Thursday, December 18, 2008, 9:13 AM ET|Posted by Will Richmond
"Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't be here next year."
- Professor Charles Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
Professor Kingsfield's famous admonition to incoming Harvard Law School students applies equally well in 2009 to the ad-supported aggregators of premium video. My prediction #4 for the new year is that a shakeout is coming to this space.
As I wrote last summer in "Video Aggregators Have Raised $366+ Million to Date," there has been a lot of enthusiasm around broadband-only aggregators, especially those that focus on premium-quality video. Part of the excitement is based on the idea that they could eventually snatch a chunk of the $100 billion/year that today's cable, satellite and telco video distributors generate. This vision is enhanced by the inevitability of broadband connecting seamlessly to millions of consumers' TVs, enabling a pure on-demand, a-la-carte experience. The result has been many well-funded startups (e.g. Joost, Veoh, Vuze, etc.) as well as offensive/defensive initiatives backed by large media companies (e.g. Hulu, Fancast, portal sites, etc.).
However, ad-supported video aggregators face multiple challenges. First and most is that as their ranks have grown, the audience they're commonly targeting fragments. Not only does this make it hard to achieve scale, it makes it hard to identify meaningful audience differences that advertisers seek when allocating their budgets. The recent economic collapse and ad spending slowdown only exacerbate these audience-related issues.
The next big problem is that it is very difficult for aggregators to differentiate themselves. As with most web sites, there are really two main drivers of differentiation: content and user experience. On the content side, there is a finite amount of premium video available for ad-supported online distribution and there's no such thing as exclusivity (except to some extent with Hulu and its rights to NBC and Fox shows).
Increasingly broadcast programs are available in lots of places online, (starting with the broadcasters' own sites), while cable programs are in short supply (more on why that's the case and why it will stay that way in "The Cable Industry Closes Ranks"). Though there is lots of other quality video being produced, the reality is that once you get away from hit TV shows and recently-released movies (which themselves are not available except as paid downloads), little else has the same audience-driving appeal.
User experience is certainly a bona fide differentiator, and as I have spent time at all these sites, it's evident which sites are better and easier to use than others. But user experience differences are hard to maintain; it's all too easy for one site to emulate what another one does, and with cheap, open technology there are few barriers to doing so. Over time, most of the really important differences melt away (ample evidence of this is found in the ecommerce world, where checkout processes have long since gravitated to a set of best practices).
Another problem is customer acquisition and retention, which is a particular issue for the independent aggregators, who don't have incumbent advantages to leverage. With premium video only coming online relatively recently, users' video search processes are not yet well understood. Suppose someone is looking for a missed episode of Lost and don't want to pay for it. Do they start with a Google search for "Lost?" Or for "ABC?" Or do they reflexively go to ABC.com? Or maybe they're a heavy YouTube user, so they start by heading over to YouTube.com? Still others no doubt start by going to video search sites like blinkx or Truveo. Video aggregators need to insert themselves in the flow of an online user's video search process. But doing effectively is not yet anywhere close to the reasonably well-understood world of web-based optimization techniques.
I believe all of this leads to the inevitable result that not all of today's video aggregators are going to make it to the end of '09. Some will be bought or merged, others will simply close down. You're no doubt wondering which ones I think will fall into these categories. Though I have my hunches, for now I just can't offer an informed answer. There are just too many variables in play: actual performance (which only the sites themselves know), cash burn rates, strength of commitment by investors/owners, etc. What I will say though is that the list of survivors will include at least Hulu and Fancast. Both are highly strategic to their parent companies, have significant financial backing, and enjoy content or feature differentiation that is hard to replicate and/or is valued by users.
The landscape for video aggregators is still pretty wide open, so some winners will emerge. But there are just too many entrants chasing the same prize. I'll be keeping close track of the aggregator space on VideoNuze as '09 unfolds, and will keep you apprised of all developments.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
2009 Prediction #1:The Syndicated Video Economy Accelerates
2009 Prediction #2:Mobile Video Takes Off, Finally
2009 Prediction #3:Net Neutrality Remains Dormant
Tomorrow, 2009 Prediction #5