My best pal for these geek-a-thons is Steve Rosenbaum, who runs a vertically curated video-aggregation platform called Magnify.net. I'll explain what that means presently, but you should know that Steve is what you call a visionary. In fact, let's capitalize that . He's a Visionary.
Twenty years ago, in one of our TV's future go-rounds, he told me about this cockamamie idea to distribute a new kind of digital videocam to ordinary people so that they could tell stories from their own lives. At the time, he was making hour-long shows for cable channels, and I advised him to stick to his knitting. "They're civilians, Steve. Amateurs. They don't know how to tell stories. They don't know how to edit video. They don't know the rules of journalism. You and your producers will spend more time working over their tape than the stuff you shoot yourselves."
He ignored me. What happened next was his show "MTV UNfiltered," which -- long before YouTube was ever imagined -- gave a national platform to what they now call User Generated Content.
For that reason and many others, when he goes into oracle mode, I pay strict attention. So the other day we were talking about curation. (Did I mention he's also the author of the book Curation Nation?) I was floating my idea that brands would be wise to pass along just plain stuff harvested from the internet, as opposed to the thousands of sadly unvirulent "viral" videos they produce at such great expense, only to see them gather dust in some Google server farm.
That was approximately like lighting a match to see where the gas leak is coming from. See, curated video is his deal. Magnify consists of thousands of vertical channels -- media brands, regular brands and civilians alike -- and the software means of searching and contextualizing them. Which is to say, he is less than a disinterested party.
Still, when he says "The future of TV is crystal clear," (and he did) I am now trained to listen.
"The popular assumption is that TV will always be what TV is today: a whole bunch of noisy cable channels and variety of movies. Meanwhile, there's a ton of data that says that isn't what a whole new generation of viewers is watching. Take for example TED. TED creates videos that are 18 minutes long, kind of serious, and pretty darn smart. TV execs would say that it's exactly the kind of stuff that TV viewers would run from. But the data says otherwise. TED Talks have been viewed more than 700,000,000 times. That's seven hundred million times. Dang."
Which means, he says, that the appetite for content that isn't sitcom or 60-minute drama is already extremely large and on the way to unlimited.
"Better. More diverse. More open," he says. "TV 2.0 is going to be about building the networks that viewers want. And that means more TED and less sitcoms. That's just how it is . The question isn't what TV will look like, but instead who will win the prize. The companies vying to win are all in the game: Google (through YouTube and Google TV), Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and don't forget Comcast."
The future won't hinge on content; an unlimited supply is a given. It will hinge on the discovery of content. It's the needle-in-the-haystack problem.
"YouTube is the home base for pretty much every piece of video on the web," he says, "at this moment probably 85% or 90% of what's searchable. The only problem is , it's uploaded for free and advertisers run from random clips like the plague. So YouTube could become YouTubeS -- if they find the right solution to 'channelize' YouTube. That's not my word; that 's Salar Kamangar's word.
Kamangar being CEO of YouTube, whose job it is to turn video ore into gold.
"He's right," the Visionary says. "The noise of YouTube needs a clean, clear front end. But it isn't about producing more video that looks like cable TV. That's part of it sure, and their YouTube Originals will win a bit of cable TV's ad spend. But the real win is in creating a number of different front-end offerings for different kinds of 'channelized' content. Imagine three kinds of YouTube channels. Professional Curated Channels from respected and trusted sources. Architectural Digest curates the cutting edge of the shelter category, Etsy curates handmade crafts, and Haymarket's Clinical Advisor team curates medical information.
"So that 's the high end. But then you've got communities -- with pro-am curators who are publishing channels of curated content around skateboarding, yoga, even the Paleolithic Diet. Think of it as 'The Biggest Loser' meets a Facebook group of friends, making and sharing and talking about video.
"And, finally, you've got the channelization of Brands. So Betty Crocker isn't just making videos in their test kitchen, they're searching for and sharing videos made by the Bettys (yep, that 's what they call them) and Kraft is 'channelizing' UGC about macaroni and cheese.
"So, if YouTube gets it right, it gives real people, brands and community curation tools, and then low-value 'clips' become high-value, properly contextualized channels. Win!"
OK, then, YouTube wins!
Or not, says the Visionary, because other advantages reside elsewhere.
"The early winner on the personal-recommendation side is Facebook. They've got the 'like' button working overtime. And if Facebook gets it right, they'll be able to get your friends and neighbors to share with you the things they like and what to recommend. And a small group of your active friends will nominate themselves as trusted curators of the topics you want to find and enjoy. So if the world's discovery problems are solved by following trusted curators, then Facebook is poised to win the Future of TV race."
Ah, so it's between Google and Facebook. And Apple.
"Apple has the devices that capture content (iPhone, iPad, Final Cut) and a good set-top box offering that might begin to get traction, Apple TV, and (if the rumors are correct) a super snazzy flatscreen that could be the killer app for the Over-The-Top crowd still struggling with boxes that almost work. If the Apple Flat Screen takes off, then they've got the pole position to offer channelized content through the iTunes store."
Unless another e-store runs them into the wall at the first turn.
"Amazon's got an amazing way to invite and make useful consumer feedback. Now they're in video in a big way, and using their powerful back end offering, Amazon S3, they could spin up a YouTube competitor virtually overnight, and offer content makers an economic share of the pie for subscription channels on the Kindle Fire. They're behind in UGC, but hardly out of the race."
But, wait, Steve's not out of contenders -- or metaphors.
"Finally, there is Comcast. They own the pipes and the high-end content with NBCUniversal. If they use their hardware and software to let consumers build shareable channels, and get smart about social networks fast, they could jump to the head of the class."
At this point in the conversation, knowing that doubting the Visionary is a fool's game, I could summon only one question.
"Steve," I said, "what the f**k is the Paleolithic diet?"
Needless to say, he had an answer for that one, too.
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