Google’s TV Dreams Meet Reality

Technology has long raced ahead of business models. That’s increasingly the case when it comes to digital media, particularly when talking about the collision of the Web with TV.

On the face of it, the two seem destined to join. The Internet has long boasted of being the most targeted medium around as well as being the only one where users can interact with the advertising. TV, meanwhile, is the home of sight, sound and motion — three words that make brand marketers’ knees buckle. And yet, it’s also clear that nobody has a clue how to make this work practically.

I’ve spent the last couple days at the Monaco Media Forum, held in a place where many things don’t seem quite real. That’s pretty much the case when talk turns to the marriage of the Web and TV. Again and again, tech folks have gotten up on stage and spoken off stage about why this marriage will happen. It all makes perfect sense. And yet there’s a disconnect on whether it will happen on the tech industry’s terms. Nikesh Arora, Google’s chief business officer, said that the entire notion of digital media as a discrete thing is already in the past. The world is digital, it’s increasingly social, and media is following. Fair enough, but where Arora loses me, and others in the audience, is how this will work when we’re talking about an $80 billion industry that’s quite successful.

Arora decried the “gods of broadcast TV” as anachronisms that belong to a bygone era before the Web-consumer-empowerment era. It will seem silly, in Arora’s telling, five years hence to look back at a time when we watched TV at times of some programmer’s choosing. “It will destroy the notion of brand awareness,” he said. “We’ll talk about brand engagement.” We are living in revolutionary times, he noted.

That’s news to the TV industry, which has done quite well for itself by selling based on brand metrics like awareness and persuasion and with broad audience segments. Google has frankly struggled to break into TV in a big way in large part because it is hell-bent on imposing its Internet ad system onto a big, successful industry that wants no part of it. That doesn’t mean Google will stop trying — it can’t with so much at stake and Facebook breathing down its neck as the Web’s new gatekeeper. “Sometimes dreamers are disappointed,” Arora allowed when pressed by Jack Myers on why it hasn’t gotten more traction.

But the TV folks don’t seem all that interested. There are times when they seem to want to tell the Web revolutionaries to shut up and go to their rooms. Coming into Monaco, I shared a car with a TV executive. I asked him about how he views the incursion of tech giants into TV’s turf. “I’m not interested in other people selling my stuff,” he told me. The message was that too many tech players like Google want to insert themselves between the programmer and the advertiser. Google will claim it isn’t inserting itself, just providing the open platform on which advertising can be done more efficiently, but that’s the case. The TV folks aren’t dumb, quite to the contrary, and they know the risks of rushing into tech.
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Ted Prince, chief operating officer at National Geographic. For all the complaints about the TV ad model, it works quite well and allows the creation of high-quality, expensive content. When Prince refers to IP, he’s talking about intellectual property, not Internet protocol. Google, on the other hand, was recently described to me as “the greatest deflationary force in history” because it has a history of entering markets and upending the economics. That makes sense for Google, but it might not make sense for the TV world. For now, TV appears unruffled by digital distribution. Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting, noted that digital is a great complement to TV, hardly a replacement.
“I get a little worried that things are framed as a zero-sum game,” he said.
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