• In the Digital Era, Disney is Walking to the Beat of its Own Drummer

    Yesterday's WSJ article about Disney's new DRM initiative, dubbed "Keychest" was another sign that in the digital era, Disney keeps walking to the beat of its own drummer. Combine Keychest with Disney CEO Bob Iger's repeated skepticism about TV Everywhere and the need for Disney to receive incremental payments for online distribution and it's not hard to conclude that Disney envisions retaining much more control over how its content is delivered and priced going forward. It's also not hard to conclude that Disney's largest individual shareholder Steve Jobs's influence is being felt in the company's decision-making.

    The Keychest DRM initiative in particular shows a real streak of separatism by Disney given the critical mass that DECE (the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem) has gained. DECE counts among its members multiple studios (Sony, Warner Bros., NBCU, Lionsgate, Fox), technology providers (Microsoft, Intel, Dolby, Philips, HP, Cisco, etc.) and delivery outlets (Comcast, Best Buy). Granted, DECE hasn't shown a whole lot of progress yet, but that's pretty much to be expected when you have this many big players at the table. Still, even getting all these companies to join forces is a hopeful sign of inter-industry collaboration.

    And as the WSJ article underscores, the need to introduce some form of standardized DRM for movies in particular is growing more urgent. DVD sales, the industry's cash cow for years, are off by 25% at certain studios, yet movie downloads don't yet come close to filling the gap. Downloading is not only still a new experience for many, but it introduces key limitations (lack of portability, non-ubiquitous playback and confusing usage rights) that are significant inhibitors for future growth. Let's face it, not a lot of people are going to invest in building downloaded movie libraries when it's difficult or impossible to do something basic like play a movie on 2 different TV sets in their home. Downloading's issues need to be solved quickly if it is going to take off.

    Meanwhile, Disney's posture on TV Everywhere has created real questions about what the company's goals are in online content distribution. VideoNuze readers know that I've been bullish on TV Everywhere because it's a win for the 3 main constituencies - incumbent video providers (cable operators and telcos), cable TV networks and consumers. By forcefully advocating a plan to offer TV Everywhere as a value-add to existing subscribers, with no incremental fees, video providers laid the logical foundation for cable networks not to expect incremental distribution fees ("We're not charging anything extra, so you shouldn't expect to either.").

    From my point of view, rationale cable network executives should be excited with the prospect of TV Everywhere, as it provides them an on-ramp to online distribution (which they've been shut out of to date, given the absence of a sound online business model and fearing a backlash from paying distributors if they offered their content for free streaming) while preserving their incumbent dual revenue-stream approach and expanding their advertising potential.

    Nonetheless, Disney seems unsatisfied. CEO Iger continues to float the idea of incremental payments for online access, even suggesting it will launch its own subscription services. That could mean consumers face the prospect of paying twice for the same content, which is unrealistic even for ESPN's vaunted sports coverage. Disney has seen success with ESPN 360, its premium online service, but it offers distinct content (supplementary pro-sports coverage and niche sports coverage) from its flagship channels. And it should be noted that broadband ISPs pay for 360, not consumers directly.

    I tend to believe we're seeing Steve Jobs's influence behind the scenes with both Keychest and Disney's posture on TV Everywhere. That's pure speculation on my part I'll admit. But "Think Different" is more than a slogan for Jobs and Apple. The company's ability to succeed by pursuing a non-conformist, innovative path (e.g. iPods, iTunes, iPhones, Macs, etc.) in the face of market norms is beyond dispute. Emboldened by Apple's success and understanding the strength of Disney's franchises as an insider suggests Jobs would encourage Disney not to be constrained by nascent industry-wide initiatives. At a minimum Apple provides Disney with a pretty compelling case study of how to succeed by zigging when others are zagging.

    No question, Disney has incredible brands, and is probably in the best position among major content providers to influence how things will unfold in the digital era. And its investment in Hulu shows it is willing (albeit belatedly), to align with joint industry initiatives. Still, its Keychest project and resistance to TV Everywhere raise the possibility that in pursuing its own path it could not only miss out on or delay benefiting from the efforts of others in the industry, but could also be over-reaching with the result being consumer confusion and discontent. Disney holds strong cards, but it needs to be careful how it plays them.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.