TV Networks Try to Counter YouTube

TechCrunch (and various other tech news outlets, but that’s the one I typically read) is breaking news about a new NewsCorp (Fox) and NBC initiative for internet distribution of their TV shows and films. here’s the first post, breaking the news. And here’s the second one, with more detail from the press conference.

So, what we know seems to be this:

  • It’s Fox and NBC. No other networks are confirmed on-board, not even Viacom, who would seem a natural for this after their YouTube conflicts.
  • Some shows that appear on Fox and NBC won’t be available, because they don’t hold the rights to them (American Idol happens to be one of these).
  • There will be both full shows and movies, as well as shorter clips.
  • There will be both network-provided video, and user-uploaded video.
  • There will NOT be a centralized website; rather, content will be distributed via AOL, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo, and possible other distribution partners.
  • Many videos will be free, with surrounding ads; some will carry iTunes-level pricing.
  • Content will be embeddable.

Reactions are running from “this will kill YouTube” to “this is dead in the water,” probably dependent on any given responder’s bias toward or against big media. Personally, I’m willing to give it a chance. I already tend to head for the network sites when I want to catch an episode of something I missed rather than go to YouTube or use BitTorrent (unless, of course, the network doesn’t have the shows available). But I have a few questions that haven’t been answered yet:

1. Are the clips only going to be viewable from the US? I’m in the US, so it doesn’t affect me personally, but as a matter of principle, I think it’s incredibly stupid to try to limit intellectual property to one country–we’re too globalized now, and it’s too easy to get content (illegally) from anywhere in the world. This needs to be border-blind to work.

2. They allow user-generated clips; but do they allow user-generated clips of their copyrighted material? I mean, sometimes I really want to watch the whole show, but a lot of times, I just want to watch a clip. Even more often, I have a specific clip I want to embed for discussion here. Will this venture allow that? The Catch-22 here is that if copyright were respected according to the MPAA’s definition, users wouldn’t have a digital copy of the copyrighted show in order to upload it. So here’s an opportunity for Fox/NBC to step up with a technological solution that would allow users to select a specific portion of a show or film and separate it out for embedding. I think that’s probably too much to expect from them, but wouldn’t it be great if the networks took a step toward encouraging fair use rather than suing over it?

3. No centralized website? How is that different from what I do now when I go to the network websites to catch episodes I miss? It adds movies, I guess, but they could do that from the studio sites, too. Why not just provide embeddable clips from the network site? (Comedy Central already does this, but their site is top-heavy and difficult to navigate.) As I write this, I realize it may just be a visibility thing; but in that case, this is just a redistribution deal, and not really anything exciting tech-wise. Also, three of the four sites mentioned on the distribution side of the deal (AOL, MSN, and MySpace) I avoid like the plague, and I tend to ignore Yahoo as much as possible; although if their clips were embeddable, I can see going there. I know the web is moving away from centralization, but for this, I think a centralized website to manage the shows and clips, which still allows for decentralized redistribution, would be a boon.

4. What sort of ad-to-content ratio are we talking? I personally don’t mind ads in principle (but I’d rebel if ads are included on the premium clips). The ads in the shows on ABC’s and NBC’s sites, for example, are thirty seconds long, which is less time than it takes my DVR to fast-forward through the five-minute commercial breaks on TV. And after all, that’s thirty seconds I can use to check my e-mail.

5. What video quality are we talking? YouTube’s quality honestly sucks, which is why I tend to try to find clips on other sites first, despite YouTube’s huge collection. If the networks want to compete, they need to offer higher resolution, and probably full-screen options.

I’m glad the networks are interested in trying something like this, but they’ve got to stop focusing on copyright restrictions and start focusing on user experience. I don’t think the two are necessarily mutually exclusive in theory, but the way the MPAA and RIAA treat them, they tend to be. If they’re serious about this, they’ve got to offer a product and a user experience that competes with free. And yes, that can be done. But they’ve got to pay attention to what we want.