Technologists beware: Marketing types who apparently think George Santayana is a classic Latin rock guitarist are making plans for your networks again.

For those who don’t know – and before a Google search, this writer was among them – Santayana was the philosopher who wrote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." That’s a little insight that the eager types on first-day panels at this week’s 2007 Media Summit New York apparently missed. How else could you explain their oblivious rhapsodies to spreading user-generated content across multiple screens on today’s networks without even an obligatory cautionary nod to the lessons of the dot bomb implosion of the late ’90s and the telecommunications nuclear winter earlier this decade? Maybe they were listening to "Black Magic Woman" on their iPods.

In sessions called "User-Generated Media – The Transformative Revolution in Entertainment, News Media, Personal Communications, Search and Advertising" and the equally onerous "Hollywood and the Digital Consumer: How Technology, Content and Service Establish the Next Level of Consumer Entertainment Experience," panelists couldn’t stop suggesting ways to get the new wealth (?) of user-generated content onto computer, television and even mobile screens without ever really addressing how that was going to happen. What, not how They discussed the differences between amateurish user-generated content and professionally created polished content. "We all want polished, but we’ll choose what we’re interested in over polished," said Greg Kostello, CEO of vMix Media.

They discussed how to package the content. "It does come down to brand … whether it’s a professional or some individual," said Chris Ahearn, president of Reuters Media.

They even discussed the crossover from the Web to TV screens such as the deal Comcast is working with college sweetheart Facebook to "extend social media into the video space and beyond into the television," as Elizabeth Schimel, senior vice president of online content development at Comcast Interactive Media put it.

In total, they spent more than two hours talking about who would create, package, sell and pay for the content and about two seconds discussing how it’s going to get from the World Wide Web to every consumer’s device without causing a network traffic jam more egregious than rush hour on Seventh Ave. The ultimate "Ultimately consumers will have more bandwidth into their homes," said James Ackerman, interim CEO of Clickstar, which intends to use that bandwidth to download movies, including those in high definition that might be "a longer experience to download it."

Ackerman, since he was on a panel with Walter Delph, director of content and programming at Verizon FiOS TV, was confident that a deep fiber network will do the trick. FiOS, he said, is "like a fire hose into the home."

Of course, most homes have garden hoses when it comes to broadband voice, video, high-speed data and high definition; any great bulk of content – user-generated or otherwise – comes in a trickle, not a flood.

For Verizon, which is working to carve its niche at the expense of cable incumbents, user-generated media is "just another genre, just like sports, just like news. It’s the hot thing of the day. We look at it as just another partner," said Delph. In fact, Verizon sees itself as advantaged when all this content starts pushing its way onto its pipes because "this is where our investment is going to pay off," he added.

Not to be picky, but haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Reality checks While drooling over the prospects of this bottomless pit of user-generated content and how to corral it for their own purposes and profits, session panelists did occasionally step back and grimly face some of today’s realities. To start, most user-generated content is amateurish – to put it nicely – and that which isn’t is pilfered from professionally produced sources that aren’t happy about sharing it and generally write cease and desist letters to sites that do it.

"It’s about taste," said Todd Herman, general manager-media experiences at MSN Entertainment, claiming that user-generated content gives viewers the chance to choose between the polished presentations of the professional producers and the jittery camera, grainy picture offerings of the amateurs. "This introduction of choice means people have a chance to see something that’s interesting but not highly produced."

Besides, added Ahearn, "a lot of polished content is crap. Most of it’s crap to begin with."

But it’s polished crap, and it’s there on the linear television package that most cable and, soon, telco customers watch. Besides, those producing that crap don’t have a laissez faire attitude about it being lifted and placed on sites where it’s free to be picked apart by the unwashed and unpaying masses. Free, without ads "Who wouldn’t like something that costs you nothing and has no ads?" asked John Penney, senior vice president of new media business planning for HBO, a service that people pay to watch primarily because its content generally isn’t crap. The Time Warner unit isn’t about to offer it up the "The Wire" for free on the Web – especially since it can be transported from there to a 60-inch HD plasma screen and even onto a DVD.

That’s why there’s digital rights management (DRM), a sometimes effective way to protect the investment that professionals have made that "is important because we have to protect our content," said Ira Rubenstein, executive vice president of digital sales and marketing at Sony Pictures. "On the other hand, speaking as a consumer, it sucks. We need a solution that will enable consumers to not worry about that but still protect the content."

Yet another technology patch.

Finally, there are the political considerations. Some service providers – all, if one were to be honest – have a thing about and making content providers pay to ride on broadband networks as a way to cover the cost of building those networks (and nobody, especially Verizon, ever said FiOS is cheap). Since this net neutrality is tied up in politics – a place where repeating history is a requisite for higher office – panelists behaved like witnesses at a Congressional hearing when queried about it.

"This is a panel on user-generated content," Schimel lectured a questioner. Besides, added Herman, "Unless there’s collusion, someone’s going to figure out a way to do it for free."

Which, of course, brings things full circle to who’s going to pay for the technology that brings the free stuff to the end user. And that’s a question no one answered. – Jim Barthold

The Daily


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