Me, Too! Programmers Dive Into Broadband

The radio star lasted more than a half century until, according to the Buggles, video killed it. But the video star is looking mighty old at 25.
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The radio star lasted more than a half century until, according to the Buggles, video killed it. But the video star is looking mighty old at 25.

MTV, that purveyor of teen culture pop, launched in 1981. Now counting nearly half a billion households across the globe, the Viacom darling is certainly in no danger of demise. But its basic video distribution paradigm, via TV channels reaching large audiences, is being upended by the very demographic that made it famous.

When Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. spent $580 million last summer to acquire MySpace.com and its 60 million networkers, analyses began circulating immediately that he was going to rig it as a digital MTV for launching and promoting musical acts as well as distributing video programming.

YOUTH COOL

The basic theory ran thus: the ever-changing face of youth cool was moving inexorably toward Internet and mobile devices through social networking sites such as Friendster, Facebook, and MySpace, and video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Google Video. Musical acts were being born fully fanaticized through MySpace, while consumer video producers were becoming instant hits on YouTube.

Meanwhile, content companies have been scrambling to find traction in the cell phone market. So far, the results have been barely a blip. Mobile measurement firm M:Metrics says that, other than ring tones, video (0.4 percent) and music (0.2 percent for full songs) downloads have been anemic.

These results are typical of a nascent industry, says research firm In-Stat, which projects 50 million portable media players worldwide by 2008, when the market should gain traction.

The challenge posed for broadband content marketing and delivery through these new platforms has sent shockwaves through the media conglomerates; MTV is only one of several major brands struggling to adjust.

Across the spectrum, companies new and old are probing for ways to capitalize on the erosion of traditional media delivery. Disney's sports stalwart ESPN recently tried to inject new life into its faltering Mobile ESPN network by offering complete college football games for cell users. Using Sprint's EVDO network, the football plan adds $25 per month to the package of real-time sports info that already costs $40 and up monthly.

Launched in February, Mobile ESPN so far hasn't drawn subscribers as hoped, Disney execs concede.

Meanwhile, a competitor for ESPN's male demographic, Viacom subsidiary Spike TV, has launched a Flash-based broadband player on its Web site that allows users to zoom in on various camera angles of live programming to interact with talent.

But might it just take a brand new device to render the broadband equation simpler for users? Upstart Sling Media thinks so. It's packaging features into a single $200 gizmo that might become the iPod of the broadband video age, allowing users to watch all cable channels on Internet-connected devices (laptops, desktops or mobile) at no additional charge.

While ABC and other mainstream programmers are partnering with Apple's iTunes to offer downloads of popular shows, NBC Universal has gone one strategic step further. It recently created a whole new offshoot, the National Broadband Co., or NBBC, to find broadband distribution paths for all network and affiliate content.

The traditional broadcaster has launched a co-branded broadband video site offering fee-based feeds of nonmainstream sporting events, and announced it will stream for free select episodes of top shows.

Executives there have acknowledged that the sudden boost to "Saturday Night Live" ratings from the pirated uploading of a skit onto YouTube, which became enormously popular, forced them to completely overhaul their business model.

NBC Universal President Randy Falco still didn't quite get it, saying that YouTube "made a lot of money" off the Lazy Sunday sketch, and that NBBC "in the future... will make a lot of money off it."

But here we go back to the old Napster drawing board. The major recording labels five years ago learned the hard way that tight-fisted control to stop digital content piracy didn't work. And they're still wrangling with iTunes and other legal download sites about the perceived loss of revenue in $1-per-song sales.

In addition to content control, Falco and others seem to think they can maintain the broadcast, or one-to-many, model of content distribution, even if it's though multiple distribution platforms.

But can the type of expensive content production supported by the broadcast model and sustained by advertising revenue, survive the transition to this new broadband model? Or will the model of consumer-as-producer, evidenced by the popularity of YouTube, someday gain the upper hand?

How will users make sense of this maze? It's not as simple as handing a sports fan a new cell phone loaded with access features, or telling an MTV viewer they should check out the broadband video site. The very multiplicity of platforms and technologies stymies technological integration and consumer adoption.

Finally, how can content providers merge seamlessly with the communities spawned by YouTube, MySpace and other platforms, in a way that doesn't alienate users?

In the end, I may still want my MTV, but how I'll be getting it and paying for it is anybody's guess.