Years ago Marshall McLuhan uttered the famous phrase, "The medium is the message." He said this long before the World Wide Web. If he were alive today, he might have said something else: "He who controls the distribution method, controls the money." When you look at the Web's influence on media companies over the last 15 years, it's clear, whether we are talking about news, music or television programs, as the distribution channel has shifted to the web, these media companies have struggled mightily to adapt.
Newspapers as I've written in past have been notoriously bad at this. When I interviewed Scott Karp, who runs Publishing 2.0 last spring, he pointed out to me that newspapers lost control of the distribution channel when the business began to shift from the web. He argued that the newspaper's core business wasn't producing news or selling ads, and certainly not selling subscriptions which even in the heyday of newspapers only accounted for a fraction of its revenue.
No, he said, newspapers were in the business of getting that newspaper onto your front step every morning. They controlled the distribution channel back then. The web changed everything, and they basically watched while Google (and other search engines) took control of web content distribution.
The music's industry's response to the internet has been clear. Send out the lawyers and try to litigate their way to success. But much like the papers who ceded their business to Google, the music industry has ceded its power to Apple and the iTunes Store.
Apple was smart enough to create the device to play the music and a place to distribute the songs legally and cheaply. There was nothing to prevent the music industry from doing this, but they didn't take the channel shift seriously. Steve Jobs, on the other hand saw the future and he pounced.
In a Mashable post this week, Ben Parr points to a Guardian story in which Microsoft’s Director of Consumer and Online in the UK, Ashley Highfield, predicts that the television industry is headed down a similar path, as once again, the distribution channel shifts from the TV to the computer. But Parr points out there is a bit of a flaw in the logic because for the music industry, the song is the product. TV, on the other hand, is selling the advertising around the show, something they should be able to continue to do on the Web (and indeed are doing on Hulu).
Whatever the medium, whatever the message, big media companies can only make big money and stay big if they control the distribution channel. So long as they continue to look at the web as an enemy, or cede the medium to others, they are doomed to fail. Instead of trying desperately to hold onto the old distribution method, they should be doing everything to understand and conquer the new one. Highfield is understands this, but television should adapt better than its media siblings, so long as they don't allow others to take the lead.