Pass me my tinfoil hat…

I’m not sure if this falls under the “just in the nick of time,” or “too little too late” heading, but it appears that this fall, the major TV networks have finally realized that more eyeballs are focused on computer screens (yes, yes, aren’t they my droogies?) rather than TV screens.  Well, at least in the demographics that advertisers actually want to pay for.

For at least 10 years, even the ragged beggars plying the alleys off Beverly & Wilshire could have told you that the paradigm, business model and buzzword-of-the-moment describing the way that TV networks aggregated audience was doomed.  Of course, after they told you so, said ragged beggars would have ascribed this to the Lava Men bouncing laser beams off the flying saucers and bypassing TV sets to stream content directly into our brains.  Don’t laugh – somewhere this exciting new content-distribution model is being pitched to a suite full of Angel Investors.

Back to the (alleged) narrative, courtesy of Variety:

Come fall, three of the Big Four networks are turning those precepts
inside out with the launch of ambitious online syndication services
designed to distribute their top shows into cyberspace, shotgun style.
Contempo net execs see it as a bold effort to piece together the mass
audience of old — one Web site, one blog and one cellphone screen at a

With the initiatives unveiled during the past two months,
net execs say they realize the need to be more aggressive in getting
their shows out in front of the 80 million-100 million users who flock
to such Web titans as Yahoo, MSN and AOL each month. And as online
sources continue to pull ad dollars away from traditional TV, it’s an
expand-or-die bid by broadcasters to grab more of the $15 billion-$17
billion in domestic online advertising spending, which is projected to
balloon to $26 billion by 2011, according to Jupiter Research.

the inverse of traditional television. You no longer have the leverage
of scarcity” in the online realm with pirated material freely whizzing
around the world, says CBS Interactive prexy Quincy Smith, who is
spearheading the CBS Audience Network initiative. “Now you have just
the opposite situation. So you want to put your (shows) in as many
places with different distributors who attract a slightly different

And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, couldn’t put your audience back together again.  Sorry, media dinosaurs, but these moves will at best lead to survival.  The good old days of there being 3 video outlets dominating the market and free money flowing for everyone who wanted to play are definitely over.  The fact that it’s taken the networks this long to really acknowledge that their audience just isn’t there anymore is one of the strongest testimonials to the failure of the American higher educational system that I have seen.

Listen to this whistling past the graveyard:

“We believe in ubiquity distribution,” says George Kliavkoff,
NBC Universal’s chief digital officer and interim head of the nascent
(and still unnamed) online syndication joint venture of NBC U and News
Corp. “We think that on any platform, quality always wins. We have the
quality content that will aggregate an audience.”

Now far be it from me to downplay the appeal of high-value content.  One of the lessons that was drummed into my head during my days fighting it out tooth and nail in the circulation wars between the Star and the Eq, was that to win, you had to have something that nobody else had.  An “exclusive.” 

The problem with the TV networks is that their content-creation backbones are rotted and calcified like … well, like arthritic dinosaurs.  For example: until quite recently, the workflow regulations over at ABC called for each script to pass through 12 (at least) levels of review.  I think the only place in the dot-com world where you would find that thick & massive a layer of bureaucracy between innovation and execution would be IBM.  Maybe Microsoft, when it rolls out a new OS. 

Meanwhile, over at Apple, the movie companies are starting to grumble openly about the worst-kept secret about the iPod: that it is generally full of pirated music. Now that bandwidth and the expertise in dealing with the tricky VOB files is starting to converge, movie companies are glancing fearfully at the smoking ruins of the music industry, and trying to take what they feel are pro-active measures:

Apple says it trusts its customers to do the right thing, but movie
studios don’t think that’s enough. So some are holding up licensing
deals, trying to pressure Apple to take more aggressive steps to combat
piracy. For example, they want Apple’s devices to look for a unique
identifying code, known as a watermark, on digital video to certify
that it is a legitimate copy — and to refuse to play the film when that
watermark is absent.

“Our position is, if you want our content,
you have to protect our business,” said a movie-studio executive, who,
like every other entertainment executive interviewed for this article,
requested anonymity because he is involved in negotiations with Apple.

executives declined to comment for this story because of the continuing
talks. Speaking at the D: All Things Digital conference last month,
Chief Executive Steve Jobs jokingly referred to Apple TV as the
company’s “hobby.”

“The reason I call it a hobby is a lot of people have tried and failed to make that a business,” he said.

about doing business with Apple is nothing new. The music labels and
television networks also worried that digital distribution of songs or
TV shows through Apple would cannibalize their existing businesses. But
ultimately, they took the plunge.

Further down in the excellent LA Times story, the writers hit upon a nascent and nasty little fight brewing between Apple and Wal-Mart.  Since Wal-Mart is now *the* retailer in America, getting your discs on the end-caps (that is, the little wire baskets on the ends of the aisles, where the most foot traffic sees the product) has been the key to making beaucoup bux in the home video market.  But now that Apple is looking to cut prices for moves to $14, Wal-Mart is looking at someone making a mockery of their biggest ad push, which is that they offer the lowest prices (cue: floating smiley face slashing cardboard placards).  Thus, the studios are worrying (do they ever do anything else?) that Wal-Mart will unilaterally slash prices and demand that the studios do the same on their DVDs. 

Meanwhile, the whole 30-second ad structure is collapsing like a sandcastle in a rip current. The next generation of TVs due out from LG and others are (allegedly – we’ll see at the Infocomm conference down in Anaheim later this month) integrated with DVRs. That means that viewers will be introduced from the ground up to the wonders of being able to skip past crap-ass commercials.  This may not mean that much to the late-night viewers who do the video walk from channel to channel, looking for whatever, and finding themselves stuck on watching some Ron Popeil masterpiece … but then again, such people, given a DVR, will find it much easier to find something that they like to watch. 

Unintended consequence: look for the death of the info-mercial.  At least as we now know it.  Infomercials are going to have to be much tighter integrated into content to get the target audience of late-night losers, stoners, and cranked-up trailer tweekers to tune in. Thus, the Pocket Fisherman will have to expand its message from just being a 30-sec or 1-minute spot to being a 1/2 hour show featuring some overinflated Hawaiian Tropic model zooming around on a bass boat and hocking the convenience of having a fishing rod that you can just stow into your glove box.  Or whatever. 

What will this mean for the channels grubbing for traffic crumbs on the far reaches of the dial? Dunno.  But it’s interesting to speculate…

Meanwhile, if the big networks are serious about trying to jam their “premium” content on every available platform in a desperate last-ditch effort to cram such development-process gems as “Joey” and “CSI: Toad Suck, Arkansas” down our gullets, well, it might not be a bad idea to invest in some protective aluminum foil.  Cause, y’know, the guy with the underwear outside his pants might be onto something…

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