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Editor's Note: Blame It on the Blockbuster

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I was in London for a meeting of the Streaming Media Europe advisory board when news broke that Michael Jackson had died. In the U.S., his star had long been at least partially eclipsed by his personal scandals, but he remained hugely popular internationally. In fact, the U.K. capital was already abuzz over the 50—count ’em—50 dates he’d booked at the O2 arena for what was to be both his comeback and farewell. The night after he died, Trafalgar Square was filled with fans singing his songs, a powerful reminder of both how popular he still was and how much his music still meant to people.

Those two things—fame and artistic relevance—are of course neither mutually exclusive nor inevitably interconnected. In their 8 years in the international spotlight, The Beatles produced a steady stream of work that was both incredibly vital and tremendously popular; in its eight seasons, American Idol has regularly drawn upward of 30 million viewers but has yet to produce a single note of lasting value. But somewhere between The Beatles’ 1960s heyday and Adam Lambert’s eyeliner, popular culture shifted to value the popular more than the cultural, and to a significant degree, Michael Jackson is to blame.

The stunning music Jackson created with the Jackson 5 and on his own Off the Wall and Thriller albums took a backseat to the singer’s own ever-growing quest for fame and popularity, exemplified by his demand to be called the "King of Pop" (and the media’s willing obedience to do so) and his camp’s insistence that Thriller sold more than 100 million copies worldwide—a number that’s been repeated by virtually every major media outlet with little or no regard for its veracity. (Rock critic Bill Wyman recently posted a much-more-believable accounting of 63 million on his Hitsville.org blog.)

Even in death, Jackson’s popularity superseded more important things—his music, the allegations of child abuse, the shameful exploitation of his daughter Paris at his memorial service—in the eyes of media outlets for whom bigger is always better. Our own Streaming Media.com email discussion list saw 86 messages devoted to the question of whether or not the memorial service would be the most-streamed event in history.

Granted, this stuff matters to the people on the list, many of whom had a stake in one infrastructure piece or another, be it encoding, video format, or delivering the bits (and hats off to all of them, as the event went off with nary a hitch). But in the big picture, even if the memorial had ended up being the most-watched online video event ever—it didn’t, falling well short of the Obama inauguration—so what? What relevance would that have had to the vast majority of people working in our industry, most of whom will never deal with an event of that magnitude?

If anything, it was another distraction from the real business of online video, to borrow the title of Dan Rayburn’s blog. And even that wouldn’t be so bad were it not indicative of a larger problem our industry faces, the incessant desire to beat television at its own game—the big blockbuster video event. This is something that (as streaming media veteran and Streaming Media magazine rookie Rich Mavrogeanes points out in his new column, Rich’s Media, on page 40) online video just isn’t built to do. Nor are viewers necessarily interested in embracing it. After all, the Jackson memorial drew nearly 31 million television viewers worldwide; when given the choice between online and on TV, we all know where most viewers will turn.

Instead, we need to continue to focus on what online video can give viewers that television can’t—exactly the video people want to see, when and where they want to see it, with interactivity that can run the gamut from simple sharing and commenting to giving consumers the ability to create their own remixes of and responses to the content. Even more importantly, we need to emphasize and improve what online video can give content creators and publishers that television can’t—access to the means of distribution at a fraction of television’s cost, plus audience metrics and analytics that dwarf the mere aggregate numbers and gross demographics offered by broadcast, cable, and satellite.

Unless we do, the online video industry is playing a losing game, the same kind of game the music industry decided to play in the wake of Thriller and a small handful of other megahits in the mid-1980s—bet everything on the blockbuster at the expense of both a sustainable business model and the industry’s own core competency. And we all know how well that worked for the music industry.

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