NBC and News Corp., sitting in a tree

“Fireflies before the storm” was the phrase Lou Gerstner famously used to describe all those crazy first-generation Internet companies selling dog food and delivering groceries. His point was that dotcoms would flame out but the real power of the Internet lay in what it would do for big, established businesses. And he was right. The Internet is a pipe. That’s all. Its existence doesn’t mean that suddenly people want to have pet food delivered to their door.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since seeing this story about NBC and News Corp. trying to build a YouTube killer. Because it seems to me that in this Web 2.0 craze we’re seeing a replay of the dotcom craze but this time it’s all about media companies. For some reason people think that because there’s an Internet there should also be all sorts of new media companies and new TV shows designed just to run over the Internet. eg, Michael Eisner’s new Internet sitcom, and the “Ask a Ninja” guy and Lonelygirl and Wall Strip and Tiki Bar TV and Amanda Congdon and all these other quasi-celebrities. But perhaps you’ve noticed the one trait that almost all this new Internet-only content shares: It sucks. These people are on the Internet because they’re not good enough to be on TV. Not even on cable. These are fireflies.

The Internet is a transport mechanism. Simple as that. Its real power involves its ability to let you choose from millions of pieces of content in a non-linear format, the idea that you can see whatever programs you want to watch, however and whenever you want to watch them. The real power of the Internet is going to be when the big media companies, with all their great content, figure out how to aggregate that content into huge archives in the cloud and put some kind of interface in front of the archive that lets you search and choose content; and when they find a way to make you pay for it. That’s when things are going to get amazing. That’s how the Internet will change the media business — not by creating new content that looks like a Special Olympics version of real TV, but by finding new ways for you to consume the shows you already like. It’s a new distribution deal. That’s all.

What we’re doing today with things like Apple TV or TiVo is just applying Band-Aids to patch up a frigtarded system (linear TV programming) that made sense in the 1950s when bandwidth was limited. Our Apple TV only sidesteps the problem. It still forces you to download to your computer, then beam through a router to our TV box and then up into your TV. So great. Now you’ve got more pipes coming into your TV but this new pipe is kind of unreliable (wifi routers) and slow and clumsy.

The real fix is gonna happen when someone figures out the back end, aggregating good content (ie Seinfeld and I Love Lucy rather than Ask a Ninja) and then finds a way to get that straight into your TV without all these clumsy connections and multiple hops. But it’s a battle. The linear model, as stupid as it is, still clings to life. Inertia is a powerful thing. But ultimately we’ll win. Give us ten years. And yeah, this is why Apple is presenting itself to the Hollywood studios as a friend and ally, not a competitor. It’s also why we didn’t buy YouTube.