Lots of old-media companies, awed by this company's seeming invincibility and its apparent lock on the mass online audience, signed hugely disadvantageous deals, essentially giving away their content in exchange for the exposure. Marketers in particular groveled, lining up to throw money at the company.
The company I'm talking about is, of course, America Online.
And pathetically, or hilariously -- depending on your perspective -- we're now reliving the (unlearned) lessons of AOL with another company that has seemed, until very recently, like the unavoidable 800-pound gorilla of the viral-video space: YouTube.
I'll just go ahead and say it: YouTube is the new AOL -- in all the worst possible ways.
There's a tipping point at play here -- the moment when a critical mass of media companies and marketers will realize that they can do just fine (and probably much better) if they don't play ball with YouTube -- and we're arriving at it just about now.
As Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube for copyright infringement continues to plod though the legal system, what's really interesting is how quickly Viacom has gained traction with its own viral-video initiatives. These days, when you see a video from "The Daily Show" on a blog, chances are it's being served up directly from Comedy Central's Motherload, not from YouTube.
Even more interesting is how instantaneously other media companies, big and small, have figured out not only how to bypass YouTube, but how to quickly duplicate its ease-of-use and intrinsic virality (as with YouTube, embedding, say, a MySpace video on your blog is a simple matter of copying and pasting a line of code). Meanwhile, the talent drain continues, with sites such as Turner Broadcasting's Superdeluxe.com and Will Ferrell's FunnyorDie.com locking up viral-video whizzes that you previously would have automatically assumed you'd be able to find on YouTube.
Up until recently, it really seemed like all viral-video roads necessarily led to, or through, YouTube. Seemingly overnight, that's changed -- and I'm amazed at how often I end up (via blog links or search results or links that friends send me) on non-YouTube video sites.
Yes, YouTube continues to grow rapidly -- and it continues to enjoy considerable heat for the role user-generated video agitprop is playing in the presidential race. But tellingly, although you could find multiple user posts of Hillary Clinton's "Sopranos" spoof on YouTube, most viewers seem to have gone directly to HillaryClinton.com (half a million visitors in 24 hours) to see it.
You don't have to wait for the much-hyped, overcapitalized next-gen internet video sites, including Joost, Babelgum and VeohTV (the Michael Eisner-backed Veoh spinoff that quietly made its debut last week) to emerge from their beta trials to see that the days of YouTube hegemony are numbered. Right now, the best new viral-video aggregators and curators -- see two of my favorites in Media Guy's Pop Pick -- are proving to be entirely agnostic about which viral-video sites they cull from.
The mistake we've been making in evaluating mass-market first-mover YouTube has been in thinking that Google-like dominance is possible in the content arena.
But, of course, that's as daft as thinking that we'd always need America Online.