As stay at home guidelines remain in place, it seems like more and more free TV and video are being made available, spanning the short and long ends of the tail (meaning super-premium through user-generated) - and everything in between. Not only does this create more choices for viewers, which will be welcomed, it also means more competition for subscription video services which were already vulnerable to belt-tightening. And for free TV/video that is ad-supported, it means more inventory and choices for advertisers.
Here’s what’s caught my eye just in the past week:
While in LA this week, I caught up with Phil Wiser, Sezmi's president and co-founder and got another good look at the Sezmi service, which just officially launched in the entire LA market with Best Buy. I've been covering Sezmi for over 3 years, and from a technical and product standpoint, I continue to be impressed with what it has accomplished, especially for a 1.0 launch. Out-of-the box set up is very straightforward and a series of intuitive menus quickly creates a personalized user profile complete with recommended shows based on your interests and selections from linear and on-demand channels.
Sezmi gained my attention early on because unlike other broadband-only devices (e.g. Roku, Vudu, ZillionTV, AppleTV, gaming consoles, etc.), Sezmi's goal has always been to become a full replacement for existing multichannel video programming distributors ("MVPDs"). That "boil the ocean" strategy has required it to develop its own hybrid broadcast/broadband content delivery system, sign up local broadcasters for access to their bandwidth, ink carriage deals with cable networks and design the user experience from scratch, among other things. Having done much of that work (with a key exception being to still get the remaining cable channels from Disney/ESPN, Fox, Scripps and A&E into the line-up), Sezmi's next challenge is to actually market the service and add subscribers cost-effectively. This could well prove to be Sezmi's biggest challenge.
The market for multichannel video subscriptions has never been more competitive than it is today. Deep-pocketed cable operators, satellite operators and telcos (and in some places 3rd party "overbuilders" like RCN) are beating the hell out of each other in many U.S. geographies. For example, here in the Boston area we're bombarded daily with ads on radio, in newspapers, in direct mail, through door-hangers and other means, to switch providers. While there are a lot of noisy promotional offers, there are plenty of product and technology-based pitches as well - more HD channels, faster broadband speeds, better VOD and so on. The "triple play" bundle of video, voice and data is a significant marketing lever. I don't know what the marketing cost per acquired customer is for Comcast or Verizon these days, but I have no doubt it has never been higher.
This is battleground that Sezmi is now entering after nearly four years of development. Many people are skeptical about Sezmi's odds of success (read TDG president Michael Greeson's well-done piece from last week for a rundown of the issues), at least as Sezmi is currently configured. Some of these concerns are very valid, in particular Sezmi's $299 upfront equipment fee (which is pretty much unique in the industry), its currently incomplete channel lineup (note also that HBO, Showtime and Starz are also not available) and the $20/mo rate which is marginally better than alternatives (but is likely to increase anyway as more channels and especially expensive ones like ESPN are added).
No question, Sezmi faces a steep marketing challenge. Still, I believe there are reasons for optimism. First, as Sezmi has said many times, it is not a box company and Best Buy isn't its only route to market. It plans deals with telco and ISP partners who will not only bundle its pricing but also erase the upfront charge through a rental model. The rental could be very aggressive depending on the partner's goals, opening up more pricing competitiveness for Sezmi. Second, Sezmi's user interface and certain product features are very compelling differentiators. Granted, incumbent MVPDs are not standing still (see Cablevision's "Media Relay" announcement just yesterday), but the fact that Sezmi owns its whole system from end to end gives it more control and flexibility to enhance the product (for example in VOD it is not relying on traditional vendors).
Lastly, and I'll admit this is where things get fuzzy, but I do think there's a segment of existing MVPD customers who hunger for something new, better and lower cost than is currently available. I've made the analogy for Sezmi to what JetBlue has done in the airline industry and I think that still holds. Depending on how distinctive Sezmi's positioning and messaging is, I think it could really resonate with younger, urban, tech-savvy users. One Sezmi feature alone - access to all YouTube videos - is a totally new value proposition. Phil and I quickly searched YouTube yesterday for "Alec Baldwin Hulu Super Bowl Ad" and in seconds there it was. Can any other MVPD offer that today?
There are plenty of reasons to discount Sezmi's chances of success, but I think that's premature thinking, especially given how dynamic the video landscape is today. But even if Sezmi doesn't thread the needle and fully surmount the marketing challenges ahead, the company still has a lot of value in its technology and products. If Vudu fetched a reported $100 million from Wal-Mart, and Sling got $380 million from DISH as announced a couple years ago, then there should be a palatable financial exit in store for Sezmi as well, even with $75 million or so invested to date. Of course its investors and executives are hoping for far more than just a "palatable" final chapter. The real test of what's in store for Sezmi is just now beginning.
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One other noteworthy tidbit to come out of Mobile World Congress earlier this week was that Sling Media announced it got final approval from Apple to offer its SlingPlayer Mobile App in the App Store. SlingPlayer had been held up due to network concerns, but 2 weeks ago AT&T announced that it would let the SlingPlayer app stream live over its 3G network.
Though there aren't that many Sling users, and only a subset of them will pay the hefty $29.99 price for the SlingPlayer app, its clearance is a milestone because it truly enables high-quality place-shifting of long-form programming to a mobile device. It also steals some thunder from the FLO TV value proposition and offers a meaningful precedent to others who might like to stream long-form programs to iPhones and other mobile devices down the road (Netflix? Hulu? Amazon?). It's somewhat of a mystery to me how AT&T's overtaxed 3G network can now support long-form video streaming when complaints are still rampant about call quality. I don't have an iPhone or a Sling box, but if a VideoNuze reader does, and downloads the SlingPlayer app, I would be very interested in hearing about your viewing experience.
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Late yesterday YouTube announced "a new destination for TV shows and an improved destination for movies," moves that continue the site's evolution from its UGC/video sharing roots to an aggregator of premium-quality video.
The reality is that this evolution has been underway for some time now, and I expect it will only continue. Two weeks ago in "6 Reasons Why the Disney-YouTube Deal Matters" I explained again why, as the 8,000 pound gorilla of the online video market, YouTube is in an excellent position to partner with premium content providers. In a media landscape marked by massive audience fragmentation, the online destination (YouTube) that accounts for 40-50% of all streams and is 15 times as big as the #2 destination (Hulu) is quite simply a must-have promotion and distribution partner.
The new destinations address what has been an ongoing Achilles' heel for the site - enabling users to easily find premium video "needles" in YouTube's user-generated "haystack." YouTube's UI weaknesses for premium video have been highlighted by the gold-plated user experience Hulu - and more recently TV.com and Sling.com - have brought to market. The sites have quickly gained passionate fans, and at least in the case of Hulu, significant viewership.
From a design perspective, while there's nothing I would call truly breakthrough about YouTube's premium destinations, they are still a step forward and a solid start. For users solely interested in premium content, they help organize things nicely. There's a decent selection of content, including titles from deals with MGM, BBC, CBS, Crackle and Lionsgate and lots of other partners, which will no doubt continue to grow.
Possibly more important though, is that for content providers they show how YouTube is serious about addressing their needs for clean, well-lit spaces. Premium content providers want the benefits of being in the massive YouTube site, but without the risk of their brands showing up too close to scruffy UGC material. Being clustered with other premium content is a must.
YouTube's concurrent beta launch of Google TV Ads Online, which allows targeted instream ads, is another positive for premium content providers. Beyond YouTube's massive traffic, Google's potent monetization capabilities are the other reason I've been so bullish on YouTube's prospects for premium content. As I wrote on Monday, with increased DVR penetration driving rampant ad-skipping, broadcast and cable's traditional ad model is looking more and more defunct. Online video ads offer a lot of promise as an even higher value ad medium, but much of it is still unproven. Having large players like Google and YouTube involved is significant for showing online video advertising's true upside.
One last take on this is how YouTube continues to position itself in the "over-the-top" sweepstakes, where multiple competitors are vying to be viewed as bona fide substitutes for cable/satellite/telco subscribers itching to cut the cord. I remain skeptical that the trickle of cord-cutters is going to turn into a gusher any time soon, but I will say that with its move up the content ladder, YouTube continues to burnish its standing as a must-have partner for any convergence device-maker looking to make over-the-top inroads (e.g. Roku, Vudu, AppleTV, etc.). YouTube is the most-recognized online video brand, the most-heavily trafficked, and increasingly a credible alternative to premium aggregators like Hulu and others.
For everyone in the online video ecosystem, YouTube continues to be a key player to watch.
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Does the world need another broadband video aggregation site for premium quality video content?
The answer to that question will start to come early next week when Sling.com, the latest entrant in this already crowded space, officially launches. Recently Jason Hirschhorn, president of Sling Media's entertainment group and Brian Jaquet, Sling's Director of Public Relations came through Boston and caught me up on their plans to launch commercially on Nov. 24th.
Many of you know that Sling is the maker of the Slingbox, which connects to your TV or DVR, allowing you to remotely watch programs on your computer. It's a very clever product, though I have to admit its use case has always been a little confounding to me. Nonetheless, just over a year ago, Sling was acquired by EchoStar in a $380 million deal. Shortly thereafter, EchoStar split itself into two parts, Dish Network, the satellite-delivered programming company, and EchoStar Corporation, which includes Sling and other technology-based businesses.
Sling.com, developed by Jason's entertainment group, is the first Sling offering not tethered to any of its devices and therefore open to all users. Acknowledging that Hulu has set a high bar on user experience, Jason explained that Sling.com is attempting to go one step further on usability, and will also differentiate itself with updated social networking capabilities and highly focused editorial content.
In particular, Sling.com offers a slew of Facebook-like features that allow users to subscribe to and favorite programs and networks, with users in turn able to follow these activities. As Jason aptly put it, the goal is to "digitize the water cooler conversation." The whole experience is geared toward engaging the user at a far deeper level than we're accustomed to in passive linear viewing, or even typical at other aggregators' sites.
The real differentiator for Sling long-term though is the integration of Sling.com with the remote viewing offered by Slingbox. Enabled by a new web-based player (instead of the prior downloadable client), users are able to seamlessly browse back and forth between watching live TV and cataloged programs, as shown below.
Taking this one step further, Sling's goal is to get its remote viewing technology embedded in others' set-top boxes as well. So for example, a Comcast STB with Sling inside would allow you to have live TV integrated into your Sling.com, without having to go buy another box.
That's an enticing prospect, but making it happen will be no small feat; the STB giants like Motorola and SA (now part of Cisco) will get on board only when their biggest customers - America's cable operators - ask for it. The prospect of these cable executives wanting to incorporate any technology controlled by Charlie Ergen, Echo's founder/CEO and the cable industry's arch-enemy, stretches my mind. However, stranger deals have been done, so who knows. In the meantime, there are a whole lot of other non-cable homes globally Sling can address first.
But much of that is down the road anyway. For now, Sling.com is going to compete head on with Hulu (which by my count supplies virtually the entire current movie catalog at Sling.com, in turn begging the question of how many different ways one relatively small ad revenue stream can get carved up?), Fancast, the portal sites, YouTube and so on. Jason readily admits that these sites will not compete on content exclusivity; ultimately they'll all have access to everything that's available.
So in this incredibly crowded space, is there room for a newcomer? On the surface, it's tempting to say "no." But history teaches us that "better mousetraps" can elbow their way into even the most crowded spaces. Remember how many search engines already existed when Google burst onto the scene? On a totally different level, I can relate to this challenge myself. A year ago I wondered whether there was room for a new broadband video-centric blog when so many others already existed; now here we are.
The reality is that newcomers succeed because they don't accept the status quo as final. Rather, they find smart ways of delivering new and better value to customers who didn't necessarily even know what they wanted, but when they got it, were delighted. That's Sling.com's challenge. Whether it can meet it remains to be seen. But in this crummy economy, their deep-pocketed backing certainly gives them a leg up on any VC-funded competitors when it comes to long-term staying power.
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