Not who you'd expect
Mr. Reifman wasn't surprised to see content companies begin to crack down on infringement -- he expected as much after Google announced its acquisition of YouTube. He was surprised, however, that the first major media publisher to make news by yanking down clips was Comedy Central. He points out that in a Wired magazine interview just over a year ago, "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart and executive producer Ben Karlin didn't seem to have a problem sharing the show online.
"This instantly puts a clear frame on what exactly did Google buy and was it worth $1.6 billion?" Mr. Reifman said, later adding, "Someone at Viacom has a sense of humor, saying you guys are crazy to pay $1.6 billion and we'll show you how crazy."
Indeed, YouTube since its inception has hosted a plethora of copyrighted content. Now that it's part of the online behemoth Google, one of the biggest marketing and ad-sales uncertainties for major media owners is how much to play along with YouTube.
BET and MTV also involved
The latest content to be removed wasn't limited to Comedy Central clips; Viacom's corporate office asked YouTube to remove some copyrighted content from a variety of Viacom's cable networks, including BET and MTV. Comedy Central, however, took the brunt of the blogosphere's buzz, perhaps because its content is represented in greater quantities across YouTube.
Actually, said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer for the word-of-mouth-analytics firm Cymfony, Viacom is smart to try to make a business out of its copyrighted content rather than just letting it be sliced and diced for use on YouTube.
"There is a good market for consumer-paid and legitimately acquired video," he said, pointing out how successful ABC has been putting "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" on iTunes. "We've clearly seen there's an economic and business model and a consumer desire to get the content they want how they want it, and they're willing to pay for that, sometimes with attention to ads, sometimes with cash."
Big opportunity lost
Unlike marketers who use YouTube as a way to seed viral videos, Comedy Central and its Viacom siblings have a natural place to put its clips online: their own broadband players. Yet clips of "The Daily Show" and its spinoff "The Colbert Report" are regularly uploaded to YouTube in three- to five-minute bites just after the show airs -- and before Comedy Central even uploads the clips to its own site. And because Motherload, Comedy's broadband site, snares CPMs of about $40, there's a potentially big opportunity lost when tens of thousands of internet viewers are conditioned to seek "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" clips on YouTube rather than at ComedyCentral.com.
But will Viacom's actions harm them, making them seem like a greedy corporation trying to keep a too-tight reign on its content? And how much has the viral marketing of YouTube helped linear TV ratings? Indeed, it's hard to tell if Viacom loses more by not sharing its clips on YouTube than it does by being there and foregoing ad impressions on its own sites.
To Mr. Reifman, the Comedy Central incident is the same as looking a marketing gift horse in the mouth. "It's free marketing and the people who've linked to these videos are free marketers," he said. "They're sort of slapping all those marketers in the face."
'Finding the right business model'
Viacom issued this statement: "Like our peers in the media industry, we are focused on finding the right business model for professionally created content to be legally distributed on the internet. We want our audiences to be able to access our programming on every platform and we're interested in having it live on all forms of distribution in ways that protect our talented artists, our loyal customers and our passionate audiences."
Incidentally, much of the criticism over the Comedy Central's decision to pull content off YouTube focuses on the quality of the viewing experience at Motherload. One reader of the popular blog BoingBoing.net posted the top five reasons he hates the viewing interface of Motherload, including the fact users couldn't resize the viewing window and that the player uses java script for its pop-up window,meaning it doesn't have a visible web address for people to copy and paste in an e-mail to friends or on a blog.
And that is where some evolution will have to take place, Mr. Nail said. First, there's the lesson of iTunes -- that a superior user experience is as important as the content and the business model. Second, networks and producers are used to thinking about distribution in a first-linear-then-online fashion -- but it doesn't have to air in that order. "Consumers are saying that doesn't work for me," he said. "The audience is saying, 'I want it, at the latest, simultaneously.'"