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Comedy Central and YouTube: You Can't Hide from the Truthiness

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There’s a little less truthiness and a bit fewer moments of Zen on YouTube today, as Comedy Central has aggressively leaned on the viral-video-sharing site to take down segments of its shows, including The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. Interesting move, that: a cable channel whose existence depends on getting the attention of multimedia-savvy young viewers, deliberately forgoing exposure on one of the best online venues for getting the attention of those young people. Why? I can think of two possible explanations, the dumb reason and the smart reason.

THE DUMB REASON: It’s about the bottom line. Comedy Central has invested a lot of money, effort and attention into, like many cable chaannels, developing its own online-video site, Motherload. So the network doesn’t want people surfing over to YouTube and watching its content free (even if that helps bring in and retain fans for its properties), when it can try to force them to its own site. Who cares if the online market has decided it doesn’t want to go to Motherload and prefers one-stop video shopping at YouTube? By God, we’ll make you punk kids do what we want!

THE SMART REASON: It’s a bargaining ploy. Comedy Central knows that they can’t re-bottle the YouTube genie, and that online, corporations must follow viewers and not the other way around. Viewers have shown they want to go to YouTube, not a flotilla of more structured, more boring old-media sites, and there’s nothing Comedy Central can do about it. So the network ultimately wants to cut a deal with YouTube, as its broadcast Viacom sibling CBS did, to permit the website to post its videos with Comedy Central getting some kind of cut–and is temporarily pulling them to make sure that cut is as generous as possible.

I’m hoping for the smart reason, though I’m not going to bet money on it. Have your lawyers draft as many letters as you want: as long as your audience has a broadband pipeline, video will out eventually. And if the TV networks are serious about emulating the music industry, not the movie industry, when it comes to digital media, then they have to do as most of the music business has done with iTunes–accept it as a reality, and make money off it as best they can. Comedy Central, like the rest of TV, has a right to negotiate the terms of how it gets paid for its content. But in the broadband age, it’s the audience, not the network, that dictates the terms of where it will watch that content.

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