Big media companies are often cast as lumbering giants, slow to recognize change and even slower to embrace it. But for Disney, that stereotype looks increasingly inappropriate, as the company continues making moves to better position itself for the vastly different upcoming online video era.
Yesterday's report that Disney is mulling an acquisition of Maker Studios for $500 million, one of the biggest of the YouTube multichannel networks ("MCNs") with over 500 million videos viewed/month in January, is the latest sign that Disney recognizes the future rules of the road in the media industry will be far different than they were in the past. Maker - and other big MCNs - underscore 3 of the biggest emerging rules: (1) that talent can now break big without the backing of the traditional media, (2) that YouTube is a bona fide new distribution platform and (3) that traditional media's grip on millennials may be slipping.
Having broken some of the biggest young celebrities (e.g. Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, etc.), Disney knows a thing or two about how to appeal to young people. No doubt it fully understands big media's hegemony over this cohort (though admittedly not yet its profits) is under assault by MCNs like Maker, which accounted for 9 of the top 100 YouTube channels in January, including PewDiePie, which has racked up nearly 25 million subscribers.
In fact, the sensibility of many of YouTube's top 100 skews distinctly young. As anyone with a teen in their house knows well, these days kids can spend hours hopping from one YouTube video to another - time that in the past would have been spent in front of the TV.
This is still largely foreign terrain for Disney, and Maker's YouTube-centric DNA would give Disney valuable insight into how to extend its star-making machine to the still quite opaque online realm. But star-making is just half of the equation. The other, equally important half is mastering (and quite possible shaping) how online video distribution works, and what role YouTube will play.
YouTube is a "frenemy" for big media these days - occasionally helpful in extending franchises (e.g. the constellation of Frozen/Let It Go videos on YouTube) but at the same time creating a free, flexible, distractive threat to pay-TV's dominance. It's now quite clear that YouTube is here to stay, and, with devices like Chromecast increasingly bringing YouTube into the living room, it's in big media's interests to optimize it. This is exactly the premise of MCNs - mastering the arcana of YouTube to build and monetize audiences.
Ultimately though, a potential Maker acquisition by Disney is a partial hedge against the existential risk that expensive pay-TV subscriptions may be a fading priority for millennials. Despite recent research indicating that millennials' interest in pay-TV (and TV in general) remains strong, the list of why this could change looms large, with "cord-nevering" now a predominant industry theme. Supporting this is recent TiVo research on millennials in which 72% cited free streaming sites like YouTube, Hulu, etc. as their most-used source of video.
Since cable networks, and ESPN specifically, are Disney's most potent profit engine (and of course one of the reasons behind pay-TV's escalating monthly cost) any material fall-off in subscriptions among millennials would hurt its P&L. MCNs including Maker are still figuring out their own business models, so Maker could hardly be expected to stanch any bleeding that cord-nevering would create at Disney. But what Maker could do is provide valuable insight, and possible a bridge, into monetizing online video's big audiences.
More broadly, a Disney deal for Maker - following its granting of OTT rights to DISH and its launch of the clever Disney Movies Anywhere service - all show how the company is continually trying to prepare itself for a future that will be much more chaotic and uncertain than the past. Disney looks like one big media company that doesn't intend to be caught flat-footed by the technology and consumer behavior changes roiling the industry.