Content Distribution: The Final Media Revolution

(Originally published in ClickZ, October 2006) by Eric Picard

I’ve been yelling from the rooftops for years now that the consumer is in control. (I’m making a real effort to start calling consumers “people” after Rishad Tobaccowala’s talk at OMMA.) I could probably find a few dozen columns to point at, but I won’t. Just get it through your heads that people are in control of their media consumption and you can’t control their consumption habits the way you used to.

So many business models are based on controlling people’s access to media that this seemingly simple concept will create an amazing amount of pain before it sinks in. Music, TV, movies, magazines, newspapers, books, you name it. Every single media outlet is amazingly constrained in the way it enables content distribution because the world used to work that way.

Unless you had a printing press, you couldn’t get your story told. Unless you owned transmitters, you couldn’t send music or TV over the airwaves. Unless you had relationships with movie theaters, you couldn’t get your film distributed. Distribution has always been a control point, and it’s been leveraged masterfully for hundreds of years by media companies large and small.

That’s all ending.

Marshall McLuhan envisioned everyone having his own television channel. He was really talking about the Internet’s promise — and that was only a piece of the story. He didn’t quite envision the complexity of social networking, and we’re only now beginning to see the power that will evolve from the intricate web of connections that are forming and what those will mean. One thing that will become quickly apparent is that if people can share media content that they’re passionate about with their personal networks, their friends will consume those media.

Remove the constraints from content distribution, and you suddenly arrive in a strange new world. And as we saw with Napster and the music industry, the entrenched media business doesn’t handle sea changes very well. TV is trying. The networks recognize they need to figure out the Internet. My last column discussed financial models the networks should use to sell media over the Internet. But I didn’t have time to cover distribution in detail.

Owners of content in all media types have struggled with what open distribution will mean to them. RSS (define) was one of the first technologies to gain wide adoption in content distribution, but advertising support was simply not thought through very well. And as soon as good DRM (define) was available, content owners began slapping restrictions on how content could be shared.

You can’t really blame them for wanting to maintain control. They don’t want people sharing content they should be paying for. It’s resulted in billions of dollars of lost revenue for the media companies, even more when you consider people sharing content that’s monetized by advertising. Not only does the media company lose out, but advertisers lose huge volume of sales that would be driven had the ads had been delivered.

The real question we in the ad industry should be asking is how we can more appropriately make use of technologies like RSS and DRM. How can we let people stay in control of their content consumption while ensuring advertising still functions? That’s really the trick. And how do we keep the ads while providing a reasonable advertising experience, with value to the advertiser and without annoying the people viewing them?

I’ve talked recently about some ways we can do this, particularly for video with the :05 format. I’ll cover plenty of other ways in coming months. There are ways to salve the wounds we’ve inflicted on the people we advertise to and to provide value to advertisers. And it isn’t all product placements, brand channels on YouTube (or Soapbox), and paid subscriptions for media content. Yes, those types of things will become more important, but they aren’t the only answer.

We must evolve into a world where all content owners provide their media to all people wanting to consume it, in ways that empower them to instantly and easily share that content. In ways that maintain the advertising embedded in the content, don’t annoy the people consuming it, and still provide value to advertisers.

We’re on the cusp of a media revolution to end all media revolutions. The new world will be ad funded.


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