The tech world is full of “disruptors,” especially when it comes to tech companies looking to disrupt old-school Hollywood.
YouTube gave the entire world a distribution platform. Netflix and Amazon are making TV schedules obsolete. Apple and Google want to completely redefine how all media are delivered into people’s homes. The disruptors are so disruptive we now have even newer disrupters like Vessel and Dish’s Sling TV trying to disrupt the disrupters. (Say that five times fast.)
But just how disruptive are the disruptors, really? The truth is, the most disruptive players in media owe a huge debt to traditional outlets of yesteryear.
What’s old is new again
Let’s look at Netflix’s game plan for introducing its streaming service, from 2007 to today:
Step 1: Acquire as much second-hand content as cheaply as possible. Offer audiences as many movies as they want to watch, even if most of the movies themselves aren’t that enticing.
Step 2: Beef up that catalog with a few exclusive titles and inexpensive-to-produce original content like comedy specials, documentaries, and children’s programming.
Step 3: Go for broke with expensive, high-quality scripted content that no one else has.
If Netflix is the HBO of new media, then YouTube is the MTV.
Sound familiar? That’s also HBO’s playbook from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
What’s most amazing about Netflix is how quickly it has executed these plays. It took HBO two decades to go from B-movies to The Sopranos. It took Netflix just four years to go from streaming old movies to House of Cards (which it initially acquired in 2011).
If you don’t believe me that Netflix and HBO are cut from the same cloth, just consider how easily they could switch places.
If Netflix is the HBO of new media, then YouTube is the MTV. When MTV first launched, its success depended on the availability of an endless stream of free content: music videos. The record labels produced the videos for promotional purposes and MTV rarely had to pay a cent to show them. VJs became stars for curating the content with personality. Characters like Beavis and Butthead became famous for talking over the videos. MTV slowly morphed into a channel with a wide range of content, with a heavy focus on youth-skewing music and comedy.
When YouTube launched in 2005, its hook was “user-generated content,” in other words, content it didn’t have to pay a cent for. Since then, YouTube channels have racked up millions of subscribers through curation and personality, with a heavy focus on music. Just look at a list of YouTube’s most popular channels, which is dominated by musicians and labels. Not surprisingly, YouTube is working hard to leverage all that music content into a major revenue source.
YouTube’s brand today is the same as MTV’s from the ‘80s and ‘90s — “a home to youth-skewing music and comedy.” The top YouTube personality of all time is PewDiePie, a funny guy who talks over video games. He (and others like him) are today’s Beavises and Buttheads. Vloggers are the new VJs. Teens turn to YouTube today for the same exact reasons they tuned to MTV two decades ago.
There is one traditional media outlet that doesn’t have a new-media counterpart, though: ESPN. Live sports in general have not found a major home on the Web, despite Mark Cuban’s best efforts many years ago. YouTube, Amazon, Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, they all have one thing in common: They got started by re-purposing content already available in other formats. Live sports don’t have value in a second run. The companies who own the rights to show sports live have all the power. The new ESPN is, well … ESPN.
Filling the void
We live in an age of hype, where every tech development is heralded as either the best or worst thing ever. It’s easy to forget how we got here, and that some of the greatest paradigm shifts happened when we weren’t even paying attention. Today’s “disrupters” owe more to their analog predecessors than they’d ever let on publicly.
Vloggers are the new VJs.
Big media companies masterminded the real digital disruption themselves when they introduced CDs and DVDs to replace cassettes and videotapes. In less than a decade, just about all media on earth went from analog to digital. But they didn’t fully consider the ramifications of giving consumers access to pristine, easily copied versions of their entire catalogs. When those ramifications became apparent, the same companies that were so quick to embrace digital technology slammed on the brakes and resisted incremental evolution from digital discs to digital downloads.
That anti-technology attitude created the current void that Silicon Valley is racing to fill. It’s not unlike ride-sharing services: Had major taxi companies embraced on-demand apps years ago, Uber and Lyft wouldn’t be able to trample them with one simple innovation. In many ways, tech companies like Uber are more opportunists than disrupters, but I guess “opportunist” doesn’t sound as good at a Ted Talk.
My suggestion: If today’s disruptors want to stick around for the long haul, they’d be wise to acknowledge their similarities to the old guard – and their shared limitations — lest they be disrupted themselves. It’s only a matter of time until people start asking: “Hey, remember when YouTube actually showed user-generated content?”
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