If Content Is King, Who Is King Kong?

Content is king. It's an unlikely platitude, but for the first time since the dawn of the Internet era it has become the fall-back position for media businesses online. Over the past 12 months I have heard executives from NBC, Fox, ABC and CBS speaking at events about their online media strategies, and they have all struck a similar pose: Content is king.

It's not unlikely that big media companies espouse this position, in unison: what they all do have, in spades, is content. What's unlikely is that it's finally true. Before 2006, all of the video content, from the networks' prime-time lineup to their dusty archives, was a meaningless differentiator in the interactive space. Content wasn't king because the most valuable content never made it online. It's TV that was king.

Fast-forward to broadband critical mass, iTunes, streaming prime-time lineups, rapidly increasing adroitness at adapting and creating video for digital platforms, and a spreadsheet full of monetization options-- and suddenly content has become as valuable online as the nets have always found it to be offline.



But the royal analogy is limited. More appropriate might be a rock-paper-scissors metaphor. That's what makes interactive media so fascinating and complex: No matter who you are and what you have, something trumps you. Content may be king, but the interactive landscape has a whole King Kong family, ready to render inept even the mightiest monarch:

Consumers as King Kong: Must-see TV has given way to Me-TV. Broadcasting content--in any medium--is on the wane, and the very term "broadcast" is itself in danger of becoming an anachronism. Content increases in value when it is personally relevant to its audience--either through increasingly narrow programming aimed at niches, or interactivity to pull a lean-back audience far forward. American Idol figured this out early, allowing it to retain reach and relevancy through audience voting. NBC's "The Biggest Loser" has an online forum of 40,000 members who have become a virtual support group for contestants and themselves in the quest to lose weight. But the other angle where consumers can bolster the value of content is through programming and editing. Digg and are seen as insanely valuable because they give a voice to audience members, letting them influence programming through their own preferences. The Henry Ford School of Consumer Preference ("You can get any color car you want--as long as it's black") has long since lost its charter.

Distribution as King Kong: The growth of personal publishing has proven that people will seek out content that's meaningful to them. But the media industry is advertiser-driven, and some semblance of scale will remain essential for the foreseeable future. Reach remains important for advertisers, so distribution is vital for publishers. But given the simultaneous growth of Me-Media (above), the model of creating content and then pushing it to as many people as possible is no longer tenable. Instead, media companies are building platforms where fresh content is distributed dynamically--through many voices and in many formats. This technique reminds me of an exercise from my 6th grade music class. The teacher pecked a note on the piano and asked the entire class to hold the note for as long as possible. We started loud and strong, but as breath and voices faded, the note became fainter and fainter, until a single throat coughed and sputtered out the final sound. Then she had us do it again, but this time told us that when we started to lose breath we should simply keep our mouths open, inhale quickly, then resume singing. The result--an infinitely sustainable note with no perceivable loss of volume or strength, as we replaced our weak voices with strong ones.

Technology as King Kong: It was broadband technology that enabled content to take the online throne in the first place, allowing interactive media in some ways to draft off television's operations, culture and legacy. But all that means is that video advertising online can now be as inefficient as video advertising on TV--hardly a step change for the advertisers whose budgets drive this industry. Technology implementations in behavioral targeting and local search, for example, are chipping away at inefficiency. But more activity is inevitable in the coming years as the industry shifts its attention from top-line growth to the bottom line.

So what media company out there is the new King Kong? Whichever one manages to knit together irresistible content, Web 2.0 consumer interactivity and ratings, and has a reach broad enough to appeal to media plans everywhere, along with the technology to boost efficiency and ROI. Look at the deals in the interactive media M&A landscape over the past year to see how each contributes to this same global strategy: to FIM; Weblogs, Inc. to AOL; Massive to Microsoft; to Google. All aim to boost the value of content either through consumer interactivity, distribution or technology.

These deals have impact far beyond the 800-pound gorillas who orchestrated them. The factors that brought them into play are also vitally important to anyone in interactive media looking to partner with, or be acquired by, these companies--or in the unenviable position of having to compete with them.

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