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.
Following are 4 items worth noting for the Nov 2nd week:
1. Media company and service provider earnings underscore improvements in economy - This was earnings week for the bulk of the publicly-traded media companies and video service providers, and the general theme was modest increases in financial performance, due largely to the rebounding economy. The media companies reporting - CBS, News Corp, Time Warner. Discovery, Viacom and the Rainbow division of Cablevision - showed ongoing strength in their cable networks, with broadcast networks improving somewhat from earlier this year. For ad-supported online video sites, plus anyone else that's ad-supported, indications of a healthier ad climate are obviously very important.
Meanwhile the video service providers reporting - Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and DirecTV all showed revenue gains, a clear reminder that even in recessionary times, the subscription TV business is quite resilient. Cable operators continued their trend of losing basic subscribers to emerging telco competitors (with evidence that DirecTV might now be as well), though they were able to offset these losses largely through rate increases. Though some people believe "cord-cutting" due to new over-the-top video services is real, this phenomenon hasn't shown up yet in any of the financial results. Nor do I expect it will for some time either, as numerous building blocks still need to fall into place (e.g. better OTT content, mass deployment of convergence devices, ease-of-use, etc.)
2. Blu-ray players could help drive broadband to the TV - Speaking of convergence devices, two articles this week highlighted the role that Blu-ray players are having in bringing broadband video to the living room. The WSJ and Video Business both noted that Blu-ray manufacturers see broadband connectivity as complementary to the disc value proposition, and are moving forward aggressively on integrating this feature. Blu-ray can use all the help it can get. According to statistics I recently pulled from the Digital Entertainment Group, in Q3 '09, DVD players continue to outsell Blu-ray players by an almost 5 to 1 ratio (15 million vs. 3.3 million). Cumulatively there are only 11.2 Blu-ray compatible U.S. homes, vs. 92 million DVD homes.
Still, aggressive price-cutting could change the equation. I recently noticed Best Buy promoting one of its private-label Insignia Blu-ray players, with Netflix Watch Instantly integrated, for just $99. That's a big price drop from even a year ago. Not surprisingly, Netflix's Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandros said "streaming apps are the killer apps for Blu-ray players." Of course, Netflix execs would likely say that streaming apps are also the killer apps for game devices, Internet-connected TVs and every other device it is integrating its Watch Instantly software into. I've been generally pessimistic about Blu-ray's prospects, but price cuts and streaming could finally move the sales needle in a bigger way.
3. Apple lurks, but how long will it stay quiet in video? - The week got off to a bang with a report that Apple is floating a $30/mo subscription idea by TV networks. While I think the price point is far too low for Apple to be able to offer anything close to the comprehensive content lineup current video service providers have, it was another reminder that Apple lurks as a major potential video disruptor. How long will it stay quiet is the key question.
While in my local Apple store yesterday (yes I'm preparing to finally ditch my PC and go Mac), I saw the new 27 inch iMac for the first time. It was a pretty stark reminder that Apple is just a hair's breadth away from making TVs itself. Have you seen this beast yet? It's Hummer-esque as a workstation for all but the creative set, but, stripped of some of its computing power to cost-reduce it, it would be a gorgeous smaller-size TV. Throw in iTunes, a remote, decent content, Apple's vaunted ease-of-use and of course its coolness cachet and the company could fast re-order the subscription TV industry, not to mention the TV OEM industry. The word on the street is that Apple's next big product launch is a "Kindle-killer" tablet/e-reader, so it's unlikely Steve Jobs would steal any of that product's thunder by near-simultaneously introducing a TV. If a TV's coming (and I'm betting it is), it's likely to be 2H '10 at the earliest.
4. Get ready for the "Anywhere" revolution - Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to Emily Green, president and CEO of tech research firm Yankee Group, deliver a keynote in which she previewed themes and data from her forthcoming book, "Anywhere: How Global Connectivity is Revolutionizing the Way We Do Business." Emily is an old friend, and 15 years ago when she was a Forrester analyst and I was VP of Biz Dev at Continental Cablevision (then the 3rd largest cable operator), she was one of the few people I spoke to who got how important high-speed Internet access was, and how strategic it would become for the cable industry. 40 million U.S. cable broadband homes later (and 70 million overall) amply validates both points.
Emily's new book explores how the world will change when both wired and wireless connectivity are as pervasive as electricity is today. No question the Internet and cell phones have already dramatically changed the world, but Emily makes a very strong case that we ain't seen nothing yet. I couldn't help but think that TV Everywhere is arriving just in time for video service providers whose customers increasingly expect their video anywhere, anytime and on any device. "Anywhere" will be a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of how revolutionary pervasive connectivity is.
Enjoy your weekends!
Last week a journalist interviewing me for a story asked: "Which industry or industries are potentially threatened the most by the rise of broadband video and on-demand usage?"
It's a tough question to answer because there are so many different variables at play. However, if pressed, my answer would have to be local broadcast TV stations. Taking aside the current WGA strike which exposes yet another industry vulnerability, local TV stations find themselves on the short end of just about every macro trend being driven by broadband and on-demand adoption. To thrive in the future, stations are going to have to radically reinvent their business models. It's by no means an impossible task, but it is going to require savvy and aggressive strategic moves.
Consider the perfect storm local stations are up against:
1. Broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC) are avidly pursuing broadband distribution of their hit shows, creating competition to the traditional model of geographic programming exclusivity for local stations. Initiatives such as Hulu and CBS's Audience Network can be thought of as 'digital replicas" of the old analog affiliate model. Networks have gotten broadband religion; notwithstanding their finessed protestations, they're only going to be increasing their digital bets, leaving their affiliates with new competition for eyeballs at every turn.
2. On demand viewing is shattering prime time viewership and the all important "lead-in" to late news broadcasts. Between DVRs and VOD, more and more of the world is habituating itself to watching programs when they want to, not when they originally ran. So appointment viewing is out and along with it the concept of audience aggregation. Strip out prime time and the local station needs to build audience for its own shows and newscasts by itself.
3. Local news, weather and sports content are the mainstays of local newscasts, yet the availability of this kind of content is becoming pervasive and conveniently accessible. Remember when you had to stay up late to find out what the scores were? Doesn't that seem quaint now? These days every spec of information about these key categories is just a click away, further undermining local newscasts' value.
4. Advertisers have more options than ever and are gradually going to move spending to approaches that are both more ROI-centric (e.g. Google) and a better match for their customers' media behavior. Think about it - if you're a Honda, Scion or Volkswagen dealer targeting younger demos, is local TV really the best way to reach this audience? The range of options for local advertisers is already robust and is only going to become more so in the future.
All of this said, however, all is not lost by any stretch. With the right leadership, I happen to believe that local stations can find ways to manage their way through the chaotic days ahead. Tops on my list would be embracing broadband as a new programming platform to leverage their local expertise, blasting their content out through every possible distribution path, radically re-training their ad sales teams to be Internet-literate, cross platform-obsessed warriors and re-creating their brands' perceptions for the broadband and on-demand era.
Broadcast TV stations need to look no further than their cross-town rival newspapers to understand the gale-force competitive winds coming their way. Hopefully with these examples plainly visible, they'll prepare themselves appropriately.
Not breaking news now, but Hulu lifted the veil of secrecy a bit today, releasing some screen shots and setting up a private beta (I'm trying to yank some strings to get access), in advance of a planned public launch early next year.
Hulu's been surrounded by a bunch of naysayers from the beginning, though much of the nay-ing has been based on little else than cheap shots about the name, delayed launch, etc. Things that in the grand scheme of things mean virtually nothing in my opinion and only serve to distract attention from the real question at hand: can Hulu become NBC and Fox's (for now) formula for success in the broadband video era?
Now it's time for Hulu to silence the rabble. Until I get my own hands on it, I'm going to reserve in-depth commentary. But at least several things that look intriguing:
More thoughts on Hulu to come.
Change is afoot in the TV business. The traditional world of networks’ hit programs being distributed exclusively through local broadcast TV affiliates is being challenged broadband delivery.
The challenge began modestly about a year and half ago, but more recently it has picked up significant steam. Back in October 2005 Disney/ABC made headlines with a deal to have select programs available for paid download via iTunes. Next up was a trial in the spring of 2006 to test consumer and advertiser interest in streaming full episodes of select programs at ABC.com. When ABC launched this officially in the fall of 2006, the other major networks joined in the action. By my recent count there are now over 40 progams available for ad-supported, free streaming.
Broadband’s Long Arm Reaches into the Broadcast Industry
Therefore, I think there are at least 5 key elements in any plan for local broadcasters to prosper in the broadband era:
1. Become online distributors of networks’ programs
Change is afoot in the TV business. Broadband threatens to re-order the industry’s traditional participants into new winners and losers. Broadcasters need to run fast to stay in the first group. Let’s keep an eye on how they do.
Today’s announcement from NBC and News Corp, that they have set up a venture to distribute full length programs plus promotional clips through 4 major distributors (with more to come) heralds a potentially new, and radically different era, for the broadcast, and possibly the cable TV industries.
In one fell swoop, 2 of the major broadcast networks have granted distribution rights to four of the Internet’s most-trafficked sites. If one assumes that it is inevitable that the broadband/PC world will be linked up with consumers’ living room TVs (whether through AppleTVs, Xboxes, Slingcatchers, etc.), then it sure seems to me as though we are on the brink of seeing a full-scale digital replica of the analog broadcast TV affiliate model being born. If that’s the case, what does that mean for existing players, most notably local broadcast TV stations? And how about cable TV and satellite operators, who have long relied on retransmitting high-quality feeds local broadcast feeds of network programming as a staple of their value proposition?
I’ve been writing about how the video distribution value chain is being impacted by broadband video for a while now. My March 2006 newsletter, “How Broadband is Changing Video Distribution” recapped my firm’s Q1 2006 report, “How Broadband is Creating a New Generation of Video Distributors: The Market Opportunity for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Apple and Others”. In this report we identified these companies as a so-called ‘Group of 5” which were best-positioned to benefit as new broadband-centric distributors and explained our reasons for this conclusion.
Flash forward one year. Today’s announcement cements the distribution heft of 3 of the 5 (Yahoo, MSN and AOL). Meanwhile, Google’s acquisition of YouTube has strengthened its distribution prowess. If it can build on initial partnerships with the many content providers with which it works, its power will only grow. And of course, Apple now boasts almost 60 TV networks and content producers providing programming to iTunes. Its launch of AppleTV strengthens its hand as the hardware provider-of-choice in linking up the broadband and TV worlds.
We’re exploring all of this in a report we’re (quite coincidentally) working on right now, which examines broadband’s impact on the video distribution value chain. It both updates the Q1 2006 report, and also expands it to include the roles of emerging players such as Joost, BitTorrent, Wal-Mart and others. We’ve been very fortunate to have access to many of the players in the space to gain unparalleled insights into their plans. The report is due out soon. I’ll keep you posted on its progress.
At Broadband Directions, one of the mantras is that open broadband access allows all kinds of traditional media companies with no video heritage to get into the video business. Newspapers are a perfect example. Since our report last summer on the top 40 U.S. newspapers, I’ve been closely tracking their progress in broadband video.
Reading WSJ Online’s coverage of the NBC-News Corp deal I was very impressed with their approach. If you have an online subscription, the page is available by clicking here. Part way into the story, there were 2 video windows displayed, each with a caption describing the video. Clicking the play button resulted in an in-line, high-quality video. One with reporter Martin Peers, and the other an interview with S&P analyst Tuna Amobi. Both with unobtrusive 5 second pre-roll ads. Truly a “multimedia” experience. I thought it was a great example of how far at least one newspaper has come in incorporating video into their presentation of the news. A real user experience win.
Coicidentally, I’m going to have Bob Leverone, VP of Video at Dow Jones (who oversees WSJ.com video, among other properties) on my Cable Show ’07 panel in Las Vegas on May 9th.
I think it will be a great opportunity for attendees to hear how yet another competitor is moving into video.