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Whole New Ballgame - Broadcasting & Cable

Whole New Ballgame

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American Idol returns and draws a record audience. Google cuts a deal with dMarc, an innovative little company that runs an online system for advertisers to buy radio time. The Walt Disney Co. looks to be close to acquiring Pixar.

Meanwhile, Amazon.com announces its foray into programming with a Web-only author-interview show dubbed Amazon Fishbowl With Bill Maher.

It may all seem to be disparate media news, but from the macro to the micro, much more connects it all than that it emerged in a 48-hour stretch last week.

Whether it's already a runaway success like Idol or a stab at something that may end up as a forgotten press release, each of these deals is a response to a media environment in the throes of a revolution—and is an attempt to capitalize on it. All represent the coming together of media old and new.

Look at Disney's proposed acquisition of Pixar. Granted, the two have enjoyed a lucrative relationship for years, but that had begun to go sour when Michael Eisner was still reigning over the Magic Kingdom. But with Eisner gone and more level heads in place, there's a new understanding that seems almost a generational thing.

Disney Chairman Bob Iger and especially Anne Sweeney are much more in sync with Pixar czar Steve Jobs, and that led to the Disney/Apple video iPod pact. Disney's old-school animation needs Pixar's savvy, and Jobs, who understands the marriage of technology and marketing better than anyone, gets the far-reaching value of the Disney brand.

The Google gang is every bit as savvy as Jobs at creating new-media markets, even when it means carving them out of the old-media world. The dMarc acquisition is a hint at much more to come. Look for Google to similarly venture into the TV industry and find hundreds of millions of dollars of hidden value as the digital-TV universe increasingly looks more like the world of radio or even broadband.

Certainly, the Google/dMarc alliance foreshadows Google's desire to get into the business of brokering TV spots in a creative application, which the new-media giant has already done so successfully online. Don't think for a second that Google doesn't want a piece of the $55 billion TV-ad market.

Compared with Disney/Pixar and Google/dMarc, the Amazon/Bill Maher deal is a mere blip. A programming deal with a cult TV host is hardly the harbinger of the great new-media frontier.

Still, it's part of an undeniable trend toward programming that seeks to bypass traditional means of distribution and have advertiser, programmer and distributor as partners from day one.

Original programming is not coming just from the trad­itional sources anymore. Now anyone who can deliver eyeballs is in the game.

Which brings us back full-circle to Idol—perhaps the best example of old-school media meeting new, and the result is a franchise worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Back for its fifth season, Idol has one essential ingredient present in virtually every mega-hit: It has incredible cross-generational appeal, so increasingly rare in our narrowcast environment. Families gladly watch this show together in numbers no other prime time program can claim.

In addition, the Idol juggernaut has multi-platform applications, is interactive and features virtually seamless product-placement opportunities, as well as being more TiVo-proof than most prime time fare, given its live nature, once the contestants are selected.

The Idol takeaway to new-media-wannabe programmers, however, is that ultimately the most important thing is that the show is incredibly well-produced entertainment. In the media world, old or new, quality content is still king.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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