Yesterday, I wrote about all the new stories arising about online video and copyright: Google's YouTube announcement, the media company pact, the shutdown of TV Links, and NBC closing out its YouTube channel. I wanted to follow that piece up with the predictions I alluded to last night, as well as some recommendations:
1. The industry may actually be ready to work together - for now.
No, pacts to protect and defend copyright are not new, but we all saw what happened to the recording industry. It's very difficult to quantify revenue that one would have had, but that's not really stopping anyone. Overall, I expect more lawsuits filed by multiple plaintiffs for exorbitant damages, just to make a point and to tell television advertisers that the networks aren't allowing CPMs to increase without trying to get their audience back. Expect the creation of an industry-sanctioned YouTube-style site. How customers will react to leaving the sites they know to go to one they don't for content is yet to be seen, but I would not be overly alarmed, particularly if Hulu gets a reasonably large amount of traffic, if other networks or content producers jump on board. This leads me to my second prediction.
2. Aggregator sites are the next target.
Any kind of aggregator site with illegal content, whether its uploaded directly to the site or the sites link to it should be a little concerned at the moment. We are at a pretty crucial point when the content producers are finding their feet online and jumping off the free content whenever bandwagon. Although they have never exactly not tried to enforce copyright, I wouldn't be shocked if both they and cable companies who have an interest in copyright protection to hang on to subscribers, begin to pursue these sites more fiercely, even if it is by using different means. I don't think it will be possible or really cost effective to eliminate piracy altogether, but the more visible it is, at least in the medium-term, the more likely it is to be shut down, or at the very least, sued.
3. Audiences are the customers, and someone needs to give them a voice.
I am all for protecting intellectual property, even accessing online TV content becomes more costly and I need to watch more ads. I'm also not here to make normative judgments about people who make copyright infringing material available and those who watch it. However, what disturbs me about the events of last week is that I'm not sure that anyone is really thinking of the audience. Most individuals don't put copyright infringing material online for personal gain, but to show their affinity for a program and share it; suing and threatening these people just isn't good customer relations.
Working with fans and lead users - some recommendations
I would argue that the currency of the television industry is not airtime, but time and attention of specific audience demos, and some of those are very satisfied with the product (the programming) but not satisfied with the service. I don't think people really care where they get content online, but my sense is that their top priority is to be able to find, access and possibly refer others to, content both quickly and easily. If this service were provided by networks and studios, it would actually benefit everyone except the so-called pirate sites and help the networks communicate and understand segments of their audiences, particularly the leading edge users of television, in a way that ratings, sample audiences, and panels never could.
This doesn't necessarily mean that the media companies should produce their own YouTube. It might just mean search-engine optimization and unique, easy to find sites for individual shows, rather than requiring people to remember which network the programs are on. Or even a standard player across networks and a simple search engine or a piece of free software that people could install on their computers in which they could type the name of a show and be provided with a list of legal sources for it. Either of these would also be a way to track which programs people wanted to find legally but couldn't, so media companies would have a better sense of where to put their time and energy into making legal copies of older or obscure shows accessible.
It could also enable studios to capitalize on a fan's desire to share and promote shows, and know what elements are particularly popular. If it were possible, on a network site, to choose a short excerpt from a program and send it, in a couple of clicks, to your friends, that would probably be going a long way in negating the need to put copyright infringing work on YouTube. The option, on some network sites, to email links to a show to your friends are a good first step, but taking a page out of YouTube's books with embeddable clips and unique URL addresses would be even better, and capitalize on what consumers already know and to some degree, expect.
Will the media industry's efforts to protect copyright alienate its audience? Will the economic models for television production need to change if the networks won't respond to shifts in consumer behavior? Stay tuned...