Here and there over the last few months I’ve been doing some data cleanup over at my podcast directory site AmigoFish. For all of 2008 and some of 2007 the site was left pretty much on autopilot. It worked and continues to work, but there are things that need to be done to clean up data cruft over time.
One of the heuristics I always built in was a little judgment call. In every RSS feed, there is a definition of a link element of the channel. This is the place to go to get more information about the feed at hand. My heuristic is that two different feeds with the same link URL are two different feeds for the same thing. For example, all the Revision 3 shows have umpty-zillion feeds based on whether you get large quicktime or small xvid or medium theora and all permutations of size and format. If those feeds were all submitted, I want one logical show, not 15. By and large this assumption holds pretty well and works across the site.
There are times where this assumption breaks and what is interested is what is in common amongst the kinds of organizations that break it. Just now I’m going through the process of breaking apart shows where feeds have clumped together that aren’t really the same show. This is almost always driven by the podcast efforts of some kind of incumbent media, old school large organization. Broadcast networks, large radio stations, newspapers, etc are by orders of magnitudes the worst offenders. This is not even the first time I’ve blogged about this phenomenon, but today is the first time I thought through on a deeper level why this might be.
I described technically why this occurs – all the disparate RSS feeds have the same URL. But why? The one I was just working on was the AmigoFish listing of the Tony Kornheiser Show on Washington Post Radio. (Note, chances are by the time you read this some of the AmigoFish listing will be changed by my cleanup.) I’m looking and there are six different feeds conglomerated in there, their Book World podcast, their P3: Post Politics program. Every one of these feeds has the same link URL: “http://www.washingtonpost.com”.
That reflects to me an old media institutional bias you don’t see in new media. If you want more information about Tony Kornheiser, go to the main Washington Post page. If you want more information about their tech podcast, do to the front page of the Washington Post. In other words, they think the institution is more noteworthy and important than the individual show. This is an old school branding mindset, and possibly an institutional mindset but it is not a mindset with a future in the audience. I’ll be honest, I don’t give a fart in the wind about the Washington Post as an institution. I don’t care about NPR or NBC or HBO or even Mevio. I care about Burn Notice as a program, about Late Night with David Letterman, about The Rock and Roll Geek Show and Tiki Bar TV.
There is no instance where my interest in a program is superseded by my interest in their parent organization, old media or new, online or off. If I’m looking for more information about Burn Notice, I don’t want to be sent to the main USA Network sites any more than I want to be sent to the Warner Brothers site for Watchmen movie information.
The fact that media companies set up their RSS feeds the way they do betrays a little bit about their mindset right there in XML tags. The Washington Post is the destination to them, even when it’s Kornheiser you are interested in. Here’s a quick bit of fun, go to the front page of the Post site and try to navigate to Tony Kornheiser’s podcast (Which is now called Talking Points Podcast) from there without using the text search function. Put a clock on it for a bit of fun.
I’ve observed this as a technical phenomenon for years but this is the first time I thought through to the end why this might be and the cultural conditions inside these companies that lead this way. It’s a mismatch between the power of the media company brand of the past and the realities of the networked future. Media companies are becoming more like common carriers and less like trusted brands. I’m sure they don’t like that but it’s the truth, and the truth hurts.