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Will TheirTube work?

An Internet venture by mainstream Hollywood firms at least uses the market to challenge upstart YouTube.

March 23, 2007

YOUTUBE, THE 21ST CENTURY'S leading online video site, built a huge audience by putting its users in command. Now NBC Universal and News Corp. are trying to lure YouTube's audience away by following a more 20th century Hollywood axiom: Content is king.

Entertainment giants NBC Universal and News Corp. this week announced a new joint venture that will create both a video-rich website and a distribution network, with initial outlets including AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and News Corp.'s MySpace. The videos distributed on the network will include clips as well as full-length movies and TV shows, such as "Saturday Night Live" skits and episodes of "The Simpsons." Except for new movies, which will be sold on the website, the videos are expected to be available free, with embedded advertisements.

Though this marks the most direct big-media response yet to YouTube, the venture is hardly a frontal assault on the video upstart. Instead, it's a fundamentally different approach, one that cedes less control to consumers. YouTube does more than provide a forum for amateur and semi-professional video; it lets users act as the site's curators, gathering and posting (and sometimes remixing) an array of clips they didn't actually generate. They have turned the site into a digital memory bank for broadcast television -- a Web-based VCR.

The new effort, by contrast, makes viewers more passive, accepting what the networks and studios have churned out. Users will be able to put the videos on their MySpace pages and other websites, potentially generating more advertising revenue. And they'll be able to edit and mix at least some of the clips with their own material. But the real point is to help Hollywood rein in unauthorized use of its copyrighted content on user-generated sites.

The venture's distribution partners are required to block bootlegged versions of the videos from appearing on their sites, using filtering technology. This could increase the pressure on YouTube to use filters too.

Of course, that strategy will break down if users don't like the terms that Hollywood tries to impose. There's no way to filter the entire Web, and Internet users have proved remarkably adept at finding what they want wherever it's available. Still, it's a welcome change to see at least some of the studios respond to YouTube in the marketplace rather than merely trying to bottle up their content through the courts.

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