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The Uber-ization of Content

Posted May 26, 2023
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In the early 1990s, I sold 51% of my company, Video News International to The New York Times.

In the process, I became both the founder and first President of a new company, New York Times Television.

I had founded the company a few years earlier on the premise of having a worldwide corps of video journalists who could create their own stories. My first investor was Nick Nicholas, who was at that time the Chairman and CEO of Time/Life Magazines and he introduced me to his army of Life Magazine photojournalists, who I was able to take into the world of video.

Prospects were good, and when I sold the company to The NY Times, I promised the Times’ publisher and owner, Punch Sulzberger, that I would create for him ‘the video analog of the newspaper’.

Shortly after we made the deal, and shortly after I was paid, I was invited to lunch at The Times’ executive dining room by the paper’s Executive Editor, Joe Lelyveld.

“Congratulations on joining the company,” Lelyveld said to me while pouring me a nice glass of a very expensive white.

“Thanks,” I said. “Delighted to be here.”

Lelyveld smiled as the waiter served the poached salmon.

“Just a few things,” Lelyveld said. “You can’t use the newspaper, you can’t use my reporters, and you can’t use stories that my reporters are working on.”

This came as something of a shock, as I had promised Punch Sulzberger exactly the opposite. I tried to explain this to Lelyveld. He was not interested.

“I don’t even own a television set,” he said, his voice dripping with contempt. “I won’t have you degrading the newspaper.”

Now, this was a problem. I had been paid millions for VNI based on the expectation that a video version of the paper would create millions in revenue. Without the paper part of it, I was in trouble. Deep trouble.

Every month, I had to report to the Times’ management committee on my revenue, which was close to nothing. This was starting to look very bad. I needed an alternative.

As it happened, a new medium was just coming on-line — cable.

The world of television before cable had been limited to 3 networks and a handful of local TV stations. But the advent of cable meant that suddenly there were 60, 70 soon-to-be 100 or more new channels. And all of those channels needed content. But where were they going to get it from? A huge market for content had just opened up.

So, instead of doing ‘news’, I had my army of video journalists (I had 102 at that point, all over the world) focus on what we might call more ‘marketable’ content. We started with a documentary for TLC, or The Learning Channel called Killer Virus, about the Ebola virus. It won the national Emmy for news that year, beating out ABC, NBC, and CBS News. Not a surprise considering who was making it — some of the best photojournalists (now doing video) in the world.

Soon after, we sent the VJs into a hospital and launched a series called Trauma, Life in the ER — a reality show about, well, Emergency Rooms. It immediately became TLC’s #1 series, which prompted a lot more commissions for a lot more series for a lot more cable networks. The demand was limitless and the revenue began to pour in.

I was lucky. I was just in the right place with a new source of content.

As Michael Eisner used to say, “Content is king.” And it is.

Today, we are in a very similar place in the media universe. Where once the arrival of cable vastly multiplied the need for content; online or OTT — that is, content that comes on the web, like Netflix or Apple or Amazon or Discovery-Warner, and everyone else for that matter is once again exploding the need for content.

Discovery cable may need 12 hours of content a day. Discovery-Warner nonlinear online needs limitless amounts of content, as does Disney, Netflix, and everyone else.

Now, where is that content going to come from?

Uber was brilliant, in that they saw excess taxi capacity in everyone’s cars. Not more taxi cabs but existing cars. Airbnb was brilliant in that they saw excess hotel rooms in everyone’s existing houses and apartments. Not more hotels.

Now we have a limitless demand for content.

But we also have the untapped excess video production capacity in everyone’s phones. 3.7 billion phones at last count. All of them are capable of creating video content that will feed Netflix, Amazon, Discovery, and everyone else.

Your iPhone shoots 4K video — that is broadcast quality. It also edits, adds music and graphics, and whatever else you need. You have the same production capacity in your phone as CNN or Warner Brothers. All you have to do is start making ‘stuff’.

Amazon may make Game of Thrones but at $15 million per episode, they are going to need a lot more than Game of Thrones to keep the subscribers happy. As Richard Feynman famously said, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.” And there is.

So, what cable did for me some 30 years ago, the web and your iPhone can do for you today. All you need to do is get started.


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