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Friday, October 31, 2014

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Analysis for 'Comedy Central'

  • Stewart/O'Reilly Debate Again Shows Potential and Peril of Online Video

    This past Saturday night's "Rumble 2012," a half-serious, half-comedic live-streaming debate between Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly was another great example of online video's potential, but also its peril. Here was a situation where the bustling online video medium provided two of TV's biggest stars an unfettered creative and business opportunity, only to be undermined by technical snafus.

    In case you weren't following this closely, Rumble 2012 was an online-only live-streaming event staged at George Washington University. Even though many viewers registered in advance, paying the $4.95 fee to watch the live-stream - and therefore indicating to the organizers how much server capacity would be required - a last minute server crash left many viewers unable to watch. I don't quite understand why this occurred, as any high-quality CDN would likely have been able to avoid such a problem. Be that as it may, organizers haven't shared any further details.

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  • Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Episodes Available Online Again; Viacom's Moves Are Bewildering

    The Viacom-DirecTV carriage dispute has taken another odd turn, as full, current episodes of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert are once again available at their respective sites and at Hulu. Given that digital distribution and its effect on Viacom's networks' linear ratings is a core issue in the negotiations, and that last week Viacom removed some of its networks' show from the web, the renewed availability of Comedy Central's stars Stewart and Colbert are hard to understand.

    In fact, if you want a good chuckle, see the screen grabs below - when each of last night's episodes play, there is a message across the bottom of the page that reads "DIRECTV HAS DROPPED COMEDY CENTRAL. DON'T MISS YOUR FAVORITE SHOWS. CALL DIRECTV AT 1-800-531-5000." Hello?? I'm not missing my favorite shows - I'm watching them right now online, just above this urgent message! And by the way, I'm getting them for free, just after they originally aired, and fully on-demand. Does this make sense to you? Right, me neither.

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  • Comedy Central Pulls Out of Hulu - Was This Really a Surprise?

    This week brought news that Comedy Central was pulling its programs, including its hits "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report," from Hulu on March 9th. Both had been available on Hulu since the summer of 2008 in what Comedy Central had initially positioned as a test. Both will still be freely available at ComedyCentral.com.

    The Daily Show in particular had been enormously popular on Hulu since launch, so in this respect losing it is a setback for Hulu. Still, Comedy Central's decision should come as a surprise to nobody. As I've been saying since I wrote "The Cable Industry Closes Ranks" in November '08, a bright line is being drawn in the broadband world between programs that consumers currently pay for and those that they don't. The industry is determined make sure the former stay that way and don't leak out onto the free Internet (in this sense, it's actually amazing to me that the Comedy programs are still available for free on its own site, but that's another story).  

    The free ad-only Hulu model is bumping up against the industry's big TV Everywhere push (another effort to maintain the subscription model) and so it was inevitable that Comedy's programs would get pulled. Hulu could make itself more attractive to networks - and open up new opportunities for itself - if it offered a subscription model. This is something I've suggested for some time, however I'm somewhat skeptical that anything will happen on this front until the Comcast-NBCU deal closes. Comcast would then become an approximately 20% owner of Hulu and will surely want to influence its strategic direction.


    What do you think? Post a comment now (no sign-in required).
     
  • Cutting the Cord on Cable: For Most of Us It's Not Happening Any Time Soon

    Two questions I like to ask when I speak to industry groups are, "Raise your hand if you'd be interested in 'cutting the cord' on your cable TV/satellite/telco video service and instead get your TV via broadband only?" and then, "Do you intend to actually cut your cord any time soon?" Invariably, lots of hands go up to the first question and virtually none to the second. (As an experiment, ask yourself these two questions.)

    I thought of these questions over the weekend when I was catching up on some news items recently posted to VideoNuze. One, from the WSJ, "Turn On, Tune Out, Click Here" from Oct 3rd, offered a couple examples of individuals who have indeed cut the cord on cable and how their TV viewing has changed. My guess is that it wasn't easy to find actual cord-cutters to be profiled.

    There are 2 key reasons for this. First it's very difficult to watch broadband video on your TV. There are special purpose boxes (e.g. AppleTV, Vudu, Roku, etc.), but these mainly give access to walled gardens of pre-selected content, that is always for pay. Other devices like Internet-enabled TVs, Xbox 360s and others offer more selection, but are not really mass adoption solutions. Some day most of us will have broadband to the TV; there are just too many companies, with far too much incentive, working on this. But in the short term, this number will remain small.

    The second reason is programming availability. Potential cord-cutters must explicitly know that if they cut their cord they'll still be able to easily access their favorite programs. Broadcasters have wholeheartedly embraced online distribution, giving online access to nearly all their prime-time programs. While that's a positive step, the real issue is that cord-cutters would get only a smattering of their favorite cable programs. Since cable viewing is now at least 50% of all TV viewing (and becoming higher quality all the time, as evidenced by cable's recent Emmy success), this is a real problem.

    To be sure, many of the biggest ad-supported cable networks (MTV, USA, Lifetime, Discovery) are now making full episodes of some of their programs available on their own web sites. But these sites are often a hodgepodge of programming, and there's no explanation offered for why some programs are available while others are not. For example, if you cut the cord and could no longer get Discovery Channel via cable/satellite/telco, you'd only find one program, "Smash Lab" available at Discovery.com. Not an appealing prospect for Discovery fans.

    Then there's the problem of navigation and ease of access. Cutting the cord doesn't mean viewers don't want some type of aggregator to bring their favorite programming together in an easy-to-use experience. Yet full streaming episodes are almost never licensed to today's broadband aggregators. Cable networks are rightfully being cautious about offering full episodes online to aggregators not willing to pay standard carriage fees.

    For example, even at Hulu, arguably the best aggregator of premium programming around, you can find Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." But aside from a few current episodes from FX, SciFi and Fuel plus a couple delayed episodes from USA like "Monk" and "Psych," there's no top cable programming to be found.

    As another data point, I checked the last few weeks of Nielsen's 20 top-rated cable programs and little of this programming is available online either. A key gap for cord-cutters would be sports. At a minimum, they'd be saying goodbye to the baseball playoffs (on TBS) and Monday Night football (on ESPN). In reality, sports is the strongest long-term firewall against broadband-only viewing as the economics of big league coverage all but mandate carriage fees from today's distributors to make sense.

    Add it all up and while many may think it's attractive to go broadband only, I see this as a viable option for only a small percentage of mainstream viewers. Only when open broadband to the TV happens big time and if/when cable networks offer more selection will this change.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

     
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  • Inside the Netflix-Starz Play Licensing Deal

    This past Wednesday, Starz, the Liberty Media-owned premium cable network, licensed its "Starz Play" broadband service to Netflix. The three year deal makes all of Starz's 2,500 movies, TV shows and concerts available to Netflix subscribers using its Watch Instantly streaming video feature. Very coincidentally I happened to be at Starz yesterday for an unrelated Liberty meeting, and had a chance to speak to Starz CEO Bob Clasen, who I've known for a while, to learn more.

    On the surface the deal is an eye-opener as it gives a non-cable/telco/satellite operator access to Starz's trove of prime content. As I've written in the past, cable channels, which rely on their traditional distributors for monthly service fees, have been super-sensitive to not antagonizing their best customers when trying to take advantage of new distribution platforms. This deal, which uses broadband-only distribution to reach into the home, no doubt triggers "over-the-top" or "cable bypass" alarm bells with incumbent distributors.

    Then there is the value-add/no extra cost nature of Netflix's Watch Instantly feature. That there is no extra charge to subscribers for Starz's premium content (as there typically is when subscribing to Starz through cable for example) raises the question of whether Starz might have given better pricing to Netflix to get this deal done than it has to its other distributors.

    But Bob is quick to point out that in reality, the Netflix deal is a continuation of Starz's ongoing push into broadband delivery begun several years ago with its original RealNetworks deal and continued recently with Vongo. To Starz, Netflix is another "affiliate" or distributor, which, given its tiny current online footprint does not pose meaningful competition to incumbent distributors. With only about 17 million out of a total 100 million+ U.S. homes subscribing to Starz, broadband partnerships are seen as a sizable growth opportunity by the company.

    Further, Starz has been aggressively pitching online deals to cable operators and telcos for a while now, though only the latter has bit so far (Verizon's FiOS is an announced customer). Cable operators seem interested in the online rights, but have been reluctant to pay extra for them as Starz requires.

    Bob also noted that Starz's wholesale pricing was protected in its Netflix deal, and that for obvious reasons of not hurting its own profitability, Starz has strong incentives to preserve incumbent deal terms in all of its new platform deals.

    To me, all of this adds up to at least a few things. First is that Netflix must be paying up in a big way to license Starz Play. I assume this is an obvious recognition by Netflix that it needed more content to make Watch Instantly more compelling (see also Netflix's recent Disney Channel and CBS deals). Since it's not charging subscribers extra, Netflix is making a bet that over time - and aided by its Roku and other broadband-to-the-TV devices - Watch Instantly will succeed and as a result, will drive down its costs by reducing the number of DVDs the company needs to buy and ship. That seems like a smart long-term bet as the broadband era unfolds.

    And while I agree that Starz Play on Netflix doesn't represent real competition to cable, telco and satellite outlets today, it's hard not to see it as a signal that traditional distributors are losing their hegemony in premium video distribution. (for another example of this, see Comedy Central's licensing of Daily Show and Colbert to Hulu). As I've said for a while, over the long term, the inevitability of broadband all the way to the TV portends significant disruption to current distribution models. I see Netflix at the forefront of this disruptive process.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.

     
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  • June '08 VideoNuze Recap - 3 Key Topics

    Wrapping up a busy June, I'd like to quickly recap 3 key topics covered in VideoNuze:

    1. Execution matters as much as strategy

    I've been mindful since the launch of VideoNuze to not just focus on big strategic shifts in the industry, but also on the important role of execution. I'm not planning to get too far into the tactical weeds, but I do intend to show examples where possible of how successful execution can make a difference. This month, in 2 posts comparing and contrasting Hulu and Fancast (here and here) I tried to constructively show how a nimble upstart can get a toehold against an entrenched incumbent by getting things right.

    While great execution is a key to successful online businesses, it may sometimes feel pretty mundane. For example, in "Jacob's Pillow Uses Video to Enhance Customer Experience" I shared an example of an arts organization has begun including video samples of upcoming performances on its web site, improving the user experience and no doubt enhancing ticket sales. A small touch with a big reward. And in this post about the analytics firm Visible Measures, I tried to explain how rigorous tracking can enhance programming and product decisions. I'll continue to find examples of where execution has had an impact, whether positive or negative.

    2. Cable TV industry impacted by broadband

    As many of you know, I believe the cable TV industry is a crucial element of the broadband video industry. Cable operators now provide tens of millions of consumer broadband connections. And cable networks have become active in delivering their programs and clips via broadband. Yet the broadband's relationships with operators and networks are complex, presenting a range of opportunities and challenges.

    On the opportunities side, in "Cable's Subscriber Fees Matter, A Lot," I explained how the monthly sub fees that networks collect put them on a firm financial footing for weathering broadband's changes and an advantageous position compared to broadband content startups which must survive solely on ads. Further, syndication is offering new distribution opportunities, as evidenced by Scripps Networks syndication deal with AOL in May and Comedy Central's syndication of Daily Show and Colbert Report to Hulu and Adobe. Yet cable networks are challenged to exploit broadband's new opportunities while not antagonizing their traditional distributors.

    For operators, though broadband access provides billions in monthly revenues, broadband is ultimately going to challenge their traditional video subscription business. In "Video Aggregators Have Raised $366+ Million to Date," I itemized the torrent of money that's flowed into the broadband aggregation space, with players ultimately vying for a piece of cable's aggregation revenue. These and other companies are working hard to change the video industry's value chain. There will be a lot more news from them yet to come.

    3. Video publishing/management platforms continue to evolve

    Lastly, I continued covering the all-important video content publishing/management platform space this month, with product updates from PermissionTV, Brightcove and Entriq/Dayport. Yesterday, in introducing Delve Networks, another new player, I included a chart of all the companies in this space. I put a significant emphasis on this area because it is a key building block to making the broadband video industry work.

    These companies are jostling with each other to provide the tools that content providers need to deliver and optimize the broadband experience. The competitive dynamic between these companies is very blurry though, with each emphasizing different features and capabilities. Nonetheless, each seems to be winning a share of the expanding market. I'll continue covering this segment of the industry as it evolves.

    That's it for June; I have lots more good stuff planned for July!

     
  • The Incredibly Growing YouTube

    Closing out the week, I missed this blurb from Information Week yesterday reporting YouTube's staggering dominance of broadband video traffic. New numbers out from Hitwise show that in May '08 YouTube garnered 75% of the 10 million visits to 63 video sites that Hitwise is tracking. That's 9 times the traffic of #2 MySpaceTV and more than 20 times that of the #3 site which is Google's other video property (remember it?)

    According to Hitwise YouTube's share rose 26% from a year ago compared with drops by all the others in the top 5 sites except Veoh, which rose by 32% from a year ago.

    It's just mind-boggling to think that one site could have such market share, particularly when a lot of the networks' programs cannot be found there. I think it speaks to how strong users' appetites are for UGC and viral content remain, how YouTube has become a de facto video platform for lots of smaller players in the industry (and consumers) and how the company is likely beginning to enjoy some early success with its partners' channels.

    A few months ago, in "YouTube: Over-the-Top's Best Friend" I wrote that YouTube is quickly becoming the perfect ally for all those makers of new broadband-to-the-TV devices. These companies desperately need content and credible brands to help pull through consumer demand. YouTube offers both. In this sense, YouTube has huge value yet to be tapped (of course demonstrating that it can monetize its massive audience wouldn't hurt its partnership value...)

    However, looked at another way, YouTube's success should be very encouraging to other players. To start with, YouTube is doing a marvelous job educating the world about the virtues of broadband video. And while YouTube is the market's 800 pound gorilla, it is still leaving key opportunities open for other players to differentiate themselves. Potential areas include high-quality delivery, ad-based and paid monetization and offering content that YouTube simply doesn't have (examples: Comedy Central programs like "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report")

    Volumes are yet to be written about YouTube. Whether it turns its market-leading traffic into a financially-explosive franchise or forever remains a red-ink spewing blip on Google's P&L is yet to be seen. Either way, when the history of broadband video is written, YouTube will be featured prominently.

     
  • Hulu Out-Executing Comcast in On-Demand Programming?

    The crew over at Hulu must be gleefully fist-bumping each other this week as Hulu scored a key strategic and public relations coup in adding to its lineup two of Comedy Central's most popular programs, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." Though officially positioned as a test, Hulu still deserves big-time kudos as the deal is an endorsement of its value proposition.

    The deal and Hulu's execution illustrate a larger point that I've been making for a while: one of broadband's three key disruptions is that it enables new aggregators to gain an edge on larger incumbents by changing the dynamics of competition. To be more specific, in this case, I think that Hulu has out-executed Comcast, America's #1 cable operator by delivering new value to consumers and gaining important PR momentum. Here's why:

    Fancast, which is Comcast's online portal (in beta), actually announced a deal with Comedy Central back on May 19th for access to these same programs and others. Yet go to Fancast and search for "Daily Show" and, as shown below, you won't find any Daily Show full episodes available, just an assortment of short clips and times when it's on TV. A Comcast spokesperson told me that Comcast's implementation is imminent, but its delay in getting the programs up and running is accentuated when you consider that Comedy Central must have done its distribution deal with Fancast BEFORE its deal with Hulu.

     

    Second, and more concerning is that, as a Comcast digital subscriber, when I tried to find The Daily Show and Colbert in Comcast's VOD menu, all that is available are five older Colbert clips and 1 older Daily Show clip. My guess is these haven't been updated in a while. No full-length Daily Show or Colbert programs are available at all in VOD.

     

    While the Comcast spokesperson told me that the company works closely with its programming partners like Viacom to figure out the optimal mix of programming to make available on VOD, I think an unavoidable conclusion here is that Comcast (and other cable operators) is constrained by its inability to monetize VOD programming with advertising (what this week's "Project Canoe" is meant to address) and to easily add new programming on the VOD menu. These programming gaps create opportunities for upstarts like Hulu to capitalize on.

    It may be unfair to zero in so narrowly on Comcast's execution with Daily Show/Colbert, yet things weren't much different when I searched for MTV's popular "The Hills" on Hulu, Fancast and Comcast's VOD. While Hulu doesn't appear to have a deal for full episodes of "The Hills" it masks this cleverly by providing thumbail images and easy navigation back to MTV's site where the video lives, for over 50 episodes (this is tactic Hulu uses for ABC's shows as well). On the other hand, Fancast displays just 5 full episodes, 2 from this season and 3 from last. And on VOD there are also just 5 episodes, though all from this season.

    I think it's pretty significant that Hulu, a site that only went live 3 months ago can not only gain access to hit Comedy Central programs like Daily Show/Colbert, but can execute quickly. Hulu is using its advantages - flexible technologies, interactive features (clipping, embedding, sharing), monetization capability, savvy PR and startup pluck to compete with far-larger incumbents like Comcast.

    Of course Comcast racks up billions of VOD views each year and has vast resources, making it an important player in on-demand programming. Yet Hulu has managed to make Comcast's advantages look a little less intimidating. I asked the Comcast spokesperson about this. She acknowledged Hulu's progress, but maintained that Comcast believes its mulit-platform approach is stronger.

    In the big picture that's true, but when it comes to winning consumers' hearts and minds, it's often execution, not broad strategy that carries the day. And don't forget, when Hulu is unshackled from the PC - with its content freely riding Comcast's broadband pipes all the way to the TV - execution will matter even more.

    This week Hulu provided a textbook example of how broadband-only aggregators can gain a foothold against well-established incumbents. Comcast and other incumbents should be taking notice and getting their game on.

    What do think? Post a comment and let everyone know!

     
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  • How to Monetize a Video Archive? XONtv and Gotuit Show the Way.

    I'm very jazzed about an initiative being announced this morning by XONtv.tv and Gotuit Media Corp available at http://www.xontv.tv/(Xtreme Outdoor Network, a broadband programmer).

    If you're sitting on a video archive and looking to monetize it more fully with an immersive broadband user experience, it's well worth checking out.

    I have been very bullish on broadband's ability to create libraries of searchable segments carved out of longer-form programming. That's one of the reasons I was excited about Comedy Central's recent launch of TheDailyShow.com, which is packed with 19,000 clips from all of the show's episodes. However, Comedy Central 'fessed up that it took a team of 16 working double shifts over many months to create the site's clip library. This labor intensity shows that monetizing an archive has been a non-trivial pursuit.

    And that's where Gotuit's solution comes in. Yesterday I got an update from Patrick Donovan, their VP of Marketing, about the XONtv deal.

    First, to understand Gotuit (to which I am a minor advisor), the company has created an indexing work flow platform that allows entry-level staffers to quickly churn out clips using metadata guidelines developed by the specific content provider. Each segment has a title, a text description, a series of customizable preset attributes (or tags), thumbnails and time-code start/stop points.

    One thing that's critical to understand is that Gotuit-powered clips are really "virtual clips." When a user accesses a clip, the Gotuit platform is making an XML call to the CDN to begin streaming from the original video file at the time-code starting point. So no new tangible clip asset has actually been created in the Gotuit workflow. That means that unlike TheDailyShow.com, which now has 19,000 new assets to manage (likely created using standard video editing software), with Gotuit, there are new no "assets", just files with metadata descriptors. Needless to say, this approach drastically simplifies ongoing management, especially for content providers with vast libraries. By following the metadata guidelines, playlists can be created which allow multiple entry points into each video segment.

    XOXtv partnered with Gotuit as a service provider, shipping Gotuit 300+ hours of XONtv's video programming. Gotuit took about 1 1/2 weeks to crank out all the clips. At the XONtv site you'll see 13 "channels", each of which is then sub-divided into programs, "episodes" and the segments themselves. All content is in the clear right now, soon XONtv will be pursuing a subscription-based business model.

     

    Other benefits of the Gotuit approach include no buffering, full-screen option, embedding, bandwidth detection and sequential play-out. All of this means a more immersive experience, driving more viewership and value. On the monetization side, Gotuit has integrated with a number of broadband ad management/servers, and obviously offers rich targeting against specific segments otherwise unavailable. Alternatively, as XONtv intends, paid models are also supported.

    Gotuit can work as a service bureau for the content provider or license the platform and let the content provider use their own resources to index their video. (I happen to believe this would be a perfect off-shore project, with the right training). In either service bureau or license model Gouit charges an ongoing platform fee plus usage fees tied usually tied to video consumption. Beyond XONtv, Gotuit has announced deals with Fox Reality, SI.com, NHL.com and others.

    The XONtv implementation is a great reminder of how broadband enables deeper user engagement, business model flexibility and re-use opportunities never before possible. Wrap a robust social/community-building suite around this and the value proposition for content providers becomes even stronger.

     
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  • Dailyshow.com: Third-Party Distribution Isn't an Either/Or Decision

    First things first, congrats to the folks at MTVN, Comedy Central and The Daily Show. The newly unveiled Dailyshow.com is fabulous. It is the best TV program-centric web site I have yet seen. As a long-time Jon Stewart fan, being able to see all the old clips is nirvana, and will no doubt send fans over the moon.

    However, a bigger picture question that Dailyshow.com's launch raises is how these direct-to-consumer initiatives work vis-a-vis third-party distribution deals. With media companies newly empowered to engage directly with their audiences using the Internet and broadband, many analysts have predicted the result will be diminishing relevance of third-party aggregators, including everyone from Comcast to Yahoo to Joost to you name 'em.

    It's pretty apparent that MTVN/Comedy Central is coming down on the side of heavily emphasizing direct-to-consumer as its broadband video strategy when you combine Viacom's ongoing lawsuit against Google/YouTube, MTVN EVP Erik Flannigan's comment ("People should be reacting to 'The Daily Show' on its own site...God bless them for doing it everywhere else, but this should be the epicenter of it") and a company spokesman's comment ("that a few selected clips could become available on sites through syndication deals").

    Count me among those who think this is both the wrong approach and one that will ultimately under-optimize the value of the Daily Show and other franchises in the broadband era. Quite simply, building out a strong direct-to-consumer presence like Dailyshow.com is NOT an either/or decision relative to also developing strong third-party distribution relationships.

    In fact, the reality is that strong third-party distribution is essential in the Internet era, because Internet usage is both highly distributed among millions of web sites and also concentrated at a few large portals. Media companies' goal should be to proliferate their content (under the right deals of course) into all the nooks and crannies of the Internet while also striking deals with big portals to maximize exposure, usage and ad revenue.

    But don't think distributors get a free ride in the Internet era. They need to prove they can leverage their audience devotion and traffic to drive value for content providers. Those that do will succeed. Proof of this is already emerging. One senior broadband executive recently told me that over 80% of his traffic comes from YouTube and other distribution partners, with his own site's traffic in the minority.

    Not aggressively pursuing third-party distribution, as it appears is MTVN's plan, in essence requires that users reorient their behavior to come solely to one uber destination site like Dailyshow.com. To me this smacks of classic traditional media thinking where consumer convenience or preference gets short shrift in the name of what's supposedly "best" for the brand. My guess is if you asked Jon Stewart off the record what his preference is, he'd likely say, "make my stuff available everywhere!"

    So kudos to the folks behind Dailyshow.com. But don't let your good works end now. Go out and find the best third-party distributors you can and let them help you extend the Daily Show franchise even further.

     
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