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YouTube Versus Boob Tube

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Except, of course, Google was now horning in on a very different culture. The culture of the nerds slammed headfirst into the culture of New York’s Big Media—which is radically different from, even diametrically opposed to, Google’s.

TV executives are creatures of PR, spin, synergy, and backroom deals. They’re really good at making money—TV advertising is a $70 billion business—but you wouldn’t exactly call it meritocratic. Sumner Redstone, after all, originally acquired Viacom in a hostile takeover. Over the next two decades, he built his business by buying up media companies such as Paramount and CBS, tossing their content into his increasingly huge vault, then spinning them off again. The path to riches in media, as Redstone has adroitly observed, is in owning a boatload of TV shows and movies and syndicating them endlessly. And for guys like Redstone, this requires a take-no-prisoners approach to the enforcement of copyright in the courts, and endless lobbying in D.C. to extend the rights of intellectual-property owners. It is the total inversion of nerd logic: For Big Media, might makes right.

So when Redstone realized that YouTube’s hottest clips tended to be from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and South Park, he freaked, demanding that Google pull 100,000 clips from YouTube. “If you want to use us,” Redstone thundered to the press, “pay us.” Then he defected to Joost, the copyright-friendly YouTube clone. A month later, Viacom arch-rival News Corp. pulled a similar move: It announced that it was teaming with NBC Universal and posting all their content on their own as-yet-unnamed “NewTube.”

I happened to be in Google’s New York office the very day that Redstone demanded that the clips be yanked. The rank and file were unperturbed. As always, programmers cruised serenely to and fro on their Xootr scooters. The view from the Googleplex is that Redstone shouldn’t have been mad at Google. He should have been grateful. After all, Google was just doing what it had always done: making stuff easier to find, organizing the world. Why wouldn’t Viacom want its shows to be more easily found? If everything is promiscuously available digitally, and easily findable, this will be a cosmic win-win for everyone. We consumers will find more and better stuff to read and listen to and watch—and that will bring more business for media giants. Lovely!

The only person who I found really sweating it was David Eun, Google’s vice-president in charge of “content partnerships”—essentially, the guy whose job it is to persuade Redstone to play nice with Google. But as a former TV exec himself, Eun knows that the broadcast industry fundamentally does not believe that a win-win is possible. Hell, the entire industry is based on win-lose propositions—stealing audience from one another. From the perspective of TV execs, the online world is pretty much a big hassle: Piracy is sapping their ability to charge for their goods, and Google’s suspiciously central role in the online ecosphere allows it to hog the ad money. Their business model is crumbling, and someone’s gotta figure out how to pay for all the cool TV, movies, and books we enjoy. A zillion teenagers downloading a ripped, ad-free copy of Lost ain’t gonna keep the lights on at the studio, right? Nestled in one of the poufy, Seussian blue couches that dot his office, a suit in a geek’s world, Eun parses his words with surgical precision.

“We had a very interesting and healthy relationship with Viacom. We want to continue to explore ways that we can work together with them,” he says slowly. “Frankly,” he adds, “I think companies are still trying to figure out what’s the right business arrangement.” To say the least.

Yet despite the culture clash, the odds are strong that Viacom’s case will never get to court. It is more likely a tactic designed merely to drive Google to abandon its high-minded talk about a win-win future and cough up real money for rights. This will probably work, because neither wants to risk a legal precedent that screws its business. Both Google and Viacom might actually benefit from keeping the legality of YouTube fuzzy and letting their negotiators hammer out a truce. They’ll learn to live together. But they’ll never understand each other.


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