Viral Video as a Marketing Tool?

Over at BoingBoing [ ] they’ve been following for a while a couple of instances where major networks, specifically NBC and CBS have contacted the video hosting site YouTube [ ] to have them remove videos that they claim are proprietary content of the network, while allowing other videos that are also proprietary to pass through. First NBC, then CBS; this doesn’t bode well for free content on the internet, and while no one can dispute the rights that the networks hold to their own content, this shows a rather disturbing trend.

In specific, NBC allowed YouTube to host, and let viewers watch, their “Lazy Sunday” clip that’s been crazy delicious-I mean popular on the net, the Chronic-WHAT!?-les of Narnia rap that’s made a happy home for itself in my heart and yours. That being said, NBC happily allowed YouTube to rack up the bandwidth charges and suffer the server load of millions of people around the world congregating around a new viral sensation, and then, as the video was at the height of its popularity and likely still growing, they sent a cease and desist order to YouTube demanding they take the video down, and then in turn started offering it on their own website instead, and it’s no longer free at the Apple iTunes video store, it’s $1.99 US now.

[ BoingBoing :: NBC Nastygrams YouTube ]

The video, however, is still available at Google Video, if for some reason you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen it. But the story doesn’t end there. A video surfaced late last week of an amazing high schooler who happens to be autistic and his basketball teammates who were incredulous at his amazing performance in their last game. Jason McElwain managed to land six three-pointers and another shot, for a total of 20 points in the last three minutes of his school’s game, which is amazing because it was the first time the coach had allowed him to play all season. Amazing, isn’t it? I thought so too! Definitely a feel-good news story-but here’s the killer; YouTube was hosting the video, and CBS sent a DMCA complaint to YouTube, according to BoingBoing and a reader’s report, that amounted to YouTube unceremoniously pulling the clip. However, clips of Dr. Phil, Oprah, and other much bigger name CBS-owned content remains.

[ BoingBoing :: CBS Pulls an NBC on YouTube ]

By the way, if you’re interested in the clip, it’s still widely available around the net in other places, one mirror of which linked in the BoingBoing post, or you can head to the CBS website and view it there.

But this reveals a much more troubling problem. Are the major networks using viral media as a marketing tool? The only real difference in both cases is the amount of time between forcing the content back to the owner-the Lazy Sunday clip was a matter of weeks, this a matter of days. As content becomes more and more popular, its natural that the content producer and rights owner will want to protect it, but NBC and CBS should be kissing YouTube’s feet for bearing the brunt of the onslaught of fans and interested eyes running up YouTube’s bandwidth bills; not to mention that the Lazy Sunday clip is obviously Saturday Night Live (SNL is known to be an NBC branded show) and the B’Ball clip is part of a CBS News broadcast. They can’t be worried about their content not being recognized, so what’s the problem?

That’s the worry here-that content producers will let their content get out into the wild, and if it grows into a viral sensation or the next big net-meme, that’s the time to pull it back and pull it back quick and hard to make sure that it’s your website that people are coming to and your ads that are being clicked, meaning more popularity, exposure, and money coming in your direction. It makes sense that NBC and CBS would see their content get out, watch it becoming popular, and say “hey….we should get in on this! In fact, it’s OURS, we’re entitled to it!” and then pull the reins in and force others to stop offering up their content on their own and instead direct potential viewers to their own resources.

This could bode badly for free distribution of content on the net. Other networks could decide to use the wilds of the net as a similar litmus test for what will be the next big downloadable sensation and what will wind up flopping, or worse, they may begin to design media specifically for these kinds of tests. Part of the beauty of viral memes is that often they’re not intentional, and diluting the already swollen pool of videos, clips, flash animations, and other content on the web with media specifically designed to be “edgy” and “hip” and appeal to “those young folks with the computers” could be nightmarish, and sadly, marketing folks don’t get this. They’d be more than happy to start generating ads that fit a mold of previous viral hits and wind up trying way too hard to make one.

The greater fear, however, is that the content producers will continue this dangerous tradition of exerting its content rights in a very duplicitous way, and essentially using the free services out there that cater to people looking for a hilarious video to brighten up their day or the sites that catalog free video content, like YouTube, as a proving ground for their content. If it does poorly, hang it out to dry and leave it alone-if it does well, the public’s taken the bait and its time to insert some ads or pull on the line and reel them back to where you control the user experience-where you can plaster your site with ads, force viewers to watch commercials in order to get to the video, or simply charge would-be watchers a fee to even see the video at all.

Before I come off like I’m demonizing content producers for doing this, it should be clear that content producers making money for their work isn’t the problem here. I’m all for the content being available in some way, even if there are ads supporting it, or even a nominal fee like the two bucks one pays to see something at the iTunes video store, but the worry is building yet another marketing practice that involves jerking the public around unwittingly and duplicitously. The only way it could get worse is if the content were pulled back and subsequently DRM’d so no one could view or download it without the express consent of the rights holder.

Solutions? Partner with, instead of push around, content distributors like YouTube and Google Video and Apple to create effective and marketable methods for getting your content out in the first place. If you choose to make a video free to the public, be ready for what that might mean and go into the partnership with your eyes open. If you’re worried about it being a slam hit and you not getting any of the action, make it ad-supported; if it’s that good people will still buy it. Give the public the content they want in the formats that work for them, instead of shoving them, and the people who bring the content to them, around in a battle over rights. The longer the content production industries, like the major networks, the music industry, and the movie industry, take to realize this, the more money they’ll have flushed down the toilet in potential ad and direct sales revenue, and the more they’ll have wound up making themselves look miserly and arrogant in the eyes of the viewing public they claim to be courting.

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