Google as Cable Guy? The Role May Not Suit

Tuning In: Google's Old-Media Experiments Spark Wonder, but Tend to Fizzle Out

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Don't scan too soon for results from Google's latest experiment in joining, or upending, an established media business. They don't exist, and perhaps they never will.

The Wall Street Journal got hot and heavy today over a new attempt by the search-ad giant to put a stake in the ground in the paid-distribution TV business. Google, the paper reported, "is considering a plan to offer paid cable-TV services to consumers," by expanding a small Kansas City, Kan., high-speed broadband service it operates to include video and phone service, too. The maneuver, the broadsheet somewhat breathlessly, represents "a move that could unleash a new wave of competition within the traditional TV business."

Simmer down. Google has been raising eyebrows and prompting hand-wringing for years with its various attempts to hitch its digital expertise with some of the more lucrative parts of offline media sales. The trouble? Few of its experiments in this arena so far have borne fruit.

Back in 2005, Google sparked similar "oohs" and "aahs" by testing a plan to buy up ad pages in magazines, then resell pieces of the inventory to various sponsors, analyzing and tracking ad performance and efficiency all the while. That eventually fizzled out.

In 2006 it introduced Google Print Ads, launching with 50 newspaper partners and growing to encompass 800 papers. It axed that effort in 2009 as well, saying "the product has not created the impact that we -- or our partners -- wanted."

Google similarly planned to sell radio ad inventory, and similarly quietly bowed out.

Google's TV-ad efforts have at least plodded along. The company has sold ad inventory for some satellite-TV providers, such as Echostar Communications' DISH Network. But an alliance with NBC Universal, in which Google would sell some inventory on some of the company's cable networks ended up being terminated about a year ahead of schedule. Speculation at the time suggested media owners might be wary of letting Google have direct relationships with some of the advertisers who sponsored their TV networks. And indeed, some of the cable networks Google was representing had grown in viewership, becoming more important to NBCU's overall business.

The jury is still out on the company's efforts to sell a web-connected TV designed to pull in and organize all kinds of video from all kinds of sources. "The initial version of Google TV wasn't perfect, but launching it gave us the opportunity to learn," Google acknowledged in an October 28 statement on its Google TV Blog. "These are still early days, and we're working hard to move forward with each update."

All of which is to say that just as Comcast and Time Warner Cable are not Google, neither is Google Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Yes, cable TV distribution remains a difficult business that remains threatened by the prospect of "cord cutting." And Google should be applauded, not castigated, for its efforts to dip its beak into new businesses. No one wants to end up like the people who ran the Roman Empire or a metropolitan newspaper monopoly. Everyone has to innovate.

At the same time, no one should confuse Google's getting its toes wet in Kansas City with the end of the cable industry. That end may come down the pike sooner or later, but given Google's track record so far, it's not clear yet that the search-engine company will be part of the process.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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