MTV is Poised for a Comeback

There has been much debate about the merits of Viacom’s recent decision to demand the take-down over 100,000 of its copyrighted video clips on YouTube, which included video assets from MTV, Comedy Central, and other Viacom-owned brands. Well, ‘debate’ is probably not an accurate word to use here, as there seems to be an overwhelming consensus within the blogosphere that Viacom did a very dumb thing.

As only he can, Jeff Jarvis eloquently summarizes the general consensus in his latest Guardian column, echoing the prevailing sentiment that Viacom’s move against YouTube represents yet another ill-fated attempt by the old media guard to regain command & control in the ever-elusive new media world.

If you’ve been a regular reader of my writing, you know that I have long been a loud critic of the old media guard whenever any of them have tried (mostly in vain) to maintain the type of control they had become accustomed to pre-web. So while I agree with the overall premise of Jeff’s thesis, as laid out in his column, I have to say that I very much disagree with the conclusion he reached regarding Viacom. In my opinion, Viacom is doing absolutely the right thing and, in fact, they seem to be correcting themselves on many fronts.

Central to my support of Viacom’s recent moves has much to do with something I had written about them back in September of last year, in a piece titled “Murdoch vs. Redstone… Round Two”. The following is an excerpt:

“The first thing Viacom needs to do is try to control where and how the second front of the war is to be fought. What they should not do is to re-fight the first battle by trying to go head-to-head against MySpace (e.g. with one big deal, like acquiring Facebook or Bebo). Instead, they need to move the war to a new front. And in this regard, they need to engage their competitors in an area where they have a clear comparative advantage. This means Viacom needs to bring out the biggest weapon in its arsenal… the vast video libraries archived within MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, SpikeTV, etc.

“Simply put, Viacom has the richest resource of short-form, high-production-quality videos in the media world… exactly the same kind of “video snacks” that are so popular on online video-sharing sites like YouTube. But given that, the real key to success depends on how Viacom goes about unleashing their video assets onto the Internet… In short, Viacom needs to pursue a strategy that causes death by a thousand cuts.”

Firstly, all mentions of MySpace above should be substituted with YouTube, thus making it relevant to the topic at hand. And secondly, let’s review the *other* announcement that Viacom made on the same day they acted against YouTube, courtesy of this quote from a Reuters story about the news:

You won’t find clips of comedian Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” and MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” on YouTube any more, but Viacom Inc. is laying the groundwork for its videos to be available to hundreds of thousands of other sites… In the next few months, Web users will be able to grab videos from nearly all MTV-owned sites and post them on their own blogs or Web sites, lessening the need to go to YouTube, the top online video service that Google Inc. acquired last year.

To be fair, Jeff does point to this particular move by Viacom in his column. But his analysis of the implications, which he views in terms of a poor alternative to YouTube’s potential promotional value, misses the boat. As MTV’s newly-appointed President of Global Digital Media, Mike Salmi, put it:

“The move is part of a strategy to bring Viacom’s Web sites up to “Web 2.0″ standards,” Salmi said in the Reuters article. “Part of that is allowing people to take our content and embed it and make your own things out of it, whatever they want.”

In my view, the strategic implications of this bold move by Viacom is huge. Opening up their vaults to the masses, for the first time in their history, is a watershed event that should not be underestimated. And its significance should have been highlighted in David Carr’s latest piece about MTV in Monday’s NY Times. If and when MTV makes a comeback, this is the move that will prove the turning point.