If you watch TV programs via VOD from your pay-TV operator, then you've probably had one or both of two curious experiences I've had: either the same, untargeted ad plays repeatedly at the breaks, or no ad (and therefore no monetization for the content provider) plays at all. With over 600 million monthly VOD views occurring these days, the lack of dynamic, targeted ad insertion in VOD diminishes the user experience and leaves lots more money on the table.
There are multiple reasons to explain all of this, but one of the main ones is that there are very hard technology problems involved to solve it, as the pay-TV infrastructure (notably the set-top boxes) vary widely in their capabilities. Creating a platform that runs across pay-TV operators' different infrastructure, at scale, to enable advertising, has been a very tall mountain to climb. Now, after years of hard work and investment, BlackArrow, the company that decided to address the situation, looks like it has finally arrived at the summit.
In this interview at the recent Cable Show, BlackArrow's CEO Dean Denhart explains that the company now has agreements covering 30 million subscribers, with Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Rogers, which are all rolling it out. He walks me through a handful of slides that explain exactly how the BlackArrow system works and the progress programmers, advertisers and pay-TV operators are making. And importantly he discusses how the online video and on-demand TV worlds will converge over time. Watch the interview (15 minutes, 18 seconds)
Following are 4 items worth noting from the week of Oct 12th week:
1. Bell Canada is first to offer "TV Everywhere" type service - While U.S. operators have been busy with their TV Everywhere trials, Bell Canada, which has 1.8 million linear video subscribers, has jumped into the lead, announcing this week the launch of "TMN Online." The service, available through the Bell TV Online portal, allows subscribers to The Movie Network premium channel to gain online access to about 130 hours of content.
I spoke briefly with Peter Wilcox, Bell TV's director of product strategy, who explained that ExtendMedia's OpenCASE is being used for content management, in conjunction with Microsoft's Silverlight and PlayReady DRM. Users login with their Bell user name and password and are authenticated against the billing database as valid TMN subs. Only 1 simultaneous log-in is allowed, and Bell is also geo-blocking, so for example, there's no accessing TMN Online from outside Canada. The launch is part of what Bell calls "TV Anywhere" - a broader context for eventual distribution to its mobile subscribers, and further content being added. The deployment is the first milestone in what promises to be a busy 2010 on the TV Everywhere news front.
2. BlackArrow launches ad insertion for Comcast video-on-demand - BlackArrow, the multiplatform ad technology provider, announced its first customer deployment this week, with Comcast's Jacksonville, FL operation. I talked to company CEO Dean Denhart and President Nick Troiano, who gave me an update on how the company dynamically inserts ads in long-form premium content across TV, broadband and mobile. As I wrote 2 years ago, BlackArrow has bitten off the hardest challenge first: working with cable operators to get its system into their headends/data centers. Dean and Nick believe that if the company can succeed in this goal then it will have created formidable differentiation that can be leveraged for the other two platforms.
The key risk is that cable operators are famous for grinding down promising technology startups with their endless testing and brutal negotiating tactics (I say this from personal experience with a promising technology startup earlier this decade, Narad Networks). Robust VOD ad insertion is plenty strategic for the industry, but years since cable operators launched free VOD, the fact that it still isn't widely deployed is a telling sign, particularly while ad insertion technology in broadband is now fully mature. Comcast's role as an investor in BlackArrow should help its odds of success. I'm rooting for BlackArrow; their holistic approach to multiplatform advertising is right on. Whether they have the juice to fully succeed remains the big question.
3. Political battle over net neutrality is heating up - This week brought fresh complaints from Republican Senators who are coalescing to fend off new FCC chairman Julius Genachowski's plan to introduce net neutrality regulations for both broadband ISPs and wireless carriers. B&C reported that 18 Republican senators wrote to Mr. Genachowski concerned that the FCC's process is "outcome driven" and unsupported by data.
I rarely find my views aligning with Republicans, but net neutrality is an exception. As I wrote last month in "Why the FCC's Net Neutrality Plans Should Go Nowhere," Mr. Genachowski's plan is deeply flawed and completely illogical. The core premise of the new regulations - that they're needed to ensure continued broadband investment and innovation - misses the reality that the market is already functioning well. As one example, investment in broadband-related technology is continuing apace. By my calculations, over $180 million was raised in Q3 '09 by video-related companies whose very viability depends on open broadband and wireless networks. The sector's potential is amplified by the fact that venture capital fundraising itself is at its lowest level since 2003, with new capital raised by the industry in 2009 down 58% from 2008. Despite the VC industry's troubles, it continues to bet big on video. Why do we need new Internet regulations to sustain innovation?
4. Have you seen the 9 year-old hockey player's trick goal? On a lighter note, you have to love the serendipity of online video sharing. For example, though I don't consider myself a hockey fan, when a friend sent me this video clip of a 9 year-old hockey player pulling off this incredible trick shot, I was reminded just how much fun online video is and promptly passed the clip on to my circle (it's also now all over YouTube). See for yourself, it's just amazing. And nothing fake about it either.
Enjoy the weekend!
Here's another sign of the times: thePlatform is announcing this morning that it has launched three new initiatives aimed at reducing small-to-medium (SMB) sized content providers' total cost of running their broadband video operations. In the context of the woeful economy, it's a savvy move.
In effect thePlatform (note, a VideoNuze sponsor) is using its scale to create a buyer's cooperative to save money on three services (CDN, storage and others), thereby enabling its SMB customers to receive pricing comparable to what big customers can negotiate themselves. With thePlatform's customers driving 440 million video views in December '08, (3rd place after Google's site and Fox Interactive Media) according to comScore, the company is in a strong position to use its size on behalf of its SMB customers. I talked to Marty Roberts, thePlatform's VP Marketing, who explained the specifics of how the savings would work.
thePlatform's initiatives are based on an analysis it conducted of its SMB customers' key cost elements. No surprise, the cost of delivery was the biggest chunk, coming in at 78% of total. This was calculated using a set of assumptions including $.55/GB for delivery. For its new "mpsManage CDN" service, thePlatform has partnered with EdgeCast to resell its service for $.35/GB, resulting in a 36% savings on delivery costs. It will also be available on a utility basis, meaning no monthly commitments. Marty said that thePlatform will continue to work with its other 15 CDN partners, but I would guess that this new program is going to gain a lot of attention among its SMB customer base.
Delivery costs have always been a central issue for making the broadband P&L work. Having done many business cases for various content providers over the years, I'm well-acquainted with how quickly CDN costs can gobble up potential profitability even though the cost/GB delivered has plunged over the years. Yet there is a raft of CDNs out there to choose from, and the key is finding the right one for your needs at the moment and your budget. Still delivery costs persist as a major flashpoint: some of you may have read Mark Cuban's post just 2 weeks ago "The Great Internet Video Lie" in which he basically asserted that large CDNs and their pricing are the real gatekeepers to a truly open broadband distribution model (for the record, I think some of his points are valid, but long-term his logic is flawed).
The other programs thePlatform is rolling out are important, though not as impactful as the delivery option, simply because their percentage of underlying total costs is so much smaller in size. thePlatform is offering a new storage program which slashes the cost of storage from $8/GB on average, to $2/GB. Though a big cut, thePlatform calculates storage only accounts for 5% of total costs today.
Lastly, through its new Advantage program it's tapping into a select group of its ecosystem partners to find another 10% or more cost reduction on services like advertising, reporting and analytics and online community creation. Advantage program participants include Panache, BlackArrow, TubeMogul, Live Rail, ScanScout, Gloto and Visible Measures.
Add it all up and thePlatform believes it can offer a 32% reduction in "total cost of ownership" for SMB video content providers. These new services create a new revenue stream for the company, as the reduced prices include a margin for thePlatform as well. And as Marty pointed out the SMB space is quite vibrant and these programs will allow thePlatform to be more competitive in winning deals by giving them another negotiating lever.
thePlatform's moves are also smart from a positioning standpoint; in this troubled economy I think providers who overtly message that they are doing what they can to save customers money generate valuable notoriety. In good times everyone's focused on top-line growth and wants more features and flexibility. In bad times those goals are still valued, but saving money - which can often make the difference in merely surviving - is prized over everything else (Ben Franklin said it best: "a penny saved is a penny earned"). As a result, I suspect we'll see more companies unveiling messages of this kind in the months to come.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Amidst all the gloomy economic news, there are actually still some earlier stage companies that are raising new money. To learn more about their how they're doing it, I emailed the CEOs of seven broadband/mobile video companies which have collectively raised nearly $80M in the last 3 months. I asked 3 basic questions:
While there were some common themes in their answers (many of which echoed the usual fundraising maxims), there was plenty of variety and a few outliers. Space constraints don't allow for me to share all of their specific answers, so I've tried my best to summarize the common themes and highlight key nuggets of wisdom below. If you have any questions, drop me an email.
The seven CEOs who graciously took time out of their busy days to contribute their thoughts (along with the recent rounds they've raised) are:
1. What are the key success factors for raising money given the difficult economic climate?
The answers that dominated were all around revenue, profitability and cash flow. All the CEOs mentioned, in one way or another, that being able to demonstrate real revenue growth and momentum is essential. Some noted that in the past traffic or usage may have been sufficient, but now the "premium is on paying customers," and how get to profitability and cash flow breakeven using reasonable assumptions. Several mentioned that investors are as risk averse as ever, which of course comes as no surprise. They want to see concrete, well thought-out plans.
Investors have also become more sophisticated about the whole broadband video sector and expect entrepreneurs to be able to explain where they fit into the ecosystem and what their points of differentiation are. Importantly, they are looking for proven models (unfortunately an oxymoron for a pure startup), or at least some minimal history of success that goes "beyond PPT slideware."
A couple of CEOs noted that investors have shifted from asking "how fast can you scale?" to "how will you get through this crisis?" They no longer expect a quick exit. They are looking for a real plan which includes contingency tactics if for example, competitors do something desperate like cut their prices in half.
2. What are the biggest challenges?
The prevailing theme here was uncertainty, starting with investors' own business models. They're focused on how much of their funds to hold in reserve to shore up existing portfolio companies. They're trying to gauge their own limited partners' appetite for venture investing given the credit squeeze. Then of course they're trying to understand the impact of broadband market drivers like ad spending and user adoption. One CEO lamented the difficulty of persuading people to put new money to work on the very day the stock market's dropping by 500 points. Still another noted that all of this can lead to a "self-fulfilling prophecy" where everything freezes and missed opportunities abound.
With respect to the broadband market specifically, one CEO said the key challenge is showing how "you monetize video for your clients." Absent that, "it will not only be hard to raise money, but harder still for your client to spend money with you."
Another said that the level of scrutiny has gotten so high that it's not even worth talking to any investor which doesn't have its own track record of investing in the broadband video sector. It's just too hard to educated people in this environment. Another CEO added that your model needs to be "brilliant and bulletproof, with an A-level management team already in place." Boy, there's a steep hurdle to clear.
3. Is there any specific advice you'd offer to those trying to raise money these days?
Many of the answers to this question reflected fundraising basics: understand your business thoroughly, put a balanced team in place, seek out investors you know first, have a solid plan, and bootstrap as much as possible first.
With respect to the raising money in the current lousy market, there was a broad range of sentiment. One CEO said "Don't...the terms are going to suck..." while another said to be "incredibly realistic about how much to raise, your burn rate and valuation." On the more optimistic end of the spectrum, one said "The market's poor performance means that investors are looking for new opportunities. Ignore all the negative energy and naysayers." And another remarked that "Even during the tech disaster of 2001-2003, angel investors, VCs and tech behemoths were still putting money to work in promising sectors." Another heavily emphasized the value of loyal and supportive existing investors (if there are any) in helping making the case to new investors.
More tactically, one CEO said that the more you "minimize uncertainty that surrounds your business specifically, the better off you'll be." Another said to make the transaction as simple as possible, and to "get the big items off the table first." Still another said to demonstrate "you're indispensable to customers, helping them weather the downturn." Finally one cautioned to be ready to take a lot more meetings than usual and expect a lot deeper follow up..."it may require you to go well beyond investors in your backyard to find the right fit."
Hopefully some of this is helpful to those of you trying to raise money right now, or thinking about doing so in the near future. Broadband video remains one of the hottest sectors out there; even still, if you're not getting a lot of love right now, you're not alone...
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Categories: Deals & Financings
This week I'll be at Digital Hollywood Fall in LA, the first big industry gathering I've attended since the economic crisis hit. I've been trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what the crisis means for the broadband video industry. Get-togethers like this, with lots of time for informal, off-the-record chats are great for getting a sense of what colleagues think is on the industry's horizon.
Here are 3 interrelated areas I'm most interested in learning about:
With the credit markets frozen and stock markets tumbling, the availability of financing is topic number one. This is especially relevant for the industry's many earlier stage companies, reliant on private financing from venture capitalists, angels and other private equity investors.
By my count we've seen at least 9 good-sized financings announced since around Labor Day, when the financial markets started coming unglued: Howcast ($2M), blip.tv (undisclosed), Booyah ($4.5M), BlackArrow ($20M), HealthiNation ($7.5M), Adap.tv ($13M), BitTorrent ($17M), Conviva ($20M), and Move Networks (Microsoft, undisclosed). The rumor mill tells me there are at least 2-3 additional financings underway currently. Really smart money (e.g. Warren Buffet) knows that downturns are exactly the time to invest. However, the reality can often be quite different. What's the experience of industry participants trying to raise money these days?
In any downturn, the first expense to get cut is people. Headcount reductions are often done quietly, with word later leaking out to the public. Last week brought news of trimming at three indie video providers, Break (11 people), ManiaTV (20) and Heavy (12). More are sure to follow at other companies. As I've written before, the indies are among the most vulnerable in this environment, likely leading many to find bigger partners for both distribution and monetization. But whether layoffs will hit other industry sectors such as platforms, ad networks, CDNs, mobile video and big media is still to be determined by...
Central to the question of how deeply the financial crisis spirals is the interdependence of customer spending at all levels of the economy. Thinking you're safe because you're a B2B company is meaningless if your customers are B2C companies cutting back due to reductions in consumer spending. When consumers tighten their belts that leads to advertisers reducing their spending which leads to media companies scaling back which leads to technology vendors feeling the impact. The reality is we're all in this together.
In fact, the more I read about the economy's fragile condition, the clearer it is that the primary way out is rebuilding confidence and renewed spending at all levels. If a spending paralysis occurs, it could be long road ahead. While there's no reason to believe that consumers are going to slow their consumption of broadband media, the ability to monetize it and innovate around it would be dampened if spending hits a wall.
These are among the topics I'll be looking to discuss at Digital Hollywood this week. If you're attending, drop me a note so we can try to meet up and/or come by the session I'll be moderating on Wednesday at 12:30pm.
What do you think? Post a comment now!