Oprah Winfrey's decision last week to voluntarily wrap up her long-running talk show captured the biggest headlines, but a more subtle takeaway message should also be noted: even in the broadband age where content providers can connect directly to their audiences, there's still enormous value in working through distributors who are willing to pay a guaranteed monthly fee to carry a 24/7 linear channel. In this case the channel is new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which is a 50-50 joint venture with Discovery Communications and will be Oprah's main business focus.
OWN is actually taking over the 70 million home (U.S.) carriage that Discovery established for its digital channel Discovery Health Channel which didn't generate much ratings success. This allows OWN to count on an established revenue stream from its distributors before a single program has been put on air or a single ad has been sold. As a result, a portion of the new venture's financial risk is mitigated from the start. Of course there will still be huge pressure on OWN to create programs that have sustainable audience appeal (the bread and butter of all networks, cable or broadcast), but the cushion of those monthly distributor payments cannot be underestimated.
I've said for a long time that the fundamental differentiating aspect of broadband video is that it is the first open video delivery platform. By open I mean that content providers are able to reach their intended audiences without requiring deals with any third party cable operator, satellite operator, telco, cable network, broadcast network, local broadcast TV station, etc. If you're a producer, that's incredibly liberating: just put your video up on a server and online audiences have immediate access to it. YouTube's 10 billion+ monthly streams, many of which are user-generated, attest to how powerful a concept open video delivery is.
Of course the problem is that just because you can produce video and make it available, doesn't mean it has any economic value to an advertiser or to a distributor. By definition distributors only seek to take on products that they believe have value in the retail marketplace. In cable's early days, operators were desperate to differentiate themselves as more than retransmitters of broadcast stations and were willing to take on channels with untested and often quizzical formats: 24 hour news (CNN), music videos (MTV) and low-popularity sports (ESPN), among others. Over time the fees these channels and others command have grown significantly, helping fuel their programming budgets and in turn their audience popularity.
But as anyone who has more recently tried pitching a new cable network to a cable, satellite or telco operator knows, the standards for getting distribution have become insanely high. It's not just that these cable/satellite/telco operators need to keep their costs down because they have limited ability to raise their monthly rates, it's also that they recognize very few new channels can generate bona fide new value in their lineups. This is part of why the few recent channel success are sports-driven startups like the NFL Network or regional sports outlets like the Big Ten Network.
A comparable paid distribution model has not yet developed for broadband video. For a time I believed that sites like Hulu, Joost and Veoh might be able to develop such a model given the amount of capital that each had raised. Only Hulu now has the potential to do so, though there's no indication as yet that it intends to. Absent a paid distribution model, the vast majority of broadband-only video producers are reliant on advertising, just like broadcast TV networks. Some broadband producers are proving that an ad-only model works, yet there's no question a viable paid distribution model would be a tremendous boost for the industry.
Watching Revision3's Tekzilla on TV the other night via Roku, I was reminded that until broadband video is widely available on TVs it will remain hard for any new paid distribution model to take root. That's because consumers will require a comparable living room viewing experience before many of them show a willingness to pay. The good news is that this experience is coming, as millions of TVs will soon have broadband access, either on their own or through a connected device (e.g. Roku, Xbox, Apple TV, etc.). Until then though, the paid distribution model will only be available to Oprah and others with gold-plated appeal.
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