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Media Trends 2016

the-empire-strikes-back-star-warsThe most enjoyable pieces we pen for this blog are our looks ahead to TMT trends in the next year (they also, coincidentally, happen to be our most popular articles). Do check out our 2015 and 2014 trends, too.

We’ll look at trends in the film industry, TV, telco and tech sector. These formerly discrete industries are now all blurring together. This should come as little surprise to most, after years of the word “convergence” being bandied about; AOL Time Warner was a misbegotten adventure on the back of this thesis. However, what is happening now is that these worlds are clashing. Techies push their platforms (e.g. the Amazons and Netflixs of the world), but increasingly follow in the footsteps of legacy media in creating a stable of content to offer viewers. But those legacy media players are fretting, according to the Financial Times,

According to cable industry die-hards who have the most to lose, the digital platforms have not done much to show they are appropriate guardians of media assets like these. According to cable pioneer John Malone, for instance, they do not do enough to differentiate media brands, they make it hard to get feedback about consumers (if the data are not passed on) and they are not conducive to the kind of advertising on which cable networks have long relied. The result is a giant searchable database, like Netflix.

Star Wars and the status quo

It would be difficult to write about the media sector currently without giving Star Wars: The Force Awakens at least a mention. The movie, which Zeitgeist saw last weekend, was huge fun, though we couldn’t help feeling like we were watching a re-imagining of the original, rather than a direct sequel. As fivethirtyeight notes, the prequels are out there now, and not going anywhere; this film faces a steep uphill battle if it is to redeem the franchise from the deficit of awfulness inflicted by the prequel triplets. The amount of money the film has made, and the critical caveats it has received, point to interesting trends in the film industry as a whole.

The Economist rightly points out how Bob Iger, since taking the reins of Disney from the erratic Michael Eisner in 2005, has made wise, savvy strategic moves, not least in content, through the purchases of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. But while most critics were pleased with the latest product to spring from this studio’s loins, there were some reservations. The FT, while largely positive about the film, lamented there was little in it to distinguish itself from the other tentpole films of the year:

What troubles most is that Star Wars is starting to look like every other franchise epic. Is that the cost of anything-is-possible stories set in elastic universes? I kept having flashes of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings. The characters costumed in quasi-timeless garb (neo-Grecian the favourite). The PlayStation plots with their gauntlets of danger and games of survival.

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Recent releases are increasingly making their way onto the best-performing list, with increasing speed, too. Three films have crossed the $1bn barrier this year alone

There’s no doubt this is a problem. It’s not per se a new problem, as originality has always been something Hollywood has struggled with. Let’s be honest, art has struggled with originality too; Shakespeare’s MO was derivative, and has there been anything new to say in art since Duchamp? But the fact remains that when studios have the technical sophistication to produce any visual feat, and this is executed again and again in much the same mode, the effect on an audience begins to wane, and everything begins to look much of a muchness (if not outright neo-Grecian).

Also somewhat unsettling is the financial performance of these films. Not so much because of the people who will still turn out in droves to see recycled content, but more the pace at which records are now being broken. The new Star Wars made $100m in pre-sales – a record – and went on to make $248m in its opening weekend, beating the previous holder, all the way back in the summer, Jurassic World. The speedy gains of lucre for such fare are increasing. Titanic took three months to reach the $1bn mark at the global box office; Jurassic World took 13 days, beating the previous record holder, Fast and the Furious 7, which had opened only a few months earlier in April. In the ten years after Titanic, only three films crossed the zeitgeist-worthy Rubicon of $1 billion; since 2008, 17 films have done so (see above graphic).

Such potential return on investment ups the ante for ever bigger projects, something Zeitgeist has criticised several times in previous articles, wary of some of the huge, costly flops that have come and gone with little strategic reflection. The latest Bond incarnation, Spectre, was always going to be something of a safe bet. But with so much upfront investment, such vehicles now need to make all the more in order to recoup what has been spent. Or, as Vanity Fair puts it, “yes, 007 made obscene amounts of money. But were they obscene enough?“. Tentpoles have taken on new meaning in an era of Marvel heroes, and even Bond itself has set new benchmarks with Skyfall, which crossed the hallowed billion-dollar barrier referenced earlier. This quickly begins to seem less earth-shattering when you consider the all-in costs for Spectre have been conservatively estimated at $625m. Even with Skyfall, Sony itself made only $57m in return.

Trend implication: There is a glimmer of innovation in the Chinese film market, where blockbusters are being crowdfunded through WeChat. But in Hollywood, the focus of money on one type of film – and the attempt to capture only one type of audience – logically leads to a bifurcation in the market, with bigger hits, bigger misses, and a hole in the middle,which The New York Times points out is usually where Oscars are made. A large problem that will not be addressed in 2016 is the absence of solid research and strategic insight; studios don’t know when or whether they “have released too many movies that go after the same audience — ‘Steve Jobs’ ate into ‘The Walk’ ate into ‘Black Mass’, for example”. With Men in Black 4 on the way, Hunger Games prequels being mulled, another five years of Marvel movies already slated and dates booked in, look for such machinations to continue. Bigger budgets, more frequent records being broken and a stolid resistance to multi-platform releases. Even Star Wars couldn’t get a global release date, with those in China having to wait a month longer than those elsewhere to see it, more or less encouraging piracy. Let’s just pray that Independence Day 2 gets its right…

TV’s tribulations

Despite all our claims of problems with the film industry, we must concede its financial performance this year will be one for the record books (particularly with some added vim from Star Wars). The TV sector, on the other hand, has had a decidedly worse year. For while Hollywood’s problems may be existential and longer-term, television must really start fundamentally addressing existing business models, today.

The rise of OTTs such as Netflix – not to mention the recently launched premium content service from Google, YouTube Red – has no doubt contributed to a sudden hastening in young adults who have dropped (or simply never had) a cable subscription. In the US, latest data recently reported from Pew research show 19% of 18-29s in the US have dropped their TV / cable service to become cord-cutters (or cord-nevers). The pace of change is quickening, according to eMarketer, who recorded a 12.5% leap in cord-cutting activity YoY.

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Cognisant of such shifts, organisations have begun seeking remedy. In November, Fox became the first broadcast network to drop same-day ratings provided by Nielsen to the press, recognising that they “don’t reflect how we monetise our content,” and hoping to “move the ratings conversation into the future”. General Electric meanwhile, is stop advertising on prime-time television, instead keeping its budget for live events. This makes sense as it is this type of programming that typically lures large, diverse and timely audiences to content. Most interestingly, however, Disney, who seems to feature a lot in this post, is launching its own digital subscription service, aggregating its film, TV, books and music assets together. The FT notes it will be “the biggest media company yet to stream its content directly to consumers online”.

With the increasing popularity of OTT platforms, some are trying to get audiences to rediscover the joy of serendipity again. A new company, Molotov, aims to combine “the best elements of schedules, streaming and social media… Even if it does not take off, it neatly identifies the challenge facing broadcasters and technology companies: how can TV be better? And is there still life in the television schedule?“. Its UX has been compared to Spotify, allows a personalised programming guide, as well as bookmarking shows, actors and politicians. Moreover, Molotov also lets viewers know which shows are particularly popular on social media, as well as which of their Facebook friends like particular shows. “The idea”, written in the FT,  “is to be a one-stop shop for audiences by replacing dozens of apps on Apple TV, or indeed an entire cable box”. Indeed, China is struggling with the linear world of television and film, uncertain about how to regulate offensive or violent content in a world without watershed or clear boundaries for regulation beyond towing the political line. For its part, the BBC will be fervently hoping that there remains life in the television schedule. With its Charter up for review, the future of the organisation is currently in question, to the extent that anyone can try their hand at getting the appropriate funding for the Beeb, with this handy interactive graphic.

Trend implication: OTTs like Netflix will continue to gain ground as they publish more exclusive content, though there is a risk such actions lead to brand diffusion, and confusion over what audiences should expect from such properties. Business models for content are increasingly being rewritten; excited as we are that The X-Files is returning to Fox in January, the real benefactor is apparently Netflix. Like it or not (we happen to think it’s a savvy strategic move), Disney’s plan to launch a subscription service online is innovative in its ambition to combine multiple media under one roof, and illustrates the company has recognised it has a sufficiently coherent brand (unlike Netflix) that can make for competitive differentiation as it faces off against other walled gardens. Advertising revenues, like cable subscription revenues, will continue to slide; there’s not much anyone, even Disney can do about that. Such slides though are unlikelt to deter continued mergers on the part of telcos; one in five pay TV subscriptions now go to these companies. Molotov sounds like an intriguing approach to reinventing a product long overdue for a renaissance… will such a renaissance come too late for the BBC though?

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The X-Files returns to the Fox network in January, but it is Netflix that will really benefit

Tech opportunities and pitfalls

The tech sector as a whole, which continues to spit out unicorns, was deemed to be heading for a burst bubble, according to The Economist: “There are 144 unicorns valued at $505bn between them, about five times as many as three years ago. Most are unprofitable”. Equally disconcerting for the sector must have been Donald Trump, who has been consistently dismissed by mainstream media types since the summer but continues to roll on through the Republican presidential primaries. In his most recent itchy trigger-finger solution to the world’s woes, he suggested simply turning off the Internet in certain places. Apart from our understanding and appreciation of the Internet as one of the world’s liberating platforms that is one of the most tangible examples of man’s desire to communicate as one, this would apparently also be quite difficult.

Trend implication: Startup valuations do seem to be increasingly on the wild side, and there’s a good case to be made about the double-edged sword of such high valuations that dissuade companies from going public. There may possibly be a correction sometime next year; look for it to separate the wheat from the chaff. And while the idea of turning off the Internet is not without precedent, when did Iran last do something that the rest of the world thought was a good idea to emulate? Depriving people of the internet necessarily deprives people of information. On a macro level this can only be a bad thing. Its technical complexity and ethical murkiness make this an unlikely candidate for impact in 2016.

Amazon is having a rare sojourn in the black of late, with two consecutive quarters of profit. This is a rareity not because of any malpractice on Jeff Bezos’ part, rather because the mantra of the company has consistently been over the years to reinvest revenues into new development. Its brief profitability comes as the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services [AWS], become increasingly popular. As the Financial Times notes,

“In the latest quarter, [AWS profits] came to $521m on revenues of $2bn. That is roughly equivalent to the operating income of the entire core North American retail unit — a business with eight times the sales.”

Trend implication: Amazon’s growth may give some investors with a short-term eye succour for 2016 and a more profitable Amazon. But they should not be taken in so easily. Bezos’ long-term strategy remains investment for the future rather than a quick buck.

Facebook has been in the news for things positive and otherwise as it pushes the limits of innovation and unsurprisingly finds itself coming up against vested interests and the remits of regulatory bodies. It must also combat the same issues faced by other maturing companies, that of lower engagement and rising age groups. For example, 37% of users shared photos as of November, down from 59% a year earlier. In the meantime it is deploying some interesting tactical maneuvers, including more prominent featuring of events you are going to go, as well as ones you might be interested in attending. It also suggests events directly into status updates. Other timely reminders, reported in the WSJ, include “On Sept 27, it displayed an image of a crescent moon as a prompt about the supermoon lunar eclipse. In October, it worked with AMC Network Entertainment LLC to remind fans of “The Walking Dead” about the show’s season premiere”.

And while its partnership with Uber – embedding the service directly into its Messanger platform – is to be commended (WeChat’s ARPU by contrast is $7), it has struggled abroad. In India, one of several regions where it has agreed to zero-rated services with operators, net neutrality proponents are lobbying to have its Free Basic services shut down (while also raising noise about T-Mobile’s similar Binge On service in the US). Meanwhile, Whatsapp, the platform Facebook now owns, whose use has exploded in popularity in Jakarta, recently saw its service shut down for 12 hours in Brazil, affecting around 100 million people. Telco operators have been lobbying the government to label OTT services as illegal, but it seems that the government shut the service down in order to prevent gang members from communicating. This provoked much derision.

Trend implication: As Facebook’s audience continues to mature, macro engagement may continue to dip. Data on metrics such as average pieces of content shared by a user per month have not been updated since the company’s IPO. Facebook, as well as other OTT plaforms will continue to struggle in some respects in 2016, as both traditional players (e.g. telecom operators) and regulators seek to contain their plans. Operators in particular will have to increasingly lay ‘frenemies’ with OTTs that may offer value-add and competitive differentiation with the right partnership, yet at the same time eat away at their revenues. Continued security threats, whether cyber or physical terrorism, may mean, that, like Trump’s comments above, services continue to see brief disruption in 2016 in various regions. Net neutrality rulings in the US and Europe will also have an impact on the tech sector at large. It is likely to be laxer in Europe, which The Economist predicts will hurt startups.

Similarly impactful was the recent video of a drone crashing to the ground at a World Cup ski competition this week, which missed a competitor by what looked like a matter of feet and would have caused serious injury otherwise.

Trend implication: Despite such potential for grievous harm, there should generally be a quite liberalised framework for drone use. However, this needs to start with more prescriptive regulation that identifies the need for safety while recognising individual liberty

Oh, and Merry Christmas.

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What will Apple’s verse be?

Apple seems to be at a bit of a cross-roads at the moment. Attending a Mobile World Congress wrap-up event in Cambridge last week, Zeitgeist listened carefully to one of the key speakers, William Webb, casually toss off the following epithet; “Since Steve Jobs died, so has all innovation… Everyone was catching up with Apple, then they did and Apple ceased to innovate.”

As a brand, the company is still strong. The above TV spot is one of the more effective pieces of advertising on the box right now. As a service, the story is less clear. So much ink has been spilled over the years writing about the imminent arrival of a fully-fledged Apple TV service, that the most recent rumours with Comcast did little to raise expectations. Variety called a deal between the two companies “improbable”. Elsewhere, Business Insider said yesterday it was time for Apple to launch a music subscription service – the chart below will make tough reading for the iTunes side of the business, with negative growth in 2013.

Strategic clarity seems to have escaped the company of late. Are Apple’s greatest days behind it then? We say, don’t bet on it.

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Is TV’s future all used up?

October 13, 2010 3 comments

Signs of promise, but are reports of TV advertising’s death greatly exaggerated or not?

Near the end of the masterpiece manqué that is “Touch of Evil”, Orson Welles’ character pays a final visit to an old friend, a gypsy played by Marlene Dietrich. Usually a dab hand at fortune telling, the woman looks at the fallen detective dejectedly, and with pity tells him that his time is over, the world has moved on. What with the release of Google TV, as well as the newest incarnation of  Apple TV, the industry could certainly said to be volatile. Reuters have an excellent primer on what both behemoth’s machines actually do, here. This will surely only divert eyeballs away from advertising. Why watch a commercial when I can easily watch other media from the Internet before Pop Idol returns from its break, as is possible with Google TV? Why watch broadcast television at all when all the films, music and photos I want are streamed from my computer’s iTunes via Apple TV?

Furthermore, increasing DVR penetration can also do nothing but dent the impact of above-the-line advertising. In an article in Variety by Brian Lowry a few weeks ago, the journalist commented that digital video recorders were now in 38% of US homes. “To which many will doubtless say, ‘Only 38%? But everyone I know has one!'”. As Lowry points out, this delayed and fast-forwarded viewing has led Nielsen to create special designations, such as ‘Live+7’, to allow for the different impact of viewing an ad after its original airtime, as commented on by The New York Times recently. More importantly however, the rise of the DVR – from only 1% penetration less than five years ago – “points to a shift that threatens to hasten the separation of haves from have-nots”. Augmentation of these platforms will, Lowry writes, cause a fracture between those doomed to watch commercials, and those suitably kitted-out to avoid them. In particular, the problem for advertisers, and hence the networks they support, is that those people that own DVRs tend to make up a more desirable part of the population, which 30-second spots will no longer reach.

“[W]eaving messages into programming will become even more of an imperative… Taken to its logical extreme, advertisers peddling big-ticket items will have to think twice about whather 30-second spots are an efficient use of marketing budgets. The companies still relying on TV… will be the ones pushing inexpensive products[.]”

So it would seem the structure of television as we know it is an endangered species, soon to shuffle off the coil. William Gibson once wrote that the future exists already, it’s just not well-distributed. Surely this is the case here, and what we are glimpsing at the fringes with uptake of new platforms for viewing multiple media serving as a looking-glass into what will be the widespread norm in the coming years. Yet despite these new technologies, and the continued rise of all things digital, a front page article in Variety at the beginning of the month noted,

Advertisers appear to be returning to TV again, with automakers, especially, shelling out more coin… In fact, the major broadcast and cable networks were cheered at the start of the summer by a better-than expected upfront advertising sales market.

Indeed, The Economist reported last week that, with the recovery of the ad market, the two clear winners are the Internet, and, yes, television. The article states that at the end of last year spending on British TV was predicted to fall by 0.2%. It is now forecast to grow 11.6%. The previously moribund ITV has seen advertising revenues shoot up by 18% in the first half of this year. And while disruptive technologies may eventually take hold, the fact remains that people are watching more and more TV; 158 hours a month in America, two hours more than last year. Markets less mature that the US or UK have not yet faced the technological developments that await. “30% of Chinese regularly use the internet, whereas 93% watch TV”.

The article doesn’t address the fact that this is likely to change though, and importantly it’s likely to change a lot more quickly than it has done in the West. Moreover, the articles states that “search engines and online banners… do not offer emotional experiences.” But this is not all that the internet offers as far as branded experiences go. To see some great examples of work done to promote this past summer’s onslaught of films, click here. But the thoughts of The Economist clearly are the prevailing philosophy at the moment. According to an article in the FT last week, online advertising “increased by 10% in the first half of the year, but has fallen behind that of television and other traditional media for the first time.” Cinema also gained 12% and outdoor was up 16%. Press continued it’s slow decline. The thinking is that in the midst of still-prevalent economic uncertainty, advertisers are flocking back to a medium that they trust. For how long this trust will hold is a question that few in the world of above-the-line and TV networks will want to answer.

Nintendo’s Nemesis & Evolution

“All is unceasing and rigorous competition in nature”, said the Marquis de Sade. Rivalries come and go, it is the victor who must with each success continue to innovate and ultimately change, enduring the onslaught of new competitors. Yahoo vs Google, Microsoft vs Google, WPP vs Google and more recently Apple vs Google and Apple vs Amazon vs Google; in similar circumstances, we have gone from Sega vs Nintendo, to Sony vs Nintendo, to Apple vs Nintendo.

Apple themselves have pushed beyond their preliminary battle with Microsoft to a place where they now court multiple rivals in all the different markets that they affect with products like iTunes, the App Store and Apple TV. Steve Jobs, in September last year, said that the iPod touch was being released with gamers in mind after having had much feedback from the public as to what they used the device for. This was part of the reason why the iPod touch was cameraless, unlike its smaller, cheaper cousin. Nintendo must have known it was only a matter of time until their paths would cross…

Zeitgeist has very fond memories of inadvertently reshaping the bones in his thumbs while playing the Mario Brothers trilogy for hours and hours back in the day. The Nintendo Entertainment System, their first console, was fantastically successful. Somewhere along the way, however, the company got a bit lost. The turnabout it managed thanks to the Wii (and to a lesser extent the DS) is extraordinary; Sony and Microsoft saw share of their respective PlayStation and X-box platforms gradually erode to give Nintendo a position of dominance, becoming the market leader less than a year after its launch; PSFK named it one of their top ten brands of 2010. In the last week though, Nintendo have reported an earnings drop – its first in four years – hurt by slow sales of the Wii and possibly effected by piracy as well, according to Le Monde. Just as Apple are encroaching on Nintendo’s sovereign territory, the reverse is also true, as Nintendo have been offering Netflix movie rentals for a while now. Will the DS soon be facing off against the iPhone, iPod and iPad? According to Le Monde, in 2008 Apple’s iPhone represented 5% of the gaming market, Nintendo 75%. Today the iPhone’s share is 19%, Nintendo’s 70%. It is the casual nature of its games that made the DS and Wii appeal to a market that other consoles never even considered. Now though, those casual gamers are equally at home playing on an app on their iPhone, as well as on Farmville on Facebook. Variety says, (emphasis added),

“More than 32 million people tend their virtual crops each day, and the game has a total user base of 80 million. That’s roughly seven times the number of people who play the online smash ‘World of Warcraft’.”

Of course, rivalries like this will become increasingly common in this sector, as technology platforms – what the great Lawrence Lessig calls “layers” – continue to converge, allowing for excellent, mutiple functionality on one product (look at the iPad as an example). Somewhat counterintuitively, customers may not readily embrace this convergence, as behavioural economics tells us that people put more trust in a product that performs one dedicated task well; they assume anything else will be somehow diluted. Neither Nintendo or Apple should fret, exciting times are ahead. There is speculation in the Le Monde article, among others, that Nintendo should take the fight to Apple by releasing its own phone. Zeitgeist would find that a real treat. Almost much as much of a treat as the original Japanese advert for Super Mario Bros. 3. Enjoy.