The Problem of Monetizing Content on the Internet

Last week, News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corp was seriously considering blocking all of their content from Google. Mind you, this is the same man who’s been talking about putting a pay wall up around Hulu, or at least parts of it.

Let me address the Hulu thing first, since I’m an avid Hulu user. If Hulu goes pay, I won’t say I won’t use it. I will only pay for Hulu if they dramatically increase the available content. I would pay for Hulu if I could then watch any episode of any show at any time. And if the subscription rate was right, I wouldn’t even bitch if the commercials (as they stand today) stay. That said, if the price is too high, or the amount of available content doesn’t improve, I’ll leave Hulu, sadly perhaps, but I will.

Murdoch’s argument is that content has value, and we, as consumers, need to be willing to pay fair market value for it. I agree, but Murdoch needs to understand, that at least as it relates to their Television outlets, or even their traditional web-based businesses, users are fully accustomed to getting this data for free. At the end of the day, even users who pay a monthly fee for cable service, tend to view the programming as free content, if nothing else for the sheer amount of content that we get for a relatively low amount of money on cable providers, makes the content seem far less valuable on an individual basis. Even in the newspaper and magazine realm, the subscription charges mostly cover delivery of the content, not generation of the content.

Music, movies and books don’t have this problem of people not wanting to pay for the content, because that content has never really been ad-supported, so we have no expectation of getting it for little or no cost, save the cost charged by the provider (ie, 99 cents a song). Admittedly, the price of this content has been dropping, but this seems to be at least because there is so much more content than their used to be. Cory Doctorow often talks about the information economy, and how we as a country have moved away from manufacturing to generating information. This low apparent value of content is a side effect of this world we’ve created. Generating content in the form of video and music is easy, just look at YouTube, Vimeo, and so on. But as we get more content, the content competes with itself, and eventually, prices have to drop. That’s the nature of the information markets. On the other hand, it’s easier than even to reach more people, so selling these low-cost copies of content is easier than ever.

But publishing, text on page publishing like newspapers (of which blogs are a cousin) and television have never worked this way. They’ve always been ad-supported in the US, so the idea has always been that they were functionally without cost. But now, Rupert Murdoch and the rest of News Corp is trying to put up a pay wall around content that people have always been given for free, and it’s going to result in a massive blowback.

For some reason, Internet Advertising has always had problems monetizing. And this is amazing to me. I can make certain assumptions about the readership of my blog. They’re into technology (these days probably web and MS Web Platform technologies), and/or they have an interest in sustainability and DIY type stuff. These are two fairly small segments, and could be targeted fairly effectively in the sense of those topics, especially since I try to keep the sustainability stuff to one day.

Hulu knows an INSANE amount about my viewing habits. They know what shows I’m subscribed to, how often I watch them, what my viewing patterns are, but they don’t seem to be taking advantage of that. Their advertisers advertise on certain programs, and I’m reasonably sure that pretty much everyone watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on Hulu lately have been watching Verizon Droid ads to go with it lately. Why not take advantage of the profile that Hulu has on me (even just in the form of my subscriptions and non-subscription viewing), and try to customize their advertising to me. I mean, with Hulu, the advertisers can get hard statistics on exactly how many viewers they have, while in current distribution channels, all they can get are weirdly calculated estimates that seem to me to be nearly impossible to trust (except for things like American Idol, where people can text in to vote, that provides good clues as to viewership).

Do users need to need to think about paying? Yes. But content providers need to realize that we’re in the most content-rich society ever created by humanity, and that means that they’ve got a lot to compete with, both from the old houses, and the new upstarts. If they’re going to hit a wide market, they need to keep prices low, and they need to keep content availability high. I don’t know how many shows I haven’t started watching on Hulu because I couldn’t start at the beginning.