Media Without Borders

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To those who might have been confused by my “farewell” column” (The Truth) last week, please accept my apology, reread the first paragraph and pay close attention to point number two. Now – freed of the eventual burden of a final Drift – I’m back to writing the column on a more-or-less regular basis. Enjoy.

At the recent iMedia Brand Summit, I interviewed both Larry Kramer, President of CBS Digital Media, and Caroline Little, CEO of Washington Post Newsweek Interactive, on the transitions being made by major terrestrial media companies in today’s freewheeling digital age. We chose the theme “Media withoutBorders”  (iMedia Summit)  for these discussions, reasoning that as content assets and the tools of newsgathering and content creation all become digitized, media disciplines and boundaries would blur.

At the very same conference, Professor Henry Jenkins of MIT spoke of a convergence culture (http://www.imediaconnection.com/summits/coverage/8164.asp) in which it was more important to generate emotional capital than to police intellectual property. He showed examples of how “clueless corporations” had struck back at fans who’d dared to gush about their favorite movies and games online. (“Take that photo of you in the Jar-Jar Binks costume off your site immediately!”) We all shook our heads in unison and traded knowing looks.

This week we saw that one man’s free trade zone is another’s electric fence. NBC Universal unleashed the bloodhounds and border guards in pursuit of YouTube.com (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/20/business/media/20youtube.html?_r=3&oref=slogin&oref=slogin&oref=slogin) which had posted viral clips of a Saturday Night Live bit called “Lazy Sunday.” In protecting its copyrights, NBC said it would still let people view the video for free on NBC.com or buy it on iTunes for $1.99. My purpose in writing about this incident is not to throw rocks at NBC; it’s quite possible that they had little choice in the matter given contractual obligations to the on-air talent and to iTunes. It’s more instructive to look at the short- and long-term implications for media and content owners.

In protecting its copyrights NBC is telling potential viewers (coincidentally the same kind of 12-30-year-olds who could reinvigorate the moribund SNL franchise) “we will dictate the time and place you will interact with this content.” You can come to the NBC Website – which we can imagine is ground zero for today’s youth culture – or you can pay two bucks and have it sit on your computer or iPod (with, presumably, limitations on sharing). NBC and SNL end up with some page views and their accompanying ad impressions, and a revenue split with Steve Jobs on a couple hundred thousand dollars in downloads. End of story. The bit does not live on in perpetuity like legendary SNL gags of the past like Samurai Delicatessen or Gumby or even Makin’ Copies. Instead it fades from public consciousness; subsequent episodes of the bit are greeted with shrugs and never mentioned around the water cooler; and “Lazy Sunday” stars Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg don’t get the movie deals that were once a birthright for SNL headliners. Worse yet, NBC fails to reinvigorate a franchise that desperately needs some juice. Ironically, someone in the network marketing department is probably having a meeting right now about starting a viral campaign to support the show – even as legal affairs is snuffing one out.

Let’s look at another scenario. Equipped with their own digital tools, the uber-nerds of the millennial generation take a liking to “Lazy Sunday” and begin posting and swapping the file. The bit becomes an online phenomenon and ends up passed around by hundreds of thousands of young potential viewers. Blogs and discussion groups spring up among the enamored. Future episodes of SNL with new “Lazy Sunday” bits are greeted with great anticipation, spiking viewership at least moderately. Parnell and Samberg become household names among 20-something ironics. Alerted to the continued existence of SNL, they start picking up and sharing other bits they see. Within weeks, Saturday Night Live regains its water cooler impact — not because it’s pumping the ratings from 1977, but because it’s now become the weekly comedy version of a Grateful Dead concert that legions of loyal fans want to talk about.

Again, NBC may have had no real choice in how it handled this situation. But if I were building or maintaining an entertainment franchise in today’s ADD media world, I’d bet on scenario B over the course they’ve chosen. Aside from the occasional prime time breakout (American Idol or Desperate Housewives) networks rarely spawn their own viral phenomena – and even the monster hits tend to have a relatively short viral shelf-life.

Jeff Zucker hasn’t asked for my advice, but if he did it would be simple. Young viewers are never going to say, “Dude this is really sick! Go to NBC.com and check it out.” The internet is now the third rail of entertainment. So lose some control, plug in and trust your customers. They just might reward you big time.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver

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