from the not-really-stickin'-it-to-the-man dept
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have built an entire comedy empire on the back of free distribution. The pair first came to fame by circulating their animated short, The Spirit of Christmas, for free first as a popular bootleg VHS and later on the Internet. They also were among the first TV show creators to operate their own web portal to provide content for free, striking a (at the time) groundbreaking 50/50 ad revenue sharing deal with Viacom. They were the grandfathers of viral content, with free distribution leading them to the mammoth financial and critical success South Park saw at its peak, and continues to enjoy today.
So with the news that Parker and Stone have struck a new, $192 million exclusive, walled off South Park streaming deal with Hulu, it’s a little odd to see Stone suddenly forget what made much of his rise to success possible. In an interview discussing the huge Hulu deal, Stone laments how amorphous, villainous “tech guys” demanded he make his content available online, for free:
“This is now particularly satisfying,” said Stone in a recent discussion. “It comes full circle since the tech guys came to Hollywood and said you better give us your stuff for free to put online or else it will be taken from you anyway.”
The argument that “tech guys” just want everything to be free is a fairly normal response by those who don’t understand the digital economy, and are informed that you can reduce piracy by incorporating free into your business model. But again, this is a particularly weird comment coming from Stone, whose entire career foundation was built on such models (apparently begrudgingly). That freemium models help reduce piracy is something Stone appeared to understand perfectly well when talking to Boing Boing back in 2008:
“Basically, we just got really sick of having to download our own show illegally all the time. So we gave ourselves a legal alternative.”
Both Stone and Parker also seemed to perfectly understand the benefit viral, free distribution had when talking to the New York Times in 2010 about their continued success:
“NY Times: You?re now about two years into the operation of your South Park Studios Web site, where just about all the content is available for free. Does the gamble seem to be paying off?
PARKER: To be honest, we don?t care about the money. We both have all the money we need. It?s really just about the survival of the show. First hearing about, O.K., we?re going to be putting everything on the Internet for free, I was like, Really? Wow, O.K. [laughs] That?s the world we live in. I?m actually surprised at how smooth the transition is going.
STONE: If we had years and years to discuss it, and we had determined what the right course of action was ? but we don?t have years and years. We?re doing the show right now in 2010, and the reality is, we have to have our show on the Internet. Would the network like it if everyone who watched it for free on the Internet actually had to pay? Yes. But it always ends up helping us when people can see the show.
Yet here we are, the better part of a decade later, with Stone clearly annoyed by what he insists is Silicon Valley’s demand that he not get paid for his hard work:
“Frankly, in the past I haven’t much liked dealing with the people from Silicon Valley. I don?t like our stuff being talked about as content. Spoons are metal and guns are metal, but they’re not the same thing. We don?t make content. We make television. And that’s now what digital understands it has to pay for.”
Arguing that “content” is a reductive word is understandable, but this narrative that ambiguous “digital” enemies in Silicon Valley don’t want to pay for television programming is odd, since “digital” has been paying an arm and a leg for content since inception. Netflix, for example, is expected to spend as much as $5 billion in 2016 on programming, making the streaming operator the second largest content buyer behind ESPN. Does that strike you as a “digital” industry that doesn’t think there’s a price tag for quality television? Perhaps Stone is just developing a nasty case of “get the hell off my lawn” and no longer has the best memory, perched as he is upon precariously-leaning towers of money.
Streaming companies, broadcasters, and content creators alike also don’t appear to understand the potential pitfalls these exclusive streaming arrangements create. While 2015 has been a banner year for the evolution of internet video by any standard, there’s been a troubling rise in not only exclusive content deals (Hulu, owned by Comcast/NBC, also shelled out $160 million for exclusive streaming rights to Seinfeld), but also standalone streaming services from every broadcaster under the sun (even those B-grade schlock masters over at Lifetime), each of which is going to be eager to lock their own content down exclusively to keep it out of the hands of more successful third-party operators.
While streaming operators might correctly believe that having exclusive access to select programming can lure customers in the short run, fracturing the content availability landscape in such a fashion could have some nasty downsides. Making consumers hunt and peck their way through an endless variety of $7 to $40 streaming packages for what they want might easily drive annoyed consumers back to piracy (something we’ve been saying for years). Streaming operators also risk driving those users back to cable if the industry ever wakes up and decides to offer a more uniform value proposition. Right now that’s not a risk, since cable execs are still obliviously raising rates in the face of increased competition; but it will be.
Internet video was supposed to be something different and better, built on the legacy dinosaur bones of an industry obsessed with turf protection and utterly terrified of disruption. There were notable lessons learned during internet video’s rise during this period; hopefully they’re not all mysteriously and suddenly forgotten just as internet video starts reaching its true potential and the money truly begins to flow.