What is your strategy for delivering news via Video on Demand?

Sure, go ahead and develop apps for Apple’ new iPad, if you want. Sure, I earlier warned that the iPad wouldn’t save journalism, but application development practice never hurt anyone. And the more experience you can get with developing in HTML 5 (the iPad’s substitute for Flash), the better.

But if you really want to get ahead of the tech curve in online publishing, here’s what you need to be playing with right now:

Video on demand.

Last week, Netflix sent me a disk that allows my family to watch its instant streaming movies and TV shows via our Wii video game console. I’d been watching a few shows online via my MacBook Pro, but watching on the family flat screen provides an infinitely more enjoyable experience. (Netflix also offers streaming via several other devices, including XBox and several brands of Blu-Ray players and HDTVs, not to mention TiVo digital video recorders.)

If I were running a news business producing a substantial amount of video news stories, I’d want to cut a deal with Netflix, or another player in the VOD game, to start streaming my news content via these platforms.

Why? Because video on demand, via the Internet, is the future of home video delivery. Not cable television. Not satellite TV. VOD will do to cable and satellite companies what the Internet did to newspapers and magazines. As TiVo and other brands of DVRs freed viewers from having to abide by a broadcast schedule, VOD destroys the concept of channels and networks in television entirely. Decisions about what to watch are made on a show-by-show basis.

DVRs started us down this path, but with VOD, consumers need not wait for a show to appear on a network in their current channel line-up. As soon as its producer allows the show into the VOD inventory, it’s available.

Video producers will need to learn how to compete in that very different marketplace. Brand value will shift from the network to individual shows, stories and correspondents, just as it shifted on the Web from newspaper brands to individual writers and writer communities with the advent of blogs.

How do you package and promote video news so that people will watch on a VOD service? What grabs VOD viewers’ attention and grows their appetite for more video news on demand? What user interface does a VOD service need to feature news options? How do you promote VOD news to people who don’t have a VOD service, to get them to try it? Most importantly, how do you blend advertising into a VOD news program in a way that won’t cause viewers to click away?

These are important lessons to learn now, while VOD remains under control of media-industry-approved distributors such as Netflix and TiVo. Because sometime in the near future, someone is going to develop an easy-to-use open protocol for VOD on home HDTVs that allows anyone with the ability to upload video to the Web access to millions of TVs worldwide. Video networks will lose their gatekeeper function over the home television the way newspapers and magazines lost their control over the flow of home-delivered text news. Think about how anyone can compete with networks such as NPR in distributing their podcasts through Apple’s iTunes store – except that instead of the medium being iPods, it will be home television.

At that point, legacy video news producers will have to know how to compete in that new space, or they’ll be as lost as their print colleagues were when the Web blew open that business.

If you wait until then to start experimenting, you’ll have no head start, no advantage over new competitors, many of whom likely will be your own junior staff members, eager for a chance to pursue stories and beats that you wouldn’t let them pursue. Or former employees you laid off, but who retain deep connections in their communities. (Just as happened to newspapers.) Remember, these individuals, because they will own what they produce and might be financially dependent upon its success, will be more motivated and able to innovate than your organization will be.

So get started with video news on demand. Today. And you have to pull a few folks off the iPad project to do, so be it.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.