Traditional Media’s Digital Experiment

The business of online video is like Zen. Or like a Rumsfeld-ism. To wit: There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. We know this. And so we routinely celebrate our current level of unknowingness. We call these events “panels.”

Last night, as I was preparing to moderate one such panel — A Q&A seminar in Manhattan called “Traditional media meets the digital challenge” — I asked Betsy Frank, chief research and insights office at Time, Inc., how much revenue all their video projects contribute to Time’s bottom line? She shrugged. “Who knows,” she said, before adding with a smile “you’re not going to ask me about Life are you?”

Of course Frank is playing coy; she isn’t Time’s CFO, and Life magazine’s third-time’s-a-charm demise may be more the result of declining newspaper sales (Life was an insert) than consumers’ rising predilection for online media. But her attitude, that we’re still in an experimental phase when it comes to online media and, thus, there are no easy answers, pervaded the panel.

(The panel, by the way, was generously co-hosted by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation (IRTS) and South Asians in Media and Marketing Association (SAMMA) at Leela Lounge in New York City.)

The other panelists: Terry Mackin, director of digital media for Hearst-Argyle Television; Michael Steib, director of television advertising for Google; and Michael Zimbalist, vice president for research and development operations at the New York Times Company.

Overall, despite a few mangled segues on my part, the panel went well. I was especially interested in talking with Betsy Frank, given the recent launch of Sports Illustrated VOD, the creation of an in-house video production unit to serve all 130 magazines, the purchase of social networking site FanNation, and Life’s untimely demise. Frank was bullish on video and blogging prospects at Time’s magazines while simultaneously saying that the hype around online media can be, at times, very overblown. For Time, online advertising is secondary to offline advertising. The magazines are still the cash cows. Page views translate into subscriptions.

Google’s Steib — towing the “Google is media’s friend” company line — agreed. Online advertising isn’t a panacea: Some products work better than others. Unfortunately Steib, who founded NBBC before coming to Google in January, said he couldn’t comment on Google’s TV advertising plans. He would only say that some information in the Wall Street Journal’s recent article about Google’s TV advertising experiment was incorrect.

In a conversation before the panel, Steib touted YouTube, arguing that media co. video sites, like Comedy Central’s Motherload, were stymied by contractual and licensing issues and their traffic, when compared to YouTube’s 200-million-plus streams per day, is “a drop in the bucket.” Steib said that YouTube can be just one option among many for media distribution: “I don’t know of a single licensing agreement we have that’s exclusive.”

I imagine Viacom considers those contractual and licensing issues to be oh, I dunno, a small bone of contention.

As for Newco, the News Corp/NBC video distribution venture — Steib said he never heard the term “Clown Co” prior to the L.A. Times article — Steib said it remains to be seen whether consumers want to watch long form shows with advertising while sitting at their computer. “Now? No,” Steib said. “Eventually? Maybe.”

Speaking of video, Hearst-Argyle’s Terry Mackin said during the panel that H-A is struggling with “cultural differences” in trying to bolster the online presence of its affiliate television stations. (A topic which Steve Safran and Cory Bergman touch on at their excellent industry blog, Lost Remote.) Mackin repeated a time-worn axiom of any media company exec: Audiences want professional video and user-generated content, while interesting, isn’t ultimately as compelling. The Times’ Zimbalist countered that they’ve been seeing significant interest in videos shot by sports fans — even fans as far away as Australia.

So the experiments continue. And if nobody is quite sure what works and what doesn’t in online video — except for free, we know free is good — you can’t say they’re not trying.

Updated to better reflect which conversations happened before the panel and which during the panel.