Danny Sullivan is a pretty smart dude. If you're not familiar with him, it probably means you haven't dabbled much in SEO. And when he wrote yesterday about paying Rupert Murdoch three times for the same piece of content, it really got me fired up. Because he's right--seriously, you should go read his rant at Murdoch about the frustrating state of entertainment media--but beyond just being right... he's explaining exactly why we may never quite reach the video promised land we'd all been hoping for: money.
Somebody Has To Stop Making Money
As viewers move online, television networks and content rights holders are beginning to scramble to make sure they don't lose profits or disappear altogether. Cable operators were more savvy, and cemented their presence in our lives by becoming ISP's during the broadband boom. So even if we all cut the cord, most "cable" companies still stand to profit off the Internet connections consumers turn to.
But that's not enough for them, is it? They've also created online portals for content so they can still hold some of the strings... and they're pressuring the current streaming providers like Hulu to cut back on content availability--that's Danny's point on The Simpsons & Hulu... that he can't watch the program because "big cable" has convinced Hulu partners like Fox to restrict their programming. (And let's not even talk about cable's push into home phone service, and how the only real decent prices a consumer can get on cable or Internet are now contingent upon the purchase of an archaic home phone service.)
Hollywood wanted in on Netflix's profits... until they realized they were a threat... and now we have Ultraviolet (more on that monstrosity in a moment).
It feels like everyone in the entertainment media industry is just a few steps away from taking their ball and going home. And we'll have NBC.com for their shows, and Fox.com for their shows, and Netflix.com for their original content (and maybe some older movies), etc. A la carte of the worst variety... 50 different destinations and 50 different logins. And if anyone comes along and offers you one subscription to several or all of these individual sources... it'll be the same guy that you've been paying all these years: big cable.
For our video dream to come true, somebody has to stop making money. Somebody has to die off. The longer all the old-world entertainment giants keep a grip on things, the further we get from our dream. And I don't think any of them are going to just quit.
Stubbornness Is More Forgivable Than Greed
I can understand a company that's operated in a certain industry in a certain way for many years being stubborn about adapting to new media. I can. Habits take years to break... new technology can be scary. I get it. But we're talking about so much more than stubbornness here. We're talking about outright greed.
Remember the "special edition" DVD craze Hollywood went on, where they'd put out a bare bones copy of the film, and you'd buy it. Then they'd release a fancier version, with commentaries... and you'd buy it. Then they'd put out a super-deluxe version, with the director's signature on the cover... and you'd buy it. Remember that? Ulraviolet, Hollywood's big gamble on digital content sales, is that kind of greed reborn.
Thankfully, it's most likely doomed to fail. Maybe that's just wishful thinking.
Instead of just transitioning to the digital age with grace, Hollywood has decided to take the opportunity to get greedy. You see, no matter how much you enjoy your digital movie from Ultraviolet... no matter how many times you watch it on your laptop, iPad, or mobile phone... you'll never actually own it. Because Ultraviolet is not a download service... it's a streaming cloud service.
So after decades of selling you an actual copy of a movie that you can own, transport, lend to friends, or set on fire... Hollywood has decided that with the digital age comes an added perk: no more ownership. Once you turn your back on DVD and Blue-Ray, you'll never "own" another movie again. You will not lend your movie to friends. You will not have it on a hard drive somewhere. Why? Because every single one of you are filthy pirates, obviously.
(On a related note, go grab all the DVD sets of your favorite television show... it'll be the last format for TV series where you can actually own and possess a copy of what you buy. I would gladly pay hundreds of dollars to legally download the entire Seinfeld series, because I love it. But they won't sell that to me, because then I'll never give them another Seinfeld dollar again. So instead, they restrict it, and I pay them nothing. This, to them, somehow counts as winning.)
Hollywood Doesn't Get It
In a previous life I spent a great deal of time managing movie theaters. Two of my best friends still do. I could fill a week's worth of articles with evidence of Hollywood's greed. Back a decade or so ago, George Lucas sent out a list of rules for theater employees during The Phantom Menace's theatrical run, which included the specification that ushers walk the auditoriums backwards, so they wouldn't get a free glimpse of the screen. I'm totally serious, just on the off chance you think I'm using hyperbole.
(Don't get me wrong, folks... the movie theaters themselves are every bit as greedy as the studios... I'm not absolving them; they're just not my chief targets today).
Did you know that the executives at Hollywood studios still send out locked copies of their films for preview screenings (early advance screenings of films not yet released), most often accompanied by an actual security guard? This is despite the fact that the "film prints" are going mostly digital across the country, meaning there's no physical film to protect in most cases (it's a download). But the studio idiots still lock out the digital copy of the movie so that no one who works at the theater can screen it early. And they often screen customers at preview showings to ensure no one has a camera, even checking bags.
And anyone with half a brain knows that most "pirates" don't seek out shaky, handheld camera versions of pirated films. By far the most activity for piracy is related to more pristine copies of films created from DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, advance screeners, or source copies of the material. But instead of admitting that it's their own system that's creating the piracy problem, Hollywood continues to blindly blame the audience... the projectionist... the usher.
And who do you think pays for all the added security, it's coordination, and the various administrative costs? Who do you think pays for all those cute anti-piracy ads that run before your in-theater trailers (and also blame the in-theater consumer for all the world's piracy woes)? It's you, of course. And me. In the added 50 cents we're going to see in our ticket prices this summer... or passed on in costs to the theater chains, who tack it onto a large popcorn.
Google As White Knight?
If this competitiveness and greed with the film and television companies continues, and they keep fragmenting their content online... will there be any simple way for consumers to actually... you know... "consume" content instead of spending all their free time hunting it down? Believe it or not there probably will be, in the form of your old friend, Google.
Love them or hate them, Google is ultimately in the best position to stand in the gap and help consumers find the content they want in this possible future. Why? Because search may be the only way to centralize the consumer's search to find all their favorite shows and films. Because Google TV could fill the same roll as connected TVs become the norm (unless the studios continue to stupidly block the service). And because YouTube (Google owned) is going to be one of the few places where you can find a wide variety of professional content.
And as more and more brands and businesses move into content-as-marketing, YouTube will continue to be their distribution channel of choice. Combine that with YouTube's own original content endeavors... and you can begin to see how YouTube/Google might thrive even while most other non-studio-driven streaming services flail.
For those of you still with me, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not sure I have a point. Not just one, at least. I knew I'd be a little all over the place on this one.
Hollywood is broken, obstinate, and greedy. The television networks or production companies aren't any different. For that reason alone I'm sure they'll collectively continue to gum up the works on the road to a video promised land. Most of them likely won't stop until you're all paying them for the same piece of content 3 times like Danny is, or worse... paying for it 5 or 6 times.
The only way a newer company can exist in the digital age outside the old-world system, like a Netflix, is to create it's own content (effectively turning it into a studio)... which means they will no longer be the thing we were all attracted to in the first place (one destination for tons and tons of movies and tv shows).
Whatever your video utopia was... whatever you called it... "TV everywhere" or "cord cutting" or "a la carte," I wish you a lifetime of patience. Because you're going to need it.
Whatever the future of premium video content is... it's not going to be what you want it to be, of that I am sure. And it'll probably be expensive. It sure as hell won't be any cheaper.