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TV’s bloody disruptions

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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.

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Download speeds happen to take a significant hit right around the time people are looking to kick back with some Netflix

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.

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Netflix has similar revenues but lower earnings than HBO, for now.

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.

Netflix: House of Cards and Castles in the Air

February 8, 2013 2 comments

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“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?”.

Beyond the Linear – New ways of entertaining

January 20, 2013 1 comment

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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.

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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.

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