In an interview at Lionsgate’s first investor day, Liberty Media chairman John Malone praised Netflix as having a “nirvana business model” while calling out traditional pay-TV distributors for being “asleep at the switch” as their legacy “toll gate” video business models were disrupted. Malone highlighted Netflix’s direct-to-consumer, global scale and complete control as key benefits.
However, Malone wasn’t all doom and gloom about traditional pay-TV distributors, which he sees as morphing from being “video delivery businesses” to “connectivity businesses.” Malone thinks this change in mindset will lead to distributors breaking with tradition and offering premium networks such as Starz in combination with broadband, as opposed to being available only on top of multichannel bundles. But he would not provide any timetable for when this shift might occur.
I'm pleased to present the 316th edition of the VideoNuze podcast with my weekly partner Colin Dixon of nScreenMedia.
It seems like a week doesn’t go by these days without a new SVOD service being announced or launched. For example, this week Fullscreen said it would launch its “fullscreen” SVOD service on April 26th, while comedian Kevin Hart and Lionsgate announced a new video/games service.
In today’s podcast, Colin and I discuss these ventures, as well as Redbox’s planned SVOD service, NBCU’s Hayu (“hey you”) reality SVOD startup, Cinedigm’s CONtv, Vessel and YouTube Red, all in the context of the crowded SVOD landscape.
We’re both convinced that ultimately viewers won’t subscribe to more than a handful of SVOD services, meaning many of these new ventures won’t ever achieve scale. To support our SVOD analysis, we use the framework I posted a year ago with 9 key criteria. I continue to believe it is a valuable tool to add rigor when comparing services.
Listen now to learn more!
Click here to listen to the podcast (20 minutes, 56 seconds)
Happy New Year. If you're just back from a holiday vacation and have been partially or totally off the grid for the last week or two, here are 7 video-oriented items you may have missed:
1. Time Warner Cable and News Corp fight over fees, then settle - Two behemoths of the cable and broadcast TV ecosystem spatted publicly during the holidays over the size of "retransmission consent" fees that News Corp (owner of the Fox Broadcast Network and cable channels like Fox News) wanted TWC (the 2nd largest U.S. cable operator) to pay to carry its 14 local stations. While a last minute deal averted the channels going dark, broadcasters' interest in dipping into cable's monthly subscription revenues will only intensify as audience fragmentation accelerates and ad revenues are pressured.
For my part I wish Fox and other broadcasters were as focused on building new and profitable digital delivery models for their programs as they were on trying to redistribute cable's revenues. Even as Rupert Murdoch continues advocating the paid content model, the freely-available Hulu is seeing its traffic skyrocket (see below). But if Hulu's viewership isn't incrementally profitable, then all that growth is pointless. Urgency is mounting too; in '10 convergence devices that bridge broadband to the TV are going to get a lot of attention. In the wake of their adoption, consumers are going to want Hulu on their TVs. If Hulu doesn't allow this it will be marginalized. But if it does without first solidifying its business model, it could hurt broadcasters further.
2. Hulu has a big traffic year, but no further information provided on its business model - Hulu's CEO Jason Kilar pulled back the curtain a bit on the company's strong progress in 2009, citing 95% growth in monthly users, to 43 million, 307% growth in monthly streams, to 924 million (both as measured by comScore) and a doubling of available content, to 14,000 hours. While noting that its advertisers increased from 166 to 408 during the year, with respect to performance, Jason only said that "we are extremely excited about atypically strong results we have been able to drive for our marketing partners."
Though Hulu is under no obligation to disclose details of its business model, I think it would dramatically increase the company's credibility if it shared some metrics about how its lighter ad load model is working (e.g. improved awareness, click throughs, leads, conversions, etc.). Per the 1st item above, as Hulu grows, a lot of people have a lot at stake in understanding what effect it may have on broadcast economics. In addition, as I pointed out recently, it is important to understand whether Hulu thinks it may have already saturated its U.S. audience. After a jump in Q1 '09 from 24.6 million to 41.6 million users, traffic actually dipped below 40 million until October. What does Hulu do from here to gain significantly more users?
3. Cable networks' primetime audience is nearly double broadcasters' - Punctuating the ascendancy of cable over broadcast, this Multichannel News article pointed out that in 2009, ad-supported cable networks as a group captured 60.7% of primetime audience vs. 32% for the 4 broadcast networks. That's a major change from 2000 when the broadcasters had a 46.8% share vs. cable's 41.2%. Cable increased its share every single year of the last decade, powered by its innovative original programming. NBCU's USA Network in particular has become the real standout performer, winning its second consecutive ratings crown, with 3.2 million average primetime viewers, up 14% vs. 2008.
The surging popularity of cable programming is a crucial barrier to consumers cutting the cord on cable. Since cable networks are highly invested in the monthly multichannel subscription model, they are unlikely to disrupt themselves by offering their best shows to others under substantially different terms than how they're offered today. So to the extent cable programs are either unavailable to over-the-top alternatives or offered less attractively (e.g. less choice, higher cost, delayed availability), little cord-cutting can be expected. And if TV Everywhere achieves its online access goals, the cable ecosystem will only be further strengthened.
4. YouTube is working to drive higher viewership - Amidst the turmoil in the traditional ecosystem and Hulu's growth, YouTube, the 800 pound gorilla of the online video world, is working hard to deepen the site's viewership. As this insightful NYTimes article explains, a team of YouTube developers is analyzing viewing patterns and tweaking its recommendation practices to encourage more usage. YouTube says time on the site has increased by 50% in the last year, and comScore reports that the average number of clips viewed per user per month jumped to 83 in October, up from 53 a year earlier. Still, as comScore also reports, duration of an average session has yet to crack 4 minutes, meaning video snacking on YouTube is still the norm. YouTube's moves must be watched closely in '10.
5. Showtime's "Weeds" available online before on DVD - This WSJ article (reg req'd) pointed out that Lionsgate, producer of Showtime's hit "Weeds" series is offering episodes online before they're available on DVD. By putting the digital "window" ahead of DVD's, Lionsgate is further pressuring DVD's appeal. We've seen periodic experimentation in this regard, and I anticipate more to come, especially as the universe of convergence devices expands and consumers can watch on their TVs instead of just their computers. Until a tipping point occurs though, "Weeds" like initiatives will be the exception, not the rule.
6. Netflix goes shopping in Hollywood - And speaking of reversing distribution windows, this Bloomberg Businessweek piece was the latest to highlight Netflix's efforts to woo studios into giving it more recent releases. Netflix has of course made huge progress with its Watch Instantly streaming feature, but its appeal to heaviest users will slow at some point unless it can dramatically expand its current slate of 17K titles available online. Hollywood is understandably wary of Netflix given all the variables in play and a desire to avoid Netflix becoming master of Hollywood's post-DVD, digital future. Whether Netflix will spend heavily to obtain better rights is a major question.
7. Get ready for Google's Nexus One and Apple's "iSlate" - Unless you've really been off the grid, you're probably aware by now that two very significant mobile product releases are coming this month. Tomorrow (likely) Google will unveil the Nexus One, its own smartphone, powered by its Android 2.1 operating system. The Nexus One will be "unlocked," meaning it can operate on multiple providers using GSM networks. The device will further fuel the mobile Internet, and mobile video consumption along with it. Separately, Apple is widely rumored to introduce its tablet computer later in the month, which many believe will be called the "iSlate." The tablet market is completely virgin territory, and while it's early to make predictions, I believe Apple could have most of the ingredients needed to make the product another big hit. The prospect of watching high-quality video on a thin, light, user-friendly device is extremely compelling.
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.
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.