Google Restarts Its Video Search Engine

Oct 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

After stumbling hard with television content rights holders in January, Google has launched a Hollywoodwide campaign for a second chance at becoming an online video content gateway.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Google ticked off content owners earlier this year when it launched its Google Video beta test, which was conducted using video collected from the signals of San Francisco-area TV stations. Rights holders called the use illegal and demanded their programming be removed from the site (TelevisionWeek, Jan. 31).

Since then the Internet company has reconfigured its approach to an online video delivery business that could revolutionize the way people access TV content and ultimately add handsomely to Google’s growing war chest, and add a few extra bucks to TV companies as well.

In addition to having a market capitalization of nearly $87 billion and stock that trades just north of $300 a share, Google is in the enviable position of being the leading search engine at a time when search engine advertising is the fastest-growing component of online advertising. With those kinds of resources, it’s hard not to believe the sky’s the limit for Google.

The real power to reach for the sky, however, lies in the hands of TV content rights holders.

Google executives downplayed their potential domination of video distribution during a reporter’s visit to the company’s sprawling, campuslike corporate headquarters, where employees play volleyball outside the offices in a sandpit while in the lobby a hanging monitor ticks off live Google searches of terms such as “clipart,” “rotisserie” and “soap opera.”

Jennifer Feikin, director of Google Video, told TVWeek that she sees Google’s role as a “gateway” for content. “We’re just a hosting company,” she said.

But that’s like saying Microsoft is just a software maker.

For example, Google could introduce digital video recorder technology centrally into its servers, said Tolman Geffs, managing director of investment bank The Jordan, Edmiston Group.

“Google could be taping those centrally and then streaming them back to me over any broadband connection on-demand. The technology to do that is here. The bandwidth is coming,” he said.

For now, Google streams content but possible future models could include subscription, pay-per-view and ad support, which Google could easily leverage, given its advertising clout, said Peter Chane, senior product manager for Google Video.

“You could imagine a scenario where you get access to content on Google Video, view it online, download, view it when you are offline, view it on a portable video device, your television,” Mr. Chane said. Google will work to develop software to make that process secure for content owners, he said.

Still, Ms. Feikin has reason to manage expectations. While the company has the financial and technological resources to meet its gatekeeper goal, it must have the cooperation of the content providers to pull it off. That cooperation has so far been elusive for the company.

“We are actively working with rights holders to make sure they are comfortable bringing their content online, and we want to make sure we give them the set of features they are looking for so they bring their content online,” Mr. Chane said. That includes work to develop monetization and secure distribution for online content.

Mr. Chane, Ms. Feikin and other Google representatives have been talking with executives throughout Hollywood in recent months to discuss how to craft a business model to deliver TV content online, Mr. Chane said.

Many content providers, most of which would speak only on background for this story, said they are treading cautiously in talks with the company as it enters the TV space. But content providers did acknowledge that Google has taken steps to understand the TV business.

Indeed, Google was able to pair off with UPN late last month on the high-profile effort to stream UPN’s new show “Everybody Hates Chris.” It marked the first time Google has offered an episode of a new TV show on its Google Video service and was a sign the company’s early missteps are being rectified.

Google Video’s managers talked about the work they are doing to reach out to content owners. “We’ve made great progress-talking to a large majority of networks and studios about all types of content,” Ms. Feikin said. She declined to elaborate on which content companies Google is talking with or when the deals might fall into place.

UPN declined to comment in more detail about the genesis of the partnership. However, Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, said in a statement last month that the trial was designed to test how many people watch “Everybody Hates Chris” online and how much traffic the Viacom Web sites generate as a result. That’s a big change from comments he made as recently as July in published reports that Google “didn’t show proper respect for us as potential partners.”

More Obstacles

Once-bitten-twice-shy studios and networks are not the only obstacles Google faces in becoming the gateway Ms. Feikin spoke of.

For one thing, Google’s got competition. AOL, for example, has jumped into the online video fray with Bravo, SoapNet and The WB. Yahoo! also has done a video deal with The WB. In fact, most content providers did not want to speak publicly about Google’s efforts, partly because they are in talks with Google and other portals. What’s more, some providers also expressed reluctance to offer their video to search engines because many have their own broadband sites or Internet properties.

Perhaps an even bigger barrier, however, is the hornet’s nest of complex rights issues involving guilds that any widespread effort to bring TV content online will agitate.

When an Internet portal wants to provide video on its site, as AOL has done over the past 18 months, the biggest concern is ensuring the content has been cleared with various guilds for actors, directors and writers and that the music has been cleared too, said Patricia Karpas, VP and general manager for TV ventures at AOL. Those rights are easier to obtain if content is offered promotionally, as The WB’s “Jack & Bobby” was last year on AOL.

That’s why networks have used the Internet largely as a promotional venue for shows rather than a revenue generator.

“If Google or AOL or Yahoo were to put ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ on for the year and make it available, it would be a totally different story,” Ms. Karpas said. “Then you are looking at Google as almost another window for the content.”

In that situation, rights issues get more complicated.

To this point, online delivery of TV content has been kept to promotional efforts, albeit valuable ones.

In speaking about the “Everybody Hates Chris” deal, Dana McClintock, senior VP of communications for UPN owner CBS, said, “For those folks who heard about the show but missed it, this deal allows them the opportunity to see it and brings us some younger viewers as well as promotion on arguably the greatest search company.”

He added that CBS and UPN have had discussions with all the major search engines and are looking to cut deals with other online entities too.

Mr. Geffs said he expects content rights holders to indeed cozy up to Google. “[Google] will play a very important role because it’s in the content owners’ interest to diversify channels of distribution to reduce their dependence on the big multiple system operators and because it’s effective promotion,” he said.

What’s more, consumers want this. “It is a given that content owners must follow their consumers’ preferences,” he said.