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Google Network Shows Hollywood Trap: Between Fiddlers and Franklin

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The entertainment industry today is
caught in a kind of purgatory, somewhere between Zero Mostel and
Franklin Roosevelt. It's an odd place to be, and not sustainable to
be there for much longer.

From Mostel, comes the line, "Without
our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as... as... as a fiddler
on the roof!" from the play, Fiddler on the Roof.
The industry respects, and clings to, its traditions. It is simply
trying to scratch out a simple living without breaking its neck, and
because of its traditions, the industry has more or less kept its
balance for many years.

Even so, the industry's lives are
becoming increasingly shaky and the balancing act more precarious.
In the face of ever-changing audiences and environments, the industry
has maintained the never-faltering tradition of steadfast opposition
to any technological change whatsoever that would disrupt their
business -- even if it eventually profits from those changes. Rather
than see technology as an opportunity, the industry always sees it as
a threat.

Bloomberg
BusinessWeek
broke the story of the latest chapter in a long saga, as
the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) admitted it feared
the arrival of Google's high-speed network in Kansas City. The
headline is instructive: "Google Fiber in Kansas City Makes
Hollywood Nervous." A follow-up in Ars Technica conveyed the
same meme: "Big
Content eyes Google Fiber deployment in Kansas City warily."

Rage Against The Machines

Before
going to Kansas City to check out what's on the industry's mind, it's
important to remember just how the traditions have evolved in just
the last 100 years or so. John Philip Sousa wrote in 1906, of
player pianos: "I foresee a marked deterioration in
American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical
development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in
its artistic manifestations, by virtue -- or rather by vice -- of the
multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines."

Musicians
for years fought rear-guard actions against the perceived threats to
their livelihood -- whether it was the player piano, or radio, or
recorded music, or "talkies," with a musicians' union
eventually barring their members from playing on records as late as
the 1940s. Record companies barred artists who recorded with them
from performing on the radio, a free service with which records had
to compete. (Sound familiar?) When FM radio entered the picture,
existing broadcasters on AM fought to keep the new service out of the
picture.

Of
course, TV was its own disruption. For years, studios barred their
stars from appearing on TV or from having their movies shown on the
rival medium, thus opening the way for lesser actors and production
companies to gain entry. When NBC aired Saturday Night At The
Movies,
it was a big deal in 1961 when, up until then, movies
were only seen in theaters.

The
Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) did a wonderful capsule
history of the entertainment industry's attitudes through the decades
in a poster the group published in 2006. It had the Sousa quote, as
well as quotes disparaging radio, the video-cassette recorder and
cassette tapes, spanning 1925 through 1982.

Of
course, the most famous,immortal quotation, came
from Jack Valenti, the late head of the MPAA, who told the House
Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties and the Administration of
Justice on April 12, 1982: "I say to you that the VCR is to the
American film producer and the American public as the Boston
strangler is to the woman home alone." The hearing came at a
pivotal time, following the decision of the U.S. Appeals Court for
the Ninth Circuit to find there was infringement from use of the VCR,
overturning a lower court ruling, and before the U.S. Supreme Court
two years later overturned the appellate court.

Valenti's
testimony started another grand tradition, one followed to this day
by his successor, former Senator Chris Dodd. What Valenti said then
has been echoed time and again since by MPAA, by studio and by their
advocates:

"I am merely coming to start off by talking about
the American film and television industry, not as an economic
enterprise, but as a great national asset to this country, to the
U.S. Treasury and the strength of the American dollar. And I am not
just talking on behalf of people whose names are household words,
like Clint Eastwood and some of his small band of peers. I am
speaking on behalf, as he is, as he will no doubt tell you on behalf
of hundreds of thousands of men and women who without public
knowledge or recognition, who are not besieged by fans, but who are
artisans, craftsmen, carpenters, bricklayers, all kinds of people,
who work in this industry, not only in this state but in the 50
States where American films are shot on location. And they deserve no
less, Mr. Chairman, than the concern of the Congress for the
preservation of their industry."

 

In
March this year, Dodd said: "It's simple: When content is
stolen, the working men and women who labored to produce it --
carpenters, truck drivers, accountants -- are not fairly compensated
for their work. And the small businesses that also benefit from film
production -- caterers, dry cleaners, and so many more -- are
robbed of that revenue."

The Fiber Threat

And
so now we come to Kansas City, (both Kansas Cities, actually) the
latest chapter in the saga, where Google is building its test-bed
network with blazing speeds of 922 mbps, must faster than anything
else. Howard Gantman, the MPAA spokesman, acknowledged such a
network would be a great opportunity for consumers, but added that in
South Korea, "the home entertainment marketplace was decimated by
digital piracy" that, he said,
"enabled by the widespread availability of high-speed Internet."

By
most accounts, however, MPAA's assessment of South Korea, one of the
most wired countries on earth, is off. Fueled by high-speed
broadband, there's a "booming digital music market" that's
driving up sales.

There's no certainty that such high-speed broadband will achieve anywhere near the widespread deployment that would give the entertainment industry heartburn. Verizon has stopped building out its fiber network. It will no longer sell even its slower DSL service without
bundling it with voice service that most people don't want.

AT&T isn't breaking any records with U-verse, a copper-based service that
is laughably regarded as "high speed." And wireless will be constrained for years in the speeds it can offer. The big carriers, landline and wireless, are putting caps on data "usage"
that threaten to slow down, not speed up, the development of alternative delivery systems for video and music.

The Illusion of Comfort

Those
developments must, for the time being, give the entertainment folks
some measure of comfort. But the heart of the industry's problem is
its attitude. If it now takes its cue from the Fiddler, it should
learn to take inspiration from Franklin Roosevelt. On March 4, 1933,
in his first inaugural address, FDR said: "So, first of all,
let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear...
is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which
paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

The
entertainment industry should no longer fear technological change.
It should no longer cling to a precarious balance on the roof of an
industrial structure constructed long ago. It's time to look on
technology as an opportunity, and to conquer its fear of the unknown.

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