On Super Bowls and Toilet Bowls

Nearly 10 years ago, in April, 2002, Jamie Kellner was CEO of the Turner Broadcasting division of Time Warner. In that pre-TIVO era, Cableworld asked Kellner about some of the newly avaialble technology that would allow viewers to easily skip commercials. Kellner’s response:

Any time you skip a commercial you’re actually stealing the programming. I guess there’s a certain amount of tolerance for going to the bathroom.

In an industry where unexcused customer bathroom breaks are a threat to the business model, it comes as no surprise that both the model and the industry are decomposing. The only surprise is that it’s taking so long. Kellner’s attitude was simply another example — and they are legion — of the customer-be-damned mentality inherent in businesses based on the governemt-granted and government-enforced monopoly that is Copyright. Faced with dissatisfied customers, the innovator looks for ways to make them happy; the monopolist looks to Congress or the FBI to force compliance.

Particularly powerful evidence of Jamie Kellner’s dysfunctional mindset will reach our TV screens this Sunday: Super Bowl XLVI. 37% of this year’s viewers will tune in primarily for the commercials. And if this year’s extravaganza mirrors last year’s, more than half of the viewers will wind up more interested in the commercials than in the game.

The cultural phenomenon of must-watch Super Bowl ads dates back well before 2002. Jamie Kellner’s plumbing-induced angst was thus expressed no more than 3 months after the news was awash with the solution to his problem. This syndrome of monopoly-induced myopia permeates the entertainment industry.

From time to time, a notable exception does spring forth. Five years after Kellner expressed concern over Americans’ bladder control, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, in an uncharacteristic display of clear-sightedness, “The best way to combat piracy is to bring content to market on a well-timed, well-priced basis.” Within the past couple of months, similar sentiments have emerged from people like EMI Vice President Craig Davis and musician Jonathan Coulton. These glimmerings of understanding offer hope. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Parker Higgens has stated so well, the defeat of SOPA and PIPA provide the entertainment industry’s leadership a fresh chance to embrace the age of the Internet or get out of the way.

Ride the wave or go down the drain.


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