So now we've learned that Viacom blew it twice to get the big foothold in Internet land. Along with its failure to pursue MySpace back when it was a hot commodity, Viacom could have had a shot at buying YouTube for perhaps much less than Google paid in 2006: the whopping sum of $1.65 billion.
Emails between MTV president Judy McGrath and MTV Networks president Van Toffler -- disclosed from the recent Viacom-YouTube lawsuit-- say MTV had a chance to buy YouTube some three months before Google closed the deal.
But Toffler despaired: "It takes 3 months and 58 meetings to get a $1 million dollar acquisition done at our company. We're fast becoming those we scorned."
McGrath concurred. In and email to Toffler, she said: "Probably not buying YouTube, if I had to wager." Why? She expressed frustration with Viacom's executive ranks and inability to strike quickly. "Because it's our ... company."
MTV, that seemingly independent company, couldn't move fast enough in the digital world.
Then there was Viacom's second failure to act. In 2005, Sumner Redstone, chairman of National Amusements, which controls Viacom, was upset that Viacom's MTV hadn't pursued MySpace -- eventually bought by News Corp. for what was then a steal, $580 million. This scenario was part of what cost Tom Freston his job as president/CEO of Viacom in September 2006.
One major positive here: MTV's lateness seemingly worked out well. MySpace has become an increasingly struggling social media destination, out of favor compared to the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.
So the lost YouTube deal seems to be the bigger mistake.
Big media companies do move slowly, and don't always make the right decisions. Many don't know what will work. But those companies can also do"R&D" -- meaning they can buy companies for cheap with the hope they'll become something.
Buying YouTube -- maybe for much less than Google paid -- MTV could have been big in the ball game. Still, it probably wouldn't have been a discount sale if it happened three months before Google's deal.
An email from an MTV strategy and business development executive tipped off the possible move: "We all believe this is a transformative acquisition that we should pursue." He talked of YouTube's rising traffic and value, noting that the site was "moving beyond social sharing of video into a utility for video search more broadly."
But no matter how big you are, it always comes down to timing. That's something MTV seems to miss these days, trying to balance the tricky maneuver of being a big media company but acting like a small entrepreneurial digital outfit.
Is that possible in this economy?
It's sad that as companies get bigger, the people who get the big promotions are often the sales or finance folks, often the ones most comfortable with saying "no" -- as opposed to the artistic and entrepreneurial types who built the brand in the first place.
Great companies are less afraid of making mistakes, then of letting an opportunity go by. Hence, why indepenent films and indie music are often so fresh and powerful.
With the rise of digital distribution, can indie television be far behind? I hope not. Look at the success of Joss Wheadon's "Dr. Horrible" project. Could an iTunes subscription model have saved Wheaton's cult hits "Firefly" and "Dollhouse"?
I can't wait to find out.