Pixar Promises Change for Disneys Media

Opinion: Having Steve Jobs as the largest shareholder in Walt Disney could mean some positive developments when it comes to media distribution.

Is it just me does the idea of Steve Jobs being the largest shareholder in Walt Disney seem a little odd? Do you suppose hell host a movie program on TV, like Walt and, later, Michael Eisner did? And if the kiddies dont like the movie, will Steve scream at them?

While Jobs will be Disneys largest shareholder, once his Pixar shares become Disney stock, its hard to predict what his influence on the company may be.

Hell be only one vote on the companys board, which also includes former Cisco exec Judith Estrin and is chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.

Mitchell may be best-known as the U.S. envoy that played a crucial rule in the Northern Ireland peace accords, skills that given Disneys recent history would seem to make him a natural choice there.

What I hope and expect Jobs to do is help bring the entertainment industry into the digital age.

Jobs has already shown he can give consumers what they want, and the fair licensing terms at the Apple Music Store have played a huge role in the iPods success. Jobs has proven that people are willing to pay for music online, given reasonable prices and excellent selection.

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Jobs consumer bona fides have been enhanced by complaints from the recording industry that they dont get a large enough piece of Music Store sales. On the other hand, some of the video content pricing already seems high to me.

His new role at Disney also makes it less clear whose side Jobs will find himself on. At Pixar, Jobs had to worry about digital content issues, but those concerns are nothing like those hell have at Disney, a company with much broader interests to protect.

Disney has, for example, been instrumental in getting Congress to lengthen copyright protection, usually when Mickey and Minnie are about fall into the public domain. I can appreciate the companys interest in this, but its efforts also extend protection for all sorts of other content and probably hurt content users.

Maybe Jobs can convince Disney and congress that Mickey and Minnie deserve their own special law and everything else can get more reasonable—and less long-lived—protection. The problem isnt with the content that people are actively trying to sell, its with all the content that no longer has big commercial value, but cant be distributed in small quantities because of copyright issues.

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This isnt a new problem, though. NPR recently did a story about the Library of Congress working to get very old recordings, including those of artists like Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, re-released, but being unable to interest the big copyright holders in projects with such small revenue potential.

Some of these recordings have been released in Europe, where they are no longer protected and eventually find their way—illegally—into the United States.

More important will be the role Jobs might play in helping change the financial models that drive entertainment and media.

And, perhaps, in helping Disneys broadcast and cable holdings adjust their business models and distribution methods to embrace Internet content distribution.

Its very unclear, at least to me, what will happen here. There is a big disconnect between what content owners want and what customers are willing and able to pay. Cable and satellite TV already seem too expensive and prices keep increasing.

The success of Apple Music Stores 99-cent pricing reflects the publics unhappiness at buying CDs filled with songs they dont like, but have to pay for anyway. Music Store allows customers to pick and choose only the music they want, much like when 45-rpm vinyl singles ruled the music world.

While the media companies have been slow to experiment with new distribution and pricing models, Steve Jobs has done more than anyone else to push them into the digital age.

The more I think about what Jobs might accomplish at Disney, the more I hope they will give him the chance. He could do great things. But, about that kids show …

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at david_coursey@ziffdavis.com.

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