Why Are Yahoo, YouTube And Amazon Looking Backwards?

When did so-called new media decide to play it so old school?

To ask that question another way, why are digital media giants busily cobbling from that aging dinosaur known as broadcast television for inspiration and transformation as they move forward? Hmmm … could it be that the broadcasters are still the smartest people in the room?

This embrace of the old by the new seems to be happening everywhere. The most recent example is this week’s announcement that Katie Couric, one of the biggest names in traditional broadcast network news during the last twenty years, is leaving her current position at ABC News for a new role as Global Anchor for Yahoo’s growing news franchise.

Nobody knows exactly what this will mean -- except perhaps for certain executives at Yahoo, because the details of Couric’s relationship with her new employer have yet to be released. I’ll admit I’m interested to know more. I can’t recall ever looking to Yahoo for news coverage of any kind. In fact, ever since Google came along, I can’t recall looking to Yahoo for anything. Maybe the arrival of Couric will change that.



Certainly, this relationship with Couric has already generated much publicity for Yahoo, along with much skepticism about what Couric has to offer. She was enormously successful as co-anchor for NBC’s “Today” show, but she didn’t fare very well at all as anchor of “The CBS Evening News” and has been near-invisible throughout her recent relationship with ABC News. And then there’s her daily syndicated talk show, produced by Disney/ABC Domestic Television, which has generated more press for its declining ratings than for anything else.

I can’t help but think that Couric belongs back on morning television (perhaps on ABC’s “The View,” which is sorely in need of another seasoned journalist rather than more comedic actresses, or on CNN, which is sorely in need of life). And I have to wonder if there aren’t dynamic personalities somewhere on the Internet who have already established substantial followings of young people who expect much less from daily news coverage than their parents and grandparents once did. (My college-age godchildren wouldn’t know Katie Couric if she stopped by their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. But they are constantly talking about “reporters” they watch on YouTube and elsewhere with whom I am unfamiliar.)

The Yahoo-Couric relationship is just the latest development in this strange trend. Earlier this month, on November 3, YouTube debuted its first annual YouTube Music Awards, a glitch-filled extravaganza broadcast live from New York City featuring performances by a mix of cutting-edge artists. It caused a bit of a stir, due largely to the inclusion of Lady Gaga in the festivities. It was criticized in some quarters for its technical difficulties and untraditional direction, yet praised in others for putting a new (if somewhat clunky) spin on that most overdone of traditional television spectacles, the awards show.

My take was this: Why did YouTube even go there? YouTube became part of the digital fabric of our lives precisely because it offered opportunities for entertainment, education, artistic expression and widespread thought leadership that simply did not exist twenty years ago. It remains a media giant because of the very same distinctive qualities it put on proud display at its start. YouTube has certainly grown and changed dramatically over the years, now offering channels (or networks or platforms or whatever one cares to call them) through which individuals and corporations alike can express themselves and generate income in the process. It’s so monstrously huge that most of us will never see everything that’s on it today, let alone a day or two from now. But that’s the glory of YouTube. That’s what millions of people want from it.

How on earth does adding yet another awards show of any stripe to the worldwide dump of such events advance YouTube in any way? Is that the most creative content YouTube can produce for itself at this juncture in its history? I’d rather watch two dozen user-generated videos that mock some award shows and entertainingly summarize others than sit through yet another one -- especially one that honors music videos.

And then there’s Amazon, now barreling into the creation of original video content as an incentive to convince more of its customers that they should join Amazon Prime. It’s first such effort, the comedy series “Alpha House,” is probably more accurately described as a television series than anything else. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is a good move. Netflix and Hulu have excelled at creating and/or financing the production of television series and delivering them on viewing platforms that people seem to enjoy. (I’ll choose Netflix over Hulu any day, because I find the mandatory viewing of commercials on Hulu and HuluPlus to be more off-putting than the elective viewing of advertisements in any other medium.)

Perhaps Amazon will excel here as well, but it will have to do better than “Alpha House,” a wholly unremarkable production about tiresome middle-aged congressmen acting like self-consumed nitwits. Don’t we get enough of that on the news every night? We’re all suffering because of it. It simply isn’t funny anymore, in real life or in televised fiction.

Maybe future Amazon series will be more compelling. Still, as far as I’m concerned I don’t necessarily need any more video content in my life. But I need more of Amazon, or more companies like it. Hours spent browsing the limitless pages of Amazon can be as enjoyable today as an evening spent exploring eBay used to be back in the late Nineties, when the latter was new and novel and first brought something that felt like a worldwide flea market (rather than a giant profit-driven corporation) into my home. And they make for a nice break from watching television.





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