Deja View

Earlier this year, I attended the Buying & Selling eContent conference in Arizona, where I delivered the opening keynote titled "Everything I Know About Content I Learned in Hollywood." It was my first time at the event and it was a great affair-from outstanding planning to important substance. The attendees were even kind enough to let me win the golf tournament's long drive contest, though I had the eerie feeling this group of content execs might be setting me up for a hustle next year ...

In my speech, I pointed out that, though we're still very much in the Wild West of digital content, what we see today often feels like history repeating itself. This notion must have triggered considerable thought among audience members because I spent the rest of the day being stopped in the halls and reminded of more and more instances in which this was proving true. And while it's safe to say that I'm no history scholar (unless you count having spent the last decade intermittently producing the 4-hour historical documentary film For Love of Liberty, starring Halle Berry and airing on PBS), it is clear that the people who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

As Candid Camera host Peter Funt recently pointed out, the internet as a content delivery platform feels a lot today like where cable television was 30 years ago. Cable TV put what felt like an infinite amount of content in front of the consumer, and it faced the same problem we do today: Namely, how you get consumers to pay for content that had previously been free.
Well, cable solved this by dicing the content into small pieces. Thus, instead of a single TV network offering everything-news, sports, entertainment, whatever-cable decided to give each type of content its own separate network. Today, on the internet, we're doing the exact same thing, but we're segmenting the audience niches even further still.

The big surprise of the past was that cable didn't kill broadcast television like so many had predicted. In fact, as the number of TV channels rose, so did the overall consumption of television in general. And that's exactly what's happening today: Traditional content companies have to make tough changes in order to accept that people are consuming content in different ways and on different platforms. However, overall consumption of their content across all these platforms is actually growing.

I recognized this myself (I'm embarrassed to say) when I became totally obsessed with the death of Michael Jackson. I lost days of my life glued to Twitter and TMZ for tidbits of news as they were breaking, and I really didn't care much about absolute accuracy because I was starving for any information at all. But then, a few days later, I went to the Los Angeles Times because I wanted a credible source that could take a mountain of tidbits, put it on a timeline, and interpret the verified facts for me.

I was after two very different things in the same way that, years ago, the old news wire feeds offered a different portrait of news than the interpretation and credibility of Walter Cronkite. The distinction points out the drastic disparity between headlines (like Twitter and TMZ) and analysis (like the Los Angeles Times). Headlines are a commodity; it's about who can get it first. Analysis is about credibility. But, in the case of Michael Jackson, it was their collective over-availability that caused my consumption of both to skyrocket.

Moreover, in the case of Twitter, those Michael Jackson days highlighted a historical reality, which has consistently proved that distribution rules-at first. Only later does content take over. In other words, throughout history, when a new content platform is created, people are enthralled by it. But once it has achieved a certain critical mass, the value of the content going across that platform becomes more important. So things like radio and television, even cable TV, blew people's minds and changed the world. But as they became routine, the content flowing across them took on the real value. In my case, Twitter suddenly made that shift as the information about a fallen pop idol instantly overshadowed my excitement about the delivery mechanism itself.

So dust off your old textbooks and let these cyclical history lessons be your guide ... and you'll surely be on your way to better strategies that make you billions. Oh, and here's to hoping that history also repeats itself at a certain conference on a certain golf course.