In 2008, Canoe Ventures, the JV of six large U.S. cable operators, became one of the hottest topics of conversation in the cable, programming and advertising industries. Last week, I was fortunate to get time with Vicki Lins, Canoe's Chief Marketing Officer, to learn more about the company's plans. Though Vicki has been pulling double duty between her role at Comcast Spotlight and Canoe in recent months, she had only just started full time with Canoe, so she readily admitted that she's still getting up-to-speed.
Ordinarily Canoe's advanced TV advertising mission would be off-center for VideoNuze's strictly broadband video-centric focus. But the reason it's relevant to understand is because I think long-term, the world that Canoe is trying to create on top of cable's digital set-top boxes is on a collision course with the world that broadband video is trying to create. I see both eventually competing for the same viewers, ad dollars and mind-share.
Canoe is critical to the cable industry because it recognizes that ever-better targeting, interactivity and ROIs are driving ad spending decisions. For 10+ years now, the Internet (and Google in particular) has been resetting marketers' expectations, thereby placing ever-greater pressure on TV ad executives to improve their game.
Vicki explained that first and foremost, Canoe is a service bureau, helping advertisers, programmers and cable operators wring more value out of their ad inventory. It does not intend to sell any ads itself. Canoe's key is leveraging its access to its cable partners' digital set-top boxes. First up is what's called "Creative Versioning" or zone-based addressability - the ability to break down users into logical segments that get specific ads. Another focus is productizing the viewership data being captured by those set-tops to out-Nielsen Nielsen (while of course respecting users' privacy). A third is trying to enable user interactivity - the ability to get deeper information, zero in on a product feature in an ad, order an item, etc.
All of this would benefit cable and broadcast networks seeking to more effectively monetize their ad inventory, as well as cable operators which sell a portion of cable networks' ad inventory locally. Clearly these are key constituencies, but as Vicki points out, Canoe must also address ad agencies, brands, cable technologists, local operations teams where Canoe's technology is actually deployed, cable marketers and others who have a stake in this process. It's a pretty long list, and one wonders whether a start-up is able to handle all of this at once.
But there are two even bigger issues that I see. First, I find myself wondering whether Canoe is even aiming at the right target with these initial plans. Instead, why doesn't Canoe just focus 100% of its energies on monetizing these cable operators' billions of current VOD streams? It's amazing to me that years after VOD's launch, I don't see any ads on Comcast (my cable company) VOD. My kids watch lots of Ben 10, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, etc on VOD yet never see a single ad for a sugared cereal or wizzy new toy. As a parent this isn't something I'm complaining about, but if I were a Comcast shareholder it would sure have me scratching my head. It seems like such a big missed opportunity...is there something I don't understand here?
As Denise Denson, MTV's EVP of Content Distribution and Marketing recently told Multichannel News, "We have over a billion VOD orders this year on Comcast alone, but we've made virtually no money in advertising in that space....With the convergence of TV and the Internet, there is a danger that the Internet's interactive content could usurp it. It's unfortunate, but programmers will have to put their content where they can actually monetize it."
And that brings us back to broadband video's challenge to Canoe. The fact is that broadband is a parallel and fast-growing VOD platform that is generating significant content provider interest because of it offers substantial control of the user experience and relatively robust monetization. As I wrote yesterday, broadband advertising innovation is being adopted by major media companies like MTV. And because broadband ad innovation is diffused over many companies (as is all innovation in the hyper-competitive Internet realm), there are rapid and continuous improvements. Conversely, by concentrating its set-top box ad efforts through just Canoe I think the cable industry is limiting the platform's vast potential.
Denise Denson hit the nail on the head: resources are finite and programming networks will focus their attention on platforms that offer the best scale and monetization opportunities. With broadband coming to TVs very soon, it will soon be a de facto competitor to cable's digital set-top box delivery. To preserve the value of its video platform, cable needs to shore up its VOD advertising and user experience and not let broadband surpass it. For my money, that seems like the most productive place for Canoe to first focus its attention.
What do you think? Post a comment now.
It's been hard not to notice the recently growing roster of digital media/broadband video executives who are either leaving their jobs or jumping to other companies.
Among the many recent changes:
Of course there are many more as well.
There's no blanket explanation for all of this movement. Senior executives - particularly those with strong track records in unchartered territory like digital media and broadband video - are always in demand by competitors. And established companies who can't execute or who are losing altitude in their core businesses become fertile ground for executive recruiters. Then there are always personal reasons for causing executive change (family matters, geographic restrictions, etc.).
The whole digital media and broadband space is extremely dynamic. Major incumbents continue to struggle with defining their strategies and how to organize themselves properly to execute. The financial meltdown has caused huge profit pressure, prompting operational streamlining.
Still, I'm hoping that all this executive movement doesn't slow broadband's growth. In particular, prematurely folding a digital operation into an incumbent product area can limit innovation as executives who are primarily focused on the core business and who lack detailed domain knowledge will inevitably shy away from riskier or more complex digital initiatives. I've seen this myself first hand. Broadband is still early in its evolution; hopefully executive change will foster, not hinder, its continued progress.
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.