From a distance – Google Earth, perhaps? – the brouhaha over the Internet search giant’s overture to the major television networks to join Google TV sounds familiar. A highly-disruptive new technology without a clear fix on how everyone in the game will make money arrives to deliver yet another dose of choice and freedom to the modern consumer: the proposal is to make every TV show from “Gilligan’s Island” to “Lost,” searchable and viewable on Internet-enabled screens whether in a living room or the palm of a hand.
Much of the attention in reports of the negotiations between Google and the network executives this week has focused on the studios’ reluctance to jump the broom with a new partner before a proper pre-nuptial deal has been signed.
But while echoes of earlier collisions between new gadgetry and old business models hover in the air, the reality, say industry insiders, media experts and brand specialists, is that Hollywood has learned a thing or two from the past.
“This generation of studio execs all read the same cautionary tales we do,” says New York brand expert Adam Hanft. “These are not the same moguls of the past who had deep emotional commitments to the old ways,” he says adding, “they are in tune with what’s going on and are consumers themselves.”
The most infamous faux pas of the past few decades is the studios’ collective effort to quash the VCR in its infancy, a battle that went all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1980. The videotape and DVD market went on to become a major economic boon to the entertainment industry of the past 30 years. Some things have changed since then; a few have not, says David Wertheimer, CEO of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California.
This trend-spotting think tank was founded in 1993 to feed the industry’s need to see around corners, he says. “This is an industry that gets it; they know change is upon them faster than ever,” he says. “But just because they recognize this doesn’t mean they can come up with answers to the question of how to pay for anywhere, anytime free content for everyone.”
Unlike in the past, however, he points out that many individual content creators realize they need to jump into new territory, “even if the money hasn’t been fully penciled in.” He points to such ventures as Hulu.com as a good example of what he calls moderate risk-taking.
Mr. Wertheimer challenges the notion that Hollywood resists new technology for its own sake. “This industry is built on technological innovation, trying out new and creative ways of telling stories,” he says, adding that what’s going on now is an understandable caution when it comes to keeping the lights on. “If nobody is making money, then all the shows we love to watch will go away.”
Google itself, he notes, has had a hard time making money on anything besides its core search business.
Jumping in before the dust clears may be the only approach for a while, says Fordham University media professor Paul Levinson. The author of “New New Media” says that the speed of technological change is only going to increase. He points out that in just the four years between the 2004 and 2008 elections, major innovations such as Twitter and Facebook emerged, changing the campaign landscape.
“We don’t know how things are going to look in even five years,” Mr. Levinson says, let alone further down the road. But, he adds, “I don’t expect to see a great resolution of all the questions and challenges raised by new technologies in my lifetime.”