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Friday, October 13, 2006

Time Warner to Sue Google/YouTube? and Musings on the Future of Media

Unsurprisingly, the recent Google-YouTube buyout has attracted the sharks of the world. Dick Parsons, chairmain and chief executive of Time Warner (note that Warner Music has signed a deal to display music videos on Google Video), has signaled an intent to pursue copyright infringement complaints against YouTube. Parsons claims the recent deal had nothing to do with it, however. While this is likely to be more of a negotiating tactic (Parson also said, "We'd like to have our content displayed on these platforms, but on a basis that it respects our rights as the owner of that content."), there's no question that more lawsuits will be forthcoming, if only from other sources.

At core, traditional media companies are feeling the whiff of competition in the air. Alternative distribution channels for media are opening up and maturing, and ownership of the airwaves is slowly eroding in significance. How long before MySpace decides to open up its own record label (a million bands have already signed up, and there must be something worthwhile amidst all the dross), or YouTube decides to fund videos from its more popular content creators? It's not that unthinkable given the deep pockets that YouTube has just gotten access to. Plus, it isn't likely to cost much anyway.

If a rather shabby video created on a shoestring budget can get millions of viewers, then the flashy and costly videos created by companies like Time Warner will seem rather less affordable. Content is becoming less of an advantage for traditional media companies since there is a leveling in terms of technology (cheaper and better digital cameras) and processing (cheaper and better software). Where they do retain the advantage is in context, say, a movie theater. Many people are willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money to enjoy being in a big dark room surrounded by other people, feeling their excitement, and participating in a communal experience.

There is room in the world for spectacle, which traditional media has the scale and experience to provide, but more and more there will be an increasing array of entertainment options that will dilute audience attention. The personal touch that most corporations are incapable of exhibiting is something that appeals to people, and the spread of cameraphones and digital camcorders will give birth to a torrent of homemade video and other visual content like the Internet gave rise to an exponential increase in the amount of text data. The key is really that it won't just be amateurs producing content, but also experienced artists that decide to make a living outside of traditional media. If that model starts being viable, then today's shakily produced media will be replaced by tomorrow's professional-looking content.

In some ways, threats of copyright infringement are self-defeating since completely erasing such content from YouTube will simply lead viewers to watch content produced by independents, further eroding their audience (especially among the tech savvy younger generation which won't grow up watching MTV). Of course, they're counting on a deal being struck so their music videos will be shown online. It'll be interesting to see how successfully they handle the shifting winds of content creation toward the personal and unprofessional.


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