Judging by their top executives' remarks, neither NBC Universal nor Viacom is much of a fan of YouTube. Viacom is still embroiled in a billion-dollar copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube, and NBC Universal recently joined its media rival in demanding that YouTube remove clips from its television shows. But the two conglomerates appear to be taking subtly different approaches to competing with YouTube for the online video audience. Although both seem wedded to the dubious notion that people will go out of their way online for content they like, at least Viacom is making the trip shorter.
NBC Universal's relationship with YouTube has seen its ups and downs. The site gave some hipster cred back to NBC's aging "Saturday Night Live" franchise, helping to turn "Lazy Sunday" and a series of other SNL shorts into online hits. But not long after the Chronic-What? frenzy peaked in December 2005, NBC demanded that YouTube remove the clip and about 500 others. A few months later, the network struck a deal with YouTube to set up an authorized NBC channel on the site. Then in May, NBC filed a brief backing Viacom's lawsuit, and this week it terminated its YouTube channel.
Its current strategy is to try to restrict the availability of its shows (clips or full episodes) to Hulu, the new site NBC Universal is launching with News Corp., and a handful of other sites with which they've signed distribution deals. This strikes me as the sort of thing a TV network would do, because it's the way the TV business traditionally worked. Networks aggregated content in the hope that it would draw viewers to their channel at specific times. That approach worked fine in an era of limited choices. On the Internet, though, audiences are far more fragmented, and content tends to flow to where viewers congregate. Witness what happened when Radiohead made its latest album available online for as little as people cared to pay for it: hundreds of thousands of people still downloaded unauthorized copies through file-sharing networks. Why? Because that's where those people were used to getting content -- it came to them, they didn't have to go find it.
Viacom's Comedy Central -- home to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report and South Park, among others -- yanked its clips from YouTube about a year ago, and the two sides were never able to cut a deal that would have let YouTube run authorized versions of (and sell advertisements with) the programming. It, too, is making clips available through its own site, but with a twist: the segments can be posted to blogs and personal websites, increasing the potential audience. Its most far-reaching effort is with the Daily Show: it's making the program's entire recorded history, some 13,000 clips, available online. The database of snippets is searchable, in case you want to view, say, the 28 times Barack Obama was mentioned. Significantly, those results can also be found through Google, which attracts a bit more traffic than thedailyshow.com. A Google search is far less precise, of course; looking for a combination of "barack obama" and "daily show" through Google returns about 171,000 results. Still, by enabling fans to find and post any and every clip from The Daily Show, Comedy Central is making it easier for that content to flow to and find its audience. Too bad it can't flow to the millions of people already gathered by YouTube.