Network Television’s Ongoing Struggle with Web-based Television

by: Ray Cha / Independent Scholar



As television continues to evolve, we see changes occurring, in terms of its content, delivery and reception, and distribution. In the area of web delivered television, traditional broadcasters have been slowly figuring out ways to deliver television onto the Internet. As more people are viewing and posting video onto the web, they are finally admitting that watching television on the web is a matter of when and how, rather than if.

When discussing web delivery of television, it is easy to focus on YouTube, especially with its well publicized purchase by Google and constant demands of content providers to remove illegally posted material (most recently seen by the Oscars.) Of course, YouTube was able to show the great potential of video that does not clog email inboxes, require web authoring skills, or get lost due to unstable links. However, its success now drives the fragmentation of web-based television with competing services, which make the landscape all the more complicated.

Joost recently signed a major distribution deal with Viacom to host content from its various outlets including Comedy Central, VH1 and MTV. Ironically, the owners of Joost were also behind the often sued second generation P2P network, Kazaa. This deal shows how these once fringe services are now moving towards the center. YouTube added a BBC channel to go along with NBC, PBS, the NBA, and others. US television networks, NBC and ABC (and their cable partners) host full episodes or clips on their sites and sells them on iTunes.

Television networks continue to struggle with finding ways to deliver content without losing their tight control over their content. NBC and their relationship with Saturday Night Live clips is telling. Because they have been lagging behind the other three major US networks, they were often leaders with experimenting with several different vehicles including YouTube, iTunes and their own site with varying effectiveness and understanding.

YouTube logo

YouTube logo

In one case, Fishbowl NY, a New York focused media blog, posted about a Saturday Night Live segment parody of Hillary Clinton. By the time I tried to watch the clip, it has been removed by request from NBC, which of course, is their right. The clip has not been posted to the official NBC YouTube channel, or on the SNL video page on the NBC site. While NBC may have a strategy behind which clips they post, it does seem that they are missing the advantages of the long tail, which capitalizes on niche tastes. While many more people download their rap parodies than watch the show on tv sets, they still feel the need to be gatekeepers. They lose relevance by locking up their content. Therefore, insight from fan YouTube postings and the discussion on the blogosphere is left untapped. Appreciating remix culture is even more distant and beyond the scope of this column.

Based on the experiences of NBC as well as other television networks, three areas that they will need to grasp soon are the longtail, search, and access. Traditional television programming is the polar opposite of long tail principles, which explains their reluctance to adapt. The success of Netflix and Amazon show the benefits of making entire archives available for sharing content and gaining insight on their viewers. The long tail allows them to maintain relevancy in an era of shrinking audiences and one in which viewers are increasingly selective and expect their well- defined preferences to be satisfied.

Along with the principles of the longtail, search will become crucial for people to find their desired media. Useful video search requires conventions in tagging, which is notoriously difficult for time-based media. Quality control for large-scale crowd sourcing tagging efforts, as seen in YouTube, is especially challenging. Formats such as Quicktime, have time-based tagging functionality in place, however the conventions are still unformed. Formal systems to dictate the tagging overall themes versus specific objects on screen is one simple examplethat needs to be addressed.

On a recent trip to Asia, I was surprised to find that ABC and NBC blocked their streaming content outside the US. Further, the BBCs Creative Archive pilot program uploaded 500 clips for people in the UK to download. Granted, UK citizens pay the BBC. (The 36 clips that BBC provides on its YouTube helps, but is not a replacement.) In both cases, the lack of access highlights the complicated issue of access to knowledge and culture (both high and low) that will only becoming more important in the future.

We are now in the adolescence, and no longer the infancy, of web delivered television. There are a number of services and models, some of which are bound to fail, before we settle upon standard outlets. In the transitional period of a disruptive technology, it is important to have experimental models and methods.

As the landscape continues to evolve, we are at the point of slowing speculation. Television networks need to shed many of their older conventions in order to maintain their relevance.


Jeremy W. Peters, “Kazaa’s Creators Do Latest Venture by the
Book,” New York Times, February 27, 2007.

Joshua Chaffin and Francesco Guerrera, “NBC’s Zucker lashes
out at YouTube,” Financial Times, February 6 2007.

Image Credits:
1. Television
2. YouTube logo

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