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A Plea: Don’t Overthrow King Content

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Traditional media powerhouses, who spent the better part of the 20th Century perfecting content production and distribution, will have to change everything or risk being left behind. But there are some old-world moves, according to Bear Sterns, that will keep them afloat in a world to be ruled by Google and Yahoo.

A Plea: Don't Overthrow King Content
Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of Content

Bear in mind, these are suits trying to wrap themselves around the world of the non-suits, dollars at the end of the stick in front of them.

But their presentation on the Long Tail, and why aggregation and context will push – shove – the future, is more on the mark than the Madison Avenue types grasping at a wave, when they should be riding it, at the Video On the Net Conference in Boston earlier this year.

Like a few others, they’ve voiced a disagreeable opinion by downplaying the role of quality content (perhaps because of a narrow definition of “quality” – we should adjust that to be “polished” vs. “unpolished” or “real” vs. “scripted”). The buzz phrase, or “sweet spot,” as they’ve called it, is CONTENT PACKAGING.

History tells them, as broadcast network owners (incumbents, they called them) had to adjust to cable by swallowing up cable, that as content becomes less selected and more selective (few choices giving way to infinite choices), the best way to deal with an infinite competition (user-generated content), is to buy it rather than fight it; collect it all into neat cable-like packages to reduce the overwhelming amount of choices while gathering larger sets of eyeballs.

Google and News Corp. are way ahead of the rest in this respect. Google not only aggregates and makes content easily findable via contextual technology, but now also owns YouTube, a repository for the biggest threat to television to ever come around.

While the traditional media overlords are stumbling, either by ignoring it or trying to squash it (see the RIAA’s assertion that the Internet may need to be shut down to protect copyright), News Corp. is buying the hottest online property there is where content is produced by the consumer for the consumer. MySpace is just the place to go to find it all, relieving News Corp. of the need to produce. They just need to gather and package.

Of course, comparing this content packaging model to cable is dangerous ground. The extreme of it is what Network Neutrality proponents have been so vehemently fighting: access to content controlled, and sometimes prevented, by a select few powerbrokers.

The concept is right, but the potential for abuse is enormous. Bear Sterns has the guiding assumption that this fragmented world (once called the enemy of broadcast) where consumers can create and distribute content cheaply and quickly will result in infinite choices.

But if there are gatekeepers at every turn, who want to sell you packages of content via hundreds of channels (of which you watch three, or waste your day steadily building a callous on your thumb), then those choices, like cable has illustrated, will become substantially less.

User-generated content is popular, in part, because of the way television producers destroyed the overall appeal of reality TV by saturating the market with it, forcing contrived scenarios that seem scripted, lines delivered by cookie-cutter pretty people with no substance or depth whatsoever – what my mother called, when referring to certain pre-packaged foods, “empty calories.”

And that kind of defeats the point.

If Net Neutrality is not upheld, expect fewer, not-what-you-wanted choices. The transition, as Bear Sterns noted, was from an economy of scarcity to an economy of abundance, an economy that has historically grown demand. This is not, necessarily, what content packagers want. It’s too unruly, unpredictable, too difficult to formulize and monetize.

At the end of it all, if anything, any part of this revolution is to remain pure (revolutions rarely do, though), then a set of fragmented, sublimely unruly truths will need to be maintained in balance with the cold reality of economics.

Content needs to remain king, riding a chariot of aggregators and contextual packaging; supported but not overshadowed by advertising; open, hippie, granola and patchouli while spending some of that loose harmony with the grey-suits, working in some utopian accord; completely accessible, rather than roped in and gated by money-worshippers; a long tail ridden rather than grabbed.

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