Google, Apple, and Netflix: tomorrow’s entertainment studios?

Some unlikely players are getting into the content business

David Carr has posted some interesting thoughts on Google’s mission drift: though they’ll deny it ’til sundown, the search giant is slowly but surely getting into the content business.  They’re cutting deals with major league sports and with Hollywood studios. They’re investing millions in celebrity content for Youtube. And last month, they rolled out One Pass, an attempt to wrap a universal payment layer around “pro” publishing content.

Meanwhile, Netflix made headlines last week by trumping the cable TV networks and buying a new David Fincher series (sight unseen) for $100 million.  The news gobsmacked the entertainment industry, who considered Netflix merely a conduit for content, not a producer of it.  But the strategy is nothing new.

Remember that HBO was originally just what its acronym describes: a home box office—kinda like Netflix.  From there, it evolved into a premium brand by producing their own top shelf content.  As the exclusive home of The Sopranos, HBO was no longer a dumb pipe serving up second-run Hollywood flicks—they were the first and only place to get the best show on TV. If Fincher’s House of Cards is a hit, who knows how many new subscriptions Netflix will gain, and what it will mean for the television industry.

And let’s not forget about Apple’s iTunes store. Sure, it’s an online shop that sells music, TV, and movies—it’s just that they’re the shop where you buy your music, TV, and movies. As such, they wield incredible editorial control over what content gets noticed and what content sells.  How long before they start stacking their virtual shelves with their own content? Does Steve Jobs seem like the kind of guy who’ll remain satisfied with a 33% commission when he could easily keep it all for himself? I’ve already got a catchy name for his label: Apple Records!

If any of the above comes to pass, I for one conditionally welcome our new geeky entertainment overlords.  There is a place for paid content on the Internet, and the reality is that we need some established brands to set up trusted and convenient payment systems.  But these systems need to be accessible to all.

Netflix has already opened up a great new distribution pipe for indie filmmakers.  That $100,000 breakout feature you maxed out your credit card to shoot needn’t be nothing more than a calling-card project or a festival film—it can actually be seen by 20 million subscribers and bring in some revenue. And why shouldn’t Netflix hand over virtual shelf space to unknown producers? On the Internet, there’s plenty of shelf space to spare.  Just file it all under “misc” and let their filmmakers promote their work.  Who know where the next breakout hit will come from?

Which brings me to my big question about Google’s move into the paid publishing racket: will One Pass be opened up to anyone who wants in? Right now, publishers must fill out a form and pass muster. One Pass clearly wants established brands for their beta phase. But who isn’t a “publisher” these days? Will any blogger be able to sign up with One Pass in time? If not, why not? It’s sad to imagine Google agreeing with Steve Jobs that users are ready to reject “amateur hour” for slick industry product. And how wonderful to imagine a Google that welcomes onto millions of Android devices any upstart mag or blog that wants to make a product worth paying for.