An article in the WSJ over the weekend “Apple’s iTunes Falls Short in Battle for Video Viewers” caught my attention for a number of reasons, not least of which it touched on how quickly Comcast has succeeded in growing its market share in digital movie rentals and downloads.
While iTunes is estimated to still hold the market share lead in the digital movie rental and purchase industry with a share of between 20% to 35%, that’s down from over 50% in 2012. The article notes that Amazon’s share is now up to around 20% and Comcast’s is at 15%. For Amazon, video rentals and purchases represent another way it leverages its e-commerce expertise. Rentals/purchases are also very complementary to Amazon’s Prime Video service. In many ways, there’s nothing surprising at all about how Amazon has taken a bite out of Apple’s market share.
Research released late last week by Parks Associates, which revealed high levels of churn for many smaller SVOD services, reinforced for me that many of these services are at risk of being seen as little more than transactional VOD opportunities by consumers. If this occurs it would have huge implications for both the SVOD services and larger ecosystem.
First, to review the research, Parks found that for SVOD services other than Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, the churn rate over the past 12 months was equal to 60% of those who subscribed to such services. For Hulu Plus, 7% of U.S. broadband subscribers cancelled their subscription in the past 12 months (equaling churn of half or more of Hulu Plus’s subscribers). Parks estimated Amazon’s churn at around 25% (though that’s clouded by value of the overall Prime service). Only Netflix fared well, with churn in the past 12 months running around 9% of its subscriber base. Note, none of these SVOD services publicly disclose their churn rates.
Amazon and Roku announced yesterday that Amazon's VOD service will soon be available on Roku's $99 Digital Video Player. The deal starts to make good on Roku CEO Anthony Woods's intentions about "opening up the platform to anyone who wants to put their video service on this box."
With Amazon VOD's 40,000+ TV programs and movies added to the 12,000 titles already available to Netflix subscribers via its Watch Instantly service (plus more content deals yet to come), little Roku is starting to look like a potentially important link in the evolving "over-the-top" video distribution value chain.
More interesting though, is that I think we're starting to see the battle lines drawn for supremacy in the download-to-own/download-to-rent premium video category between Amazon on one side and Apple on the other. Though Apple dominates this market today, having sold 200 million TV programs alone, there are ample reasons to believe competition is going to stiffen.
Apple is of course in the video download business for the same reasons it was in the music download business: to drive sales of the iPod and more recently - and to a lesser extent - the iPhone. According to the latest info I could find, iTunes now has 32,000+ TV programs and movies, including a growing number in HD. For now that's slightly less than Amazon VOD, but my guess is that over time the two libraries will be virtually identical.
While Apple has a near monopoly on portable viewing via the iPod and iPhone, it is a laggard in bridging broadband-to-the-TV. Its Apple TV device, introduced in January, 2007, and meant to give iTunes access on the TV, has been an underperformer. Certainly a detractor has been price, with the 40GB lower-end model still running $229. But more importantly, as an iTunes-only box, Apple TV perpetuates a closed, "walled-garden" paradigm that consumers are increasingly rejecting (as companies like Roku astutely understand).
For Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, video downloads are a rich growth market. The company brings significant advantages to the table, starting with tens of millions of existing customer relationships with credit cards or other payment options just waiting to be charged for video downloads. Amazon has strong brand name recognition and trust. And of course, it has a near-limitless ability to cross-promote downloads with DVDs and other products.
Determined not to be left behind in the great race to get broadband delivered video all the way to the TV, it has been integrating its VOD service with 3rd party devices like TiVo, Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link, Xbox 360 and Windows Media Center PCs. Its latest deal with Roku is far from its last.
Amazon VOD's adoption will benefit from the fact that there are many non-Amazon reasons that people will be buying these devices. For example, consider Roku, TiVo and Xbox 360. With Roku, Netflix is fueling sales. As Netflix subscribers realize that new releases are generally not available in Watch Instantly, but are through Amazon VOD on Roku, they'll be prone to give Amazon VOD a try (the Netflix limitation is course due to Hollywood's windowing, and another reason why I believe it's crucial for Netflix to make deals with broadcast networks for online distribution of their hit programs). For TiVo and Xbox 360, each has a well-defined value proposition for consumers to purchase. Amazon VOD's availability is a pure bonus for buyers.
Still, Amazon VOD's Achilles heel that it is missing a portable playback companion on a par with the iPod and iPhone. Users clearly value portability and Amazon needs to solve this problem (hmm, can you say "Kindle for Video?"). Yet another issue is that despite its various 3rd party device deals, the user experience will always be governed by these devices' strengths and weaknesses. In this respect, Apple's ownership of the whole hardware/software/services ecosystem gives it significant user experience advantages (which of course it has masterfully exploited with iTunes/iPod).
Apple and Amazon hardly have the market to themselves though. Others like Microsoft Xbox LIVE, Vudu and Sezmi are vying for a place in the market. And then of course there are the VOD offerings from the cable/satellite/telco video service providers, who have big-time incumbency advantages. Not to be forgotten in all of this is consumer inertia around the robust DVD market, which to a large extent all of these video download options seek to supplant.
In the middle of all this are Joe and Jane Consumer - soon to be overwhelmed by a barrage of competing and confusing offers for how to get on-demand TV program and movie downloads in better, faster and cheaper ways. In this market, I believe simplicity, content choices, brand and especially price will determine the eventual winners and losers. These are front and center considerations for Amazon, Apple and all the others going forward.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Back on December 16, 2007, I offered up 6 predictions for 2008. As the year winds down, it's fair to review them and see how my crystal ball performed. But before I do, a quick editorial note: each day next week I'm going to offer one of five predictions for the broadband video market in 2009. (You may detect the predictions getting increasingly bolder...that's by design to keep you coming back!)
Now a review of my '08 predictions:
1. Advertising business model gains further momentum
I saw '08 as a year in which the broadband ad model continued growing in importance as the paid model remained in the back seat, at least for now. I think that's pretty much been borne out. We've seen countless new video-oriented sites launch in '08. To be sure many of them are now scrambling to stay afloat in the current ad-crunched environment, and there will no doubt be a shakeout among these sites in '09. However, the basic premise, that users mainly expect free video, and that this is the way to grow adoption, is mostly conventional wisdom now.
The exception on the paid front continues to be iTunes, which announced in October that it has sold 200 million TV episode downloads to date. At $1.99 apiece, that would imply iTunes TV program downloads exceed all ad-supported video sites to date. The problem of course is once you get past iTunes things fall off quickly. Other entrants like Xbox Live, Amazon and Netflix are all making progress with paid approaches, but still the market is held back by at least 3 challenges: lack of mass broadband-to-the-TV connectivity, a robust incumbent DVD model, and limited online delivery rights. That means advertising is likely to dominate again in '09.
2. Brand marketers jump on broadband bandwagon
I expected that '08 would see more brands pursue direct-to-consumer broadband-centric campaigns. Sure enough, the year brought a variety of initiatives from a diverse range of companies like Shell, Nike, Ritz-Carlton, Lifestyles Condoms, Hellman's and many others.
What I didn't foresee was the more important emphasis that many brands would place on user-generated video contests. In '08 there were such contests from Baby Ruth, Dove, McDonald's, Klondike and many others. Coming up in early '09 is Doritos' splashy $1 million UGV Super Bowl contest, certain to put even more emphasis on these contests. I see no letup in '09.
3. Beijing Summer Olympics are a broadband blowout
I was very bullish on the opportunity for the '08 Summer Games to redefine how broadband coverage can add value to live sporting events. Anyone who experienced any of the Olympics online can certainly attest to the convenience broadband enabled (especially given the huge time zone difference to the U.S.), but without sacrificing any video quality. The staggering numbers certainly attested to their popularity.
Still, some analysts were chagrined by how little revenue the Olympics likely brought in for NBC. While I'm always in favor of optimizing revenues, I tried to take the longer view as I wrote here and here. The Olympics were a breakthrough technical and operational accomplishment which exposed millions of users to broadband's benefits. For now, that's sufficient reward.
4. 2008 is the "Year of the broadband presidential election"
With the '08 election already in full swing last December (remember the heated primaries?), broadband was already making its presence known. It only continued as the year and the election drama wore on. As I recently summarized, broadband was felt in many ways in this election cycle. President-elect Obama seems committed to continuing broadband's role with his weekly YouTube updates and behind-the-scenes clips. Still, as important as video was in the election, more important was the Internet's social media capabilities being harnessed for organizing and fundraising. Obama has set a high bar for future candidates to meet.
5. WGA Strike fuels broadband video proliferation
Here's one I overstated. Last December, I thought the WGA strike would accelerate interest in broadband as an alternative to traditional outlets. While it's fair to include initiatives like Joss Wheedon's Dr. Horrible and Strike.TV as directly resulting from the strike, the reality is that I believe there was very little embrace of broadband that can be traced directly to the strike (if I'm missing something here, please correct me). To be sure, lots of talent is dipping its toes into the broadband waters, but I think that's more attributable to the larger climate of interest, not the WGA strike specifically.
6. Broadband consumption remains on computers, but HD delivery proliferates
I suggested that "99.9% of users who start the year watching broadband video on their computers will end the year no closer to watching broadband video on their TVs." My guess is that's turned out to be right. If you totaled up all the Rokus, AppleTVs, Vudus, Xbox's accessing video and other broadband-to-the-TV devices, that would equal less than .1% of the 147 million U.S. Internet users who comScore says watched video online in October.
However, there are some positive signs of progress for '09. I've been particularly bullish on Netflix's recent moves (particularly with Xbox) and expect some other good efforts coming as well. It's unlikely that '09 will end with even 5% of the addressable broadband universe watching on their TVs, but even that would be a good start.
Meanwhile, HD had a banner year. Everyone from iTunes to Hulu to Xbox to many others embraced online HD delivery. As I mentioned here, there are times when I really do catch myself saying, "it's hard to believe this level of video quality is now available online." For sure HD will be more widely embraced in '09 and quality will get even better.
OK, that's it for '08. On Monday the focus turns to what to expect in '09.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
Welcome to November. October was a particularly crazy month with the unfolding financial crisis. Here are 3 key themes.
1. Financial crisis hurts all industries; broadband is no exception
In October the financial crisis was omnipresent. During the month I addressed its probable effects on the broadband industry here and here so I'm not going to spend much more time on it today. Suffice to say, for the foreseeable future, the key industry metrics are financing, staffing and customer spending. Conserving cash and getting to breakeven are paramount for all.
In particular, in "Thinking in Terms of a 'GOTI' Objective" I tried to provide some food for thought about why focus is so important right now. Industry CEOs' jobs have gotten a whole lot harder in the wake of the meltdown; those with the best strategic and financial skills will come through the storm, others will encounter significant challenges.
2. Broadband video is still in very early stages of development
I'm constantly trying to gauge just how developed the broadband video industry actually is. All kinds of indicators continue to suggest to me that we're still in the very early days. For example, in one post this month comparing iTunes and Hulu, it was evident that iTunes is currently far outpacing Hulu in TV episode-related revenues. Remember that Hulu is the undisputed premium ad-supported aggregator. And that the ad-supported business model itself is predicted by most to eventually be far larger than the paid model. That iTunes is so far ahead for now shows how young Hulu really is (in fact, just celebrating its first anniversary) and how much more development the ad-supported model still has ahead of it.
I think another relevant indicator of progress is how well the broadband medium is distinguishing itself from alternatives by capitalizing on its key strengths. In "Broadband Video Needs to Become More Engaging," I noted that while there have recently been positive signs of progress, overall, much of broadband's engagement potential is still untapped. That's why I'm always encouraged by compelling UGV contests like the one Fox and Metacafe unveiled this month or by technology like EveryZing's new MetaPlayer that drives more granular interactivity. To truly succeed, broadband must become more than just an online video-on-demand medium.
3. Cable operators are central to broadband video's development
As ISPs, cable operators account for the lion's share of broadband Internet access. Further, their ongoing efforts to increase bandwidth widens the universe of addressable homes for high-quality content delivery. Still, their multichannel subscription-based business model is increasingly threatened by broadband's on-demand, a la carte nature. As delivery quality escalates and consumer spending remains pinched, the notion of dropping cable in favor of online-only access become more alluring.
Yet in "Cutting the Cord on Cable: For Most of Us It's Not Happening Any Time Soon," I explained why restricted access to popular cable network programs and an inability to easily view broadband video on the TV will keep cable operators in a healthy position for some time to come. Still, it's a confusing landscape; this month I noticed Time Warner Cable itself helped foster cable bypass, when in the midst of its retransmission standoff with LIN TV, it offered an instructive video for how to watch most broadcast network programming online. Comcast also got into the act, unveiling "Premiere Week" on its Fancast portal. These kinds of initiatives remind consumers there's a lot of good stuff available for free online; all you need is a broadband connection.
Lots more to come in November, stay tuned.
Notwithstanding the countless times I've received emails with links to video clips or visited social networking pages where video is embedded, I've often had the sense that true social engagement around premium quality video has been lacking.
"Engagement" is one of those nebulous Internet words that can mean many things to different people. To me, the most appropriate online engagement opportunities should be modeled on how we have traditionally engaged with offline media. Some relevant offline examples that come to mind include recommending a movie to a friend, clipping a newspaper article to send to a colleague, chatting informally with friends and family during a TV show or sharing opinions about favorite actors and actresses over drinks.
As consumers shift their viewing to broadband, the key to engagement is to enable users to effortlessly and intuitively emulate some or all of these behaviors. I concede that's easier said than done. Yet in addition to existing efforts, I see new signs that premium video sites are starting to understand how strategic it is for them to incent user engagement. New steps are being taken to make deeper, more consistent engagement a reality, not just a goal.
For example, just yesterday CBS announced its "Social Viewing Rooms" which allow users to view programs together while commenting, interacting and finding each other (note this is something that Paltalk and others have pursued for a while). It wasn't clear from the announcement, but I think a critical success factor for CBS will be allowing users to bring existing friends (from Facebook, MySpace, etc.) into the rooms, rather than requiring new relationships to be built.
I found another example in a presentation I recently attended by Ian Blaine, thePlatform's CEO. In it, he made clear that his company is planning a big push into engagement-oriented features ranging from recommendations to ratings to social networking via sister company Plaxo. Still another initiative is "MediaFriends" a clever application that's coming soon from Integra5 which converges text messaging and social networking with viewing across multiple screens. Finally, another is from Volo Media, which is today announcing a plug-in for iTunes that allows one-touch sharing, bookmarking and more, helping open up a window from iTunes into the larger web environment.
All of these activities are in addition to other social media capabilities being brought to premium video from companies like KickApps, PermissionTV, Brightcove, Gotuit and Magnify.net. Then of course there's the steady migration of premium video into YouTube, which is the granddaddy of video sharing and social engagement.
Broadband is much more than an exciting new distribution outlet for video providers, it's also a whole new platform for extending social behaviors that are deeply valued and highly ingrained in all of us into the virtual world. Embracing opportunities for deeper engagement with and around premium video means thinking of viewers more as participants and less as passive audiences. When done right the payoffs in engagement, loyalty, viewing time and monetization will be substantial.
What do you think? Post a comment now!
Categories: Video Sharing
Last week Apple announced that it has sold 200 million TV episodes to date and also that all four of the major broadcast networks are now providing HD versions of their prime-time shows. These periodic updates are always welcome as Apple is notoriously parsimonious with its iTunes numbers, making it hard for analysts to get a real handle on how the store is doing.
This latest total got me to thinking about the relative sizes of online aggregators of prime-time TV shows. Below I've made some calculations comparing the revenues of iTunes, the largest paid download store, with the revenues of Hulu, likely the largest free, ad-supported streaming site for TV programs. The conclusion is clear: for now at least, iTunes is a far larger business, demonstrating that despite the obvious appeal of free video, a segment of consumers are still plenty willing to buy and collect individual episodes.
I estimate iTunes is currently generating about 10 million TV program downloads/month. TV program downloads officially began just about 3 years ago with ABC's initial iTunes partnership. There's obviously been a ramp over the years, so if you assume 50% of the volume came in the first 3 years combined, and 50% in the 10 months of '08 alone, that produces 100 million TV program downloads year to date or about 10 million downloads/month. (that actually synchs with the fact that Apple last disclosed 150 million total TV program downloads in May, '08, 5 months ago).
To grossly simplify, let's say the download price is $2/episode. I know that doesn't take account of the $3 HD downloads iTunes launched last month (of which it says it sold a million) or the varying prices of international downloads. At $2/episode iTunes does $20 million/month in gross download revenues from TV programs.
comScore said Hulu delivered about 119 million video streams in July '08. Since there's a ton of content at Hulu, estimating how many of those streams were full-length TV programs is anyone's best guess. But let's say it's 10%, and that ALL of these streams were watched in their entirety, which is obviously optimistic. That would yield just under 12 million full episodes watched/month. That feels high to me, but let's stay with it for now.
Recently, in "Broadcast Networks' Use of Broadband is Accelerating Demise of Their Business Model," I estimated that given Hulu's extremely light ad load and an assumed $60 CPM for its ads, it may be generating $.18 of revenue/viewer/episode. Feedback I've received suggests that probably an overstatement, so let's bump it down just a bit to $.15. With 12 million episodes/mo, that would translate to about $1.8 million/month in gross advertising revenues from TV programs alone.
Though the above numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, they suggest there's a huge gap in TV program-related revenues between iTunes and Hulu. Now of course iTunes has been around a lot longer than Hulu, and of course it benefits from the massive popularity of the iPod, and more recently the iPhone. We also can't forget there are lots of places to watch free TV episodes online while there are comparably fewer online stores to purchase and download high-quality episodes. So it might actually be fairer to compare the monthly revenues of ALL the online aggregators (and the networks' own sites too) to iTunes to get a clearer comparison.
Still, I think comparing iTunes and Hulu does show how nascent the streaming TV market is today. In the long-run, I'm a believer that free, ad-supported trumps a la carte paid downloading. But for now, when it comes to real revenues - which for many is the only metric that really matters - it's no contest.
What do you think? Post a comment now!
Looking back over two dozen posts in May and countless industry news items, I have synthesized 3 key topics below. I'll have more on all of these in the coming months.
1. Broadband-delivered movies inch forward - breakthroughs still far out
In May there was incremental progress in the holy grail-like pursuit of broadband-delivered movies. Apple established day-and-date deals with the major studios for iTunes. Netlix and Roku announced a new lightweight box for delivering Netlix's "Watch Now" catalog of 10,000 titles to TVs. Bell Canada launched its Bell Video Store, complete with day-and-date Paramount releases, with others to come soon. And Starz announced a deal with Verizon to market "Starz Play" a newly branded version of its Vongo broadband subscription and video-on-demand service.
Taken together, these deals suggest that studios are warming to the broadband opportunity. This is certainly influenced by slowing DVD sales. Yet as I explained in "iTunes Film Deals Not a Game Changer" and "Online Move Delivery Advances, Big Hurdles Still Loom" broadband movies are still bedeviled by a lack of mass PC-TV connectivity, no real portability, well-defined consumer behavior around DVDs and the studios' well-entrenched, window-driven business model. Despite May's progress, major breakthroughs in the broadband movie business are still way out on the horizon.
2. Broadcast TV networks are embracing broadband delivery - but leading to what?
Unlike the film studios, the broadcast TV networks are plowing headlong into broadband delivery, yet it's not at all clear where this leads. In "Does Broadband Video Help or Hurt Broadcast TV Networks" and "Fox's 'Remote-Free TV': Broadband's First Adverse Impact on Networks?" I laid out an initial analysis about broadband's pluses and minuses for networks. I'll have more on this in the coming weeks, including more in-depth financial analysis.
On the plus side, in "2009 Super Bowl Ads to Hit $3 Million, Broadband's Role Must Grow," "Sunday Morning Talk Shows Need Broadband Refresh" and "Today Show Interview with McClellan Showcases Broadband's Power," I illustrated some opportunities broadband is creating. On the other hand, "Bebo Pursues Distinctive Original Programming Model" and "More Questions than Answers at Digital Hollywood" explained how exciting new programming approaches are taking hold, challenging traditional TV production models. Broadcasters are in the eye of the broadband storm.
3. Advertising's evolution fueled by innovation and resources
Last, but hardly least, I continued on one of my favorite topics: the impact broadband video is having on the advertising industry. Over the last 10 years the Internet, with its targetability, interactivity and measurability has caused major shifts in marketers' thinking. With broadband further extending these capabilities to video, the traditional TV ad business is now ripe for budget-shifting. We'll be exploring a lot of this at a panel I'm moderating at Advertising 2.0 this Thursday.
In "Tremor, Adap.tv Introduce New Ad Platforms" and "All Eyes on Cable Industry's 'Project Canoe'" (from Mugs Buckley), key players' innovations were described along with how the cable industry plans to compete. Content providers are being presented with more and more options for monetizing their video, a trend which will only accelerate. Yet as I wrote in "Key Themes from My 2 Panel Discussions Last Week," many issues remain, and with so many content start-ups reliant on ads, there may be some disappointment looming when people realize the ad market is not as mature as they had hoped.
That's it for May. Lots more coming in June. Please stay tuned.
HBO's deal with Apple to include its programs in the iTunes store has received widespread coverage in the last couple of days, particularly because it includes differentiated pricing for the first time.
Indeed, while it's a big story that Apple's Steve Jobs has finally consented to deviate from his "one price for all" approach - which NBC couldn't attain last fall - there is another angle on this announcement: the possibility that, at long last, HBO has woken up to broadband video's potential.
HBO's absence from the broadband scene has been noticeable. As the most profitable and acclaimed TV network, I've long thought that HBO had significant upside in pursuing broadband initiatives. Instead it has badly lagged Showtime and Starz, its two principal rivals in the premium network space, as well as other networks.
Showtime in particular has been quite innovative in both creating broadband-only extras for its programs, plus enticing user-involvement opportunities. For its part, Starz has been aggressive in pursuing Vongo, its broadband-subscription service, which continues to make inroads with numerous device partnerships.
Yet HBO has seemed contentedly disinterested in broadband. Between its hefty subscription fees and healthy DVD business, broadband has likely been seen as just a gnat buzzing about. HBO's lack of broadband interest is evident on its web site which has just a smattering of video clips and highlights, and it is fairly static, with little-to-nothing enticing for the broadband user.
In reality, broadband could have likely been adding real value to HBO's business. With the proper incentives, HBO's creative production partners could have easily come up with broadband extras that would have appealed to the diehard fans of its programs. In addition to their sheer programming value, these would have helped drive more fan loyalty and stickiness between seasons. That would help address HBO's churn rate during its off-season periods.
While HBO's iTunes relationship is a step forward, it's a small one. Contrast its approach to soon-to-be-corporate-sibling Bebo's programming model (which I wrote about yesterday), with its intense focus on community engagement and the different philosophies are evident. Of course HBO is a programming powerhouse and there's no arguing with its success. But for it to fully embrace broadband's opportunities, it would benefit from looking at what Bebo and others are currently doing.
In the last few days there's been a lot of attention paid to Apple's deals with Disney, Fox, Warner Bros, Paramount, Universal, Sony, Lionsgate, Imagine and First Look Studios giving iTunes day-and-date access to these studios' current films.
As an advocate of the broadband medium, naturally I'm delighted to see studios put broadband distribution on a par with DVD release. The deals should rightly be interpreted as another step in the maturation of the broadband medium.
However, these deals, in and of themselves, do not constitute a game-changing event for paid downloads of feature films. That's because until there's mass connectivity between PCs and TVs and much-improved portability, consumers' willingness to buy is going to be significantly muted. Consumers' inability to easily watch a feature film on their widescreen TV or easily grab-these- movies-to-go (as with DVDs) are a huge drag on the download value proposition, easily swamping its new convenience benefits.
I believe that lack of mass connectivity between PCs and TVs is the last major hurdle to unlocking broadband video's ultimate potential. It is also the firewall that's preserving a lot of incumbents' business models (cable operators, broadcasters, etc.). No question, Apple and iTunes are powerful marketing partners for the studios, and their download revenue will certainly increase from its current modest base. But not even Apple's mighty brand (and certainly not its anemic AppleTV device) is enough to compensate for broadband's current deficiency.
The good news is that there's a frenzy of energy directed at solving the PC-to-TV connectivity issue. Though no approach has yet broken through, I'm still betting it's only a matter of time until one does. When that happens, studios will reap the major benefits. Until then, these deals represent progress, but not game-changing events.
Last week I had a chance to sit down with Brent Weinstein, CEO/founder of 60Frames, which is among a new group of companies I refer to as "broadband studios." This is a category that has generated a healthy amount of funding and activity recently, including, among others, Next New Networks ($23 million to date), Generate ($6 million), Revision3 ($9 million), Stage 9 (Disney/ABC's in-house unit), Vuguru (Michael Eisner's shop) and a slew of comedy-focused initiatives. 60Frames itself has raised $3.5 million from Tudor, Pilot Group and others.
The impetus for 60Frames came when Brent was heading up digital entertainment at UTA and observed that many clients wanted to create digital/broadband fare but wanted a partner for the same roles they've come to expect studios to handle (e.g. financing, distribution, legal, creative, etc.). 60Frames aims to differentiate itself from the pack by being "artist-friendly" - allowing greater creative control and more significant ownership and by relying on strong relationships. With an existing staff of 11 and a goal of launching 50 programs by year end, the 60Frames team is no doubt going full tilt.
60Frames is following a traditional portfolio approach, working with great talent (Coen brothers, John August, Tom Fontana, others) but recognizing that results in this new medium will vary - there will be some winners and some losers. The goal is obviously to have the best ratio possible. Traditional studios improve their odds by using collective history and data about what types of projects succeed and which ones don't. But no such lengthy track record or data exists in broadband just yet, so it's a lot more speculative pursuit.
I asked Brent if there's any creative formula 60Frames is using to guide its decision-making. He was pretty emphatic that there's no "formula," but did concede 60Frames is focused on short-form (under 5 minutes), is biased toward comedy where episodes can stand alone more readily, and is mainly looking at niche audiences with a bulls-eye of 18-34 men, where consumption is highest.
Nurturing relationships and developing great content is only part of the equation for these budding studios' success. Distribution and monetization are also incredibly important, as broadband necessitates an entirely different model. Regarding distribution, I was encouraged to see 60Frames is solidly in the syndication camp to the point that it has not even set up destination sites for its 7 launched programs yet. 60Frames has a network of partners including Bebo, blip.tv, DailyMotion, iTunes, MySpace, YouTube and others. Gaining access to all the popular online destinations will accelerate success. Meanwhile advertising is being handled by partner SpotRunner, which has deep hooks in the space.
Broadband studios like 60Frames harken back to the original studio moguls in some ways - taking creative and financial risk to explore what works in a new medium. It's way too early to know if or to what extent they'll succeed, but if they do we can expect a gold rush of imitators.
As widely expected, yesterday Apple launched movie rentals in iTunes, with titles from all the major studios. Steve Jobs also announced price cuts and a number of key enhancements to Apple TV, squarely repositioning the device as a "broadband movies appliance" (my term). Apple TV now allows direct ordering (no computer needed) and a much improved UI prominently featuring movies. The message from Apple is clear: the primary value proposition for Apple TV's prospective buyers is convenient movie rentals through iTunes.
In the last few weeks there has been much buzzing about which companies might feel the most competitive pressure from Apple's launch of movie rentals. Here's how I see it: when rentals are combined with Apple TV's new features, the company that has to be waking up this morning most nervous about Apple's news yesterday is Vudu, because it has the most obviously similar value proposition.
Some of you may not be familiar with Vudu. It is a recently launched combination online movie/TV on demand service and companion box that has gained a lot of favorable early reviews. The company is backed by Benchmark and Greylock, two huge and highly regarded venture firms. While any startup faces long odds of success, with Vudu now going up against the Apple branding and marketing juggernaut, Vudu's odds seem even more daunting. In fact, one wonders how the folks at Benchmark and Greylock, when considering their original Vudu investment, weighed the very question of Apple's entry into this market, as it was somewhat inevitable.
To step back for a moment, as many of you know, I'm skeptical about all appliances meant to bridge the broadband and TV worlds, as I think they have only narrow consumer appeal and create new inconveniences. Apple TV and Vudu are even more specifically-directed at people who are focused on premium movie and TV content, not gaining access to the wider world of broadband video (note Apple TV does provide some access to YouTube videos and podcasts). In effect, purchasers of either of these products value the instant viewing gratification they offer more than the selection, portability, unlimited viewing windows and "extras" that DVDs provide. And of course there are a broad array of choices and models for accessing DVDs (e.g. Netflix, Blockbuster, Wal-Mart, etc.).
However, for interested buyers, my sense is that both Apple TV and Vudu do an admirable job at delivering online movies and TV programs. The issue is that, if I was considering a purchase, and was obviously only going to buy one, I'd be hard-pressed to see why I'd pick Vudu over Apple TV. Consider: Apple TV is cheaper ($329 vs $399 for Vudu, albeit with smaller storage space), provides access to your music library and podcasts already configured in iTunes, allows easy display of your photos, has a familiar iPod/iTunes UI and enables transfers to these devices for portable viewing. Apple TV is also backed by a strong and well-known brand, giving additional comfort that the company will be around for a long time to come, which is always a nagging question when buying anything from a startup.
The whole category of broadband movie appliances is going to remain pretty small until the key limitations are resolved (small selection, 24 hour playback, 30-day expiration, no portability, no "extras", etc.). When these are fully addressed, online delivery of movies and TV programs will happen in a big way, no question.
So for now, given these limitations, what we're really seeing is a skirmish for positioning and branding, with an eye toward the long-term win. This dynamic in particular gives Apple, as a multi-billion dollar diversified company, yet another a big advantage over a single product startup. I've learned never to count out plucky startups, but given Apple TV's new positioning plus rentals, the mountain Vudu is trying to climb just got a whole lot more treacherous.
What do you think? Post a comment and let everyone know!
Happy New Year and welcome to 2008!
With many of you taking last week off, a quick review of what you might have missed is in order:
1. iTunes-Fox download-to-rent movie deal rumors
The FT (reg. required) reported that Apple and Fox are close to announcing a deal under which Fox movies would be available for download-to-rent on iTunes. This would be a deviation from Apple's policy of download-to-own only. Call me a skeptic, but while some analysts think this deal is a big breakthrough, for me it's more of a ho-hum, for at least the following reasons.
Download-to-rent offerings have been around for a while (e.g. Movielink, CinemaNow, Amazon Unbox, etc.) and none have been grand slams. Admittedly none have enabled playback on an iPod. Yet, while many think iPod ubiquity is a killer advantage for iTunes rentals I disagree. It's one thing to watch a 30 or maybe a 60 minute TV show, but watching a 2 hour movie on an iPod? That's only appealing for a tiny minority of iPod owners. Further, while the rumored $2.99 or so price point is attractive, download-to-rent movies will come with the same cumbersome business rules (e.g. 24 hour viewing, window limitations, finite device sharing, etc.) that cause significant customer inconvenience. And DVDs, available for rental or purchase still offer superior portability and flexibility to any download model. Movie downloads' time will come, just not yet.
2. Wal-Mart Folds its Video Download Store
And speaking of download challenges, Wal-Mart decided to unceremoniously close its video download store less than a year since its launch. While it pointed its finger at its vendor HP, which decided to discontinue support for the technology underlying the Wal-Mart store, there are certainly other white label platform alternatives available if Wal-Mart had conviction about the download store's potential. It clearly didn't and so it folded its tent. More evidence of the challenges facing paid downloads.
3. YouTube's Top 2007 Videos Announced
Meanwhile over in YouTube land, the hits keep coming. YouTube released its top 10 list and the year's most popular video, with almost 23 million views, was "Battle at Kruger", which shows the fight to save a baby water buffalo from a group of lions and a crocodile. It's fascinating if you haven't seen it. Other top videos on the list were "Chocolate Rain", "Obama Girl" and "Leave Britney Alone", among others. If nothing else, this diverse group of videos shows that UGC is alive and well.
4. Queen Elizabeth and Roger Clemens Seek Out YouTube
And UGC wasn't for pure amateurs either. YouTube's reach was once again recognized as 2 celebrities, Queen Elizabeth and Roger Clemens posted videos serving their individual purposes. In a first for the 81 year-old queen, she posted her popular Christmas message on YouTube, augmenting its traditional broadcast. The Royal Channel - "The Official Channel of the British Monarchy" - also launched on YouTube.
Clemens, who's been fingered in baseball's steroid controversy, saw fit to post his proclamation of innocence on YouTube. Clemens is adamant in his own defense, and clearly believes that reaching out to fans with video instead of the usual press release is more compelling.
Trivia question: whose video do you think drew more views?
Answer: It's not even close: 741,000 for the queen vs. 274,000 for Clemens.
5. MTV Delivers 1.2 Billion Streams in '07
MTV self-reported that MTV.com, VH1.com and CMT.com delivered more than 1.2 billion video streams in '07, an increase of 30% vs. '06. It also reported the top 30 music videos it streamed, and number 1 was Gimme More by Britney Spears. Broadband is offering MTV an opportunity to return to its brand roots as the go-to destination for music videos even as more and more of the on-air experience is dominated by non-music video fare. As I wrote a couple months ago, music videos are becoming a sought-after new revenue stream for labels and aggregators. We'll see more emphasis on music videos in '08.
Google's announcement on Monday of its "Android" mobile operating platform is another example of open platforms' appeal and underscores why broadband video has grown so quickly and is so compelling.
For those who missed the news, on Monday Google announced its Android mobile platform and the Open Handset Alliance, with 33 other companies, aiming to accelerate innovation and application development for mobile devices. In essence the goal is to develop a widely-deployed open platform, comparable to the Internet itself. Mobile video would certainly be a key beneficiary if Android succeeds.
This push to openness in mobile can be seen as an attempt to emulate what's unfolded in the broadband video industry over the last 5 years. The result of broadband's openness has been nothing short of staggering, Whether it's video found at YouTube, iTunes, Hulu, NYTimes.com, MLB.com, Cosmopolitan.com or countless others, the torrent of video that's been unleashed, the shift in consumer behavior that's ensued and the capital that's been invested in this sector are all the direct result of broadband's open pipe.
In fact, as I have said innumerable times, the reason why broadband video delivery is the single most disruptive influence on the traditional video industry is precisely BECAUSE it offers an open platform for producers to send video directly to their target audiences. As such, it eliminates the requirement for video producers to land a deal with a traditional gatekeeper to the home such as a broadcast or cable TV network, or a cable TV, satellite or telco service provider.
In short, the ability for producers to connect directly with their audiences strikes at the heart of the traditional video distribution value chain, threatening a permanent re-ordering of the economics of the video business. It enables all kinds of players who have been shut out of the video game to now jump in.
And while broadband video is admittedly still in its embryonic stage from a revenue standpoint, its long-term appeal portends vulnerability for those who cling too long to the traditional closed, walled-garden model. The Internet has shown us all the power of open over closed models, of interoperability over proprietary approaches, and of often chaotic, but user-centric growth over top-down control.
Broadband's ecosystem is experiencing a rapid "layer-cake" effect where new technologies and applications are being built on top of preceding ones. The result is a vibrant, entrepreneurial culture in the broadband sector. If Android succeeds the same will be true in the mobile video sector as well.