What can “RickRolling” teach us about the future of entertainment? To answer this totally not rhetorical question, let me back up a bit and talk about this week’s release of the insane, wonderful ’90s cartoon Freakazoid!. (Try it. It’s like a big-budget, funnier version of today’s Adult Swim cartoons.) I don’t know if the first season has sold well enough to bring about the release of the second and final season, but it seems to be doing surprisingly well at Amazon, among the top sellers in “kids'” DVDs and outselling a number of shows that were actually successful. And why have people heard about this show, even though it lasted only two seasons and hasn’t been rerun anywhere for several years?
YouTube. A bunch of people posted Freakazoid! cartoons on YouTube, teenagers and college kids found them there, liked them, even created a whole meme based on the “Candle Jack” cartoon. There is little question that if it wasn’t for YouTube, the DVD would be selling less than it is, because without YouTube, almost nobody would be able to see the show who didn’t see it in the ’90s.
Now RickRolling. Did Rick Astley object when his ’80s pop hit became the most inescapable internet meme of all time? Of course not; he thought it was amusing. And more importantly, it got his record back into print, and got people downloading and buying his music. (And let’s face it: that meme wouldn’t have become popular if that song hadn’t been so darn catchy. You’re humming it now. You are.) The rampant YouTube availability of the song did not detract from the ability of the artist to make money off the song, any more than playing songs on the radio hurts the sales of those same songs.
Despite their freak-out over Napster and other Napster-ish things, music labels seem to have a better understanding of the uses of YouTube than other media producers; music videos do get pulled, but some of them stay up for years, with the company understanding that it helps to get a lot of play for “Hey Jude” on YouTube. (It helps that YouTube’s sound is mono, so you never get the same quality of sound on YouTube as you do on authorized downloading.)
But the TV and film producers don’t seem to understand this at all. Warner Brothers is one of the worst. Even though the Freakazoid! episodes on YouTube were probably the only thing that allowed the official DVD release to sell OK, the company kept pulling the episodes wherever they could find them. Other people would then re-post them, and they’d get pulled again. Worse, Warner Brothers is constantly pulling Looney Tunes cartoons off YouTube. This makes no sense from a business point of view. Warners is desperate to keep the Looney Tunes brand alive, since it has so much merchandising money invested in the franchise. Its attempts to make spin-off movies and TV series bombed; no TV programmers were showing the cartoons any more except on far-down-the-dial channels. YouTube was the first medium in years where the kids were finally getting re-introduced to Looney Tunes; the comments on Bugs Bunny cartoons were filled with kids and teenagers talking about how much better these cartoons are than SpongeBob — so of course the company has cracked down on the first really good source of brand promotion they’ve had in a long time.
It’s true that media companies are being a bit more savvy about the importance of free internet viewing in keeping franchises viable. That’s the purpose of Hulu.com, after all. But apart from that whole not-available-in-Canada thing, Hulu is not watched as much as YouTube, and is less likely to introduce a show or a franchise to demographically-desirable viewers. It may make sense to pull complete episodes or complete movies from YouTube if they compete with something the company is hawking elsewhere on the internet, but clips? Short cartoons? The media companies argue that certain things online are “promotional” when they’re probably not, but a clip from a TV show on YouTube, or a single Bugs Bunny cartoon on YouTube, really are promotional: they are free promotion for a franchise. Media companies do seem to really, really hate the idea that young people might get introduced to their expensive franchises. They hang on to those franchises… you might say, they’re never gonna give them up.
Oh, and I said “Candle Jack,” but that’s officially safe to say, because the guys on the commentary tracks say it several times and they didn’t get cap