Feeding TV Audiences With Video

There wasn’t supposed to be a second part to my column from two weeks ago, but I just couldn’t resist.

Within hours of its airing on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (SNL), yet another nugget of comedy brilliance hit YouTube. This time, the video was a Natalie Portman gangsta rap. And just as with the infamous “Lazy Sunday,” people began sharing it online with thousands of others.

By the time you read this, the video will probably already be down from YouTube and legally available at NBC.com and iTunes. But didn’t NBC just threaten YouTube with a lawsuit for the similar “Lazy Sunday” fiasco? How did this happen again?

The answer’s simple. Because it could happen again. The technology available to the average consumer makes it so easy to lift a segment from a TV show and share it with the world, there’s virtually nothing you can do to hamper it unless you put copy protection on broadcast television. And that doesn’t look like it’s happening any time soon. With a TV tuner card and an Internet connection, you can have something you see on TV on the Web in minutes.

It’s only going to get easier. Microsoft’s new Vista operating system will have its Media Center functionality built into virtually every new PC. Microsoft is positioning itself to be the center of your home entertainment universe. Even in Windows’ current incarnations, you can have a PC as your PVR (define) in one room, recording high-definition (HD) content, which can then be streamed to any other room in the house (or on your network) using an Xbox 360 or other Windows Media Extender hardware attached to a TV. After realizing you can do that, throwing recorded content online is child’s play.

Should national broadcast networks be nervous? ABC-lutely. Should basic cable networks watch out? MTVery much so. And what about subscription cable networks? SHO’nuff.

Folks who use P2P (define) networks have been guilty of illegally distributing TV series for years. Although some may argue it’s actually increased viewership, there’s no doubt revenue is lost from advertisers and DVD sales.

This is what’s happening via the currently-known-as “YouTube effect.” But it’s nothing new. It’s piracy in a medium that a few years earlier had nothing to worry about it. The music and movie industries have fought it for decades, but only now does piracy pose a serious threat to TV. Why would I tune into “SNL” on NBC when I know that the next morning I can see the funniest skit on YouTube, without commercials?

To date, PVRs haven’t proven to be the ad-killers people made them out to be because, for the most part, the content stayed on one device. Only now are PVR technologies that allow content to be moved being deployed en masse. Time-shifting, watching the content you want to watch when you want to, is relatively benign compared to “place-shifting,” watching the content you want to watch where you want to.

Sound familiar? It should, because it happened before with the music industry. Only now, some 10 years after technology became widely available to download, store, and share music illegally, is the music industry finally realizing significant revenue from that same technology.

What the television industry must do is protect its content by making it even easier for audiences to consume its content where and when they want it — in the best quality and most versatile format. Content must be brought to consumers, not taken away from them.

At this point, it should be fairly obvious to NBC what content will be the most viral. Why not move quickly and sell a sponsorship of every “Lonely Island” (the team behind “Lazy Sunday”) clip to an advertiser willing to pay to be associated with this hot content? Develop your own YouTube-like video sharing functionality and release the content into the wild in such high quality that watching it from any other source would be a lesser experience. If the precedent is indicative of the content’s potential, an advertiser would be willing to pay top dollar for a brief “brought to you by” message up front and a post-roll ad behind each clip.

A solution such as this could bring leverage back to the network without taking content availability away from the consumer, and still enable easy sharing.

Though this could ostensibly work very well with short-form content, could it work for longer-form programming? Basic cable networks airing similar programming will run up against this problem any day now. Subscription cable networks have already begun to head this problem off at the pass by making their content available on demand.

In a way, TV networks have it easy. Unless you’re a real audiophile, there’s no real quality loss in music files. As consumers are weaned onto the HD standard, demand for quality will likely increase and lower their tolerance for poor quality. Have you ever watched HBO’s “Rome” in HD? If so, you’ll never want to see it any other way.

The following ideas just may shift leverage back to the networks. They’re not only based on events that have transpired recently, but also on what the music industry took too long to embrace:

  • Utilize paid rich media and video advertising to deliver promotional content “snacks” directly to the consumer, while reminding them of relevant tune-in information. Empower them to spread the message.
  • License or develop proprietary ad-supported content sharing mechanisms, or partner with online publishers that do to reach the largest possible audience.
  • Create original online content every bit as good as the programming itself to drive audiences back to their TVs for the full experience.
  • Make it easy to find and fall in love with programming. The Web may not ever be the minor leagues of TV programming, but it can certainly be used as platform for growing a series organically (I firmly believe “Arrested Development” would have been a bigger success with careful handling of online communities and the Web at large). After all, it wasn’t long ago that “Family Guy” was brought back to television partially due to a rabid online fan base. That, in turn, led to brisk DVD sales.

The above in no way represent the only solutions to a rapidly growing problem. But by learning lessons from the past, the TV industry can avoid making the same mistakes other industries have. Sharing appealing content is natural behavior for audiences. Rich media and video should be two tools that are used to feed this behavior intelligently; in ways that benefit the networks rather than hurt them.

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