Content everywhere? More like content nowhere
Will Big Media and Big Tech companies ever stop punishing their biggest fans?
Like many people, I woke up yesterday and reached for my iPad for my morning hit of news, entertainment and information, so I could start my day. (And like many, I’m embarrassed to admit it.) Padding to the front door to get a newspaper still sounds more respectable, but my iPad gives me a far more current, rich and satisfying media experience than a still-warm printed Times could ever produce.
Except, lately, it doesn’t. Yesterday morning, I saw the exciting news that Bill Simmons, ESPN’s most popular, profane and controversial writer, had secured an interview with President Obama. Simmons published his interview in podcast, text and video form on Grantland, a longform sports journalism website he founded last year under the ESPN umbrella. I clicked over to the story from my Twitter feed and saw three YouTube excerpts of Simmons with Obama. And that’s all I saw. When I hit play on the videos, I discovered ESPN had set them to be “unavailable” on mobile devices.
Moving on, I tried to read a New York Post headline that also found its way into my Twitter feed. But when I tapped in, the Post webpage that loaded was not the story I wanted to read. Instead it was a notice, which I took as an admonition, that to read New York Post content on an iPad, I would have to download the app, which retails for $1.99.
I want to make it clear that I’m not against paying for content. But what I’ve just described aren’t paywalls, where publications warn users that they won’t be able to consume content for free.
The situations I’m describing are blanket denials of content because of a choice I made about which device to use. With these tactics, media companies aren’t creating content paywalls, they’re creating content ghettos. Big Media, set my content free! Stop messing with the user experience to deny readers their content simply because you can detect what platform they’re on. And stop punishing users who are investing in the latest devices to consume your output. In other words, grant my hyper-advanced iOS device or my friend’s fancy new Android phone just as much access to the Web as my mother’s four-year-old Windows XP PC. Which one of us do you think wants to watch Simmons talk crossover dribbles with the Commander-in-Chief?
Why is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — which, remember, created The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper — punishing Post readers who use iPads and who expect their Web browser on that device to be no different than the browser on their computer, as Apple so painstakingly designed Mobile Safari to be? Why have ESPN and Disney, parents to Grantland, decided to use a setting in YouTube to deny themselves video traffic to their biggest story ever — an interview with a sitting president of the United States?
A spokesperson told me the mobile block on the videos was inadvertent and that the company is “aggressive” about getting its content onto as many screens as possible. Unfortunately for ESPN, someone did set the block, denying itself mobile video traffic during the first 24 hours. The spokesperson had to admit, however, that sometimes rights restrictions, like those in their deals with sports leagues, limit where and when they can show highlights, games, etc. (Interestingly, in 2008 ESPN denied Simmons the opportunity to interview candidate Obama, so by at least one measure — getting an interview at all — things have actually improved.)
Time Warner is the company that perhaps best exhibits the split personality of the content industry. Time Warner, and much of the rest of the media, wants to make a splash in the digital world with one toe while protecting its profit streams with every other usable extremity. Its CEO, Jeff Bewkes, has long been promoting a “Content Everywhere” initiative, which allows paying cable-television subscribers access to shows via all their digital devices. Yet the company’s Time Inc. division has recently started posting online-only excerpts of its Time and Fortune magazine articles, directing readers to subscribe in print or via iPad. I’m sure this cannibalizing of print content sounds like a grand idea in an executive suite, especially one full of TV execs, but it’s extraordinarily frustrating online.
Time Inc. wants to turn back the clock on giving away its print content for free, but runs excerpts of its stories online to try to reap the attendant traffic, SEO and link rewards. Between decades of magazines at the dentist’s office and years of free content online, print readers are simply accustomed to the advertising-supported free or near-free model.
Yesterday Fortune released an excerpt of “Inside Facebook,” a feature from its latest issue. You can read teases of it in media outlets like the Huffington Post and others. At Fortune, online readers won’t get the full article for at least several months, if ever, unless they pony up $1.99 to buy the Kindle version or pay to read it via the magazine’s iPad app. Unfortunately for Fortune, the Internet is all-seeing. Online discussion about this article on the hottest company in tech appears to be stifled at best, probably because readers who would link to and discuss the juiciest parts can’t; they’re just not online, making this exercise the worst of both worlds. It’s easy to predict that social-media shares will eventually suffer as users find they can’t easily read stories or consume video on mobile devices.
(Having executed previous attempts at this strategy for Fortune, including with the article-turned-ebook-turned-book “Inside Apple,” I can confirm that the profit on a successful Kindle edition is, at least for Fortune, minuscule at best, due to a variety of factors including Amazon’s commission structure and the relative interest in a given article. Meanwhile, an article that does not find a paying audience online actually creates a significant loss in time, effort, pageviews and overhead.)
As a heavy Internet user and media consumer, I can’t help but think back to the recent Net neutrality battle that pitted ISPs, which wanted the power to throttle their networks, against content providers, which stoked fears in the tech world and the halls of the FCC that the Internet would go from Autobahn to limited-access toll road and that only those sites that could afford to pay more would be able to guarantee speed and availability to their users, stratifying the open network.
As it turns out, the recent anti-usability, nonsensical ways in which Big Media and Big Tech have restricted access to content has proved that both sides have been against Net neutrality all along. After all, Disney’s ESPN (however inadvertently) used a feature provided in Google’s YouTube to block its interview with the president from appearing online. It seems that what the industry has really been after — and perhaps has finally won — is the power to be non-neutral on its own terms.