Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Content Paradox

The "old media" Goliaths like News Corporation, Viacom, CBS, Disney, NBC Universal and Time Warner are often said to be doomed to extinction by the Internet, yet it's content produced and owned by those same companies that's the most popular on the Internet. Those of us in the U.S. may complain about Hulu's limited selection of and time limits on access to content, yet Hulu is envied by content consumers around the world. YouTube would never have gotten to where it is today without all the "old media" content that was (and still is) uploaded for free consumption. If YouTube had depended totally on user-generated content, it never would have reached critical mass.

We may not like the restrictions and limitations that the old media companies put on usage of their content, but they own it, and they have the right (subject to "first sale" rules and other restrictions in the U.S.) to control how it's sold and distributed.

No Internet "new media" companies have content that's in the same popularity class as the old media companies. Producer/Distributors such as Revision3 and TWiT have built very solid businesses. TWiT, Leo Laporte's company, is attracting bigger audiences than TechTV ever did, and judging from Laporte's own comments, it's making a nice profit. However, the audience for all of TWiT's programming is tiny compared to any of the old media sites. Thus the paradox: The Internet relies on old media to drive traffic to new media sites, but the vast majority of original new media properties can't find big enough audiences to sustain themselves financially.

The Internet has lowered the barriers to entry for content producers and distributors down to almost nothing, but making the content available and getting people to read or watch it are two very different things. Building a big enough audience that your content or site becomes attractive to advertisers is much more difficult, and getting people to pay to access the content is even yet more difficult. The old media companies have at least solved the problem of getting people to watch or read their content, but the new media companies all have to start from scratch to build an audience.

Old media isn't having that much easier a time of it on the Internet--just today, for example, Hulu announced that Viacom's Comedy Central is withdrawing its programming at midnight on March 10th, thus removing some of the most topical and popular content from the site. Hulu is widely believed to be unprofitable, and rumors have been flying for months that its parent companies (News Corporation, NBC Universal, Disney and Providence Equity Partners) have been pushing it to adopt a pay model in addition to its existing advertising-supported model. So, simply bringing old media content to the Internet isn't a formula for financial success.

This argument is going to continue until someone releases a breakout hit on the Internet, figures out how to make money with it and builds a profitable, growing media business. Until that happens, the Internet will remain primarily a distribution channel for old media, rather than a viable channel for launching new media.

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