Posted by: Catherine Holahan on July 15, 2008
To hear Google tell it, MTV-owner Viacom is the epitome of evil media conglomerate and Google is the hero of user privacy.
In a July 15 blog post, YouTube executives portrayed an agreement with Viacom to obscure users’ identities in YouTube’s viewing records as a victory for the common man, won by Google. “We are pleased to report that Viacom, MTV and other litigants have backed off their original demand for all users’ viewing histories,” wrote the YouTube team. “In addition, Viacom and the plaintiffs had originally demanded access to users’ private videos, our search technology, and our video identification technology. Our lawyers strongly opposed each of those demands and the court sided with us.”
The thinly veiled implication of YouTube’s statement is that Viacom wanted to do bad things with users’ data. Perhaps, it planned to follow the music industry’s example: tracing IP addresses to deliver lawsuits to everyone who watched Jon Stewart online.
But, here’s the reality. Viacom isn’t interested in suing YouTube users. Honestly, Viacom may not even be all that interested in suing Google.
Ultimately, Viacom wants to be paid what it thinks is a fair value for its content. That means proving to Google, the courts, and everyone else that the content Viacom spends millions to create draws audiences and advertisers in a way that user home movies don’t.
Clearly, somewhere along the way, before Viacom filed suit, executives from both Google and Viacom discussed how much Comedy Central clips and the like were worth. They disagreed. Viacom believes YouTube’s data is the key to showing that its content deserves the premium it demands.
If Viacom can prove that YouTube users either watch more copyrighted content, including its shows, than user-generated stuff or that their shows draw YouTube’s audience in the first place, then it can make a compelling case to Google, other video sites, and advertisers that it deserves a larger share of the online advertising pie. That’s important not only for when Viacom ultimately licenses its content to Google or another Web site (Hulu perhaps?), but also for its conversations with advertisers about the value of its own online properties.
Despite how Google makes Viacom appear, it’s not out to get users. Moreover, Google is not a hero of user privacy. It collects the data in the first place, in part, to personalize the YouTube experience and, in part, to sell ads. Viacom wants the data, ultimately, for a similar purpose: to generate more online advertising revenue.
The biggest risk with Viacom seeking YouTube’s records isn’t that users will be served with a lawsuit, it’s that Viacom won’t prove professional content is worth more than home videos of hysterical teenagers or puppies playing in a backyard. If Viacom can’t prove that its shows draw users in a way that user-generated stuff doesn’t, then its negotiating position for a share of the online advertising pie will be significantly diminished. Moreover, if Viacom’s popular television content isn’t grabbing more audience that people’s home movies, then professional content creators in general are in for a world of hurt. Viacom, News Corp, ABC and the rest can’t produce prime time for the price of a couple Mentos and a few liters of diet Coke.