It’s clear now. The RIAA and the Vivendi Corporation (who backs NBC and NBC Universal) are friggin’ morons.
Really, though, it’s not their fault. Most broadcast networks, music companies and book printers have built their business model on the simple premise that they are, first and foremost, distribution companies. And until recently, distribution has been a very hard nut to crack: to distribute television you were required to win approval for a broadcast tower from the FCC, build a broadcast tower (which is damned expensive), and line up material to broadcast, which required both local producers of content and being part of a franchise for content to rebroadcast. Put together a line of advertisers (which requires a sales department), and you have yourself something which may cover one town. Wash, rinse and repeat a few thousand times with capital costs in the billions to cover a nation.
To distribute music or books required a nation-wide series of stores to sell the material at, and a line of companies which could press the music, and an army of technicians who could create the content–a barrier to entry which implies that you also need an army of managers who can make sure the content you sell makes the entire enterprise profitable.
Today, slap it up on YouTube or upload it to your MySpace account.
And here’s the real problem with these distributors. They’ve built their entire business model–their livelihoods–based on a whole bunch of assumptions: it’s nearly impossible (or at least very difficult) to time-shift broadcast material. You either watch it live, or you don’t watch it at all. You either buy a large disk from a local store, or you hear it live on the radio. You buy the bound material from a local store, or you read it at the library (at great inconvenience). And that’s it.
They didn’t want to be inconvenient: it’s just that their business model was built on the fact that there wasn’t a more convenient way to watch television, listen to music, or read a book.
What’s most interesting to me about television was that it’s great success came from the fact that television is a more convenient way to watch material than a movie theater, which was (prior to the invention of the television set) the only way you could watch news casts and movies and mini-plays. (And prior to the invention of the motion picture, the only way you could watch a mini-play was live, waiting for a troop of actors to come to town.)
So Vivendi’s television arm owes it’s existence to the fact that it is more convenient to watch television than to drive down to the off-Broadway district in your local community.
Here’s an irony for everyone involved. The Internet is more convenient.
It’s more convenient to download a television show and watch it than it is to watch it live on television: I can watch the show when I want to, and not when I’m supposed to. It’s more convenient to download an MP3 track and transfer it to whatever device I want–and have thousands of tracks on that player–than it is to lug around a whole stack of CDs (and hope I don’t scratch one). It’s more convenient to download my technical books onto a slim device like the Sony eReader or the Amazon Kindle than it is to carry around tens of pounds of books.
And the old players are all fighting this.
And worse: they’re fighting companies like Apple who see that the point of being able to download music or TV content is not one of digital distribution (or digital promotion)–it’s one of convenience. The Apple iTunes Music Store and the iPod and the iPhone were not purchased because Apple spread some strange pixie dust or Jobs distortion field into each device: they succeeded because they are pleasantly designed devices which are easy for the average person to use. They deliver on that convenience.
And NBC wants to route people to the Amazon Unbox system which is a pain in the ass to navigate and use–because they’re afraid of Apple. Because they don’t understand why Apple succeeded in music and think that whatever it is, it has to be stopped.
By failing to understand this, Vivendi has essentially declared war on convenience.
The reason why people download content from Bittorrent is not because they want to steal material. Often the cost of setting up a Bittorrent client to download content is higher than simply giving Apple a buck to dowload a song–though the people using Bittorrent have realized that setup and use is a cost that they’re trying to lower. No; they’re doing it because it is more convenient than the established distribution channels.
I’m excited about the Amazon Kindle because it’s convenient: I can download and buy my books anywhere. I can keep hundreds of books on me at any time. And what makes that nice is not because I’m a voracious reader of fiction–I want a way to store all of my technical books that is more convenient than devoting a whole bookshelf. I want a reference library which can be accessed easily without having to find a book on a whole row of bookshelves in the other room. I want to carry my collection of technical books with me without having to use a wheelbarrel to carry them all.
It was the promise of the Sony eReader–but that failed because Sony couldn’t make the deals with publishers that Amazon may be able to make. (Sony’s selection of technical books suck hard–though Sony has the advantage of being able to read PDF files, which means I can convert technically-minded web sites to something I can carry with me–though that advantage may be negated by the iPhone, which can simply got to those web sites.)
I’m going to take a wait and see attitude–but hopefully Amazon will succeed in doing something in books that Apple did in music–and the television producers are fighting like cats and dogs–getting all that content into a form factor that is more convenient than hundreds of pounds of dead tree matter.