Editor’s note: Jordan Kurzweil ran AOL’s original programming and video group from 2004-2007, and before that built and Fox Entertainment’s first digital studio (1999-2002). He now runs Independent Content, an agency that helps media companies launch new digital products and businesses.
Apple should not use its $100 billion in cash to buy, or buy into Hollywood. While it would most assuredly (ahem, cough) disrupt the system, it would not spur the kind of creative chaos and innovation that would lead to the Emerald City of any show, on demand, for free, to rent, or buy, or subscribe, and organized by taste or popularity, or you! In fact, Apple buying into Hollywood, would actually kill Hollywood. Here’s why:
Time and again, tech companies have proven a keen disability when it comes to marketing and promotion. It is an amazing blind spot, likely born out of tech culture’s macro focus on “the platform” and its abundant disregard for the bits that fill it (the content).
From iTunes, to Netflix, to YouTube, and to Yahoo!, AOL and MSN before them, not a single tech company has been able to build and launch a single media brand that connects in any real way with an audience. They have failed time and again to build awareness and excitement for original shows, live events, new content verticals and new apps with audiences remotely approaching mass. The proverbial timeline is littered with a never ending list of momentary memes, flashes in the pan and never cut-throughs: wacky one of a kind animated web shorts, Red vs. Blue, Lonely Girl, Prom Queen, In the Motherhood, The 9, Gold Rush, The Failure Club. And building excitement — at scale — is what unlocks the value of content.
In contrast to the Hollywood marketing machine, tech companies devalue content. Some would say they do this by making movies, TV shows, music and apps ubiquitously available for low cost, or, for OMG free! But really, tech companies devalue media by jamming it into impenetrable noisy troves, stacks and databases filled with other content of equal, better or worse quality making it completely undiscoverable. Look at iTunes, NetFlix, Amazon and YouTube – tell me, where’s the good stuff at?
If I were Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, or Matt and Trey Parker, I would not want you to take my creative baby and drop it willy-nilly into one of the behemoth digital grist mills left to fight against light saber wielding kitties and direct to DVD softcore. The Apple App Store with its hundreds of thousands of apps does not build value for individual apps, or create real revenue for but a select few top players. It builds value for Apple, by achieving scale, so Apple can make bunk loads of cash by taking pennies off of each transaction, and selling more hardware.
What is missing from all digital entertainment services are efficient, effective promotional platforms — and throwing algorithms, ratings and popularity and trending data at the problem, or gobs of display ad inventory are not solutions. Yes, these tactics help sift and sort the databases of content, or game audiences into clicking and trial, but they do not bolster new brands, help them find audiences and build hits. Can the homepage of the iTunes store build mass hysteria for the next Avatar? On a smaller seemingly more achievable scale, can the homepage of YouTube create demand for the next season of Mad Men? No. But if the next season of Mad Men was only available on YouTube, it would certainly make a large group of people go to YouTube to watch (that is if they could find it), because Mad Men already has value.
Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and YouTube need to develop marketing chops, and ways to communicate with audiences on a deep visceral level. They all have a huge and powerful opportunity to move audiences — an intimate, activated, one-to-one relationship with a person sitting just an arms length away from their computer screen; or on their couch with a brand-new jury rigged gadget, invested, motivated and ready to get their socks knocked-off. Instead, users are greeted with a miasma of cover art, lists of titles in all shapes and sizes and a search box — no communication, no connection.
How can digital entertainment services connect with audiences? Three easy steps, and a bonus feature:
- People. Tech companies need to hire people to shine a light on the best stuff, and craft the stories that sell it to audiences (at least for now, until computers catch-up and develop wit, emotion, creativity the ability to write with heart). Some people call this curation. Others packaging and promotion.
- Design. They need to create interfaces to capture audiences and connect to users. Living, breathing beautiful displays that make you watch, and want to click.
- Tools. Tech companies should leverage what their platforms do best — target, track and account — to deliver those stories to interested audiences en masse.
Bonus feature: Marketing money. If companies like Apple plan to get into the first-run business, they need to deploy some of their treasure chest on good old marketing, online and off — TV commercials, movie trailers, billboards, print, PR campaigns, online display, SEM, social, events and so on. And not to market their platforms, to market programming.
Hollywood is right to resist licensing first-run content to the Valley. The platforms aren’t there, and there’s no discernable path to building value or profit. But once tech companies begin to crack the code of their own networks, develop their promotional muscles, and commit to spending real marketing money to build new media brands, then they will truly be on the path to fuel growth and effect positive change on an industry in search of a future. And they will have the latitude to make advances in how we consume our entertainment.