The networks' tenuous plan to create a YouTube competitor is about critical mass and control. They are envious of YouTube's enormous viewership, and they want to control what those viewers watch and how they watch it. But this is a plan headed for disaster, and here's why.
1. Advertising will be intrusive. Very intrusive. The networks would love to offer ads alongside and within their online video content. And the networks' advertisers, many of whom may not have made the conceptual leap to more creative forms of online advertising, would love the opportunity to drop their 30-second and 15-second spots into some video content.
The advertisers would also like the idea that video clips won't be surrounded by unpredictable comments. Hence the recent news about CBS censoring comments on YouTube. But every gimmick to disguise critical conversation will only create more critical conversation -- only this time it will be distributed across the Web.
2. Aggregation will be at the expense of participation Executives are basing their competitive strategy on aggregation. "The theory," said one exec familiar with the media companies' plans, "is that if you were to aggregate enough exclusive content in one place, you could actually change viewing patterns."
Well, sorta. Aggregation in and of itself attracts viewers, but participatory aggregation is the real honeypot. YouTube, after all, began with one video, and the site grew because there was a direct correlation between ease of access and ease of contribution.
In other words, YouTube made it easy to watch and easy to upload, thereby gaining an audience on both ends of the spectrum. Any network video site will concentrate most of its energies on getting people to watch, not getting people to participate.
3. The idea of YouTube is outdated YouTube grew because it was novel to watch video online. The site subsequently gained critical mass and accidentally became the standard for video aggregation on the Web. But now there are hundreds of sites that display video clips and allow you to embed them and rate them and comment on them. How are those sites different? They're not. Each of these sites are based on aggregation. But aggregation is passe.
Market needs are moving beyond aggregation to specialization. It's no longer novel to know what every 13-year-old thinks is funny online. And while YouTube's "most viewed" will always be an appealing curiosity, what we really want is the best content and the content that appeals to us as individuals. Sites that enable this evolution by culling and directing us to the best content will be the next big success stories.
If you zoom into the long tail, you see that every niche in the tail has its own unique "top 40" hits. So while the long tail graph is important in a mass market sense, on the personal level a more appropriate graph would be the upside-down bell curve. We like the hits, we detest the middle-brow crap, and we like the niche content that speaks to our idiosyncratic preferences.
4. Networks will try to control content, and users will go elsewhere The networks will impose rules on its site. They will moderate comments, subject any uploaded content to review, intersperse advertising in obnoxious places, insert DRM to make videos un-copyable and generally sanitize the user experience.
5. Design by committee They say there's no "I" in team. Well, there ain't no "CBS" and "NBC" either. Not only are there competing agendas between the networks -- which are at each other's throats in the ratings race anyway -- there are also competing agendas within the individual networks as well.
For example, which departments at each network get the most say in how this supposed site will work? And what's the ad buy going to look like for this monster? Will it be a value ad for TV buys or an independent deal, and what if the networks want to do that differently? And then, if you can buy advertising for all three networks on the same site, does that diminish the individual power of each brand?
At the end of the day, the networks may just be posturing to generate more concessions from Google and YouTube. The likelihood that the biggest media companies will work together to stave off YouTube seems ludicrous, especially when each individual company could create their own site.
I think we'll see things settle down. Right now the networks are scared about all this talk about how big YouTube is. But instead of playing the "mine's bigger than yours" game, the networks should be concentrating on just getting their content out in as many ways as possible.