CES 2007: CBS vs. Disney

Russ Pitts

The Boss of You
May 1, 2006
CES 2007: CBS vs. Disney

Disney and CBS both attended CES 2007, both trotted out their CEOs to make keynote presentations, both showed off new, cross media initiatives featuring the stars of their networks, and both presented themselves as committed to serving the broader, internet-aware audience. Where they differ, however, is in approach, and after watching both presentations and having thought about them a bit, I'm having a hard time deciding which of the two is right and which is wrong. Or if there even is such a thing.

Disney, owners of the ABC television network, its own movie studio, ESPN and a host of other media properties kicked off their presentation Monday Night with a bang, cutting CEA president Gary Shapiro into the new Monday Night Football opening video. The result: Monday Night Keynote. It was goofy, but well-played and set the tone quite well for the rest of the presentation. It gave the suggestion that Disney controls everything and can do whatever they want with it, which, at first, seems like old news, but also generates within one the desire to have that power as well. Then they showed us that they're going to give it to us.

"I can't stress 'entertainment' enough," said Bob Iger, Disney's CEO, stating Disney's online philosophy. "People are going online today looking to be entertained." And the new Disney.com has been designed to help them achieve that goal.

Disney's new website will feature multiple levels of customization, with custom coded profiles to suit almost any taste. Whether you're a boy, a girl, an adult, a child or anything in-between, Disney has designed a look and feel for their site that you will probably find appealing. Not only does the look of the site change according to your tastes, but they will hand-deliver content which they're assuming will be of interest to you, based on your profile preference. What's more, you can further customize this profile by adding and subtracting content streams, opening and closing widgets and dragging and dropping almost anything from anywhere to anywhere else.

For a company renowned for its tight content control (and tight content), the new Disney.com will be the ultimate in customizable content-delivery, where you can see what you want to see, when and how want to see it. The only thing you can't do, however, is change the content or add to it in any significant way. Disney content is Disney content, and they haven't become a staple of family-friendly entertainment by allowing internet goons the world over to make mash-ups of their stuff. Disney wants you to want them, and will make your wanting of them as comfortable and friendly a process as they can. As Iger said, "We both create and satisfy demand." But they aren't interested in what you have to say about it. Not much, anyway.

One of the highlights of the Disney keynote was a sit-down between Bob Iger and the stars of their hit television program Lost, Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly. While talking to the pair, Bob repeatedly quizzed them for information about the television show's notoriously secret plot lines, and was repeatedly rebuffed by the uncomfortable Disney employees. He also asked them to share stories of how user interaction, via websites, forums and emails, has shaped the television show's story arc. Fox and Lilly suggested that on several occasions the show's producers have written or re-written key segments of the show in response to viewer demand or to answer viewers' questions, and that the viewers, for their part, have responded favorably to this approach.

And that's about the only similarity between Disney and CBS, per their CES 2007 keynote presentations. "There is no such thing as 'new' and 'old' media," said the CEO of CBS, Leslie Moonves. "There is only media." Whether the broadcast veteran and his legendary company actually believe this motto is irrelevant, but one gets the idea that they intend to at least try to believe it.

Since CBS split from Viacom last year, the company has been aggressively pursuing methods of delivering their content online, and acquiring start-up companies that have already pioneered innovative methods of attracting, building and retaining online audiences. CBS' Innertube online service delivers the majority of CBS prime time shows online, for free, which the company has also begun offering elsewhere. They were also the first major network to provide content to You Tube, allowing the web's most-visited video sharing site to host CBS content without fear of legal reprisal; a success for CBS, and an embarrassment for other networks, who were not so enlightened.

Moonves called you, the viewer, his "Audience Nation" and suggested that CBS is committed to giving you what you want, when you want it, and that all you need to do is ask. He also, describing the network's deals with SlingBox (to create a video sharing system for the sole purpose of cutting clips from CBS shows and sending them to friends) and Linden Labs (to allow Second Life users to create virtual theme parks based on CBS properties) as well as a program they've recently launched allowing you to send in a short video clip for possible airing during this year's Superbowl broadcast, suggested that he also gives a fig about what you might have to add to his content stream.

This was no more apparent than during the C.S.I. portion of the keynote, during which C.S.I. creator Anthony Zuiker described in detail how he and the shows' writers use audience feedback to augment and adapt the three shows to the viewers' varying tastes. The prime example being the addition of a girlfriend for C.S.I.: New York star Gary Sinise, and the subtraction of the tie from his character's wardrobe. Both were viewer submitted adjustments, according to Zuiker, and both resulted in noticeable ratings gains for the crime drama, enhancing his (and CBS') respect for viewer interaction.

CBS appears less motivated by retaining tight control over the way their content is digested than by providing you with the raw content materials from which you can make your own meal. They appeared, on the whole, less focused than Disney and slightly adrift in the new media landscape. Moonves often used words such as "try", "we'll see" and "we're keeping an eye on that" when talking about the network's internet initiatives, but one can't argue with their commitment to finding what works, even if it looks as if they're simply throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, which, as a colleague adroitly suggested, you can probably afford to do when you're the number one network in the nation.

Disney, on the other hand, clearly has a plan. A Disney Plan. And they're moving forward with it, regardless of how you might feel about it. The impression one gets from their initiatives is that Disney knows best how to present their content online, and they're telling you, rather than asking you. Whether they actually do know best or not (and one is genuinely tempted to not argue with as successful a company as Disney) remains to be seen, but some users may not like feeling left out of the process. For both networks, only time, and viewer response will tell.