Google’s complicated relationship with us media dinosaurs

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My new column is up online, and in the gloriously amazingly redesigned new Time (the paper’s thicker, too). It’s now in something called the “Life” section, which until the very last second we were simply calling “Part 3.” It’s accompanied by a photo of me looking slightly glum, or so I thought until I saw Richard Brookhiser positively glowering from the facing page. Anyway, here’s how it begins:

“Content is king.” It’s a phrase uttered repeatedly by media executives making the case that the movies, music, TV shows, books and journalism their companies produce are the core of their business.

It happens to be a dubious claim. Sure, movies, music and TV shows have value–as do, I feel compelled to add, magazine columns. But they alone have never generated the huge, reliable profits that keep investors happy and pay for midtown-Manhattan skyscrapers. No, the big money in media has always been in distribution.

Sometimes the media companies do this distributing themselves–think TV networks, or newspapers and their delivery boys. But even when others own the movie theaters or the bookstores, big media have long been defined by their ability to make sure their products are displayed prominently there. “The historical media play,” says consultant John Hagel, “is having privileged access to limited shelf space.”

On the Internet, though, the shelves go on and on and on. And as words, music and now video move to this new environment, the traditional economics of media are under attack. Tellingly, the most valuable media company in the world right now is not Disney or News Corp. or Time Warner (owner of Time) but Google, which helps people find stuff on those endless online shelves. Read more.

Basically, the column is an attempt to put the ongoing Google-Viacom battle (and Google’s other run-ins and alliances with media companies) in a context other than that of copyright law. I’ll be posting more on the subject soon. And if soon isn’t soon enough for you, go read my buddy David Kirkpatrick‘s CNNMoney.com column on more or less the same topic.

Update: I meant to mention it before, and just remembered because I was about to send an e-mail to the guy, but I couldn’t have written my column without having read John Battelle‘s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture. I didn’t credit it in the magazine (not a whole lotta space), but I’m giving it a plug here: Really smart book.

Update 2: CNET has an interesting story about Viacom’s head Web guy, Mika Salmi. A sample:

Salmi believes big “portal sites” such as YouTube and MySpace.com will give way to niche sites that appeal to audiences with special interests. This, said Salmi, is a game MTV Networks knows how to play. The company has been pinpointing niches in music and entertainment for decades, and MTV Networks has more than 150 Web sites and 136 TV channels around the world, he said.

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