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Retreat to the Walled Garden

Late last evening, GE announced that it had cleared a path to sell NBC-Universal to Comcast.  If consummated successfully, the deal would radically reshape the cable, entertainment and web media markets.  Already, there’s much speculation about how the deal will impact content distribution on the web.  Will this merged entity of cable plus content offer premium fare on a subscription basis?  Could this be the deal that starts a mass retreat to the walled garden?

The walled garden is definitely seeing a resurgence of interest among content owners.  What remains unclear is whether you can put up walls around a garden that’s been growing free and unfettered for much of its recent existence.  Will people pay for content that is now widely available for free?

Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. appears to think so.  His company dominates entertainment (20th Century Fox), cable (Fox News, etc.) and the web (MySpace, etc.).  But it also owns many of the newspapers that continue to struggle to survive in this age of online content aggregation (although some, like the Wall Street Journal, have successful online subscription businesses). In a fascinating interview, Murdoch makes the case for why he wants to put News Corp’s coveted content behind a wall (while opining frankly on the US economy, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, and Fox News).  As he puts it, “there’s not enough advertising in the world” that can profitably support the kind of content that consumers currently demand online.

My thanks to the fabulous Kara Swisher for her pointer to the Murdoch interview (her recent blog post on News Corp-Google-Microsoft provides a thoughtful perspective on that particular three-way).

Of course, the walled garden was not a panacea for AOL – the pioneer of the walled garden – who is currently planning to lay off a third of its workforce as it spins away from Time Warner.  But the garden is a successful model for social networking sites like Facebook and Linked In.

Looking ahead, a few developments are worth watching. First, the retreat to the walled garden will impact websites – such as Hulu – that offer premium, first-run content for free.  Hulu, which shot to the web’s top 10 in its first month of launch, is a joint venture between News Corp, NBC and Disney.  The site relies on advertising (2 minutes vs. the 8 you get on real-time TV) and “will be profitable soon” according to NBC CEO Jeff Zucker.  It also plans to launch a subscription site of its own.  We hope it starts making money before a wall goes up (where else can you find 94 episodes of Bewitched all on one page?).

There will also be a marked impact on electronics manufacturers.  Gone are the days when people only watched network shows on TV and surfed the Internet solely on a PC.  Some manufacturers are already starting to wake up to this reality with devices– such as internet-enabled TV – which consolidate distribution into one big fat pipe.  As the content industry undergoes a metamorphosis, hardware will need to keep up.

Most relevant for this blog, there will be an impact on law and policy.  Market definitions – always critical to the regulatory approval of a merger – are even more important in dynamic markets.   Regulators will need to get smart quickly about how media consumption continues to evolve in the digital age.  And the abundance of policy issues  – net neutrality and targeted advertising to name a couple – should make this debate a must-see.

Stay tuned!

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