On the surface, the biggest name at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week seemed to say all the right things about consumer rights, and do all the right things when it came to promoting innovation.
CBS President Les Moonves talked about wanting to use technology to connect to his audience and brought out Blake Krikorian, one of the founders of Sling Media, to tout the virtues of the Slingbox, which allows viewers to watch their TV online from anywhere. The newest Sling feature allows users to clip video content, upload it and send it to a friend. Moonves even presented some funny mash-ups of CBS content, one from CSI: Miami and one featuring his wife, CBS personality Julie Chen while palling around with YouTube founder Chad Hurley.
Disney President Robert Iger also talked about how his company was using technology to bring content closer to consumers, whether on the ESPN site, or the revamped Disney site that will allow consumers to make their own mash ups and to play online games.
It all made for a very pretty picture to see such high-powered entertainment executives appear to embrace technology, to, as Moonves said, show “how we're using technology to connect with our audience, to learn from them, and to form deeper, more interactive communities around our content.”
As Moonves put it, adding that “the place for any media company serious about the future is right upfront, ripping, burning, and mashing up the new beat we're all marching to.” At the same time, however, we shouldn't overlook the boundaries of what the content industry is doing to fill the technological gap.
That's because the future the top executives painted in their big speeches, the statements of other industry execs in other panels, and the views of the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), also presented during CES, show that the technological future isn't about the wide-open spaces of the current YouTube, or the unrestricted content transfer made possible by the Slingbox. Rather, this future is brought to you by content companies on their terms, much like today.
After effusively praising Sling, Moonves added: “With Sling, local becomes mobile, and your living room expands to wherever you are. I think that could have great possibilities if it's done like they're doing it, with great consideration for the content owners.”
And this, before introducing the Julie Chen mash-up: “It's kind of interesting to be in the space that way to see what happens when talented people who are passionate about our content get a place to express themselves. This is a new frontier and we're watching it very carefully. And we'll see just how much it benefits the exposure and promotion of the content owner.”
It's nice that Moonves lauded Slingbox and played funny mashups. That's better than slamming them. One has to wonder when the praise and the laughs will end.
It would be unfair to pick on Moonves alone. When Iger, in his speech, talked about creating new digital worlds and games and mash-ups and social-networking capabilities for consumers, he talked about them in the context of using Disney content as the raw materials for the new creations. Call it the walled playroom.
Out of the spotlight, content participants on panels made it clear that any distribution would be done their way. Call it the $100 million theory. Jim Ramo, CEO of the Movielink download service, said during one discussion that studios “own the content.” Those content companies won't put up $100 million for a movie unless they can distribute it as they see fit. Jim Wuthrich, Warner Brothers senior vp, made the same point in a different discussion. He said that unless content was protected, studios won't spend $100 million on a movie only to see that movie show up on the Internet. This comment came after he said that consumers “need flexibility on content” so that material can be downloaded to any number of devices around the house. On the other hand, do consumers have any rights having bought a DVD of that movie and contributed to the profit for it?
During the same discussion, Mike Wehrs, vp at Tegic, an AOL company, tried to argue that consumers had “an expectation of fair use” so that they can watch or listen to content on any number of devices. Larry Shapiro, an executive vp with the Disney Internet Group, responded that while Wehrs had a good point, Shapiro was concerned about “super distribution” of content and said that perhaps different pricing models could evolve. Shapiro added that protection of content is “incredibly important” as technology evolves. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, though beaten back on the broadcast flag, said during his panel appearance it's “important to try to provide protection” for content, although he did say it should be balanced with “the expectation of fair use.” Unfortunately, the broadcast copy controls he endorses don't strike that balance.
Their vision of the future isn't the ability for consumers to clip and send content they may like. It doesn't, at the moment, include fair use. It's the ability to do with media what consumers want under the terms the content companies set. They will have to figure out a way to deal with fair use, consumer expectations and technology using DRM, pricing and distribution. As of now, though, the commitment isn't clear. No one objects to content companies being paid for their work. But let's not lose track of what consumers can do with lawfully acquired media. The Digital Freedom campaign is a good place for a refresher course.
What's the last word on CES? “Hope” that content and technology will coexist peacefully”? “Disappointment” that content companies will try to stifle free, legal expression? Or will it be “control,” that content companies for the foreseeable future will want to exercise?