Here’s my latest Guardian column (nonregistration page here). It’s about Viacom pulling its clips off YouTube but what it’s really about is the end of control as a media business strategy:
The days of doing business by telling customers what they cannot do are nearing an end. If your customers want to watch your shows, listen to your songs, read your news, or play your games, can you still get away with telling them they cannot unless they come to you and use your devices, pay your fees, and follow your rules? That could work in a scarcity economy in which you owned all the stuff and the means to get it. But no more. Business isn’t about control any more.
The wise company today will go with the flow of the public’s desires and try to figure out how to make money by helping them do what they want to do. That may sound obvious, but it’s not how media work. In the age of consumption, control was what media were about. In the age of creation, they should be about enabling.
Take Viacom. The American media giant – owner of MTV, Comedy Central, iFilm, Paramount, and much more – followed the old rules this month when it demanded that YouTube take down 100,000 clips that viewers had put up there. Mind you, Viacom was quite within its rights, for it controls the copyright to that content. And as a content creator myself, I’m no foe of copyright. It’s also clear that this is a negotiating move on Viacom’s part.
Still, it wasn’t a smart move. And here’s why: the evening before Viacom’s announcement, my teenage son and webmaster brought his laptop to the dinner table – yes, that is what life is like in the home of bloggers – and showed me a YouTube clip of his hero, Bill Gates, being interviewed by my hero, comic Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central’s faux news, The Daily Show. My son had never watched Stewart. Nor does he ever channel-surf the TV. The only – only – way he is going to discover a new show is via the internet, and the best way for him to do that is via YouTube. Yet the next day, that clip disappeared from YouTube and thus Viacom cut itself off from its future audience.
Comedy Central has put clips on its own site and even allows them to be embedded, like YouTube players, on blogs. Fine. But the first problem with that is that the network is speaking to the audience it already has. To attract a new audience – to make up for the free YouTube promotion it has now cut off – Viacom will have to invest marketing money. Control can be expensive. The second problem is that the network, not the audience, is picking the good stuff now. If your audience wants to praise and recommend and pass around your best stuff, why wouldn’t you let them, encourage them, enable them?
At the recent McGraw Hill Media Summit in New York, online mogul and conference keynote star Barry Diller said that “the issue is availability”. The music industry, he said, “stuck its head in the dumb sand for way too long”, but that won’t happen to the video industry because “everybody’s going to make everything available”. The question is where and how. Diller said that producers won’t want to find themselves at the mercy of a single powerful distributor, as they were in the early days of cable TV in the US. Fair enough, but they don’t have to. Their videos can be on their sites and on YouTube; they should be everywhere. Diller argued that Viacom will make money from its clips with advertising, subscription fees and micropayments (the last long-promised and prayed-for but still not materialising). I say he left out the other business model: free promotion of their core business, their network shows.
Rather than cutting off new distributors and promoters, I say that producers should be finding the ways to take full advantage of the opportunities they present. How can you build new audience for free and grow larger than you ever could when you were limited by your own distribution and marketing? How can you enable that growing audience to recommend and share your best stuff? How can you find yourself in a larger conversation – not just in comments on your site, but in the response videos people make on YouTube and elsewhere? How can you use this new medium to find new talent and new ways to make content for less? And, yes, how can you make advertising revenue on the clips that are on YouTube and then on the countless blogs that embed its videos? If, in its negotiation with YouTube, Viacom manages to crack that nut – getting revenue plus promotion plus branding plus content while helping the audience do what it wants to do – then that would be wise, indeed. We’ll see. My advice is simple: find the flow. Then go with it.