"Why should Google, Yahoo!, or even a multi-service operator control distribution?" he continued. "Imagine if Fox Sports and ESPN created a joint distribution venture online -- it'd be the only place to get quality sports content. Who would need a middleman then?" Who indeed?
There isn't a content creator who isn't wondering the same thing. And, frankly, the current aggregators of video content -- cable, phone, and satellite -- are looking for ways to ensure their indispensibility (and revenue) in the new world as well. One possible world for the future of video distribution is the one-stop aggregator a la iTunes. Whether it be in a partnership among content creators, an alternative role for the traditional middleman (like cable), new lines of business for music distributors (iVideo), or a host of startups, maybe people just like to go to one or a handful of places to find what they want easily. And content creators, who have previously relied on others' distribution for decades, will be equally happy to stick to their knitting.
There's another world -- a world that already lives in text. A world where search allows each content creator to be his or her own distributor.
In this world, there are no middlemen. A consumer goes to Google, Yahoo!, MSN, Ask Jeeves, or some new site with video-search capability and simply finds what he wants, when and how he wants it. If he wants a 30-minute or three-hour chunk of video, search will guide him right to the source -- to sony.com, mtv.com, or hbo.com. And once the consumer finds what he wants, he can purchase it right then and there. This is video on demand, only with exponentially more choices. And the "organizing principal" is not a cable, satellite, or telecom provider taking fees. It's free, advertising-supported search. This is how people behave online today with text and some video. Find what you want, when and how you want it. Interact with it. Forward it. Why, in a broadband world, should video consumption be different?
Well, for one, we're talking about a pay model here. This would entail a Pay Pal-like experience that would have to be embraced not only by major content-producer destinations but also by smaller content creators. This is no small point. But Pay Pal is out there, ready for new applications. And who would have thought that any page of text, no matter how meager or insignificant, could be monetized through advertising before AdSense?
Second, movie execs are wary to put content online because of privacy/piracy issues. But those issues will have to be resolved anyway, in either scenario.
I'm not sure how all this will play out, but if I were in these businesses, I'd be thinking about search not as a potential threat, but as the organizing principal that could send folks to my sites, where I can control my distribution without having to pay a middleman a lot of money to do it for me.
Christopher M. Schroeder is CEO and president of ChoiceMedia, and formerly the CEO and publisher of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. (firstname.lastname@example.org). Schroeder is a regular contributor to MEDIA magazine. This column is re-published from the November issue.