Conference, awards held Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in L.A.

Old media brands and new technology startups could agree on one thing at the 2006 Digital Entertainment & Media Expo conference—the digital entertainment industry has a long way to go before it attains mainstream success.

More than 1,000 attendees representing the music, movie, TV and gaming fields gathered at the DEMXPO conference and awards, held Nov. 30-Dec. 1 in Los Angeles, to discuss their strategies for attaining that goal.

What emerged as the biggest barrier holding up mass adoption of various digital platforms is the struggle for control. Content owners—their heads full of piracy fears—want to control how their content is accessed, used and delivered. Consumers, and the technology companies creating applications for them, want the freedom to control their digital files.

The air in the conference hall was thick with the ongoing flap over Sony BMG’s “root kit” CD digital rights management as an example of how content owners’ control can be taken too far. “It speaks to the general philosophy as to the methods that exist to combat privacy,” a member of the Recording Industry Assn. of America's What's the Download advisory board said during “The Kids Are Alright,” a round table that included college-aged end users. “There's this idea that it's the consumer versus the industry. There should be ways for them to work together.”

Based on the keynote and breakout sessions, it is clear that a new consumer rights debate is upon us.

During the AdWeek Q&A TiVo CEO Tom Rogers said, “When the consumer is in control, they’re doing something that causes them to seek more information and be more active with their content. So to reach a breakthrough with them in some way is becoming increasingly important.”

In her Nov. 30 keynote address, Playboy Enterprises CEO Christy Hefner encouraged the old media world to remain open to new technologies and adapt to the rapidly changing landscape. “Part of what each of us has to do to be successful is to be humble,” she advised. “It’s not about putting a strategy in a drawer and blindly executing on it.”

The challenge to the old media guard, however, is that emerging technologies revolve around still-maturing business models and content-licensing rates that seem almost impossible to negotiate. This was perhaps most clearly illustrated in the discussions concerning podcasting. EMI senior VP of digital development and distribution Ted Cohen, in the audience for Billboard’s Q&A session, asked Clear Channel Communications executive VP Evan Harrison what business model he envisioned for getting major-label music into podcasts. Harrison demurred, saying, "We're not really thinking about labels yet. I'm still watching to see how podcasting develops."

XM Satellite Radio CEO Hugh Panero summed up this risk vs. opportunity question that new technology provides. "A traditional business without a few dreamers has problems," he said. “They are late to innovate, because the innovators have gone elsewhere. Businesses without dreamers don’t age well.”