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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

MySpace Says It's Bringing TV to the Web -- But It Isn't

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 9:35 AM

Specific Media, now the owners of MySpace, took Justin Timberlake on stage with them Monday night at the Consumer Electronic Show, and with a lot of fanfare, they announced ... essentially nothing.

The purported big news is that MySpace is revolutionizing television by bringing it to the Web and adding a lot of doo-dads to let people interact with each other while they watch from different locales. But MySpace can't bring much TV to the Web without making big, expensive deals with programmers. So far, it has made no such deals and it's unlikely it ever will. As for features that allow viewers to interact with each other in real time -- well, big deal.

With Timberlake on the stage, the CES audience reportedly laughed when MySpace was mentioned. And why not? MySpace's entire history is filled with hilarious badness.

It was launched by spammers, and was sort-of cool for a brief period in 2003 and 2004 when it was the home of a lot of indie musicians. It subsequently became megapopular (and thoroughly obnoxious) for a few years as a general social-networking site. But mismanagement and hideous design did it in as Facebook rose to replace it by appealing to the general public rather than just to bored tweens, mouthbreathers, and pederasts.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. purchased the site in 2005 for a ridiculous $580 million. That sum didn't have to be ridiculous if only News Corp. had done something with the site other than marketing it. Instead, the company simply allowed the site to grow uglier and stupider until Facebook began to draw away users who weren't interested in garish pages or in having 50 Cent blasting unbidden from their computer speakers.

News Corp. sold MySpace to Specific Media last summer for $35 million. Specific is an advertising outfit, a fact that is glaringly obvious from the press release announcing the new "MySpace TV" initiative. It's a confusing mishmash of buzzwords and adjectives that adds up to ... essentially nothing.

Specific Media promises "movies, news, sports and reality channels, with a growing lineup of today's most popular broadcast and on-demand content," but it doesn't name a single channel or media company. And it says users will "be able to view their favorite television programs," but it doesn't name a single program.

The problem is, MySpace (and viewers) would have to buy whole bundles of programming, because that's how the television industry works. Programmers simply won't allow the Web to undercut the cable model, so any Internet-based television network (certainly one that offers "today's most popular" shows) has to conform with the economic structure of the TV industry, with pricing and packaging similar to what's offered by cable. Note that moving TV to the Web hasn't happened yet in wholesale fashion, despite lots of pent-up demand, even though companies like Apple and Google -- with piles of money far larger than whatever Specific Media might have at its disposal -- have been trying for years to figure out a way to do it. The closest thing we have is Hulu, which is owned by big media companies and is still considered not much more than an experiment.

Specific CEO Tim Vanderhook reportedly said he's in discussions with programmers, but didn't name any. Also, no pricing for "MySpace TV" has been announced, even though the service will supposedly launch this spring.

All of which explains why the announcement played up the "social networking" features of the service, and its partnership with Panasonic, maker of Internet-connected TV sets. Mainly, that means you can chat with your remote friends while watching TV. Of course, you can already do that via instant messaging or Twitter or whatever if (for some reason) you want to. Here again, Specific wasn't specific on the details, but it appears that a chat box appears on the TV screen.

"Say, Jim, that was a fine pass Tim Tebow just threw, was it not?" "Oh, it sure was Bob. A fine pass indeed."

It also explains why the company said the service will "start with music." MySpace has the rights to stream a lot of audio, and it has the rights to stream some music videos, too. It could well be that's all MySpace TV ever amounts to.

Which, you know, fine. The Consumer Electronics Show is all about hype, and is famous for announcements of products that never materialize. But this seems worse than most, because what was announced was nothing less than MySpace planning to completely upend the television industry, basically launching a direct competitor on the Internet to Comcast and other cable and satellite operators. One would think such an announcement would come somewhere near the top of the press release, and certainly before the part where it bragged about how "MySpace TV" will make 100,000 music videos available.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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Dan Mitchell


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