I'm pleased to present the 173rd edition of the VideoNuze podcast with my weekly partner Colin Dixon of nScreenMedia. This week we focus on the rising cost of content to pay-TV operators and the rising quality of content found online.
In a post yesterday, Colin validates pay-TV operators' complaints about programming costs, noting, for example, that at Comcast they rose from 34% of video revenue in '08 to 40% in '11 (at Time Warner Cable they were 41% and at DirecTV they were 45%). As we discuss, these escalating costs are eating into operators' profit margins as subscriber rate increases haven't kept pace. As VideoNuze readers know, sports is a major culprit in all of this, though entertainment networks have raised their own rates as well.
Against this backdrop, the quality of content available online is improving markedly. For example in just the past couple of weeks, we've seen Netflix announce another new series, with the producers of The Matrix films and Babylon5, Amazon Studios announce new shows "Betas," "Zombieland" and "Sarah Solves It" and Crackle a second season of "Chosen." Further, anime network Crunchyroll disclosed it's now up to 200K paying subscribers, TheBlaze (Glenn Beck's online video network) is raising $40M. Even the BBC, one of the most traditional TV networks, announced it will be premiering shows on its iPlayer.
In short, the quality of programming online is getting better all the time, while the cost of content to pay-TV operators is escalating, in turn putting pressure on subscriber rates. All of this means viewership patterns are bound to change and with the broader video industry.
Reminder: sign up for "Sizing Up Apple TV" a free video webinar, next Tuesday, April 2nd featuring Brightcove's Jeremy Allaire and me.
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Click here to listen to the podcast (18 minutes, 57 seconds)
I had a classic TV Everywhere moment tonight I thought I'd quickly share. I got back to my hotel room in NYC after dinner, flipped on the TV to watch the Celtics try to break the Heat's winning streak and discovered ESPN and many other channels weren't working.
But instead of calling the front desk, waiting for a technician, keeping my fingers crossed, etc. (guessing my fellow travelers know this experience too well), I fired up WatchESPN, entered my Comcast credentials and was watching online within minutes. For the most part, video quality was very strong. The key was being able to watch via the hotel's WiFi network because the stream would have drained my 2GB Verizon data cap.
Binge-viewing will get another big bounce when Comcast holds its first-ever "Watchathon Week" March 25-31, allowing Xfinity TV subscribers to access over 3,500 episodes from 100 TV series on 30 different premium, ad-supported cable and broadcast networks. All VOD-enabled Xfinity subscribers will be able to access the programs, via Xfinity On Demand, Xfinity.com and the Xfinity TV Player app on iOS and Android devices.
Several weeks ago, after watching Intel Media chief Erik Huggers interviewed at the D: Dive Into Media Conference, I expressed skepticism that the company's marketing plan for its forthcoming pay-TV service would work. Huggers explained that Intel would emphasize a breakthrough, high-quality video experience, rather than a "value approach" where consumers could possibly save money by switching to Intel.
While I agree with Huggers that there's a lot left to be desired in today's pay-TV experience, the reality is that the industry's big players have set the tone for how consumers make their decisions to switch providers: price first, features second. The latest evidence of this was another Verizon mailer that arrived at my house last week (see below), offering a 2-year, $89.99/month bundle of video/broadband/voice and a $250 Visa card. Verizon will also bump the broadband speed to 50/25 mbps as a bonus.
Comcast has announced that Xfinity TV subscribers who use the Xfinity TV Player app on their Android and iOS mobile devices can now download certain TV shows and movies, so they can watch when they're not connected to a broadband network. The download option closely mirrors TiVo's recently announced "Stream" device, which also allows downloading.
As I wrote in my review of TiVo Stream, I think the offline viewing use case is a killer app. Despite the proliferation of 4G services, the reality is there are still plenty of times when connectivity is sub-par or non-existent, particularly in transit situations (e.g. airplanes, cars, trains, etc.). Further, the elimination of unlimited data plans by wireless carriers makes streaming long-form content prohibitively expensive. As a result, the download option is very attractive, especially for travelers.
Last Friday morning Comcast reported strong Q3 '12 results, including its 8th straight quarter of lower year-over-year video subscriber losses. For Q3 '12, it lost 117K subscribers, vs. 165K in Q3 '11. This pattern stretches all the way back to Q4 '10, when Comcast lost 135K subscribers, vs. the 199K it lost in Q4 '09. Obviously no business likes to lose customers, but Comcast's (and all cable operators') reality is that with the incursion of telcos and satellite operators, some market fragmentation was inevitable.
On its earnings call, Comcast executives didn't point to any one reason for the ongoing video subscriber improvement, except to point to solid execution and "competing effectively with our improved products and services." Of course it doesn't hurt that the economy and housing have both picked up recently. Comcast's performance is also likely coming at the expense of telcos and satellite operators, whose Q3 results have not yet been fully released.
Categories: Cable TV Operators
Variety is reporting on an internal Hulu memo indicating that the imminent buyout of Hulu's private equity partner may spark a series of changes, including the possible departure of CEO Jason Kilar and modifications to its content licensing arrangements with its broadcast network TV owners. Kilar has done an excellent job with Hulu, creating a top-notch user experience that is monetized through both ads, and more recently through subscriptions at Hulu Plus. Kilar has more than defied the skeptics who dismissively labeled Hulu "Clown Co." prior to its launch.
Nonetheless, there can be no disputing the fact that Hulu's essential asset from the outset has been exclusive next-day access to programs from Fox and NBC (now Comcast) and more recently, Disney/ABC. Broadcast TV is still by far the most popular programming around, and even though Hulu has added dozens of content partners, including a high-profile deal with Viacom, the reality is that for many Hulu users, it's a destination to catch up on their favorite broadcast programs.
In the past 2 weeks, Netflix delivered tepid Q2 results and a cautious forecast, while Comcast reported strong broadband numbers and an improving video subscriber picture. That's a big reversal from a year ago, when Netflix was flying high and talk of cord-cutting hung over the entire pay-TV industry. So what might we learn from these 2 companies' experiences over the past year? Though I'm sure there are plenty of lessons, here are 4 that come to mind:
I'm pleased to be joined once again by Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group, for the 142nd edition of the VideoNuze-TDG Report podcast. In this week's podcast Colin and I first discuss NBC's Olympics video streaming. Despite some high profile criticism, we agree that NBC has actually done a pretty good job and has laid a foundation for live streaming to be an expected part of all Olympics coverage in the future.
Next we review Q2 '12 results from some of the largest pay-TV operators. Video subscriber losses continue, although Q2 is historically a soft quarter. Colin notes that recent TDG research shows the pay-TV value proposition is increasingly challenged and he believes that means higher churn is ahead, with bigger opportunities for OTT options.
Speaking of those options, Aereo announced new low-cost plans and both Colin and I agree that they're a clever way to reduce entry barriers and increase viewing flexibility. It's still early, but we like Aereo's odds of success.
Last up, we note the early demise of the Nexus Q media streaming device, a product that both us called a dud a couple of weeks ago.
Listen in to learn more.
Click here to listen to the podcast (21 minutes, 43 seconds)
Comcast reported strong 2nd quarter results this morning, adding another 156K broadband subscribers, while losing 176K video subscribers, an improvement over the 238K it lost in Q2 '11. It's the seventh straight quarter Comcast has improved its video subscriber losses, while driving the average monthly revenue per subscriber up another 8% to $148.57.
At the recent VideoNuze 2012 Online Video Advertising Summit, I did a fireside chat with Matt Strauss, Comcast's SVP, Digital and Emerging Platforms, who articulated Comcast's strategy for meeting consumers' ever-higher video expectations. Matt observed that "you have to envision a world where video will be everywhere." This seems to be the rallying theme for all of Comcast's recent video efforts. Matt describes how the company has reorganized itself to collapse traditional boundaries between linear, on-demand and online groups, including now having just one user experience team.
There's a major breakthrough in the TV Everywhere landscape to report - Comcast is "auto-verifying" its Xfinity subscribers' access to NBC's online and mobile video streaming of the Summer Olympics. A Comcast spokesperson confirmed that this is the first time TV Everywhere content is being made available to its subscribers without them having to submit their user name and password credentials to gain access.
This is a real milestone as authentication has been widely viewed as a cumbersome process step for subscribers. That's because many people have not created user names and passwords with their pay-TV operator and/or can't remember them. In addition, authentication systems are not yet stable, often requiring repeated log-ins to the same app, and also across different apps (I've had to repeatedly log-in to every TV Everywhere app I've ever used). Exacerbating things, so much online video is freely available that the TV Everywhere login process feels intrusive for users accustomed to immediately being able to watch.
Comcast has been letting me test-drive its new "X1" platform on a second TV in my house for the last couple of weeks. X1, which was recently announced at the Cable Show, is the company's new state-of-the-art set-top box, built by Pace, that delivers video via traditional "QAM" technology along with apps and other content via web-standard IP technology. The latter allows X1 to create a richer, more web-like user experience.
X1's biggest leap forward vs. the traditional Comcast digital set-top (which I still have on my main TV) is its speed and responsiveness. X1 is amazingly fast, unlike any other pay-TV set-top I've ever used, and easily on a par - or better - than any web site or iPad/mobile app I've recently used (it actually feels faster than many web sites I visit given their increasingly bloated pages). X1 also blows away my Samsung connected Blu-ray player's abysmally slow performance.
I'm pleased to be joined once again by Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group, for the 137th edition of the VideoNuze-TDG Report podcast.
First up this week, Colin and I discuss this week's news that the Department of Justice is investigating whether cable TV companies are acting to suppress online video. As I wrote on Wednesday, it's good for the government to be vigilant, but for now anyway I don't believe online video providers or consumers are being impacted (rather I suggested if the DOJ wants to address a REAL way consumers are being harmed it should look into the multi-billion dollar per year subsidy non sports fans are forced to pay for expensive sports networks).
Colin disagrees with me. As he's stated in the past, he believes the use of "private networks" to deliver video traffic to connected devices that doesn't count against data caps creates preferred broadband lanes and are inappropriate (Colin believes Comcast is doing this with its recent plan to deliver video services to the Xbox).
Wrapping up, Colin shares observations from Cisco Live a big analyst event he attended earlier this week and I do some shameless plugging for next Tuesday's VideoNuze Online Video Advertising Summit.
Click here to listen to the podcast (20 minutes, 36 seconds)
The WSJ has broken a big story this morning that the Department of Justice is apparently pursuing an antitrust investigation into whether cable TV companies are taking steps to limit the rise of online video usage. The DOJ is primarily looking into the role of data caps, the use of private networks for delivery of certain programming to connected devices, the use of TV Everywhere authentication, and even the model of most-favored nations clauses between cable TV networks and pay-TV distributors.
While it's generally a good thing for the government to keep an eye on how business is conducted (the recent financial crisis demonstrates what happens when it doesn't), to my mind none of these issues are really hurting consumers, yet anyway. Rather, if the government truly wanted to focus on an immediate, huge, and worsening consumer problem in the pay-TV business, it should be focused squarely on sports, and more specifically the multi-billion dollar annual subsidy that non-sports fans are required to pay due to current cable network bundling practices.
If you've ever used video-on-demand from your pay-TV operator, you no doubt agree that trying to find and then navigate to what you'd like to watch feels like a Soviet-era experience. The problem is the set-top box's processing limitations have hamstrung pay-TV operators from delivering a more web-like VOD experience.
The company looking to change all that is ActiveVideo Networks, and yesterday it got a big boost as Comcast, the largest pay-TV operator in the U.S., licensed ActiveVideo's CloudTV H5 platform for a trial in its Chattanooga, TN market. If the trial goes well and Comcast rolls CloudTV H5 out nationally, the VOD experience is going to dramatically improve for millions of viewers, in turn making it more competitive with web-based OTT VOD providers.
I'm pleased to be joined once again by Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group, for the 134th edition of the VideoNuze Report podcast, for May 25, 2012. This week's topic: Comcast's new "X1" TV platform and experience. Yesterday I posted a video interview I did with Comcast's SVP, Digital and Emerging, Matt Strauss discussing details of X1, and today Colin and I get into the details of what it means for Comcast and for the larger TV industry and future landscape.
Two other quick notes related to prior podcast topics. On last week's podcast we discussed Dish Network's "Auto Hop" ad-skipper and the likely legal backlash from broadcast networks. Sure enough yesterday CBS, Fox and NBCU filed their lawsuits. And back in Feb. we discussed Aereo's disruptive potential. This week the company won a minor battle in its legal wrangling with broadcasters, while looking ahead to a big day in federal court next Wed.
Click here to listen to the podcast (24 minutes, 24 seconds)
Comcast made a very big splash at the Cable Show this week, officially announcing "X1" a new web-like TV platform and user experience it has been developing for the past 2 years, along with "Dayview" a console for customers to manage all of their Comcast services.
In this video interview, Matt Strauss, Comcast's SVP, Digital and Emerging Platforms, explains the company's strategy behind these initiatives and why it believes in unification of experiences across devices (TV, online, mobile) is so important. X1 is a major step forward for Comcast as it provides a platform where product/feature cycles are dramatically accelerated from the traditionally cumbersome process of dealing with set-top boxes. X1 is scheduled for release in the Boston area shortly, with a nationwide rollout to follow. As you'll see in the demos, the experience is quite slick and sets a new standard for pay-TV operators.
In the wide-ranging interview, we also discuss how TV Everywhere rollouts are progressing (and the key challenges that persist), Comcast's new C3 measurement project for tablets with Nielsen, how Comcast views the role of programmers' own apps (e.g. HBO GO, WatchESPN) vs. its own XfinityTV app and how it decides which connected devices to support, among other topics. Watch the interview and demo (17 minutes, 22 seconds).
Comcast announced on its blog on Friday that it will indeed authenticate HBO GO for use by subscribers with both Xbox and the Xbox Live service. When Xbox initially announced two weeks ago that it was enabling Comcast's Xfinity TV, MLB.TV and HBO GO apps, Comcast (along with Time Warner Cable and Bright House) subscribers were unable to access HBO GO, because the cable operators weren't authenticating it. For Comcast subscribers, that meant the only HBO programs they could view on their Xbox was via the Xfinity app, which offers far less content. The move set off a vocal protest by Comcast/HBO/Xbox subscribers, including a much-noticed Facebook post by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
I'm pleased to be joined once again by Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group, for the 128th edition of the VideoNuze Report podcast, for April 6, 2012. First up this week we discuss another angle of last week's Xbox video launch - whether Comcast will reverse itself and authenticate HBO GO for its subscribers (as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote openly on Facebook asking Comcast to do). Then we discuss the downturn in March Madness online traffic and the effect of Turner's new paywall.
Last week when Xbox launched a number of new video apps including Comcast's Xfinity, HBO GO and MLB.tv, Comcast made a decision not to authenticate HBO GO for its own subscribers with Xboxes, thereby forcing them to settle for HBO content that's available within its own Xfinity app. As Colin points out, that was a continuation of Comcast's (and other pay-TV operators') policy of not authenticating the HBO GO app for its subscribers using Roku.
A vocal group of Comcast/HBO subscribers with Xbox complained, with Hastings's post getting the most attention. This week, the NY Times reported that Comcast might reverse itself and authenticate HBO GO after all. It's confusing stuff, and Colin and I do our best to explain what might be going on behind the scenes with the balance of power between cable operators and cable networks.
We then discuss news that daily March Madness traffic was down 10% year-over-year, likely attributable to Turner introducing a $3.99 app to view the games for which it had broadcast rights (CBS games were still available online for free). There was a paywall up until a few years ago, when the full tournament went free online, causing an explosion of traffic and ad revenue. Colin and I interpret the new data and its broader implications for TV Everywhere.
(For everyone celebrating holidays, enjoy your weekend!)
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I'm pleased to be joined once again by Colin Dixon, senior partner at The Diffusion Group, for the 127th edition of the VideoNuze Report podcast, for Mar. 30, 2012. First up this week we discuss Comcast's controversial assertion that streams from its Xfinity app running on Xbox won't count against subscribers' 250 gb/month data cap because they're running on Comcast's "private network" (note: Comcast has deleted "private network" references in its Xbox FAQ).
Colin argues strongly that this is an inappropriate policy in that it essentially creates a "fast lane" for Comcast's own traffic, while disadvantaging other video streams - basically the same concern raised by net neutrality advocates. Colin makes compelling points about the shared nature of broadband access and the longer-term implications of a "private network" model. For my part, I'm still curious the use case for the Xfinity Xbox app; unless it's used for TVs where a set-top box isn't present, it feels somewhat redundant to what's already available via Comcast's VOD.
Next we turn our attention to this week's mega-deal for the Dodgers. As I wrote yesterday, I think the deal will lead to even higher Regional Sports Network licensing fees, which in turn means even higher subsidies by non-sports fans to make the deal work. This is a problem throughout the pay-TV world, and the new Dodgers owners are betting non-fans will continue to pay ever-higher rates for sports they don't watch. Colin and I discuss the implications for over-the-top services and the pay-TV multichannel bundle.
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Click here to listen to the podcast (21 minutes, 45 seconds)