So, reading Monday’s New York Times business section was like reading a week’s worth of Medialoper articles. Except, of course, that the Times did actual reporting, but, really, did they have to pay salaries and benefits to come up with an article entitled Hollywood Asks YouTube: Friend or Foe??
I think not.
A key quote in an article at Newsfactor, says it all:
Studios initially feared television in the 1950s, refusing to produce shows for the medium that executives were convinced would kill the motion picture business. Studios sued to block the videocassette recorder, convinced the technology would do nothing but lead to rampant piracy. The legal case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and established the rights of consumers to “time shift” content — record it at one time and watch it at another.
Simply put, if it messes with the current business model, Hollywood views technology as a foe. YouTube is a foe. The studios would say that’s because the site encourages — heck, invites — piracy, whatever that means (and, yes, I am saying that sincerely). When you make your living on back catalog, and do not doubt that back catalog is what keeps many studios going during the lean years, the trickling of this clip and that snippet is very threatening.
Never mind that most studios have content sitting on the shelves that only a mother can love. Or a really obsessed fan. Or a researcher desperately seeking that one Tom Waits appearance on Fernwood Tonight to prove, well, that Martin Mull wore really bad clothes once upon a time (the best line I found while researching this post: “This was a classic. It was the first time I heard the great line, from a drunk, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” ” — no, dear fan, the only drunk on that show was the piano). Or perhaps that he was truly reflecting the bad clothes of an era that should be forgotten. From the studio perspective, cleaning up and re-mastering and re-releasing Fernwood (or one of the many other Fernwoods out there) might be more money than its worth.
What then? Do you just let the series molder? Yeah, I know. Sony has digitized just about everything it owns. Good for them. I mean that sincerely. It’s a smart, smart move. But there’s a heck of a lot more to the process than creating a digital master. Omigosh, just the cost of licensing Happy Kyne’s music! Then there are the other costs — the participations, the residuals, etc. When you weigh the costs against the expected revenue (and, no, I haven’t done this analysis, nor will I; this was merely a fine example for my point), it’s probably not worth the expense.
So another niche favorite is relegated to the shelves.
But wait…there’s more! Out there in the real world, there is a booming market for this series. Hmm, booming may be the wrong word. But there is a clamor, a desire, even if said desire is nowhere near the blockbuster-level of desire for something like, oh, Taxi. Does Sony do itself any favors by locking up all aspects of this series from public view? Don’t get me started on piracy. Not right now.
Of course not. If you look around (sorry, no links!), there are people buying, selling, and trading episodes of this series. Sure, the lost dollars are negligible. I mean, how many weirdos are out there? You, dear person, can catch the clip of Waits singing on YouTube. And if you want the whole series, you’re the type of person who is willing to work for it. You know what I mean. Personally, I don’t believe that Tom Waits is losing a dime over this. Martin Mull and Fred Willard? Well, read on.
Sony Pictures Entertainment is holding this series hostage. Yeah, that’s the best way to describe it. I’m not saying their reasons are wrong. They are a business and make logical decisions. However… They could, without doing major work, release prime clips to YouTube or their own Grouper and make money the old-fashioned way. Sure, it’s not as stable or lucrative as the traditional syndication or video markets, but, hey, a buck’s a buck. Internet advertising is big money these days.
Yes, there would still be the costs associated with the music. And anyone with half a brain knows that the next big battle between the guilds and the studios is going to be over digital content, especially what the studios like to call promotional clips (you know, short content). So, Mull and Willard would likely be expecting due compensation for this exploitation. Fair enough. With minimal costs — heck, maybe no real costs at all — the cool bits and pieces of this series could be made available to the fans who really want this programming.
Maybe a new generation of weirdos will catch on to the sheer genius of this show. Maybe a random blogger will hype this segment or that and drive major traffic to YouTube (increasing ad revenue) without a single marketing person doing a thing. Or maybe this low revenue-generating series will continue as is, but maybe bringing in a few extra bucks per year. The problem is that as long as the studios see online outlets like YouTube as the enemy, they’re losing.
But I lost my point. It isn’t that the studios are losing out over back catalog. That’s a given. The real problem — the thing that keeps studio executives up at night and leads them to make outrageous deals without any real logic or consideration — is the fact that services like YouTube create a level playing field. Anyone can create programming, and with a little sticktoitiveness and a lot of passion, create a new media empire.
We, the audience, have been begging for something new, something different, something that doesn’t put us to sleep. The next generation of authors, directors, producers, and actors are finding their niche in a world that traditional media executives don’t fully understand.
Is YouTube Hollywood’s foe? Let’s just say it’s not Hollywood’s friend. But not for the reasons the studios think.