Now that iTunes and last month’s NCAA tournament have proven that there’s a market for television programming online, the networks are racing to put as much programming as possible (within the limitations of their affiliate agreements) on the web.
Given the fact that television has always been a mass medium you would expect network executives would be lining up get their programming on the big portals like Yahoo. As it turns out, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, some network executives are starting to have second thoughts about sharing their programming with technology companies.
“It’s expensive to invest in video entertainment production, which is why they want to borrow ours instead of producing their own, and we have a slight problem with that,” said Albert Cheng, the network’s executive vice president for digital media. ABC, he said, doesn’t want middlemen between its advertisers and its programming.
Instead, the networks seem to think that they can attract viewers to their own websites. While that may have been the case during the NCAA tournament, it remains to be seen whether or not the average viewer will behave in the same manner when not afflicted with March Madness.
Imagine a future where online programs are only available from their respective network’s websites. Each network will have it’s own unique interface, navigation structure, and video technology. Viewers (if there are any) will be plagued by an endless stream of compatibility issues and frustrating searches for something worthwhile to watch.
Television has historically had a single interface. While that interface has evolved over the years the average viewer is simply not accustomed to going into hunter-gatherer mode when looking for new programming. While it may sound like channel surfing, it’s not. Channel surfing is a mindless activity that requires almost no thought. Searching multiple network websites for new programming is a challenging task that will likely put off all but the most motivated viewers.
The value of Yahoo and Google is that they deliver a huge audience of users who are online and looking for content. Give users the opportunity to plug your programming into their My Yahoo page and the chances are they’ll watch your programming on a consistent basis. Yes, they’ll probably watch your competitors programming as well, but the industry as a whole will be better off and the number of online viewers will almost certainly rise as a result.
Whether the networks like it or not, a portal like Yahoo is better equipped to deliver something approximating the traditional television experience than the network websites are.
Not surprisingly, Yahoo seems to get this:
“For people to make a lot of money on these things, you’re going to have to have massive audiences,” said Dan Rosensweig, Yahoo’s chief operating officer. “Sometimes it might be better to share a piece of a much larger audience than it is to keep 100% of a much smaller audience.”
While the networks have had some limited success online, they’re simply not in the Internet business. To think that they’ll suddenly have the ability to rival Yahoo and Google simply because they’ve found a way to post videos on their own websites is misguided at best. If it was really that easy to build a portal and aggregate hundreds of millions of users companies like Yahoo and Google would have a lot more competition.
A look at the latest Alexa numbers reveals that traffic to the four major network’s websites is several orders of magnitude lower than traffic to Yahoo and Google. The networks are out of their league, but they don’t realize it yet.