that even if Conan’s new show might as well be emanating from Siberia, at least he suffered no bad will for telling NBC where they should get off. By contrast, I wouldn’t touch NBC at 11:30 with someone else’s hard disk.

I don’t put much stock in Comcast being behind the Olbermann firing, because showing him the door doesn’t just hurt MSNBC, it hurts CNN and Fox as well. First of all, the only cable news coverage of the number one story of last night was on CNN and Fox. Tonight’s NBC Nightly News studiously ignored it, and somehow I doubt the Today Show will touch it either. Without any credible reporting from one of the 4 major networks, the other three have little to pivot off of, no comparable story about how cable news is being squeezed out by the Age of the iPad. That’s what happens when you become the story.

The unreported story is that a new network has emerged with new rules of engagement. Once the hall monitors had retreated from the Crunchies auditorium, I pinged my former overlords at TechCrunch and soon we were escorted backstage to an empty sofa. The sound was difficult, and I didn’t much feel like standing in the wings. But then I realized that combining the audio in the room and the sound of the crowd with Twitter produced an excellent new medium. I could hear Dick Costolo and Mike Arrington toss a few softballs around, and knowing Dick’s background as a standup comedian, wait a few seconds after the laugh for the punchline to appear on my iPhone.

Bear in mind that this is not the Golden Globes or the Grammies but an industry tech event being streamed live worldwide in realtime over Twitter and Ustream. Given the people I follow and the @Mention Cloud, we now have a microcast network that levels the playing field between all such events. Already the networks are bending to the new iPad reality, broadcasting the Ricky Gervais pummeling of Hollywood live at 5 on the West Coast, because Twitter has already eviscerated the results on the East Coast if they are embargoed. Gervais’ jokes cut to the bone all the more because his victims knew this was going out in realtime. He said what?

Actors or anchors, it doesn’t matter. When someone bypasses the big network to get straight to the audience in realtime, something big has changed. Olbermann had a 4 year contract worth a reported $30 million, or something north of $7 million a year. Let’s say he goes direct to iPad once a day, and takes Rachel Maddow with him. Push notify the audience of a rundown of each show along with headlines as they occur. Oh my, suddenly Comcast is happy to charge for the increased download bandwidth to support the model. And they don’t have to split the rate increase with the network, especially nice since they own one now.

Of course, Disney is ABC is Apple, so they might have some interest in bypassing the cable network business and going directly to revenue. That will bring Fox in, who are already playing ball with Apple TV on a test basis, and new power houses like whatever network produces Mad Men. Mad Men, by the way, is now the flagship of our go-to realtime network. We’re just starting Season Three, which I paid 22 bucks for and downloaded to my iPad for Airplay in whatever room the kids haven’t commandeered for Xbox Kinect. It’s realtime, just 1962.

Chatting with Dick Costolo after the Crunchies, I told him what he already knows, namely that the Twitter iPad app rocks. Then he said a very smart thing, that he thinks they should use the iPad implementation as the base platform and conform the other apps — web, iPhone, Android — to it. I couldn’t agree more. The iPhone may have started the revolution, but now it is a peripheral to the iPad. As is Apple TV, which is way more than a hobby.

Gone are the traditional networks. They are not dead, but rather absorbed into a new state of mind, one where we view our time as more valuable to us if we can sculpture it. I resisted Mad Men for years because I was already years behind. But AirPlay gave me the ability to try the first one, then “save” money on the first season, then let the mediocrity of the network offerings slowly but surely be routed around by streaming the now-addicted time machine of 1960. The year Kennedy was elected, the first television president, the dawn of realtime crisis, political and social upheaval, you know what I mean.

For those of you too young to remember, this was the time of not just Walter Cronkite but Huntley and Brinkley, not just the Beatles but the Stones, not just Miles but Hendrix. When Olbermann quits, he’s firing Glenn Beck. And when Steve Jobs steps aside he’s firing Schmidt too. Google’s job is to provide competition for Apple, to slipstream alongside the economic juggernaut Jobs has unleashed. Muglia’s ousting appears to be payback for Ozzie quitting, and in so doing Ray fired Ballmer, not the other way around.

The Age of the iPad has launched a wave of desperate moves, of actors and anchors testing the waters of the emerging economic model, of CEOs acting like COOs when what is needed is real leadership and insight. Costolo is one of the new breed, tempered in the crucible of the comedy circuit and the RSS politics of Feedburner and Google acquisition indigestion. Nothing about the Google realignment suggests any material change in the equation, and Microsoft’s retrenching around Sinofsky may prove the same kind of miscalculation NBC made in betting on Leno 2.0.

At the end of Season Two, Don Draper beats back a move to demote him or worse by pointing out that he has no contract with which to contain him, no non-compete to keep him away from the competition. Suddenly they serve at his pleasure. According to reports, Olbermann can’t go on television for some period of time, but can do anything he wants on radio and the Internet. The AirPlay Network awaits.