The name Margaret Anne Lake might not ring too many bells. But if you were in the UK towards the end of the twentieth century, you’ll be familiar with her alter-ego Mystic Meg.
Having made her name as an astrologer in The Sun, Meg was catapulted into the national consciousness when she was given a slot on the fledgling prime time National Lottery draw programme.
In an attempt to build excitement and pad out an event that took two minutes to complete, Meg was brought in to ‘predict’ the winners.
Her predictions were suitably vague.
The norm was something generally along the lines of “the winner would live in a house with a 3 in the number, in a town beginning with L or M and have bought their tickets from a woman.” with a sprinkling of astrological terminology for extra authenticity.
However it would seem that back in the mid-to-late 1990s Meg wasn’t the only one struggling to see what the future held. Far away from the glamour of TV, a number of well-paid businessmen were busy making decisions that would see their organisations squander their dominant positions.
And a couple of weeks ago, after struggling along for years, both HMV and Blockbuster UK, once leaders in their categories, hit the buffers and called in the administrators.
The phrase caught on, partly because it made a point in a catchy way. But like many wisdoms, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Just because something works now, doesn’t mean it always will. And those in position of responsibility have an obligation to future proof their organisation.
Back when Mystic Meg was in her pomp, the digital revolution that helped bring about the demise of both retailers was in its infancy. But signs of its potential were there, particularly for HMV.
The first was how people acquired their music.
Software that ripped files from physical storage, coupled with faster web connections, gave birth to peer-to-peer sharing. Programmes like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire removed the need for physical reproduction and distribution.
The whole entertainment industry never really came to terms with illegal downloads, opting to use legal threats and emotional blackmail, rather than adapting their businesses to meet the demand.
In reality, not all pirated content would ever have been bought legally. Peer-to-peer applications offered users the freedom to sample new artists they would never have paid for and get digital versions of music they already owned physically, easily and without it costing them money.
One of the reasons people wanted their music digitally is the second reason the digital revolution helped bring about the demise of the likes of HMV – the way people consumed and stored music.
The emergence of the digital music player, culminating in the release of the iPod in 2001 meant that people also wanted their music in a new format. They could now store their entire collection on one machine.
When people had upgraded their vinyl to cassette, and then their cassettes to CDs, HMV had been in pole position and reaped the profits. However a digital format didn’t require physical stores and HMV didn’t react. Their model was suddenly ‘broke’, but they didn’t realise in time to fix it.
Can such demises be avoided? The future is notoriously hard to predict, but there are some guidelines that can help companies avoid suffering a similar fate to HMV.
1. Be alert to new and niche competitors
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, HMV may have considered their competition to be the likes of Tower Records, Virgin and Woolworths. When they all disappeared, it might have seemed that HMV had won the battle. In reality they were all killed by the same bullet. The game changed as companies diversified.
Back in 1981, following a dispute with Apple Corps, Apple Computing agreed not to enter the music business. Now, iTunes offers over 28,000,000 songs.
Just because someone isn’t a direct competitor now, doesn’t mean they never will be.
2. Keep an eye on the Path to Purchase
HMV didn’t suffer because people suddenly stopped wanting to buy new music or watch films. What changed was how people acquired their material.
Online downloads provided a new way to access digital music. For those who wanted physical media, Amazon et al provided an alternative way to buy CDs and DVDs. Now that nearly 80% of UK households have broadband connections, consumers can stream films at the press of a button or watch a dedicated Movies channel.
Sometimes people will still want physical media immediately, but just not often enough to sustain a business as big as HMV.
3. Understand the next generation
Many years ago, I worked in Woolworths. A large proportion of the music we sold was to youngsters spending their pocket money on their latest idol. While online might have been niche in the mid-to-late-90s, the youngsters of today have grown up with it. As a result, consumers under 35 won’t have had the opportunity to develop an engrained habit of buying their music in physical stores like HMV. Buying entertainment online is no longer an alternative, but the norm.
4. Play to your strengths
While online retailers can offer lower prices and a wider catalogue, physical retailers offer immediacy and have the opportunity to provide enhanced in-store engagement.
Shoppers want convenience, value and experience.
Browsing for and buying music, film and computer games ought to be a fun, pleasurable act. Online shopping will continue to grow across pretty much every category. Physical retailers need to understand their role in fulfilling shoppers’ needs. Sometimes it will be about delivering the product quickly and easily, but sometimes it will be making the act of shopping an enjoyable experience that merits a slight price premium.
5. Be prepared to change
Taking all of the above into account, it might be easier to spot how a business structure that is dominant now might not be so successful in the future. It is often said that defending a title is harder than winning it in the first place.
However, it can be done.
McDonalds have long dominated the fast food industry. Just over a decade ago, their restaurants were tacky red and yellow places with plastic seats.
Yet they saw that their competition was no longer just the likes of Burger King, but also other food outlets and increasingly the likes of Starbucks et al who offered a more pleasant in-store experience.
Now their outlets have all been refurbished with designer furniture and offer free wifi.
They also observed other trends that would impact them. From obesity to ethical sourcing of produce and packaging, they adapted their business to stay one step ahead.
Their menu still offers the old favourites, but also includes lighter options. Their burgers come from British and Irish farms and much of their packaging is made predominantly from recycled materials.
As a result, they are still thriving on the high street.
It’s fair to say that in the past ten years, the pace of technology has evolved at an ever-increasing rate. The way in which devices have changed, and with it our use of them, was humourously summed up in the above cartoon from The New Yorker. Digital trends have affected the way we communicate, the way we consume media, and indeed the way we consume goods and services, i.e. shop.
So it is a little surprising to many – your humble correspondent included – that we still have to put up with a film being released in one country one day, and in another months later. That we still have to wait a certain number of months for a film to amble its way from the cinema screens to our home, whether on Blu-ray / DVD or on VOD. It’s interesting to note that vertical integration isn’t a key issue; Disney recently launched the second subscription video on demand (SVOD) service in Europe, with a library of constantly refreshed titles that can be viewed on platforms ranging from TVs to Xbox to iPads. Indeed, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger announced way back in 2005 in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he foresaw a day of collapsed release windows, when a film came out the same day at the cinema as it was available to watch in the home:
We’d be better off as a company and an industry if we compressed that window. We could spend less money pushing the box office and get to the next window sooner where a movie has more perceived value to the consumer because it’s more fresh.
So there is money to be saved in such an exercise. Yet seven years later, such a situation is still mostly a fantasy for major films. Studios have undoubtedly dipped their toe in the water, and some moderate success has been seen on the indie scene, specifically with recent films like Margin Call, Melancholia and Arbitrage. The former film was released simultaneously in the cinema and on VOD (seemingly only in the US, however), eventually recording strong results, months after its initial release at Sundance Film Festival. Again, what is the justification for such a change in platform release timings? Not meeting consumer desires and addressing piracy, but simple cost savings. Variety reports:
“We’re a star-driven culture, and on a crowded (VOD) menu, what are you going to be drawn to?” posits WME Global head Graham Taylor, who adds that with marketing budgets skyrocketing, the ability to use a single campaign across closely spaced bows on multiple platforms is an important cost savings.
The whole situation is quite frustrating for any fan of film or television. It is a frustration shared by Frederic Filloux, co-author of the excellent blog Monday Note, which Zeitgeist strongly recommends to anyone with an interest in insightful thoughts and reasoning on media industry goings-on.
Their most recent post also happened to detail the author’s frustrations with such seemingly arbitrary release windows. One of the most pertinent charts displays the achingly slow rate of change in platform release changes, that is so at odds with the pace of change in other media (above). The content of the post has rational recommendations, which at first glance seem eminently appropriate and overdue for implementation. Some of the recommendations though fail to account for the fact that the film industry and its machinations are often governed by winds of irrationality.
To summarise, Filloux recommends a global day-and date, shorter, more flexible window of time between cinema and home release. There are a number of obstacles to these ideas though. Firstly, exhibitors must be placated. They hold such a sway over studios that they cannot easily be ignored. Bob Iger, in the interview mentioned earlier, mentions exhibitors as being a key obstacle. Think about it, why on earth would a cinema want their film to be available in the comfort of their audience’s home any sooner than it already is? It wants to enforce scarcity, so that when the film’s marketing machine is at its height, the cinema is the only place you can see it. As already mentioned, indie films have had some success with multi-platform releases, but even these have met with consternation from exhibitors, as a recent example in Canada shows. The consternation becomes outright war for larger films. Zetigeist reported when, in 2010, many exhibitors refused to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland when the studio, Disney, flirted with releasing the film to home release less than four months after its theatrical debut. After much back and forth, exhibitors eventually relented, and the film went on to gross over a billion dollars at the global box office. Exhibitors are not going to be convinced about flat release windows anytime soon. They are perhaps the largest roadblock to such a move, and the largest point of advocating a return to vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition that was the case until the Paramount Decree in 1948.
Moreover, while the argument about having flexible, shifting window releases depending upon a film’s success is logical, it does not acknowledge the existence of sleeper hits, films which do not open to huge returns but gradually accrue it over months of release (as illustrated by Margin Call, mentioned earlier). It would also be hard to define when a movie “succeeds” or “bombs”. You could use box office as a figure, but would this be without context, as a ratio of the film’s budget, or against its current peers? Using box office fails to take awards – principally Oscar – coverage into consideration, which invariably adds its own box office bump to a movie when it is nominated or wins.
The recommendation for simultaneous worldwide release is also a valid point. Zeitgeist has written before on the ridiculous prices pirated films go for in markets that have no access to the official product. To their credit, studios are moving further toward a “day and date” system. However, doing so exclusively would be dangerous. Releasing some films market by market allows the studio to gauge audience reaction, and if necessary tinker with the marketing or the film itself. Staggering release dates is also necessary for cultural events, such as the World Cup, which may be more relevant to some countries than others.
It is the last point made in the article, that of making TV shows “universally available from the day when they are aired on TV” that Zeitgeist could not agree more with. Apart from audience frustration – and recent technological development such as DVR show how the opportunity can shape viewer habits – such a move would also surely divert people from resorting to illegal downloading.
To conclude, while there are caveats and significant roadbumps to be addressed, and some progress has been made over the years, the film industry has a long way to go in a short time if it wants to catch up with consumer habits. Flat release windows should be an inevitability, and a priority. Moreover, they should not be seen purely as cost-saving measure, but as an important way of keeping an increasingly technologically and globally savvy customer base happy.
The still controversial theory of evolution doesn’t just apply to living things. In any environment, failure to adapt to new circumstances can lead to extinction in an unsettlingly quick manner. A teenaged Zeitgeist’s former weekend employer Woolworths provides a recent example of how quickly a large organisation can crumble to nothing if they don’t change with the times.
Just as the printing press began a process of democratising knowledge and ultimately power, new digital platforms have upset the established forms of distributing media.
Zeitgeist has previously commented on how the film and music industries have attempted to adapt to new consumption habits, the threat of piracy and distribution.
Another industry that has become old fashioned very quickly is print media. Not so long ago, if you wanted to read a book, magazine or newspaper you had to buy one – and the public had no problem with that model.
Why buy a copy of the news as it was at 3am when you can get up to date news for free? Why buy a month-old magazine when there are many blogs and sites offering free opinion?
The old kingdoms are being forced to do battle in a new arena. Their problem in a nutshell is that as consumers move from print to online, revenues drop and barely cover operational costs – if at all. For many, the huge presses and infrastructures that previously provided an effective barrier to entry now hang around their necks like an albatross-shaped noose.
Newspapers simply need to generate more income from their online offering, as The New Yorker wrote in 2008.
One tactic that has been attempted by certain publications is the introduction of a paywall. In short this means users have to pay in order to be able to access content online. If your content is unique and special, people will pay – Zeitgeist parts with hard cash to access resources such as Mintel and Datamonitor and individuals pay to access Which? and Parkers.
The latest titles to erect a paywall are Rupert Murdoch‘s The Times and Sunday Times, which will charge £1 per day or £2 per week for access from June 1st, with The Sun and News of the World to follow soon.
Catch ‘em while you can!
The theory behind paywalls is partly ideological – people should pay to access content – why should it be given away for nothing? Compared to the £1 price for the print edition, £2 for a weeks access looks like a good deal to the subscriber. Unfortunately economic models built on ideal rather than actual behaviour rarely thrive. Disappointingly for Murdoch, consumers, even those who favour The Times, will compare the £2 subscription fee with the free online access provided by the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mail, The Mirror et al or alternative news sources such as Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Times assistant editor Tom Whitwell accepts that “drive-by traffic will fall significantly”, adding that “The focus is preparing to serve a small, paying audience.”
Quite how small remains to be seen. The recent experiment by Johnston Press to build a paywall around their regional based content is rumoured to have attracted fewer than ten subscribers. The wall was quickly dismantled and no comments have been forthcoming on the failure of the project.
Recent research in the UK by KPMG doesn’t bode well either – only 10% of the people they spoke to said that they were likely to become paid subscibers to ANY media products in the next year.
Worse still, a PCI/Harris Interactive poll conducted in 2009 found that only 5% of people would pay to read their favourite newspaper online.
Even former PM Gordon Brown spoke out against paywalls stating vaguely, “People have got used to getting content without having to pay. I don’t think you are going to be able to put things behind paywalls in the way that people think.”
Nor is this a British idiosyncrasy, with a US study revealing that only 7% of Americans would continue to visit their favourite news site if they put up a paywall.
None of this has deterred Murdoch, who has enjoyed great success with his SkyTV network in the UK, which introduced Britons to the idea of paying to watch a previously free (licence fee notwithstanding) service. Arguably, the main difference is that Sky has unique content and subscribers are paying for all the channels, not for each channel individually. Replicating the model with online news is going to be very difficult to do.
So, will the future of news content provision echo the scenes of 65 million years ago as smaller agile providers succeed while the old, previously dominant organisations struggle to survive? And will paywalls delay or accelerate the decline? Let’s wait and see, there’s bound to be a free site somewhere that will report the result.