• YouTube Movie Rentals: An Intriguing But Dubious Idea

    Last week the WSJ broke the news that YouTube is in talks with Lionsgate, Sony, MGM and Warner Bros. about launching streaming movie rentals. On the surface this is an intriguing proposition: the 800 pound gorilla of the online video world tantalizing Hollywood with its massive audience and promotional reach. However, when you dig a little deeper, I believe it's a dubious distraction for YouTube, which is still trying to prove that it can make its ad model work.

    I appreciate all the possible reasons YouTube is eyeing movie rentals. To evolve from its UGC roots, the company has been anxious for more premium content to monetize. But with Hulu locking up exclusive access to ABC, Fox and NBC shows for at least the next year and a half or longer, full-length broadcast TV shows are largely unavailable. And now TV Everywhere threatens to foreclose access to cable TV programs. All this makes movies even more attractive.

    Then there's Google's uber mission to organize the world's information. YouTube executives are savvy enough to know that not all content can be delivered solely on an ad-supported basis - not yet nor possibly ever (for more about the challenges of effectively monetizing broadcast TV shows, let alone movies, see my prior posts on Hulu). To succeed in gaining access to certain content, offering a commerce model is ultimately essential. Since YouTube has already put in place some key commerce-oriented infrastructure pieces like download-to-own and click-to-buy, rolling out a rental option is less of a stretch. Lastly, YouTube can position itself to Hollywood as a more flexible partner and viable alternative to Apple's iTunes.

    Regardless, YouTube movie rentals are still a dubious idea for at least 3 reasons: they're a distraction from YouTube's as yet unproven ad model, there are too many competitors and too little opportunity to differentiate itself and the revenue opportunity is relatively small.

    Focus on getting the ad model working right - Given its market-leading 40% share of all online video streams, I've long believed that YouTube is the best-positioned company to make the online video ad model work. YouTube has made solid progress adding premium content to the site that it can monetize, but it still has a lot of work ahead to make its ads profitable. As I wrote in June, Google's own senior management cannot yet clearly articulate YouTube's financial performance, causing many in the industry to worry about YouTube's sustainability. Some might assert that YouTube can keep tweaking the ad model while also rolling out rentals but I disagree. With the ongoing ad spending depression, YouTube must stay laser-focused on making its ad model work, and also on communicating its success.

    Too many competitors, too little differentiation - It's hard to believe the world really needs another online option for accessing movies, and mainly older ones at that. There's Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, Amazon, Xbox and soon cable, satellite and telcos rolling out movies on TV Everywhere, just to name a few. Maybe YouTube has some secret differentiator up its sleeve, but I doubt it. Rather, it will be just one more comparably-priced option for consumers. And in some ways it will actually be inferior. For example, unlike Netflix and Amazon, YouTube's browser-centric approach means watching movies on YouTube will remain a suboptimal, computer-based experience. Unless YouTube is willing to pay up big-time, there's also no reason to believe it will get Hollywood product any earlier than proven services like Netflix and iTunes.

    Revenue upside is small - It's hard to estimate how many movie rentals YouTube could generate, but here's one swag, which shows how limited the revenue opportunity likely is. Let's say YouTube ramped up to .5% of its 120M+ monthly U.S. viewers (assuming it had U.S. rights only to start) renting 1 movie per week (not a trivial assumption considering virtually none of YouTube's users have ever spent a dime on the site and there are plenty of existing online movie alternatives). YouTube's revenue would be 600K rentals/week x $4/movie (assumed price) x 30% (YouTube's likely revenue share) = $720K/week. For the full year it would be $37.4M. With YouTube's 2009 revenue estimates in the $300M range, that's about 12% of revenue. Nothing to sneeze at, but not world-beating either, especially as compared to YouTube's massive advertising opportunity.

    Given these considerations, I contend that YouTube would be far better off trying to become the dominant player in online video advertising, replicating Google's success in online advertising. Like all other companies, YouTube has finite resources and corporate attention - it should focus where it can become a true leader. There's enough quality content and brands willing to partner with YouTube on an ad-supported basis to keep the company plenty busy, and on the road to eventual financial success.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.