Yesterday VideoNuze hosted a breakfast at the annual CTAM Summit where I moderated a discussion titled, "How Cable Succeeds in the Broadband Video Era." Panelists included Ian Blaine, CEO, thePlatform, Rebecca Glashow, SVP, Digital Media Distribution, Discovery Communications, Bruce Leichtman, President & Principal Analyst, Leichtman Research Group and Chuck Seiber, VP, Marketing, Roku. Following are some of my observations from the discussion.
Against a backdrop of rapidly rising broadband video consumption, cable operators and networks are trying to strike a balance between preserving their traditional, and highly profitable business model, while still keeping pace with consumers' desire for more flexible and on-demand viewing options. A nagging question is whether full-length cable programs should be made available online for free, solely supported by advertising (the Hulu model), or if the cable industry's dual subscription/advertising model should be extended online (the TV Everywhere concept).
On the panel, Rebecca likely reflected many cable networks' current thoughts, saying, "We are in an ecosystem with our distribution partners that works....It (the free model) is going to kill all of our business; it's certainly going to kill our ability to produce high quality programming." These sentiments echo concerns I've raised about the viability of ad-supported long-form video. Even as Rebecca was critical of the free model, she noted that Discovery is taking a measured approach to TV Everywhere.
Chief among Rebecca's concerns regarding TV Everywhere is the need to accurately measure online viewership, crucial for ensuring that if viewership were to shift to online, that Discovery's ratings would not be hurt in the process. As Rebecca further pointed out, measurement issues have limited the appeal of cable operators' Video-on-Demand offerings.
Bruce went a step further to suggest that cable operators should learn from VOD's shortcomings when crafting their TV Everywhere plans. Bruce said that VOD rollouts "were led by engineers on a node-by-node basis" when they should have been led by marketers, and that "some operators introduced VOD only with trepidation." He believes that the problems that VOD had in the early days, "are still impacting consumers' perception of the on-demand platform."
Another VOD lesson I would add is that operators must also make TV Everywhere monetizable for their content partners. VOD has suffered significantly from operators not investing in dynamic ad-insertion capabilities, making VOD a marginal opportunity for ad-supported cable networks. A day earlier on another CTAM Summit panel, Steve Burke, Comcast's COO highlighted the fact that Comcast is now generating 300 million VOD sessions/month. But he also noted that Comcast has only just launched a dynamic ad-insertion capability, and in just one of its operations. It continues to bewilder me why Comcast wasn't investing in dynamic ad insertion when it was doing 10 million VOD sessions/month, years ago. How much further along might the VOD platform be, had robust advertising been possible?
As a result, it's fair to wonder whether operators will invest in TV Everywhere sufficiently to make it attractive as a new distribution platform, or alternatively will leave critical components unresolved as they've done with VOD. The answer could well determine whether TV Everywhere is a killer app (as I believe it has the potential to be) or if just becomes a half-baked nice-to-have for consumers and content providers alike. For Comcast at least, thePlatform and other technologies are important building blocks to success. As Ian pointed out, the key is being able to "quickly ascertain" the networks and programs that subscribers should have access to, a challenge that gets more complicated as content available through TV Everywhere-type offerings grows over time.
If cable doesn't get TV Everywhere quite right another implication is that certain gaps in consumers' experiences will persist - gaps that companies like Roku are seeking to fill with video they're bringing into the home solely over broadband connections. Today the $99 Roku device offers users the ability stream Netflix, Amazon and MLB video. It's tempting to see Roku as a potential cable competitor down the road, yet Chuck was quick to clarify that Roku sees itself as augmenting the cable experience, not supplanting it. In fact, he added that Roku is talking to cable operators about how it can partner with Roku to extend their viewer experiences.
Coming away from the session I'm reminded that while broadband is causing significant shifts in consumer behavior and expectations, fully capitalizing on them will take time as business requirements and technologies evolve.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
(Note: Steve Donohue contributed to this post.)