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 negotiationsby 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.
Part of Zeitgeist is currently working on the strategy for an acquisition and retention scheme for a major international newspaper. Monetising the digital side of the paper’s efforts is a source of great intrigue and interest. Earlier this week, Enders Analysis published findings showing The New York Times “generated $243 million from its digital services in the four quarters since the launch of its new subscription strategy, representing about 15%” of the Group’s total revenues, an impressive stat. We’ve talked previously about how newspapers are dealing with the Internet, from the introduction of paywalls in the UK, to sponsored takedowns at the Wall Street Journal. Magazines are having a slightly easier time of it, reported The Economist last week. The New Yorker, one of the most stimulating publications out there, itself featured a long essay on the future of the news, back in 2010.
WSJ’s example represents a real opportunity for publishers, and it is surprising this tactic has not been employed since (that we know of). And while some might deem it opportunisitic, we love the thinking The New Yorker had recently, when science-fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away. Rather than simply chiming in on Facebook with a paltry “RIP”, they made the most of their association with the man, and offered a token bit of generosity at the same time (see above image). A nice way to satisfy your fans, boost the brand, and pay respect to an influential writer. This is no standalone piece of activity either, but seemingly part of a broader digital strategy. The New Yorker has been investing heavily in its website of late, reports Mashable, with traffic up around 50% YOY. But, says newyorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson, more than traffic,
“Success is when someone says, ‘I just feel great about coming to the website, I’m going to find things I love,’ or, ‘I haven’t read the magazine before, that’s interesting, let me subscribe.’”
You may have recently read news that Iran is quitening down a bit, hampered as it is with stringent economic sanctions. Or you have noticed things seemed to have quitened down merely by the absence of bombastic headlines foretelling a nuclear Iran.
Nukes are just one of myriad subjects that the power centre of Iran – namely, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – seeks provocation over. Another is a dispute over three small islands that the UAE also lay claim to.
Mashable picked up the story from where this week’s The Economist left off, saying that Iran is taking umbrage to Google’s proclomation of said area as the Arabian, rather than the Persian, Gulf. The Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Bahman Dorri said such “lies” would cause Google’s users to lose faith in the company.
Maps have always been an intensely political construct. And this isn’t the first time the maps service has run into trouble. Google probably wasn’t intending to step on any toes here, or stir any controversies in an area of the world where there is already enough ire to go around. What is curious is that until a few days ago the map apparently did indeed note the area as the Persian Gulf. Rather than dithering, Google should commit to one as soon as possible and give a good reason for doing so.
Around this time of year, many companies, journalists and soothsayers become prone to taking educated guesses at trends in the coming year(s). Zeitgeist itself is guilty of such crystal ball gazing, writing on retail trends for Design Week at the beginning of this year.
Valuable as some of these insights are, we must never forget about externalities that inevitably push certain trends off-course, (look what the recession did for the popularity and importance of organic food). Though it is written in an annoying manner, Black Swan and its ideas are not to be ignored. Few would have suspected that this year would have seen the demise of Gaddafi, Bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il, but so it happened. In the 1932 film Shanghai Express, the American traveller Sam asks a question, at once revealing a prideful lack of foresight, and an ephemeral resolution. Traits of a nation, perhaps. But it demonstrates the dangers of making judgements on the future based on current trends, and presuming the status quo will remain just that.
“What future is there being a Chinaman? You’re born, you eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country. Let’s have a drink!”
If you’ve been living in or aware of any of the news coming out of the Middle East of late, you’re probably cognisant of the fact that the status quo as we have, for generations, known it, is coming to an end. If you’re living in a major city somewhere in parts of the world governed by more democratically representative institutions, you’re probably aware that similar tremors of discontent our rocking the foundations there, too. Just as important, however, is the state of disarray the internet finds itself in currently.
What began in New York with the Occupy Wall Street movement has since spread, across the US and across the world, including the streets of London, where squatting protesters have led to St. Paul’s closing for the first time since World War II. Social media, as with the protests in Tunisia, Egypt and other regions, has played a significant part. The protests in the West, while photogenically and aesthetically pleasing (the artwork Banksy donated to the London protest being one such example), not to mention emotionally charged and influential, have thus far produced little in the way of results. Perhaps this is due in part to the incoherence of the messages being broadcast from the panoply of protesters.
There are, realistically and practically speaking, for better or worse, few immediately attractive alternatives to capitalism. What matters, however, is the way the capitalism is operated and governed. For though the protest in New York focused on the epicentre of the financial district in Manhattan, the focus is a misnomer. According to a poll shown recently on Meet the Press, more people apportion blame to the government than on financial corporations. So is the problem one of governance then?
While such debates rock the material world, discussions just as important are flaring up surrounding the digital world. Who should be in charge of regulating content in the virtual sphere? Moreover, should some content or users or providers be prioritised over others?
The net neutrality debate has been under discussion for years. Its concerns revolve around the notion that anyone, anywhere should be able to access any content they choose at at the highest speed possible. It favours no particular user or website. The risk is that your access is arbitrarily regulated, both in terms of just what you can see, and also how easy it is to get to it. Some major players, be they countries like China – which recently banned the search term “occupy” – or large media corporations like Comcast, are already breaking this unspoken rule advocated by the founders of the Internet. Last month, the FCC announced new net neutrality rules, which didn’t please either side of the issue very much. Mashable writes that “while new rules do prevent fixed broadband providers from blocking access… they are different for wireless providers”. This latter exception dovetails nicely with Amazon’s release of its latest product, the Kindle Fire, which debuted recently. An article published in Politico last week quotes various pundits who accuse the device – which uses Amazon’s cloud-based servers – of optimising Amazon content over others, essentially making it more attractive and easier to access. Proponents of net neutrality should be wary, but what is there to do without a centralised, independent governing body with teeth to reach out to?
A recent article in The Economist noted that the internet is “shambolically governed”. This is due in no small part to the fact that at its inception, those who founded the world wide web could never have dreamed it would grow to become the network of networks it is today. However that is no excuse for action not to be taken now. One drastic notion was recently mentioned in an article appearing The Financial Times. Ori Eisen of 41st Parameter, a security company that defends banks against online crime, believes that efforts to create a wholly secure environment online are “in the long run… essentially hopeless”. Vint Cerf, described in the article as “one of the fathers of the internet”, has voiced his own concerns about the lack of security online, saying that more should have been done at the outset. He concedes that he is “actually quite interested in the clean-slate ideas”. Mr. Eisen has set out plans for Project Phoenix that revolve around creating an Internet 2.
“Included in his blueprint are biometric identification, encryption of all keystrokes and virtual machines created for every transaction.”
Such a radical overhaul has piqued the interest of Michael Barrett, head of security at PayPal, and the Pentagon’s DARPA – whom Zeigeist have written about before – are also passing around ideas for a redesign. Any such redesigns though would “be doomed without a government mandate or a consortium of banks or telecommunications companies stepping in”. This leads us on to our investigation of governance.
While the regulation of the internet may be chaotic, it has also helped foster a great deal of innovation in the absence of restrictive regulation. In keeping with this freedom of expression, the 2,000 people from 100 countries who met in Nairobi this week for the Internet Governance Forum “all had the same right to take the floor… decisions are made by ‘rough consensus'”. While the American-baked ICANN currently regulates the internet address system, other countries such as China and Russia are pushing for alternative bodies to be created, the upshot being that national governments have more of a say in how the internet is run. This kind of thinking is dangerous, but it does remind us that currently the system is almost entirely under the purview of the US government.
For the world outside the internet, the opportunities for change and development in democracy are not encouraging. The protesters at St. Paul’s cathedral in London have been allowed now to stay until New Year. Then what? What will it take to happen for the inchoate protesters to consider their work done? Any such practical remedies to be taken will surely involve government investment and expenditure. Yet this is precisely what the government is in short supply of. In the US, the judicial system is becoming underfunded to the extent that the process and execution of the law is becoming weakened. Emergency loans are having to be made by courts, so that processes that currently take twice as long as they should, do not end up taking three times as long. This lack of government is effecting lives now. The situation is similar in China, where suddenly workers in the private and public sector are finding themselves without pay;
“Work has all but ground to a halt on thousands of kilometres of railway track, and many of the network’s six million construction workers have been complaining about not being paid for weeks or sometimes months.”
One bright light might be suggested, of all places for a democratic wellspring, in Russia. Wikivote allows users, with particular priority given to heavy users and invited experts, the chance to reshape, comment and question draft laws and vote on the suggestions.
What the internet needs, suggests The Economist, is “a proper constitution, complete with a bill of rights for stakeholders and a separate board of review”. The difficulty will be in first creating such a document and body that functions efficiently without drowning in compromise. More importantly, it will have to ensure that the rules it enforces do not hamper the very innovation that has made the internet one of the most creative, inventive and revolutionary mediums ever.
Earlier this week, Zeitgeist went along to the outskirts of Kensington to visit ad:tech, billing itself as the number 1 event for interactive marketing.
First up was Ed Elworthy, Brand Communications Director for Global Football at Nike. One of the more interesting points Mr. Elworthy made was in stating how little notice the company pays to consumer research, saying Nike never put anything in front of a research group. ‘Trust Your Gut’, the accompanying slide read. He paraphrased an oft-used epithet:
“A client uses research in the same way a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination.”
Nike’s marketing needs no introduction; over the decades they have produced some of the most exhilarating and innovative adverts on television. Nike built its reputation on a brand built for runners, by runners. But there’s a disconnect between a brand that is all about people, and a brand that simply talks at you during ad breaks. The company certainly hasn’t rested on its laurels. During the 2010 World Cup, aside from producing the incredible Write the Future TV spot (below), the brand went further by setting up a football training centre in areas of less affluence to give people the opportunity to play and be taught who otherwise would never have the chance to kick around a ball in any organised way. This activation campaign says more about the brand than any of its glitzy commercials – beautiful and successful (in terms of awards) though they may be.
Moreover, this wasn’t the first time Nike had branched out from television and online. Its 10k runs in London, and North vs South attracted thousands of people and generated awares in the tens if not hundreds of thousands. Who can forget the brand’s incredibly successful venture with Apple to produce Nike+? It was this strategic alliance that also inspired Nike to go ahead with The Grid, which encouraged runners everywhere in London to compete by racing from public phonebox to phonebox, dialling an access code and measuring time taken versus themselves and others. Holistically numbers were low, but among those who did take part, engagement was extremely high. Lastly, who can forget Nike’s greatest brand activation, that of Livestrong. Who would have thought rubber bracelets would become, for an astounding length of time, the zeitgeist manifest?
Next up was Euro RSCG London‘s CEO Russ Lidstone, whose presentation was entitled ‘Failing Forwards’. He suggested that failure, as long as it didn’t hurt the company and was contained and controlled, was a good thing, that we do not better ourselves unless we push ourselves first to limits that may have a breaking point, or may have multiple answers, some of which are wrong. He noted with interest how audiences are not to be segmented merely in terms of demographics, but also in terms of cultural viewpoints. The agency’s recent campaign for Chivas Regal seeks to raise the standing of the true gentleman, the honourable hero, etc. One of the images used in the TV spot was used for a separate print campaign, that of the firemen pictured below. In China the difficulty was that the firemen used for one of the ads just weren’t aspirational enough (not wearing nearly enough Prada, probably). This sets off issues of cultural tensions that surface when you are trying to appeal to a particular consumers based globally, who may or not be interested in your product.
Returning to the subject of mere demographics, Mr. Lidstone also noted the importance of awareness of frame of reference when dealing with those covetable young audiences. He showed an interesting slide of frames of reference, with a major event listed per year. Someone in their 40s, with their earliest memories at around 5 or 6, would be likely to remember the release of ‘Star Wars‘. A 16-year old today would probably have 9/11 as one of his or her earliest memories, and the recent 10-year memorial service would not have meant as much to them. He went on to talk about “advertising to manage social momentum”, noting how easy it is for your brand to lose its equity due to a misguided tweet or a grumpy consumer, alluding to the recent Topman debacle, as well as the fraudulent – not to mention hilarious – BP Global PR Twitter feed that sprang up in the wake of the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico last year. The feed at one point was being followed by 55,000 people, compared to BP’s official, paltry, 7,000. “Our brands lie naked in front of the consumer”, he emphatically summarised. They can find out anything about us; there is a greater need for brand humility. Hear, hear, says Zeitgeist, though we’re not sure if Tom Ford would agree.
From industry paradigm shifts to Paramount trailers and viral websites…
Zeitgeist has had it’s eye on the UK production company Shine for some time, watching it grow into the powerhouse it is today, all under the stewardship of Elisabeth Murdoch. Elisabeth, married to Matthew Freud of Freud Communications, has seemed to want to keep her distance from the Murdoch dynasty since leaving the fold ten years ago, unlike her brother James, who worked for News Corporation in Asia before taking the helm at Sky in the UK. Indeed, Elisabeth’s husband has – strangely for a man whose career is public relations – made little to no attempt to keep his barbed views of News Corp.’s Fox News to himself, saying he was “shocked and sickened” by the content and bias of the cable network. So it thus came as some surprise to Zeitgeist to learn that a deal was recently completed for Shine to become part of the Murdoch empire for £415m. What this will mean to the independence and creativity of the group remains to be seen. But I suppose if the sustainability-themed Avatar can make it out of the notoriously arch-conservative News Corp leviathan, anything’s possible.
In other news, Netflix has been in the papers again. After announcing it would be partnering with several consumer electronic devices, (Mashable made the analogy of having a Netflix button on your remote control), this week the company announced it was trying to develop a remake of the classic UK TV show House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey starring and David Fincher directing, committing to 26 episodes, “taking it into uncharted territory that would put it in direct competition with HBO and other premium cable channels”, writes Mashable. This will be the first time that the company has commissioned and created its own content, further disrupting models of distribution, which itself is a bit of a house of cards. While Netflix pushes into other companies’ territory, Amazon encroached on Netflix‘s by announcing at the end of last month that they would be offering premium customers access to 5,000 TV shows and movies. Though Reuters points out that moves like these are attempts to “woo” companies like Time Warner and the afore-mentioned News Corp., the reality is more tricky, as the same article points out in the very next paragraph,
Media companies so far are cautious about allowing their content to be used on these types of services because they compete with cable operators that pay a premium to carry TV programs and movies. The fear is that people will drop pricey cable subscriptions — known in the industry as “cord cutting” — in exchange for streaming video offered by Netflix or Amazon for instance.
Yesterday it was reported that Paramount will release a film on DVD and on the peer-to-peer service BitTorrent at the same time, with the latter platform supposedly functioning to incentivise people to then buy the DVD. Might a ten-minute teaser have been better than releasing the entire film? Such a teaser is being provided at the moment by Warner Bros., which recently developed iPad apps for both Dark Knight and Inception, providing the first five minutes of the film for free.
Ten days ago, Facebook announced that it would be getting into the film-rental game, as reported by the FT. This is a broader stroke for Facebook in an effort to create a benevolent ‘walled garden'; an area for users to navigate the web, communicate with who they want and angage in the services they want, without ever having to leave the Facebook environment. Zeitgeist never thought they’d be mentioning the recently-released Chalet Girl on this blog, but Variety reports the film has made an interesting marketing move of releasing an interactive trailer on Facebook, where users have the option of “like”ing the trailer at various points. Peter Buckingham, head of distribution and exhibition at the UK Film Council, sagely points out the novelty of such an exercise for film marketers; “The film industry really has not woken up to how important metadata is”.
There are exceptions, however. This past week saw the release of a trailer for an eagerly-anticipated (by nerds) summer film, directed by JJ Abrams of Star Trek and Lost fame and exec-produced by Steven Spielberg – Super 8. And what is the best way to reach said nerds? Why, firstly by providing a super-nerdy website that doles out microscopic kernels of plot information on the film under the guise of hacking into a computer from the late 1970s, and secondly by releasing said trailer on Twitter (see top image). As Zeitgeist has said before, know your audience.
“I woke up as the sun was reddening… I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel…”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Taking a page from the Beats, brandchannel reported earlier this week on one man’s attempt to hitchhike through Europe relying solely on the good nature of those behind the wheels of Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Found on tramp-a-benz.com, it’s a lovely idea that apparently the brand didn’t instigate and isn’t sponsoring, but has mentioned it on its Facebook page, with almost 3,000 “likes”. (What they are doing is courting Twitter users to race some of their cars in order to win a C-class). It’s a great story that most brands would be extremely envious of; unadulterated, unsolicited brand advocacy and evangalism. The wonderful NotCot site also pointed Zeitgeist to the brand’s Yuletide message, which seems to be exclusively online: