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Quality digital content can't break through sea of online garbage

Illustration: Caresse Haaser, Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Tech platforms have littered the media universe with crap — stolen ideas, pirated video, plagiarized text, manipulated content, and fake news. And efforts to protect and elevate quality original content have faltered in the digital era. 

Why it matters: While technology has made it easier for creators to find an audience and upend media hierarchies, it's also made it harder for owners of original content to get paid for their work. Just ask the news industry.

What's happening: A slew of new laws and market conditions are beginning to swing the pendulum the other way — albeit slightly — and return at least some power back to original content owners. 

  • In news, Google executives have warned that they will shut down Google News in Europe if policymakers there move forward with implementing a "link tax," a provision that would give publishers copyright over content that is shared online via platforms like YouTube or Facebook, per The Guardian.
  • In music, Taylor Swift announced last month that as a part of her new contract with Universal Music Group, she negotiated a provision that would help fellow artists get a cut of Spotify shares owned by UMG, if they were to ever sell them. The move comes just months after Congress passed a hallmark law that will also help music creators and record owners get paid.
  • In video, AT&T discontinued internet service to customers who have repeatedly violated the company's piracy policies, signaling that telecom companies are taking video piracy more seriously as they get into the original content business themselves.
  • In streaming, many new subscription video players are in a bitter fight over who can afford to create the most original content and buy up the most popular franchises. This is considered great for production studios, but terrible for TV networks who can't afford to pay up.

Yes, but: These efforts are minuscule when you consider the importance of scale to dominant digital distributors. 

  • Digital media businesses that are struggling to meet revenue goals are waving white flags at TV companies. Meanwhile, TV companies are lining up to get bought by telecom business.
  • Facebook and Google are expected to take roughly 75 cents of every dollar spent in digital advertising this year, despite months of scandals, congressional hearings and employee revolts.
  • Most major distributors still feel the need to fight for scale, which means that for every good piece of content they produce, many more pieces of less quality content (especially for TV) is also produced, as The Economist explains. The amount of new programming can be overwhelming for consumers.
Reproduced from an FX Networks Research report; Chart: Axios Visuals

The bigger picture: Disputes over the value of good content — and the definition of good content — are becoming more prevalent and complicated in the digital era. 

  • In the case of TV, market value has played a key role in negotiations over what prices telecom giants should pay TV networks for their content.
  • But years-long agreements around those rates have been tested as traditional TV declines, and a record number of carriage disagreements is leading to more TV blackouts than ever before. 

The bottom line: Despite some shifting forces, market dynamics still make it difficult for good content to consistently thrive online.

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