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The Media Industry's Big Video Gamble

While the fog continues to lift on the ad recession, that sound Wall Street keeps hearing is big media companies switching gears. Along with talk about what these companies will do with their cash piles comes hints about how content will shape new businesses, from the iPad to online video.

The gamble for big media is in choosing between providing free ad-supported content to online platforms or exploring a subscription play, possibly in concert with Apple and its new iPad. On an earnings call last week, News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch posited that the iPad would lead "a revolution in media consumption."

Windowing options might allow big media fi rms to exploit both. But as one ad executive told B&C last week, the question is the extent to which advertisers will be welcome on subscription services, which could gain real mass if the iPad continues its breakneck sales pace. As of last week, the iPad had passed the 1 million unit mark only 28 days after its release.

The video marketplace is also heating up as it continues rapid growth. Which companies will benefi t most remains the question. According to ComScore, YouTube served up 13.1 billion views in March; big media-backed Hulu notched 1 billion.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg newswire reported that the number of display advertisers at YouTube has increased tenfold in the past year. Barry Salzman, managing director of Google media and platforms, told a Bloomberg reporter, "What YouTube gives advertisers is massive reach and massive audience."

According to the "Online Video and the Media Industry" study produced recently by online video distributor Brightcove, there is a great disparity in Web video growth. In the fi rst quarter of 2010, the networks streamed 380 million videos compared to 326 million for Web media brands, which include the likes of YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook and Bing. That's a closely run race until one considers growth rates. During this period, network TV saw a 44% growth in video views while native Web brands saw a 300% uptick.

Chats with media buyers suggest there's high interest this upfront in surrounding TV content in all the places it's delivered, and there are strong indications that dollars are coming back while paid search may be leveling off. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said: "The next big business for us is display."

Whatever the broad-stroke numbers, everyone has been mum on how many digital dimes are in the register. Hulu, owned by News Corp., NBC Universal and Disney, will only say that it recently became profi table.

CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, speaking on the fi rm's earnings call last week, again defended the company's decision not to join Hulu, preferring to keep content at CBSowned, where CBS gets to keep 100% of the ad revenue rather than 70%. He also suggested there's some dissatisfaction with the current Hulu business model among its owners. The vaunted new Hulu subscription model remains under wraps.

Eric Koepele, director of digital sales at privately held Hearst TV, told B&C that pricing in online video has grown stronger this past quarter. "It's in the low double digits percentage-wise," he says. "The biggest categories are similar across TV and the Web-automotive, fast food and health."

But online won't be the only game-changer for competitors looking to build a recession-proof warship. "We will develop an innovative subscription model that will deliver digital content to consumers wherever and whenever they want it," Murdoch noted on the call. Big changes are clearly on the way.