• More Questions than Answers at Digital Hollywood Spring

    I'm just back from a couple days at Digital Hollywood Spring, one of the broadband industry's leading conferences. A key takeaway for me is that there are still many more outstanding questions about the broadband video industry's future - and their implications for other players in related industries - than there are concrete answers.

    Here are 3 big ones worth considering:

    What role will current video distributors play in an increasingly broadband-centric world?

    The subscription video business, dominated by cable and satellite operators, generates approximately $80 billion/year, depending on whose data you use. The model is well-understood, and is a huge part of funding the value chain of cable networks, rights-holders and TV program producers. Bundling ever more channels (50,70,100+) into digital tiers and charging ever-higher prices for them has been a core industry revenue driver.

    Yet data continues to show that out of all those channels, the average household still only watches 5-10 at the most. Couple that with the migration to broadband, DVR and on-demand consumption and one is left with the feeling that there is a significant disconnect between the way video is packaged and priced today with growing consumer expectations and behaviors. Is the current approach sustainable long term or are new players (e.g. Sezmi) going to successfully disrupt the formula? Any major disruption would have significant ripple effects.

    Is the ad-supported business model for broadband video going to deliver for all the content providers relying on it?

    I've been a big supporter of the ad-supported approach for a while and believe in it strongly in the long-term. Yet as I see more and more content providers, aggregators, social networks and others look to it as their primary business model, I'm growing concerned that in the short-term there isn't going to be enough money to go around to support everyone. To be sure, current growth rates are strong, yet at DH many of advertising's big hurdles to reach long-term success were mulled over: achieving scale, standardizing formats, understanding performance metrics, converting media buyers, targeting, proving interactivity's value and so on.

    The efficacy of the broadband ad model online is particularly pressing for broadcasters. Though some research indicates on-air viewership is benefited from online program availability, long-term there can be no question that a substitution effect will take place as viewers decide "do I watch on-air OR online?"

    Jeff Zucker, NBCU's CEO tersely captured the threat this poses in his now often-repeated question "are we trading analog dollars for digital pennies?" In other words, if someone watching an NBC show like The Office on Hulu currently brings NBC far less revenue than if they were watching it on-air, is the migration to broadband viewership actually causing a permanent down-sizing of broadcasters' ad revenue per minute viewed? A scary thought to contemplate.

    What does all this mean for Hollywood?

    Surely less subscription or ad revenue eventually means less money for everyone including the whole Hollywood apparatus that has been funded out of the traditional models. But how, when and to what extent does this play out?

    Further, is the very nature of what's expected of Hollywood changing? Herb Scannell, CEO/founder of Next New Networks asserted in his panel that the current generation of 'auteurs' - multi-skilled and motivated people who can write, direct, produce, act and promote implies a far different role for how Hollywood creates value for itself in the future. In fact, Herb believes that technology-empowered talent is the biggest disruptive force to the traditional Hollywood equation.

    The point was brought home to me in a offsite function I attended in which Bebo, the massive youth-oriented social network (recently sold to AOL for $850 million), outlined its big push into original entertainment (e.g. "KateModern," "Sofia's Diary," etc.). Their expectations of what they, creators and users will be doing to create value are starkly different from the Hollywood model.

    And the questions continue. There are ample reasons to be enthusiastic about broadband video, still, we are living through transformational times impacting every corner of the traditional video value chain. For now many questions loom. Hopefully more answers will be forthcoming soon.

     Do you have any answers? Post a comment and let everyone know!