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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007 at 12:04 am

How Viacom Could Have Avoided the Writers’ Strike

By Robert Gorell
December 4th, 2007

He'll only know new mediaIn a move that should add fuel to the debate over the writers’ guild strike, MTV Networks has announced that all episodes of its grotesquely funny cartoon satire hit, South Park, will be shown in their entirety online. MTV’s decision to host the South Park archives online for free comes just over a month after they did the same thing for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, resulting in significant boosts to traffic and ad revenue.

While the move is win-win for its creators, Trey Parker & Matt Stone (also the writers), their lawyers, Viacom (MTV’s parent company), the advertisers and the fans, what’s striking, so to say, is that South Park is the only show on MTV’s roster sitting on a contract for a 50/50 digital ad revenue share.

Although it was smart of Viacom to ink an online revenue share with the people behind South Park, it seems odd that such offers aren’t available for writers of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, both of which are huge ad-money makers and award winners for the company. Here’s what Viacom told The New York Times back in August when South Park’s $75 million deal was penned:

“Doug Herzog, president of MTV Networks Entertainment, acknowledged that the 50-50 digital deal, which was approved by Philippe P. Dauman, Viacom’s chief, would set a precedent. If this is seen as a bold stroke, all the better, because it’s going to take bold thinking to move ahead,” he said. But he said it was justified by the “South Park” team’s stellar track record and by the changing balance of power between the buyers and creators of entertainment.

[...] Adding to the likely interest in the revenue-sharing pact is that digital income is one of the key issues confronting negotiators for the Hollywood studios and the guilds representing writers, directors and actors, who want to ensure they are compensated fairly for their work for the Web, mobile devices and other technologies still in their infancy.

Talent will look at this and say, ‘Why not us?’ ” said Warren Littlefield, a television producer and former president of NBC Entertainment. “Unfortunately, what you’ll probably find is the response is, ‘We’ll tell you why not you: because you haven’t achieved what they’ve achieved.’ This is based upon a decade of proven success; it’s not a deal that’s made on the come, it’s not a deal made with an established creator who’s about to create something new. It’s 10 years in.”

While it’s nice that Viacom has finally discovered how to leverage “the ROI of free,” many fans — and certainly the writers — have a hard time viewing the media giant’s selective awareness of online marketing as anything but greedy. So, what do writers for The Daily Show, now in its 11th year, really have to say to the execs?

John Oliver: “…all our Daily Show clips were pulled off YouTube by Viacom, who is suing them for a billion dollars. That was not at our instigation – we were happy for people to watch the clips. But instead they wanted to set up a website where they can sell advertising while the clip is buffering, although I thought we were at the point where clips don’t need to buffer anymore. So you have to watch a commercial for thirty seconds or whatever. So they’re clearly making money on that; they’re also clearly making money because they’re suing YouTube for a billion. So that seems quite strange when they’re saying, ‘Well, there’s no money to be made off the internet but we’re suing YouTube for a billion dollars.’ That takes spectacular ba…”

…what I think John’s trying to say is that, well, this YouTube video sums it up.

Even The Daily Show‘s friends (colleagues?) in the “real” news media are hearing the echoes from this void. NBC News anchor Brian Williams writes

Jon Stewart and his colleagues in comedy — along with the writers who support them — serve an invaluable purpose by skewering the pompous and deflating the egos of the high and mighty. They function almost as a separate branch of government. We need them, and we miss them.

But‘s Dana Stevens said it best:

The Daily Show is the ultimate Web-ready television show. It’s divisible into discrete chunks (the headlines at the top of the show, followed by reported segments and interviews) that tie in to the political and cultural conversations of the day, and those chunks can easily be collected, shuffled, and exchanged among friends like trading cards.

It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this. In a strike, everyone loses. Had Viacom invested in online channels years ago, they wouldn’t be awkwardly wading through bad word-of-mouth as they sue YouTube and play favorites with their writers.

This is a branding problem, wrapped in a PR problem, spawned by a marketing problem. But the good news for Viacom is that it could all end tomorrow with an online revenue share agreement.

[Picture taken from myyearofnewthings on Flickr. Originally seen at TechCrunch.]

In Content, ROI
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Comments (4)

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