For the last couple years, the media mega-corporations have been lusting after what could best be described as the three Ls: Large, loyal and legal audiences. This has proven trickier than anyone expected.
For instance, Napster was large, but illegal. Now, after lawsuits, a shut-down and re-opening, it's legal, but no longer large.
As such, Saturday's news in the Wall Street Journal was a late-in-the-year stunner for the TV world: Three of the big four TV networks are in talks to create an anti-YouTube, just two months after the wildly popular viral video site sold to Google for more than $1.7 billion.
Per the Journal,
"The talks are driven by media companies' belief that the fast-growing YouTube has built a huge business off their video content. Although many of the videos on YouTube are homemade videos uploaded by users, some of its most popular clips are pirated copies of television shows."
Ah, and there's the rub: TV shows. Not "NBC shows." Not "ABC shows." Not "CBS shows."
Online, there's only two kinds of video -- 'Cool', and stuff that 'sucks.' The kids don't care about which network created it or needs to profit from it, and that's going to be Lesson One for the networks, which already seem to have devolved into sectarian squabbling.
"The talks deal with complicated matters for the networks--how to put programming on the Internet without cannibalizing TV efforts; how to do that quickly enough to prevent YouTube from profiting; and how to avoid ceding control or branding to partners. ABC parent Walt Disney is not participating in the talks, preferring to go it alone, while the group snubbed a proposal from News Corp., which also owns Fox, to use its MySpace social-networking site as the host of the video, the source said."
Such inter-network squabbling is sounding more and more like a fight over who gets to drive the car off the cliff.
"The four networks may have it wrong: Sending more audiences online may wean them further off the television set. Four rivals competing for mindshare may not settle in harmoniously when each one is out to promote its own slate of new shows. Local affiliates will grow a few more gray hairs."
We ask: When Google's YouTube has already got two of the three L's -- largeness and loyalty -- why reinvent the wheel and quibble over a legality you can never fully enforce?
And as the Journal notes, "The latest round of talks could still founder. All the media companies are weighing attractive offers from Google to pay them licensing fees for their videos to play on YouTube. Google has offered to pay fees of as much as $140 million over three years to Fox, according to a person with knowledge of the offer."
When companies try to own the trains and the tracks, they can get into real trouble -- and not just financially. (Just ask Microsoft.) But more than anything else, getting this many egos to overcome their fears of piracy when viral video is, at its heart, all about breaking the rules -- will surely lead to expensive mediocrity. Just look at the studios wildly unpopular joint venture, Movielink.
Dealing with Google isn't just a good idea; for the TV networks, it's probably the only idea. It just seems that Disney just figured that out a lot sooner than anyone else.