The old guard flexes its muscles (while it still can)

It has become evident that the question of who will rule video on the Web is incredibly tangled.

Jeff Zucker, the newly minted chief executive of NBC Universal, ventured to the Times Square headquarters of Viacom two Wednesdays ago with Peter A. Chernin, president of the News Corporation.

It was not a social call as much as a social-networking call, to see Philippe P. Dauman, Viacom's chief executive. After all, Viacom had rather publicly ordered YouTube, the Internet's most popular video-sharing site, to remove thousands of clips of MTV material.

A few weeks earlier, Viacom had also bowed out of a partnership with NBC and the News Corporation to set up their own alternative to YouTube, which was recently acquired by the search juggernaut Google. Not to be dissuaded, their idea is that a Web start-up featuring the broadcasters' most Web-friendly fare (comedy clips and even whole episodes of their popular shows) could gather a crowd on its own and also be a powerful consortium for licensing content to other destinations around the Web--including, of course, "GoogTube."

According to people briefed on the visit, Zucker and Chernin ran through a presentation on why they thought Viacom ought to rejoin their group. So far, Viacom has not rejoined the venture, and the project's fate remains unclear. (No love is lost between Viacom and News Corp., since the latter snatched MySpace.com from under Viacom's nose.)

Yahoo, meanwhile, eager to regain some ground on Google, has been courting the media giants to let it distribute their video wares.

YouTube is not standing still. It is trying to curry public sentiment in the same way that cable and satellite operators have done in battles with channels that won't agree to terms with them: by public shaming.

When I tried to search for a Viacom clip on YouTube, it had not only vanished but had also been replaced by a red banner saying the video had been "removed at the request of Viacom International."

It has become evident that the question of who will rule video on the Web is incredibly tangled. For now, most of the sticky strands lead to Google, and big media companies are trying to figure out whether to fight it or join it. That already hard question has been complicated by some fresh headaches for Google.

First, The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Google had sold advertising that encouraged pirating of Hollywood movies to a couple of rogue Web sites. While the incident was minor in the context of Google's huge advertising business, it didn't help soothe its tense relationship with content providers.

Then, a few days later, a Belgian court ruled that Google's news-aggregating service, Google News, has been violating copyright laws by providing links to French-language newspapers.

Google spins the news
Google took pains to characterize both incidents as the sort that often confront big, fast-growing companies. As a company spokeswoman in London said of the Belgian ruling, "This is an isolated case, and it would be inaccurate to portray Google News as standing in conflict with the publishing industry."

Yet it's also not hard to detect a worrying pattern here for Google--and for those who wish to be Google. The company controls as much as two-thirds of the market in search advertising, by some accounts. That has already caused plenty of worry among print publishers who wonder if the benefit of being on Google's global platform is mitigated by what happens to their intellectual property once Google's search engines get their robotic hands on it.

The worry widened to include the titans of television and cable programming after Google's buyout of YouTube late last year. The buyout raised the possibility that Google would extend that advertising dominance into video--a business that is exploding online and for which advertisers already spend some $60 billion on conventional television.

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