Hollywood and Technology Endure Awkward Blind Date

One of the pranks I used to play in college was to dial the phone number of one of my friends, who typically was having relationship problems, and as soon as their phone would start ringing, I would immediately put them on conference call and dial their recent ex and then sit back and watch as both people thought that the other person was calling them. In retrospect it probably wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but the results were always unpredictable and hilarious.

Sometimes they’d just start fighting, other times they would actually make up, but most times there would be a certain awkwardness as both parties thought the other had called, but couldn’t figure out why. While it may not have been the nicest practical joke, today Forbes magazine played a similar version of this gag when they invited some of the top technology firms to interact with Hollywood fat cats at their MEET (Media Electronic Entertainment Technology) 2006 conference.

The list of technology experts was a literal who’s who of the geek world. TiVo, Sling, Netflix, Apple, Google, YouTube, you name it, the list went on and on. While many of these technology companies came to court Hollywood into embracing them as business partners, they faced a tough crowd and a hard sell for an industry that hasn’t been forced to make significant changes in the last 30 years. In a nice overview of the conference, Paul Bonds with The Hollywood Reporter, gives a great run down on some of the more memorable recaps.

Blake Krikorian, CEO of Sling MediaLamented what he called subscriber “fatigue” when it comes to sorting out new platforms and content availability. “The thing that’s not going to be successful is this notion of charging consumers multiple times for different subsets of content based on what display they’re on”

Tara Maitra, GM of Programming for TiVoWhile many, including TiVo, are focused on moving TV fare to mobile phones, her company also is working hard on bringing Internet video to TV screens. TiVo does just that with about 10 Web site partners, but she hinted that much bolder plans are in the works

Ashwin Navin, BitTorrent PresidentOnly a third of loyal fans watch their favorite TV shows live. As was the case with countless new technologies, Hollywood will harness it to its advantage, eventually. “P2P is the best thing that’s happened to the movie industry since the DVD,”

Barry James Folsom, GM of Connected Home Solutions for MotorolaLittle more than a decade ago, VHS and DVD “were dirty words in these halls of this hotel.” Advocated a consistent system that would allow consumers to pay for content that contains no ads, or to view content with ads for free.

Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer for NetflixHis company ships 45,000 different titles weekly, speaking to “how diverse people’s tastes really are.” Netflix has been recommending movies to its subscribers based on other movies they said they have enjoyed, helping the smallest of films gain popularity.

While most of these ideas aren’t necessarily radical concepts to those who have already embraced the technology, for Hollywood fat cats these companies represent a radical shift away from what they are used to. Even the old media guard couldn’t agree on what the future of Hollywood should be and the highlight of the conference was a very entertaining heated debate between Michael Eisner and Barry Diller over the issue of net neutrality.

Without being at the conference, it’s hard to fully appreciate what the atmosphere must have been like, but given their past responses to technological shifts, I can’t imagine that Hollywood would have been all that receptive to ideas as radical as not having to pay for your content multiple times or giving indie films greater leverage by matching niche demand with niche supply. One of the more surprising responses though, came from Forbes reporter Rachel Rosmarin, who must have taken exception to something negative that TiVo had said about Apple, because after the conference she blasted TiVo on Forbes’ blog for the event.

“Note to TiVo General Manager of Programming Tara Maitra: While its great that you’re pushing video content from The New York Times and CNET out to DVRs, that’s not exactly the kind of content people dream about watching on their TVs. We want YouTube vids, movies and TV shows on demand through TiVo. You said today that while other companies boast that they’ll soon be putting Web video on TV sets, TiVo is already doing it and is serious about it. I’ll believe it when I see the content”

She later then went on to add

“Whatever happened to the TiVo-Netflix movies-on-demand tie-up you announced back in 2004? Yeah, these deals are hard to work out, but you’ve got to do it. I hope you found Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings in the buffet line at lunch today and worked things out. If not, stick around for the post-lunch panel where he’ll be speaking about “Reinventing the Movies.”

Meow talk about cat fight. I would have loved to have looked around the room and seen the faces of industry execs as these technology leaders tried to convince them to trust something that threatens the billions that they’ve worked so hard to protect. Earlier in the event, when Chad Hurley of YouTube talked about their initial reluctance to carry ads, Rosmarin reports that

“The recently-acquired video-sharing site’s still a little self-righteous about the advertising model, so [Dennis] Kneale knocked 29-year old chief executive Chad Hurley down a few pegs. “Now that you’ll be just a trinket on Google’s charm bracelet, your aversion to advertising has to change at some point.” Zing!”

Since I wasn’t at the event, I can only imagine the awkwardness that these companies must have been felt over the last two days. While at some point Hollywood and Silicon Valley needs to figure out a way to get along, with so much at stake, it’s not surprising to see the more traditional media companies drag their feet, while the start up technologies continue to move forward at a dizzying speed. Where both sides will intersect is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime, it certainly is fun watching them work it out.

Davis Freeberg is a technology enthusiast living in the Bay Area. He enjoys writing about movies, music & and the impact that digital technology is having on traditional media. You can read more of his coverage on technology at www.davisfreeberg.com. Davis owns shares of TiVo and Netflix stock.

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