When media companies attempt to own the internet

This is a complex matter to describe — and even moreso for media companies to understand — but here goes.

In any market in the U.S. (or anywhere), there are a limited number of mass media outlets. These include the usual suspects, like radio, television and newspapers. It’s important to understand that the government and the market determine how many of these entities exist in each location. This limits the number of people or groups who’ve been traditionally “allowed” to play the mass marketing game, and in the mass marketing paradigm, that’s important, because it assures that each will have a piece of the advertising pie — assuming they run their business in a way that brings profitability.

This idea of limited access to the masses is at the core of the mass media model, and it drives the strategic thinking of the mainstream. In this restricted environment, the entire enterprise is built on the company’s brand, something about which I’ve written extensively. After all, nothing is more important in a mass market than a powerful brand, because manipulating the way it stands out is what gets attention when exposed to all those people.

And so, when media companies approach the internet, they do so thinking that the Web is just another gathering of the mass in which to drop their brand and message. A part of this assumption is a continuation of restricted access. If the brand works offline, the thinking goes, it’ll work online. And so, NBC pulls its copyrighted property from the popular gathering place, youTube and makes it available on their own site, thinking that’s where it belongs. They even go so far as to include some of the functionality of youTube.

But here’s a graph from Alexaholic comparing youTube with the dot coms of NBC, CBS and Fox (ABC is a subdomain of go.com, and Alexa doesn’t like subdomains).

The thinking at NBC is that they can push their numbers up by offering youTube-type stuff exclusively at their own site. This is a classic and dangerous assumption, albeit completely understandable from a mass marketing perspective. After all, exclusive content drives people to the place where it’s presented, and we’re all used to that, especially those of us who didn’t grow up on the web.

But such thinking doesn’t generally work online, which I’m beginning to understand is more of a social phenomenon than media or technology phenomenon. People at youTube will simply find other things on youTube to view, leaving NBC bouncing merrily along doing their own thing and with a decreasing ability to pay for the content the mass used to view.

The same is true when mainstream media companies attempt to pull the blogosphere into their brands, which is happening with increasing frequency. The thinking is the same. It’ll boost my brand by bringing these writers into my corner, so that people will have to come to me in order to participate. In so doing, these companies are fooling themselves about the nature of the web and how to do business therein.

In both of these cases, the incorrect assumption is scarcity of content. This was true when access to the mass was restricted, but it isn’t the case anymore. Even those who recognize this reality about today’s media world often move the discussion to another form of scarcity, professionalism. I sat in a roomful of media execs once where one of those present — a fellow in his 50s — shot down the idea of local citizens doing webcasts for his company, because “people want to see our people doing it.” He went on to say that most of the stuff he’d seen done this way was crap, and that users/viewers/readers wouldn’t watch “his” webcasts without professional spit and polish.

This argument is an unproven red herring. Can amateurs produce professional quality webcasts? Even if the answer is no today, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will be the case tomorrow. Meanwhile, I think it’s terribly dangerous for media companies who are watching their foundations crumble to cling to the maintenance of an idea (we’re professional, you’re not) that is causing the crumbling in the first place. What we’re witnessing, as Glenn Reynolds so beautifully puts it, is the triumph of personal technology over mass technology, and media companies that don’t embrace the possibilities found within this disruption will one day be on the outside looking in.


  1. Being new to this discussion about the current media shift I really appreciate your youtube.com and NBC example. It makes me imagine that I can see the network executives pondering over the same data you presented and scratching their heads. I wonder if there are any equally-powerful examples of mainstream media adapting to the new media shift and prospering because of it.…

  2. Good question, Nate. I would’ve said that Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of mySpace was a winner, but I’m less convinced of that right now. His efforts to clean it up to make way for advertising may have the effect of chasing away the people he’s hoping to reach.

    Then there’s the issue of defining “prospering.” The first “Heatonism” I expose people to is this: Revenue isn’t the problem. Audience is the problem. Fix the problem. Mass media is so busy trying to fix the bottom line that they’re missing the point of the whole Personal Media Revolution. This is a catch-22 for them, and I suspect the “new” success stories will be hyper-local. They’ll build up loyal followings, at which point they’ll be sucked up by mainstream companies who may or may not allow them to continue as is.

    These are interesting times.

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