Tuesday, March 24, 2009, 8:02 AM ET|
Everywhere I look there are companies doing innovative, clever things to bring broadband video to the TV and to mobile devices.
Yesterday brought another great example, from Vuze, a company with roots as a BitTorrent client that has evolved to an aggregator of hi-def niche broadband video using its desktop application for discovery, download and playback. Vuze announced an update that enables users to drag-and-drop downloaded videos for playback on non-PC devices such as Xbox, PS3 and - via an integration with iTunes - to the iPhone, Apple TV and iPods. It's a pretty cool extension of the Vuze client experience and I spoke with Vuze's CEO Gilles BianRosa and Sr. Director of Marketing Chris Thun to learn more.
Without getting too far into the technical details, what Vuze has done is capitalized on hooks that have existed in these various devices, making videos downloaded via Vuze visible in these devices' interfaces. As Gilles explained it, these hooks have been available for a while, but only the super-technical would have invested the time and effort to benefit from them.
The connections to Xbox (installed base of 30M) and PS3 (installed base of 23M) are quite complimentary to Vuze, which has 10M unique visitors/mo and about 50M downloads to date, because its content library is heavily skewed toward SciFi, animation, games and comedy (all HD btw) along with its user base. In other words, there's an affinity audience who will immediately benefit from being able to watch Vuze's content on their big screens and on-the-go. In fact, in a recent survey of its users for how they'd want to connect their PCs to TV and mobile, Vuze got 30K responses with a strong emphasis on gaming and Apple devices.
In prior conversations with Gilles I've raised a concern about the viability of Vuze's (or anyone's) client download model given the ever-increasing quality of browser-based streaming. But these integrations do shed new light on the value proposition of having a desktop presence. With its update, Vuze actually goes one step further by automatically transcoding downloaded videos into the format appropriate for the target device, often in real-time, thus eliminating playback issues.
Gilles noted that this is a beta release however, and that one current limitation is that ads cannot be passed through. This is a not insignificant gap for an ad-supported site. Vuze hopes to have ads up and running within a month or so. It also has its eye on integrating with additional devices. My bet is that TiVo is next up given that TiVo founder Mike Ramsey sits on Vuze's board.
For now Vuze's content is relatively nichey and Gilles concedes that despite ongoing negotiations with major studios and TV networks, they're still getting comfortable with Vuze's P2P platform. Given the crowded video aggregator space, Vuze's ongoing challenge is to bolster its content library to broaden its appeal.
But Vuze's new update, sure to mimicked by others, which comes on top of Netflix reporting 1M Watch Instantly users connecting to their Xboxes and consuming 1.5 billion in the first 2 months of its availability, Boxee's multiple integrations and other PC-to-TV convergence initiatives underway, shows the huge pent-up interest users have in watching broadband video on their TVs. The genie is way out of the bottle and content providers need to begin adapting to the coming landscape where video flows between PC, TV and mobile, offering unprecedented convenience to users.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Thursday, December 18, 2008, 9:13 AM ET|
"Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't be here next year."
- Professor Charles Kingsfield, The Paper Chase
Professor Kingsfield's famous admonition to incoming Harvard Law School students applies equally well in 2009 to the ad-supported aggregators of premium video. My prediction #4 for the new year is that a shakeout is coming to this space.
As I wrote last summer in "Video Aggregators Have Raised $366+ Million to Date," there has been a lot of enthusiasm around broadband-only aggregators, especially those that focus on premium-quality video. Part of the excitement is based on the idea that they could eventually snatch a chunk of the $100 billion/year that today's cable, satellite and telco video distributors generate. This vision is enhanced by the inevitability of broadband connecting seamlessly to millions of consumers' TVs, enabling a pure on-demand, a-la-carte experience. The result has been many well-funded startups (e.g. Joost, Veoh, Vuze, etc.) as well as offensive/defensive initiatives backed by large media companies (e.g. Hulu, Fancast, portal sites, etc.).
However, ad-supported video aggregators face multiple challenges. First and most is that as their ranks have grown, the audience they're commonly targeting fragments. Not only does this make it hard to achieve scale, it makes it hard to identify meaningful audience differences that advertisers seek when allocating their budgets. The recent economic collapse and ad spending slowdown only exacerbate these audience-related issues.
The next big problem is that it is very difficult for aggregators to differentiate themselves. As with most web sites, there are really two main drivers of differentiation: content and user experience. On the content side, there is a finite amount of premium video available for ad-supported online distribution and there's no such thing as exclusivity (except to some extent with Hulu and its rights to NBC and Fox shows).
Increasingly broadcast programs are available in lots of places online, (starting with the broadcasters' own sites), while cable programs are in short supply (more on why that's the case and why it will stay that way in "The Cable Industry Closes Ranks"). Though there is lots of other quality video being produced, the reality is that once you get away from hit TV shows and recently-released movies (which themselves are not available except as paid downloads), little else has the same audience-driving appeal.
User experience is certainly a bona fide differentiator, and as I have spent time at all these sites, it's evident which sites are better and easier to use than others. But user experience differences are hard to maintain; it's all too easy for one site to emulate what another one does, and with cheap, open technology there are few barriers to doing so. Over time, most of the really important differences melt away (ample evidence of this is found in the ecommerce world, where checkout processes have long since gravitated to a set of best practices).
Another problem is customer acquisition and retention, which is a particular issue for the independent aggregators, who don't have incumbent advantages to leverage. With premium video only coming online relatively recently, users' video search processes are not yet well understood. Suppose someone is looking for a missed episode of Lost and don't want to pay for it. Do they start with a Google search for "Lost?" Or for "ABC?" Or do they reflexively go to ABC.com? Or maybe they're a heavy YouTube user, so they start by heading over to YouTube.com? Still others no doubt start by going to video search sites like blinkx or Truveo. Video aggregators need to insert themselves in the flow of an online user's video search process. But doing effectively is not yet anywhere close to the reasonably well-understood world of web-based optimization techniques.
I believe all of this leads to the inevitable result that not all of today's video aggregators are going to make it to the end of '09. Some will be bought or merged, others will simply close down. You're no doubt wondering which ones I think will fall into these categories. Though I have my hunches, for now I just can't offer an informed answer. There are just too many variables in play: actual performance (which only the sites themselves know), cash burn rates, strength of commitment by investors/owners, etc. What I will say though is that the list of survivors will include at least Hulu and Fancast. Both are highly strategic to their parent companies, have significant financial backing, and enjoy content or feature differentiation that is hard to replicate and/or is valued by users.
The landscape for video aggregators is still pretty wide open, so some winners will emerge. But there are just too many entrants chasing the same prize. I'll be keeping close track of the aggregator space on VideoNuze as '09 unfolds, and will keep you apprised of all developments.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
2009 Prediction #1:The Syndicated Video Economy Accelerates
2009 Prediction #2:Mobile Video Takes Off, Finally
2009 Prediction #3:Net Neutrality Remains Dormant
Tomorrow, 2009 Prediction #5
Tuesday, February 26, 2008, 10:37 AM ET|
Yesterday I ignored the well-worn admonition that "there are two things you don't want to see made - sausage and legislation," by attending the FCC's open meeting on broadband network management at Harvard Law School. The hearing's purpose was to collect more information regarding "net neutrality" to help the FCC develop policy and recommendations on the subject, with a particular focus on what role the FCC should play in determining what are "reasonable" network management practices. As I've said before, net neutrality is very much driven by the surge in broadband video usage.
I have written two posts on this recently, "Net Neutrality Rears Its Head Again" and "Net Neutrality in 2008? Let's Hope Not," and so my views on the subject are well-known. For today, I just want to offer some quick observations about the FCC's meeting and what this implies about how the fight over net neutrality is likely to play out.
The agenda for the day-long session is here. I stayed until the lunch break, so I got a pretty good flavor for the proceedings. On the policy panel I witnessed, all of the non-Comcast/Verizon panelists were in favor of greater government intervention. Despite their articulate views on the subject, one thing that was entirely absent from all of their remarks was any factual data about whether there is currently a market failure necessitating government intervention. Even Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa, who prior to the panel provide a demo of his company's service, and said his company is playing a "cat and mouse" game trying to stay ahead of Comcast's management practices, did not offer any specific evidence or data of how his company is currently being harmed.
The law school professors were adamant about stricter government oversight of broadband ISPs seemingly because they just cannot be trusted. Unlike economists who rely on empirical data to formulate their viewpoints, the law school professors seem to rely more on a political philosophy regarding government's role to intervene as their primary guiding logic.
On the other hand, Comcast's EVP, David Cohen emphatically denied that Comcast blocks any kind of Internet traffic. He allowed that the company manages its networks, just like all other network providers and has six guidelines. Cohen said Comcast only manages traffic during limited periods, in limited geographies, only for upstream traffic, and then only when there's no simultaneous downstream traffic. It only delays traffic, and only when there's real network congestion that needs to be alleviated. All of this would only impact a small number of customers, and only then imperceptibly, Comcast believes. Comcast's goal is "vigilant restraint," with an eye to helping the vast majority of its customers have a superior Internet experience.
All of this leads me to believe that while Comcast may have the facts on its side, this war will be waged on the PR battlefield. Proponents wrap themselves in the flag, emphasizing the Internet's free-flow of data is paramount to our country's free speech and commerce, while disregarding the fact that to date this has been accomplished with a laissez-faire regulatory policy. Meanwhile network operators like Comcast argue they're already abiding by current regulatory principles and are sufficiently motivated by profit motives to do the right thing. Picking sides, especially in an election year, will be a challenge for all.
What do you think? Post a comment and let us all know!
Wednesday, February 6, 2008, 10:30 AM ET|
Last week's NATPE conference brought numerous opportunities for attendees to learn about broadband and digital media. Based on the Q&A I heard, plus the hallway chatter, there is intense interest - especially from independent producers - about how to take advantage of the rapidly changing video landscape. Today I want to spend a few minutes reviewing some of what I learned at the conference.
A big chunk of my time was spent hosting a day-long Digital Briefing track, during which 10 companies presented for 30 minutes each, back-to-back throughout the day. The companies that presented were:Leichtman Research Group, Joost, SpotStock.com, Broadband Enterprises, Livid Media, Vuze, Enticent, Teletrax, PermissionTV and Digital Fountain.
These companies offered a highly diverse range of products, services and solutions, all aimed at growing the broadband video industry. Joost, Vuze and Broadband Enterprises in particular drew lots of audience questions, focused on distribution and monetization, 2 key items for indie broadband producers. Similarly PermissionTV received lot of interest for how it can help large and small content providers build out their broadband presence. And Digital Fountain's demos of its high-quality video distribution network garnered a lot of attention (btw, it's soliciting participants for its beta trial here).
The other companies also showed valuable products and services: Livid Media demonstrated its personality-based content and Enticent its loyalty programs. SpotStock premiered its new digital stock footage library aimed at helping indie producers quickly and legitimately gain access valuable resources. And Teletrax explained how its watermarking technology helps broadcasters secure and track their digital streams. Last but not least, Bruce Leichtman of Leichtman Research demystified what's really happening with consumer behavior changes based on his firm's extensive market research.
Outside of the Digital Briefings day, the advertising-related sessions provided lots of needed information to attendees about how monetization is unfolding for broadband delivery. I've already written about Shelly Lazarus branded entertainment speech. Tim Armstrong, head of sales at Google provided insights on how the company is approaching YouTube monetization. Another session elicited reactions from big-time brand marketers about issues with pre-rolls and explored alternatives. And as I previously wrote, NBCU's Jeff Zucker delivered a candid wake-up call to the industry about challenges ahead. Even as someone who follows this stuff pretty closely, I thought there was a lot of new info and perspectives being shared.
All in all, these sessions all served as another reminder to me about how broadband video is becoming a vibrant part of the overall economy. There is so much entrepreneurial energy going into developing all the pieces of the overall broadband ecosystem. A consistent theme I heard at NATPE was that people recognize broadband is challenging incumbent media distribution, but it is also expanding producers' options in unprecedented ways. For me that's the real potential ahead.
If you want to discuss the specifics of any of these, just drop me a line!
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