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Regulating in the face of digital disruption

April 30, 2014 1 comment

peter-c-vey--these-new-regulations-will-fundamentally-change-the-way-we-get-around-the…-new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6596-IDO2100ZHaving studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).

Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.

Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.

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East and West shook up a regulatory framework with the recent release of “300: Rise of an Empire” via China’s Tencent website

Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,

“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”

Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,

“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”

While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.

The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.

UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.

Beyond the Linear – New ways of entertaining

January 20, 2013 1 comment

Audience-clapping2

The days of P.T. Barnum, and the sense of spectacle an audience received from seeing a live performance have long passed; codified, commodotised, sanitised and made instantly available. Or have they? The way we entertain ourselves nowadays has changed greatly, and keeps changing. But are our tastes evolving or revolving? Is there hope for such seeming anachronisms as the TV, the live performance and even the book?

Two years ago, Zeitgeist wrote a brief article on the nature of contemporary consumption of media. It began with the headline that 8-18 year olds in the US spend a quarter of their media time with multiple devices. Furthermore, almost a quarter of that age group use one other device most of the time while watching television. In 2013, this preference for multiple stimuli has only accelerated. 80% of UK smartphone owners (making up over half the phone-owning population) use their phones while watching the TV. Similar figures were reported in the US, and similar figures were also reported for tablet owners.  Such figures give marketers pause for thought as they begin to approach these complementary devices as ways to extend their brand from the television onto the second screen. JWT Intelligence has a great report on this.

However, it is easy to overstate the arrival of shiny, new devices, and the apparent death of television. The blame for this misconception lies partly with the media itself; journalism is less engaging when it merely reports on the maintenance of the status quo (i.e. ‘people are still watching TV’). Far more interesting to hear about what new objects are showing a bit of ankle at CES, and that us mere mortals might one day dare to dream of owning ourselves, at which point all other material objects become unnecessary. All the more so when the journalistic integrity is compromised by corporate meddling, as was the case with CNET’s reporting this year. It was refreshing then to read TechCrunch’s recent article with the headline, ‘TV still King in Media Consumption’. The article, quoting a recent report by Nielsen, was particularly interesting in noting the prevalence of TV when it referenced that almost half the homes with TVs in the US owned four or more sets. Startling. More startling, the average household spends six days a month watching television, far ahead of other media consumption (using the Internet on a computer, at a little over 28 hours a month, came a distant second). The FT writes,

Over the past decade, despite the proliferation of video content on the web, TV consumption in the UK has remained steady with the average person watching about four hours a day. Almost 80 per cent of this viewing is on the top five channels, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

Creative destruction is something Zeitgeist takes an active interest in and has written about several times before on this blog. It takes hold in some industries (and households in this case) more quickly than in others. The same Nielsen study found that over 55% of US homes still had working VCRs. Moreover, despite much editorial to the contrary over recent years, the PC has not yet been wiped out by creative destruction and remains a staple for several reasons in both Western and emerging economies. According to Deloitte’s recent publication, “Technology, Media and Telecoms Predictions 2013″, although the attraction of tablets – and now ‘phablets’ – mean powerful computing and a cheaper cost, allowing the potential for leapfrogging of PCs in emerging markets, qualitative research shows a small but significant demand remains for PC ownership. Moreover, many businesses in the West, currently struggling with the implications of BYO devices, are not about to jettison the PC either. Switching costs, Zeitgeist suspects, are at play here, as with those stubborn VCR owners. Click here for more of our thoughts on switching costs.

VCR owners though will one day cease to be in the majority. New avenues of distribution and consumption are opening up, though not as quickly as first thought in some cases, particularly in that of live, streaming TV, which has faced many regulatory hurdles. Variety elaborates, “Loudly trumpeted efforts have fallen short, victims of poor design decisions, overpriced services and/or confusion about the target audience”. Yet alternatives are there. One of the more interesting streaming TV options in the US currently is that of Dyle, with 90 stations in 35 markets. It is run by a partnership that includes Fox, NBC, Hearst Television and others. The really interesting thing about the service is that it neutralises the problem many smartphone users will have of returning data caps by streaming off a separate network spectrum, which doesn’t impact on data allowances. Nice thinking.

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content they prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content viewers prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Though new technology has not created new tastes in content or viewing habits, it has undeniably acted as a catalyst to desires already present. Zeitgeist remembers hearing a LoveFilm representative speak last year at AdTech in London about the increasing share streaming films took in the marketplace. Nothing too extraordinary in that statement, especially from a purveyor of streaming content. The rub came when he went on to elaborate that people tend to stream films when they are in the mood for instant gratification, in the form usually of an action film or romantic comedy. The increasing popularity of streaming, and therefore the increasing popularity of these particular genres, means the way the medium is distributed may very likely have a very significant influence on the type of content in the future that is commissioned. It was no surprise then to see, on a recent cinema trip, trailers for three films that neatly fit into that category for instant gratification (see above). Zeitgeist wrote at length on the need for film studios to address arbitrary platform release windows at the end of last year. Our article was mentioned in the lead editorial of entertainment trade paper Variety. Part of our argument is beginning to be addressed already. The FT recently published news that studios had managed to stem the six year decline in home viewing figures for films last year. The article elaborates that this is in part due to the strength of digital downloads, with films sometimes being available for digital distribution before they were available on DVD. Taken 2, a superb candidate for streaming given the previous statement by LoveFilm, was released Christmas Day in the US on digital platforms, “weeks before its release on DVD”. Such thinking goes hand-in-hand with the new UltraViolet format, to which several studios are subscribing. This allows those purchasing a movie on DVD – such as the recent Dark Knight Rises – to watch it with ease on multiple platforms. Mashable carried an article last week stating that several electronics firms have now also signed up to the UltraViolet partnership. Consumers will receive ten free movies when they sign up to the service, as incentive.

The example of Netflix is an interesting one in trying to understand the balance between consumers’ desire for multiple media and instantly-accessible content, and content owners desires to drive maximum revenue from their product. The company has been making a bigger push into providing TV shows of late, and is being rewarded for it, particularly with regard to older shows. A cultural trend many a pundit has put their finger on since the credit crunch began to bite back in 2008, nostalgia has manifested itself in consumers’ desire for old shows, including Midsomer Murders and Rising Damp, reports the FT. This long tail effect is turning a tidy profit for Netflix, as well as the original broadcaster, ITV. As a complement to this, the company is also fostering new partnerships, first with Disney in December, giving it “exclusive rights from 2016 to movies from Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, and Disneynature”. Then, at the beginning of this year, it inked a deal with Warner Brothers, to show new and old TV shows from the studio. It should be noted however, as with all these new deals and technological developments and marches into previously uncharted territory, regulatory wranglings have ensued, in this case with sister company Time Warner Cable. The problem in this situation is not perhaps so much that Netflix is trying hard to push its availability into lateral markets, but that it is not trying hard enough to create a cohesive platform that is available across all complementary platforms and devices.

AccentureDevicesReport2013

Research from Accenture illustrates a declining demand for single-use devices

One thing which Netflix will want desperately to escape being accused of – and it has done so with much success thus far – is being a niche provider of content. Sadly, the days of the point-and-shoot camera, the dedicated games console, etc., are numbered, according to a recent report by Accenture. It is evidently with such a strategic outlook in mind that Disney have recently announced their Infinity gaming platform. Variety describes it as an “online treasure chest”, featuring a plethora of Disney characters from over the years that can be interacted with over multiple platforms, whether on mobile or on videogame consoles. Importantly, the concept is designed to be an iterative, one that will grow and add characters over time, presumably as new IP is created. It certainly pays heed to the second screen phenomenon by recognising the need for multiple device access. It also plays off the trend started by the game ‘Skylanders’, which involves both physical toys and digital interaction. The same principle will apply with new toys developed for Infinity, which can then be used to create unique stories and drive narratives. The idea of having disparate characters from different Disney franchises is potentially a frightening one for those in charge of the individual brand essences of said titles, but the potential for success can be found by looking no further than the Toy Story films, which feature an assortment of different genre toys that mix well in situ.

We’ve discussed the changing models of consumption for most of the article, but it is worth noting briefly how our cultural tastes are also changing, brought on by technology (again), but also globalisation. Pundits are often quick to point out nowadays that there is a substantial demand for the live experience. Yet if we look at music, one of the most profound things to experience live, recent figures showed attendance to concerts had dipped. At the end of last year, in an insightful roundtable, The New York Times interviewed several talking heads, asking them to round up their thoughts on 2012 in the music industry. One of the more interesting points repeatedly made was that of the abundant opportunity that the Internet now provides for musical talent. Moreover, the Internet at large has become just as viable – if not a more viable – starting place for an emerging artist than signing with a record label:

“Now this year something’s been proven: Pop performers can become truly famous by building their careers themselves online, maybe more efficiently and faster than a major company can help them to do.

… you look at the first-week sales numbers of someone like Kendrick Lamar, who had an independent album that was digital only and is now on [the major-label] Interscope, but basically has no major radio hits, even if he is well-liked by mainstream hip-hop. He comes out and sells about 240,000 in his first week. A couple weeks later Rihanna comes out — not her first album and at the height of her pop fame — and sells a few thousand less than Kendrick did.”

The other trend, globalisation, has meant that voices increasingly other than those that are Western, are more easily heard. The irrepressible Psy had the honour of being the performer in the first YouTube video to cross one billion views. Conversely, in his home country of South Korea, ‘Gangnam Style’ has accrued a pitiful “$50,000 from CD sales and $61,000 from 3.6m downloads”. The point remains, however, that the fallacy of the West as the cradle of pop culture is being exposed. Christopher Caldwell illustrates this masterfully, writing for the FT in December.

Boston Consulting Group digital services 2015

Zeitgeist has written before about the upheaval new trends and preferences for media consumption – impacted significantly by the arrival of the Internet – have wrought on financial growth in the media and entertainment sector. Digital, in the form of Napster and its myrmidons in particular, has a lot to answer for. There was some relief then that at the beginning of the year when UK digital sales topped GBP1 billion for the first time (though still failing to off-set the physical media decline). Moreover, Boston Consulting Group predicted last month – in an excellent report entitled Changing Engines in Midflight: The 2012 TMT Value Creators Report – that by 2015 the digital services ecosystem will reach $1 trillion by 2015 (see above).

It is interesting to see where the ownership of content starts and ends across layers, and how content owners are trying to monetise these platforms and grab as much market share as possible from their competitors. Amazon recently began offering digital downloads of any CD you have purchased from them since 1998. It would be a great surprise to see if they do the same for books anytime soon. Fortunately, reading still constitutes an avenue of entertainment, for those of all ages. A recent piece by The New York Times reported that digital reading was on the rise for children. The article notes the numbers give some room for discrepancy, but states “about one-fourth of the boys who had read an e-book said they were reading more books for fun”, which is a desperately important emotional connection to maintain. While e-reading is a commendable past-time, is there any merit in pushing further, and advocating for interacting with a medium that does not involve a digital display? Such a turn of events, perhaps aided by the trend for nostalgia mentioned earlier, is presenting itself in the luxury hotel market, with physical libraries returning to shelves. It has been termed ‘rematerialism’.

So what does this all mean for consumer entertainment? There are evidently lots of new technologies being released, from smart TVs to new gaming devices, that will attempt to capture eyeballs. These devices, far from having to think of their natural competitors, still have the common television – and, as we have seen, even VCRs – to compete with and overthrow first. TV commands such a huge slice of viewing time, but it is under threat from distracted viewers who are now very comfortable – and more importantly socially accepting – of using a tablet, laptop or phone during a show. There are also regulatory implications t consider, which will most likely be shaped, ex-post, along the way. Taking consumers on a journey across multiple platforms and media in a seamless way will be key. Disney’s Infinity platform, when it is released, will hopefully serve as an excellent example to others of how to combine physical and digital entertainment.

On Google’s HK move

Nietzsche said that are “no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena”. Zeitgeist has been closely following news of Google pulling out of China to the somewhat more independently-minded Hong Kong over recent days, prompted by cyberattacks that have come from within China. Moving to HK will allow Google to ‘uncensor’ itself. Yesterday Jonathan Zittrain, whom Zeitgeist have previously written about, spoke out via Skype on the issue and its ramifications (via TechCrunch). It makes for interesting watching.

These machinations raise questions about the ramifications of adjusted information, which people are all too willing to accept when it is “free” (financially speaking). It also might raise concern in a more general sense about how we go about using the Internet when one site acts as a veritable gateway.

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