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Potentially Disappointing News for Yahoo!

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I should be clear: Nobody really has any idea exactly how Marissa Mayer intends to proceed at Yahoo! (YHOO - Get Report).

That said, it's been obvious for a while that video would be the cornerstone of her content strategy. And now it's (reportedly) evident that original programming will be the cornerstone of the cornerstone. Sadly, that's not very original.

It's the trend these days: do what everybody else is doing.

Smartphones. Tablets. And more to the point -- Internet radio platforms, streaming media players, wearable technology. Few companies, particularly in tech, come up with fresh ideas where the ground has yet to break at considerable scale.

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This tells me that, for whatever reason, companies are afraid to take risks. They're more comfortable entering hot markets (smartphones, tablets, Internet radio, set-top boxes) even if they don't make meaningful dents in them and/or chasing flavors of the month (smart watches) that might never take hold. While the latter appears to be risk-taking, it's not. There's nothing like the company of peers to ease the brunt and embarrassment of failing.

It's a heck of a lot more scary -- and risky -- to go it, relatively speaking, alone. That's why I'm concerned and even disappointed in Yahoo! if original programming -- as we know it -- ends up the holy grail of Marissa Mayer's content strategy. Mayer's setting out on a long shot with this one. Her new child has a better chance of becoming a Major League Baseball player than Yahoo does at morphing into an original programming powerhouse.

The emergence of Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) as a home for original programming has created a scenario where stuff that otherwise wouldn't see the light of day sees it. In some respects, that's a good thing. In others, it creates an environment where everybody thinks they know good programming when they see it. And the result, which we are seeing play out, is a dearth of anything worth texting home about.

Nobody, outside of Time Warner's (TWX) HBO (and a handful of others) does intensive creative development anymore. And even if they did, it wouldn't matter. You can't just pluck guys like Netflix's Ted Sarandos out of obscurity and expect them to be able to spot and, more importantly, nurture the next "Game of Thrones" or "True Detective."

What's worse is that Yahoo!'s chasing an area -- Web-based original programming -- that's not even proven ground. You have to give Netflix credit for putting itself out there first, but we still don't know how many people watch what the media irresponsibly call "hits" such as "House of Cards." When I see headlines exclaiming that Yahoo Wants to Find the Next "House of Cards" (on this very Website) or that the show is a "hit" (also on this very Website), I have to ask exactly what that means. Because all we know definitively is that Reed Hastings was able to generate a ton of (short-lived) hype for that show without telling us how many people actually watched it. Is that what Mayer's after? A show that generates short-term buzz? If it is, I'm worried because that's not the way to turn Yahoo! into the enduring brand I know it can be.

Yahoo!'s chasing this original programming angle because it's this thing that's happening right now (and video generates beefy ad rates). She's chasing the puck rather than dictating play. 

My constructive criticism aside, I generally believe in what Mayer's doing at Yahoo!. I'm especially excited about her way of hiring great personalities and letting them use Yahoo as their "personal playground."

I'm all over the notion of Yahoo taking ownership of the live concert streaming space. I dig deeper into the attractiveness of that area in a Monday article where I make the case that Google (GOOG) or Yahoo! should look at buying Pandora (P).

As hyped as I am about that idea, I realize I'm partial to it because it's a passion of mine (and because I saw it work so well when Yahoo! did a one-off show starring One Direction). But it might not be the way Mayer chooses to proceed. However, it does illustrate the fact that there are novel ways to move Yahoo! forward.

If anybody can prove me wrong and effectivley turn water into wine as a late original programming entrant, it's the greatest living CEO this side of Jeff Bezos. So while there's the chance Mayer redefines original programming with whatever she's about to do, it sounds as if it will be just another iteration of what have seen from Netflix and, more so, Amazon and Hulu. As hard as I'm rooting for Mayer to win, that simply doesn't excite me.

My new boss, Robertson Barrett, told me: "We want to be your playground." That phrase is catnip to a creative type like me!

That quote excites me. It came from one of Yahoo!'s big recent hirings -- tech columnist David Pogue. I want Mayer to do likewise. Make Yahoo! her playground. Not the place to do what's already been done.

When you're as capable and dynamic as Mayer, you're held to a higher standard. I'm sure she expects and wants nothing less. So now she must bring it in a way that sets Yahoo apart from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other original programming posers.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is a full-time columnist for TheStreet. He lives in Santa Monica. Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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