Eisner: The Web Doesn’t Change Content

Michael Eisner has demonstrated more than the idle curiosity or knee-jerk distrust in online video one might expect from a man with a long career of high-profile executive roles at ABC, Paramount Pictures, and Disney. Through his Tornante Company funding video aggregation startup Veoh and forming web video studio Vuguru, Eisner has trail-blazed old media’s recent efforts to embrace the web.

Today’s news of a distribution deal with MySpace for Vuguru’s first show Prom Queen (supposed to debut next week), for example, seems downright nimble in light of hidebound parent companies negotiating massive distribution alliances that won’t begin to come to fruition till this summer.

Still, Eisner is firmly rooted in fairly conservative views about what technology is doing to change media, as he told NewTeeVee in a recent phone interview. Technology doesn’t change entertainment, he said, it just presents temporary uncertainty about business models and distribution platforms and intellectual property protection.

And Eisner hasn’t abandoned his brethren in the least, responding to what I thought was a tangentially related question to voice his support for Viacom in its litigation against Google.

A belief in the continuum between amateur and professional, however, seemed to cut through Eisner’s allegiances; paying users who generate content, he advocated, is a necessary part of encouraging quality entertainment.

Excerpts follow:

NewTeeVee: How do you distinguish what you are doing with Vuguru from user-generated content, or do you at all?

Michael Eisner: If I was doing it in 1964 it would be user-generated content, but I have 40 years of semi-professional work in this field. So now we just put a new noun against me, which is professional, rather than user. I mean, there’s no difference except I’m taking my training as an English and theater major onto the internet.

NewTeeVee: What do you think people like you who are familiar with – and I don’t know if it’s a disparaging term for you – old media can offer this new media world?

Eisner: Well, if old media includes Greek mythology and Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill and Happy Days, I’m thrilled to be coming out of old media, because old media means you understand motivation, and character, and where the denouement goes, and how to develop interests between characters, and make people laugh, and cry – and new media means technological advancement and expertise in distribution and exhibition, great. So far it hasn’t meant original produced professional high-grade quality entertainment.

NewTeeVee: What specifically attracts you about web content?

Eisner: I don’t look at it as web content. It is being distributed in a different mode. Hopefully [people] will forget whether it’s sitting on their lap or on a screen or on a desk, they’ll just be engaged in what the characters are saying. I don’t care about the technology, except that it opens up eyes to content.

NewTeeVee: What do you think would be the best strategy for video aggregation sites in light of everything that’s going on with YouTube?

Eisner: Even though I’m an investor in Veoh, I think the Viacom lawsuit is very promising.

NewTeeVee: You do?

Eisner: I do. I think that respect for people’s intellectual products is important. Starting with – and I don’t mean to be pretentious here, but – starting with Mr. Lincoln [the only U.S. president to hold a patent] on the importance of patents and trademarks and copyrights, it’s the basis of why American intellectual product leads the world, and it sets the standard that people can earn a living from things that come out of their mind. And I think that momentary technological advances should not undermine that concept.

If you can’t pay young user-generators down the line to do it professionally, they won’t be motivated to go into that business. And if [user-generators] don’t go into that business, our edge in Hollywood and New York and everywhere else in the world creating content will dissipate. So this is a real professional point of video. So I don’t see Viacom as a heavy, I don’t see Google as a heavy either, it’s just the next evolution of the technology.

There’s no heavy here, there’s no evil here. It’s just realizing that we’re now ready for the professional world to come in.