Getting Around the Pipe

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, November 22, 2005
You can feel the tremors. A major earthquake is about to disrupt television as we know it. This year, the piping companies are working hard to replace the old platforms of broadcast, cable, and satellite with Internet portals. Verizon and SBC Communications made major investments to build Internet TV portals. Comcast recently reacted by telling Wall Street about its own Internet TV portal under development that will be fully stocked with programs, movies, interactive features, and a new-fangled television search engine. Then Comcast created more buzz with hints of partnership talks with Google and interest in acquiring a piece of AOL.

Meanwhile, the content companies are trying to break free of the pipe companies. ESPN is leading the charge with its own major Internet portal, branded magazines, radio shows, podcasting, branded phones and services, games alliance (with Electronic Arts), events with the x-Games and espy Awards, and Zone restaurants. Change is so prevalent that even the Tiffany Network (CBS) announced a strategic initiative to, in its own words, "bypass cable." It is working on an online service for people to watch as an alternative to the evening news.

And of course, Apple is shattering the mold again with its much-anticipated video iPod in a content alliance with Disney. You can now watch "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" for $1.99 an episode. Maybe tomorrow, Pixar and even Disney movies will be $3.99 each. It will be a matter of days before video podcasting takes off. And the latest reports have Sony smartly out-maneuvering Matsushita in its next-generation DVD fight. Who will buy DVDs at the store when they can download and watch on their iPod or anywhere in the house through their iMac or Microsoft Media Server?

As content becomes pipe-independent, lifestyle Internet portals like MySpace with social networking at their core will start disrupting the traditional TV portals currently under construction. It's a vision thing. Content and packaging are changing. Viewing is about time, place, and involvement. Essentially, media is becoming personal. Will people be attracted to CBS, or to some cool news center that speaks to them? If you expect CBS will win, think about what is happening with blogs and you may change your mind. Les Moonves will have to think beyond competing with CNN to keep branded-branded news alive in the long-term. The same goes for all types of television. Interestingly, the niche cable networks are best positioned to win if they move fast. ESPN understands.

If we come back to our monthly topic of measurement, disruption hits home hard. People meters measure channel frequencies of "piped" tuning to television sets. The next-generation a/p meter is more flexible, measuring content as long as it is wired to the meter. Yet everything we have been talking about involves throwing away the pipe. The Personal People Meter (PPM) is mobile, but requires ambient audio. Besides the nasty little requirement of sample cooperation, the PPM concept makes a huge assumption: It requires all content to be coded with audio signatures -- both programming and commercials. If games and movies are in scope, then they need continuous signatures, too. Despite the fanfare, the PPM crowd still struggles to get basic television cooperation.

Internet-oriented folks, of course, think these measurement techniques are wrong-headed. They believe that tracking technologies should be designed to monitor interactive communications. Yet they face similar challenges. Clickstream tracking requires Web site cooperation and struggles with offline content.

This is why media research is fun!

Maybe the answer is outside the box. Content owners worry about losing serious money through copyright infringements from file-sharing to piracy, and much more is at risk as videos follow music into the digital ether. Maybe media researchers should partner with the digital rights management companies and consortiums to develop technologies that monitor and follow the content and its usage.

Mark Green is senior vice president, media services, VNU Global Modeling & Analytics, and the founding partner of the Media Learning Institute. (

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