Last night, Zeitgeist eagerly devoured the first episode of the new season of Netflix‘s House of Cards, a series that has received lavish praise – not least from us – both for its content and its position as vanguard of a new wave of television distribution, production and consumption. The series lead, Frank Underwood, takes on his competition with a ruthless lack of morality that is unlikely to jar with those in the cutthroat television industry. The New York Times recently featured an excellent piece on the series, focusing on the showrunner Beau Willimon, the unique nature of doing such a show with Netflix, which among other things guaranteed 26 shows upfront, and the new mood of “post-hope” politics. Is traditional linear TV entering its own post-hope state?
Such talk of impending doom makes for nice editorial (which Zeitgeist is not averse to), but how true is it? To some extent, such new forms of consumption are being hampered by externalities as the platforms make the switch from early adopters to the everyday consumer. Indeed, Netflix’s sheer popularity is proving to be a thorn in its side. In November last year, Sandvine reported that the content Netflix provides now accounts for almost a third of internet traffic in the US. This staggering figure no doubt accounts for at least part of why internet speeds take such a distinct hit during primetime viewing hours (see chart below). As Quartz has the insight to point out, such issues are less to do with intentional throttling and more to do with peering agreements between ISPs and content providers.
Such issues are likely to be ever more prevalent as the notion of net neutrality continues to come under attack. At the end of last month, a federal appeals court overturned the Federal Communication Commission’s Open Internet Order, which had stipulated that ISPs could not prejudice one type of internet traffic over another. The fear of any such policy being overturned has always been one of the creation of a two-tier internet, where people who can afford faster internet get preferential access, and companies are free to charge distributors differing amounts based on the type or amount of content they are delivering. Such consternation was also felt in government, where five US senators called on the FCC chairman to “act with expediency” to preserve the open internet. The news immediately caused concern for Netflix, as shareholders fretted that ISPs might start to charge the company for the traffic it takes up. CEO Reed Hastings responded categorically,
“Were this draconian scenario to unfold with some ISP, we would vigorously protest and encourage our members to demand the open Internet they are paying their ISP to deliver.”
Consolidation and the narrowing of choice took a further hit on Wednesday this week when Comcast announced it would buy all of Time Warner Cable for $44.2bn. The choice on cable landscape is already limited for the US, so it will be interesting to see what regulators make the deal. Chad Gutstein, former COO of Ovation, an independent arts-focused cable channel, penned an article in Variety saying that any concerns over the deal should be restricted to the possibility of abuse of a dominant position, rather than simply market share.Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, writing in The New Yorker, rightly points out that the FCC should be approving such mergers only if they serve the public interest. He sees no such possibility in this instance, where the most pressing need for cable customers is lower prices. Last year, he writes, Comcast collected about $156 a month on average, per customer. For cable. Professor Wu contends that the merger would put Comcast in a position that would make it easier to raise prices further. This, despite the fact that conditions created via the merger would technically put the company in a position where it could create savings, both through economies of scale and more advantageous negotiating positions with programmers like ESPN and Viacom. Of course, Comcast is probably keen on preserving if not extending margins as it faces increasing competition from players like Netflix and Amazon. Cord cutting may be in vogue now, but Comcast will try to combat this by creating what is called ‘lock-in’. Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a consumer advocacy group, is quoted in the New York Times; “Comcast and the new, giant Comcast are going to do as much as they can to stop you from unbundling. In order for you to get content you like, you’re going to be pushed to pay the cable bill, too”. Such tactics will test the limits of customer inertia, but only if they have somewhere else to go as a viable alternative.
The switch to online viewing is also raising issues of policy change in the UK. Public service broadcaster the BBC has long left it unclear as to at what point requiring a TV licence is mandatory, leaving citizens to infer that simply owning a television set is reason enough. Recently though, the broadcaster finally clarified that owners can use their TV, with no fee, to play games, watch DVDs, basically do anything that doesn’t involve watching live television. For the moment, this also includes their IPTV offering, iPlayer. In an article earlier this month, The Economist said the fee was “becoming ever harder to justify”. Antonella Mei-Pochtler of the Boston Consulting Group, quoted in the article, believes the increasing trend of young people to timeshift their viewing is likely to become ingrained. Coupled with the growth of internet-connected TVs, this is bound to accelerate a shift away from traditional linear consumption. The BBC is soon to begin developing premium content for its iPlayer service in order to seek additional revenue streams that may offset a decline in fees paid. But as The Economist points out,
“[T]hat would suggest, dangerously, that the BBC is like any other optional subscription service. Folding on-demand services into the licence fee could also amplify calls for the BBC to share its cash with other broadcasters, not least because such consumption may be precisely measured.”
When we look at the market for television sets and set top boxes, the news isn’t that superb either. The curved TVs debuted at CES in January are surely little more than a distraction. Last week, Business Insider reported that Sony is to finally spin off its TV operations into a separate unit, amongst news of $1.1bn in losses and 5,000 job cuts. But while we’ve talked of consolidation and narrowing choice, we also need to recognise this is also a period of unprecedented choice for consumers. As a recent article on GigaOm points out, there are millions of channels on YouTube alone. There are growing pains. As consumption of such content moves “to the living room”, the article details various sub rosa negotiations by retailers like Walmart with their own video market, or players like Netflix willing to pay top dollar to put branded buttons on remote controls. What is clear, with all the issues described in this post, is that consumer choice needs to be preserved in an open market with plenty of competition. Such an environment will always foster innovation. This may breed disruption, but that doesn’t have to mean devastation. The age of linear TV viewing may be at the beginning of its end, but that doesn’t mean there’s still a lot to fight for, even if it’s a scrap. Frank Underwood wouldn’t have it any other way.
UPDATE (22/02/14): The New York Times published an interesting article comparing Netflix and HBO recently, showing how the two companies are faring financially (see image above), as well as their approaches to developing content, which started off as opposing ideologies but are slowly starting to meet in the middle as they borrow from each other’s playbook. The article quotes Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer: “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
UPDATE (22/02/14): Of course, commercial network television in general is also going through a period of consternation, slowly building since the day TiVo started shipping. At the end of last year, the Financial Times reported that share of advertising spend on television is set to end after three decades. This is partly due to a proliferation of new devices and platforms – not least of which is Netflix – but also partly due to the amount of people time-shifting their viewing and skipping through the ads along the way. Thinkbox, a lobbying arm for the television industry, recently published a blog article with accompanying chart. It illustrated how many people time-shifted a particular programme depending on the genre. For example, fewer people time-shifted the news than drama shows. But one of the key points made in the article is “that there is no significant difference in the amount of commercial TV which is recorded and played back compared with BBC equivalents. To put it another way: TV is not time-shifted in an attempt to avoid ads”. This is specious reasoning at best. While it may be true that, yes, people do not discriminate between whether they time-shift a BBC show or an ITV show, it would be totally wrong to infer that those viewers are not avoiding ads when they do appear. The article’s author is guilty of confirmation bias, not to mention grasping at straws.
“[T]he big screen. That is its natural habitat—the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. “I’m watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ It’s just awesome,” he said, adding, “To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.” And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”
- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Film can sometimes be a mercurial medium. Especially nowadays. It encompasses multiple genres, and, like food, is meant for different occasions, for different needs. Of course, sometimes we go to bad restaurants, or order in, and the experience is terrible. Uber-flop John Carter cost Disney a cool $200m, and wasted many a precious dollar and hour for those that went to see it (admittedly few). But sometimes it’s like a great burger and fries – Die Hard springs to mind – and sometimes it’s a sumptuous 6-course meal cooked by a Michelin-starrred chef – Lawrence of Arabia, or All the King’s Men. Film can stimulate us, it can teach us, and it can be a breezy bit of consumption to pass the time, like a coffee at Starbucks. Moreover, as with food, it can be consumed in different places and circumstances. There are times when the right way to watch a certain film is on your iPad in a cramped airline seat. Pure escapism. But cinema has a crucial place too.
It was interesting today, when Zeitgeist went to see a movie, that it was preceded by an announcement showing an empty cinema, covered in cobwebs and dust, bemoaning the death of the medium at the hands of pirates. Its aim was to take the audience on a guilt trip: ‘Why are you illegally downloading films?’ ‘Why aren’t you coming to see more films at the cinema?’ it pleaded. There are a couple of things strategically wrong with this approach. Firstly, what is the principle problem here? Alright, people are not going to the cinema as often as we would like. Zeitgeist remembers in a brief stint working for Fox several years ago that people went to the cinema 1.8 times a year in the UK. The Economist reports that the share of Americans who attend cinema at least once a month has declined from 30% in 2000 to 10% in 2011. The assumption is that people are instead pirating films at home, thereby depriving studios of money (ignoring research that suggests those that pirate are often avid cinema-goers, and optimistically equating every film downloaded to ticket revenue lost). Well, one quick way to address this is to make films legally available – at a sizeable premium – on multiple platforms day and date. We’ve argued this before, and entertainment trade Variety has used our argument for a lead editorial. It should be recognised, that, although the most prominent face of the film industry, cinema is not what makes the studio money; for years the bulk of profits have been made in home entertainment consumption. Furthermore, there are two fallacies here. One is that cinemas make most of their profit from the snacks people buy at the cinema, not the films themselves. If you want to increase margins, there should be a much more prominent focus on food options, and that means offering a wider, more tempting range of food to be eaten, which is then promoted more effectively. The way such snacks are currently promoted – “Let’s all go the lobby” – has not altered for a half century. Lastly and most egregiously, the communication is completely misdirected, talking to the very audience who is already doing what the ad asks them to do. The ad is shown nowhere but the cinema, therefore only people who go to the cinema will be subject to this guilt trip. To avoid feeling guilty, one can avoid the ad by avoiding the cinema. The logic is completely twisted. Negative communications have been shown to be much less effective in influencing behaviour than positive affirmation. So let’s think about a way to promote cinema that goes beyond a highlight reel of what movies are on in a particular season. More robust revenue streams will have to be found soon. Less people are turning out to the cinema, and in foreign markets, which are doing relatively well, a far smaller chunk of box-office receipts go to the studios.
What also played during the reel before the film started was a short film by Disney Animation that has been nominated for an Academy Award, called Paperman (see trailer above). Zeitgeist had watched the short some days ago on his iPhone after coming across it on Twitter, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was exciting and convenient to be able to consume something so quickly after hearing about it. Moreover, it was instantly shareable with the 400-odd people who follow our tweets when we retweeted the link. Seeing it in the cinema today though really reinforced the power of the big screen; the detail you couldn’t see on the iPhone, the great sound, and the shared laughter and enjoyment from those around you. “Grandeur is a far from simple blessing”, writes Anthony Lane in the same article quoted at the beginning of this post, in The New Yorker back in 2008. The pleasure of watching something in the cinema is ultimately an irrational benefit, which can be hard to quantify, but even harder to ignore.
UPDATE (06.12.13): The Economist featured a good article on how cinemas are seeking new revenue streams around the world, here.
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
- Henry David Thoreau
Though the brouhaha over the series House of Cards has been building steadily since its announcement almost two years ago, through rumours of budget battles between director and studio, it was upon the release of the series this week that the media meta-echo chamber really went into overdrive. The first season, with a budget far north of $100m, debuted to ebullient praise from critics. But what does it signify for the trail-blazing company’s future?
Aside from the mostly positive reviews, the series piqued the media industry’s interest for other reasons too. It is the first to be created and screened exclusively by Netflix, a company previously known for striking deals with studios to distribute and stream their content. Not satisfied solely with such (sometimes pricey) deals, the company also saw an opportunity for greater brand visibility and a separate revenue stream – assuming it eventually licenses the show regular TV networks – in fully-fledged independent production. What is also interesting is that the entire first season was made available for instant viewing, all 12 hours. By doing this the company recognised and capitalised on a trend that has been accelerating for almost a decade; people like to watch multiple episodes at once. This has never not been the case, but the weekly episodic installments of shows on network television have allowed the audience little say in the matter, and thus no room for such a habit to develop. This changed dramatically with the arrival of the DVD, specifically with affordable boxsets, as those that had missed the zeitgeists of West Wing, The Sopranos and 24 were able to quickly catch up with their obsessed brethren. Critics have often noted how the viewing of multiple episodes at once – which is how such reviews are often conducted as they usually receive a disc with several shows to consider – particularly for shows like Lost, improves the structure and narrative flow. With the arrival of boxsets, such opportunities were available to all. Indeed, marketers leveraged this enthusiasm for consecutive viewing, creating events around it. Netflix saw this with absolute clarity and allowed viewers to watch as much or little as they desired. Many, it seemed, chose to devour the whole first season in one weekend, which entertainment trade Variety covered with humourous repercussions to the viewer’s psyche, across now fewer than six stages of grief. Zeitgeist has written before about the increasing popularity of streaming, and the complementary preference that audiences have for the type of films (action, romcom, broad comedy) they like to watch when choosing such a distribution method. It is interesting to consider then just how much the viewing experience differs between a 12-hour marathon over two days, and a one-hour slice over a period of three months. As the article in Variety half-jokingly posits, “Is tantric TV viewing a thing? If it’s not, should it be?”.
Of course, Netflix aren’t alone in seeing an opportunity to delve into developing complementary products and assets. Microsoft are using the functionality of Kinect to pair with their own content development, letting children “join in” with Sesame Street, for example, and are in the process of setting up a dedicated studio for production, in Los Angeles. Amazon, which owns the streaming service LoveFilm, is also getting into the game, recently setting up Amazon Studios for original content production. At the end of last year, The Hollywood Reporter announced Amazon would be greenlighting twenty pilots, all of which were “either submitted through the studio’s website or optioned for development”. YouTube recently launched twenty professional channels on its UK website, Hulu is following suit… It really is quite startling to see such fundamental disruption and turmoil in environments where incumbent stalwarts (such as 20th Century Fox in film and Walmart in retail,) have long been accustomed to calling the shots. Could the model become completely inverted, such that the Fox network and HBO become the “dumb pipes” of the TV world, showcasing the best in internet-produced television? Maybe so, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Economist this week argue that one of the most important factors in Liberty Global’s recent purchase of Virgin Media was the avoidance of paying corporate tax for “years” to come. If content is still king though, a problem remains for those incumbents. The New Yorker astutely points out,
“An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share… When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.”
Netflix must tread carefully. Crucially, what seems like competitive differentiation and all-quadrant coverage now can quickly shift. Amazon’s ventures into content production will be backed up with a sizeable and perpetual stream of revenue that it derives from its e-commerce platform, which isn’t going away anytime soon. The BBC are publicly welcoming new entrants, and is devising its own tactics, such as making episodes available on iPlayer before they screen, if at all, on television. Interesting but hardly earth-shattering, and likely to make little difference to viewer preference. Netflix will have to do better than that if it wants long-term dominance of this market. It will have to be increasingly careful with its partners, too. Recent, though long-running, rumblings of discord with partners like Time Warner Cable, though seemingly innocuous, tend to be indicative of a larger battle ensuing between corporate titans. Moreover, though the act of providing a deluge of content seems new and sexy now, what about when everyone starts doing it? Chief content officer for Netflix Ted Sarantos told The Economist last week, “Right now our major differentiation is that consumers can watch what they want, when they want it, but that will be the norm with television over time. We’re getting a head start”. Fine, but about when that is the norm, what is the strategy for differentiation then? Netflix have made some lofty, daring, innovative moves here, exploiting consumer trends and noticing a gap in the competitive environment. But they will need firm foundations to support this move into an adjacent business area, of which they know relatively little, in the years to come. As President Bartlet of West Wing was often heard to say, “What’s next?”.
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.
We have reported before on the quota China imposes on Hollywood films coming into the country.
Zeitgeist remembers being in a meeting while doing at stint at 20th Century Fox back in 2004, when presentations were optimistically suffixed with the potential for China to drop said limit. It was always an inevitability, and when last month DreamWorks Animation announced a pact with Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital, it was clear something bigger was on the cards. This has been the case for a while though, as US production companies have sought to get into China’s goodbooks with relevant films (witness Kung Fu Panda and the most recent iteration of The Mummy franchise).
Good news finally came to studio heads and cinema exhibitors. While the quota hasn’t been dropped, it has been dramatically extended to allow another 14 films into the market each year (from the current 20). This can only be good news for Hollywood, coming at a time when DVD and Blu-Ray revenue is slowing; Bloomberg recently reported that more films will be streamed than watched on disc this year. In China, however, views are mixed. Variety summarises,
“Theater owners are very upbeat, filmmakers are split — will this mean unnecessary competition, or a boost to moviegoing habits? — and Hong Kong industryites are watching things closely.”
The country already means big business for Hollywood, with the piece of rubbish that was Transformers 3taking in $170mn, and Avatar making $210mn. Year on year, the number of screens in the country increased 33%. 803 cinemas opened in the past 12 months there. So the supply-demand ratio is currently extremely favourable (with Hong Kong hopefully not being a harbinger). One would have to be very naiive however not to consider the political landscape of China, which is inscrutable to say the least. Whether dealing with the electoral process in Hong Kong, or the media landscape – from TV to social media – it can be difficult to know where you sit at any time. Variety again,
“Filmmakers face… rigid – and opaque – standards of control and censorship [in China]… [I]f a filmmaker doesn’t meet those sometimes abstruse rules, it won’t be admitted.”
What the Chinese government will have some difficulty in regulating though is the black market, which should hopefully see film piracy diminish as a source of revenue. With an assumed lowering of cost per purchase of pirated film, it should mean even more Chinese get to see Hollywood product (though admittedly without compensating the studios for it, at least initially).
As well as receiving net net more money from China from its films, the deal made also allows Hollywood to receive 25% of the Chinese box office back on imported films, previously at 13%. What should be a lucrative influx of revenue for the film studios comes at a welcome time. Not only is the business shifting from discs to digital delivery – which currently is proving harder to monetise – it is also under increasing pressure to collapse its sacred windows – the time period between when a film is released in cinema, DVD, POV, TV, etc. A few weeks ago, Netflix, an increasingly powerful player in the mix as it broadens its availability to the UK, and becomes a content creator, called the windows structure “pretty archaic”.
While releasing films on multiple platforms simulataneously might produce a spike in opening weekend returns, it comes at the cost of angering a lot of cinema owners, who would not take kindly to the idea of their film being available to watch at home at the same time they are trying to charge you £12 to watch it in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. Zeitgeist’s radical solution is to allow the windows to collapse, and then for the government to allow the film studios to vertically integrate with the exhibitors again, like in the old days. But that’s another article…
In December, shopping transactions saw a 187% increase, year-on-year. This sounds like good news for the economy, and surely the high street. Unfortunately, this increase was purely for mobile shopping, as reported by IBM. Brand Republic, which picked up the story, noted “mobile traffic on retailers’ websites rocketed by 169%, meaning 15% of all traffic came from mobile devices during December”. The principal attractions of mobile commerce are easy to identify: it allows you to purchase items from anywhere with a phone signal rather than travelling into a store. It also allows the customer to shop around far more easily than would be possible on a high street for the best deal.
The drift toward mobile commerce, however beneficial and efficient for the customer, is part of myriad factors that are having a pejorative effect on the high street. Another, recently noted in a fantastic editorial in The Financial Times, detailed the onus shoppers must face up to, as a nation obsessed with the material quest for the very best deal possible. “We are all going to hell in a shopping basket”, read the headline.
“Through the internet we can now get relevant information instantaneously, compare deals and move our money at the speed of electronic impulses. Consumers and investors have never been so empowered. Yet these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.”
183 retailers fell into administration last year. The internet must shoulder a large part of the blame for this, as customers shift to the relaxation of shopping at home. Experian Hitwise reported that Boxing Day 2011 was the biggest ever day for online retail in the UK, an incredible stat (one of many covered by eConsultancy), especially while circumstances for bricks-and-mortar stores seem so dire.
However, while digital technology is keeping people from shopping on the high street, it is also helping it evolve. Recently, CNBC reported from New York on the National Retail Federation’s annual convention. Technology companies like Intel and IBM were front and centre, and willing to engage ever more deeply with brands. 73% of consumers were willing to share their demographic information with retailers in order to improve targeted communications. In the store itself, Macy’s has unveiled Beauty Spot, a digital mirror that lets you try on what you want, what is suggested to you by the mirror, and share your looks with your friends, according to TIME magazine. Also at the conference, Kraft featured a vending machine that featured face-recognition technology, registering your ethnographic details and dispensing samples based on that data.
The possibilities for clothing are significant, too. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft unveiled a prototype digital mirror for retailers. PSFK noted it “relies on the Kinect gaming system and basically allows people to try on clothes before taking their final selection to the dressing room”. Moreover, last month, the e-tailer Gilt Groupe teamed up with GQ magazine to create a men’s high-fashion retail experience in the so-fashionable-it’ll-soon-be-uncool Meatpacking District of New York. The FT has more.
Such movements are part of a burgeoning trend toward blurring the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar retail. But for the latter way of shopping, the problems are immediate. An article in this week’s The Economist referenced a report commissioned by the government in December that claimed “one in three of the nation’s high streets is failing“. Places like Argos, Mothercare and Thorntons plan to close up to one third of their shops. Conversely, the magazine references a survey conducted by Saatchi & Saatchi which detailed 16-29 year olds’ feelings on retail. Apart from enjoying a good shop, “42% said that, if they were to start a small business, it would be on the high street”. This puts a desire to see an epicentre of retail / beating heart of a town against an indolence born of the luxury of being able to shop while in the bathroom. To combat this dilemma of desires, Anne Robinson-lookalike Mary Portas has made several suggestions as shopping czar to the government, including requirements for a “quota of affordable shops”. This idea is pure lunacy. State intervention in market commerce is not a road we want to go down.
While the article offers some hope, detailing the importance of improvements to infrastructure, and making space above retailers into shops again rather than flats, the major threat is from online retailers. Last week, the Financial Times reported solemnly,
“Tesco [will] call a halt on new hypermarkets, believing the internet offers the most profitable future for non-food sales. Retail analysts believe Tesco’s admission marks a watershed moment for high street retail chains. Many have already seen their business models trampled over by the big supermarkets, but now they must follow the leader’s structural shift towards online sales, or face extinction.”
These are dire times for retailers, but things will not improve until they fully embrace the inevitable march of technology, both in their stores, and in people’s homes. With another recession looming, now is not the time to bury one’s head in the sand and hope for the best.
Last week, Zeitgeist ambled down to Kensington Olympia again for yet another conference, this time the annual MediaPro Expo. Among the many speakers presenting over the course of two days, our main interest was captivated by prognosticators on the the media and entertainment industries.
First up was Matt Rhodes, client services director of FreshNetworks. FreshNetwork’s clients, among others, include Telefonica (parent company of UK telco O2) and luxury shoe brand Jimmy Choo. Matt spoke of the challenges of measuring success across multiple markets. Aside from logistical difficulty, one prominent problem remains in that different sectors / regions / countries will need different approaches, therefore will have different ways of quantifying success.
Mr. Rhodes was speaking with regard to social media strategy, but the thinking applies broadly to other strategic planning as well. KPIs and ROI can both be meted out from a centralised hub (whereas in a distributed mode, ROI will vary). The possible problems with this stem from an ignorance of the particularities of a market. Suggesting that every market needs a Twitter and Facebook account for the brand might seem like sound thinking prima facie. Both platforms have huge audiences and many companies have now had notable success with presences thereon. Matt contended that such a presence was simply not necessary in all markets. Some countries may not have Facebook, but, like Russia, have a popular alternative that, with a high amount of pirated content, would be unlikely to be suitable for branded communications. As with the Soviet state, a centralised option is probably less effective. Furthermore, in some markets you might in be in acquisition mode – vis a vis customers – but in others you might be experiencing trouble retaining them, requiring very separate strategies. “Having a global strategy often doesn’t make sense”, Mr. Rhodes stated.
Regarding Jimmy Choo, people who want to purchase products from the brand in Japan differ greatly from those same people in a market like New York. In Japan there is heightened desire for accumulating a lot of accessory purchases as well as perfume, whereas in New York the emphasis will be on fewer, more substantial purchases. The Catch a Choo experience in London had different parameters for success than did the one in New York. The reasoning behind a social media presence is often never thought of, increasingly seen just as a mandatory practice. Mr. Rhodes confined activity to set parameters, suggesting that social media was best put to use for launching new products, customer care, working with advocates, brand messaging and answering critics.
Next up, Darren Gregory, Insight and Innovation Director at Howard Hunt Group and Russell Morris of LoveFilm spoke in detail about the latter company. With cinema box office receipts making a small profit year-on-year (and with negative growth adjusting for ticket price increases), and 3D failing to make much of an impact on audiences anymore (see chart below), the film industry is looking to the likes of Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and LoveFilm for its salvation. Currently, digital streaming has failed to make up for the precipitous decline in DVDs, though we are still in relatively early days. Getting a consumer to switch from DVD to streaming / digital formats is harder than previous medium transitions, which involved moving from physically-owned, tangible product (VHS) to physically-owned tangible product (DVD). You bought your films from a physical, tangible store. Now there is a lack of a sense of ownership, as Zeitgeist has written about before. Now companies like Apple, who make beautiful, tangible products, are increasingly talking about hosting your content in a cloud. There is an inherent difference here then that means take-up of digital formats will be a harder case to make psychologically to consumers than previous media upgrades. It’s importance may increase as recently written about in The New Yorker, with traditional platform release windows – the time between a film’s release from cinema to VOD, to DVD, etc. – increasingly narrowing.
LoveFilm has been around for seven years now. It is the leading European subscription service, with 70,000 DVDs available, including games by post, streaming to laptop, PS3, X-box, internet TV and iPads. It runs Tesco’s DVD rental business as well as partnering with Odeon and other companies. It has Europe’s largest addressable film community, and 50% of users access the site at least once a week. The addition of platforms like the iPad and X-box “fundamentally changed [the] business in the last six months”. The availability of games has increased their demographic reach, and in a year they have gone from 100k to 1m stream views per month.
Recently the company was bought by Amazon, and LoveFilm, like its new parent, is similarly obsessed with customer data in order to improve its service and by extension its bottom line. For example, they know that friends who recommend the service to others tend to have similar tastes, so the metrics they already have with the original customer can initially be applied to the new one. Mr. Morris next spoke about the changing nature of consuming content, with specific regard to watching film. Mr. Morris said that using their customer insight, they have divined that the way in which the customer watches a film dictates the kind of experience they are looking for. DVD rental, he said, is, for the customer, about getting that specific film in the cheapest way possible. Streaming, on the other hand, is a more spontaneous desire; “I want to be entertained”, he said. Said customer has just returned from a long day at work, etc., finds nothing on his television’s EPG, instead goes to LoveFilm. It is LoveFilm’s responsibility then to show the customer something they would be interested in. Mr. Morris elaborated further, using the recent film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as an example. The film has performed exceptionally well both at the box office and in the critics’ pages. He predicted that while the film would be a success for DVD rental, it would be a total failure for streaming.
This is of course a fascinating discovery. What, however is the insight? What does this mean, long-term for the film industry? Well, it does suggest a shift in filmmaking, long-term. For, if, as the film industry hopes, digital streaming eventually becomes on of the principal means of consumption for audiences, especially as the platform release windows continue to narrow, then surely studios must increasingly pay attention and cater to the types of films people are watching via streaming platforms. In essence, the question is whether streaming take-up will become entrenched enough that it influences the very types of films that are being made. When Zeitgeist posed this question to Mr. Morris, he seemed ambivalent on the subject. When Zeitgeist asked about the plethora of competition LoveFilm was facing, which is beginning to slowly affect their bottom line, Mr. Morris was dismissive of such talk, confident in the strength of both their breadth of films available and the deep customer analysis (which includes looking at weather patterns). Asked specifically about the arrival of Netflix into the EU market, Mr. Morris predicted he would soon be seeing the “whites of their eyes”.
The last talk Zeitgeist attended was one given by Tess Alps of Thinkbox, the marketing body for commercial TV in the UK. With TV ratings at their highest since ratings began, and ROI up 22% over the past 5 years for advertisers, things are looking quite rosy for television at the moment. It is, however, like much of the media sector, dealing with volatile technological change. Ms. Alps acknowledged this with a “convergence sandwich” slide; the technology that delivers the medium, the device that you consume it on and then content sitting in the middle as the filler. Yummy, not to mention well-illustrated.
Ms. Alps went on to describe some of the main trends in the TV sector currently; enhanced quality (HD, 3D); all devices becoming a TV; connected / smart TVs; integrated communication between devices across home networks. The presentation continued with a sharing of quantitative findings; interviews with people who had been given prototype technology, using various devices for consuming a broad range of content. Thinkbox found a consolidation of viewing; using online viewing as a backup, only if the ‘live’ show on TV had been missed. Catch-up technology, whether through PVRs on the television or via the computer, was seen as essential. The TV, though, remained the go-to destination for consuming content, suggesting a hierarchy of platforms. There were complementary elements to this though; young people increasingly watch television with their laptops sitting by them, Facebook, Skype or some other program open. Zeitgeist wrote about this consumption conundrum last year. Realising this complementary trend, many companies are now creating campaigns that encourage use of television, laptop, iPhone, etc., for a truly immersive experience. Product placement is aiding this trend, with advertiser-funded programming such as that done by New Look for a recent television show, which encouraged contestants to design clothes online during the show, with the opportunity to be on screen by the end of the programme.
What the entertainment industry has been facing for a while is a fragmentation of viewers, easily distracted by multiple platforms, all enticing in their own way. What remains to be seen is whether efforts such as the ones mentioned by Ms. Alps can effectively remedy the situation by collating all devices to be used to enjoy the same piece of holistic content. Social media will surely play an essential role. With Disney up almost 8% today, entertainment analyst for Standard & Poor’s Tuna Amobi spoke to CNBC this afternoon, stating that he expected revenue from consumption of films via digital streaming to “ramp up significantly from here”. It will be interesting to see just how much our differing attitudes towards platforms influence the content that is produced for them.