Illustration by Jason Schneider
One of the most exhausting things about new-media Moonies is their cultish conviction: either you “get it” or you don’t. But they’re right, up to a point. It’s like when you’re finding your way around a strange city: you have to see the whole thing in its full conceptual clarity before you can even begin to understand the particulars. The classic case study is how Steve Jobs shanghaied and basically destroyed the CD business. The major record labels, in giving Apple’s iTunes the right to sell individual songs for 99 cents each, undermined their own business model—selling bundles of songs gathered together into something called an “album” for up to $20 a pop—because they didn’t see that people were about to consume music in an entirely new way. The labels saw iTunes as free money; “ancillary,” in the legal vernacular. Jobs took their cheap music and used it as a loss leader to sell his expensive iPods, and the traditional music business now lies in tatters.
Since I work in the traditional TV business, I’d been resolutely not seeing how the exact same thing is happening to video. Certainly, I’d been following the rise of Web-based video services like YouTube, Joost, and Hulu (the latter two being, to different degrees, Big Media–funded attempts to create satisfying experiences roughly analogous to watching TV, except on the Web). More recently, Miro, a nonprofit, launched a high-definition Web channel. And iTunes went video as well, offering a mix of professionally produced video and video podcasts from amateurs and quasi-amateurs. Like the record labels before them, TV networks and studios licensed some of their content to Apple, allowing iTunes to sell shows and movies with the same one-price strategy it had applied to music ($1.99 for TV shows; $9.99 for movies). The video iPod, competing with video-enabled cell phones and other viewing devices, allowed visual content to go mobile as well, auguring a period of video everywhere, immediately, all the time. All of this seemed like peripheral noise, digital noodling, because it was obvious: people love TV. They’ll never stop watching TV. YouTube is popular, but doesn’t count because it’s not really TV: it’s short-form crap. Produced TV is shinier, more pleasingly narrative. These are eternal values.