In the course of history, many smart people have been scared by the rapid progression of technology and its impact on the way we live. Forget the printing press; Socrates was concerned that even the technology of recording via written documents (i.e. writing) would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories”. One need only look at the graphic above, representing swings in market share for tech titans, to see significant change in just the past 35 years.
January has been a difficult month for the stock market, with share prices around the world taking a tumble. A lot of the liquidity in the market rests on the valuation of a growing number of technology firms, whose route to profitability varies wildly. The oft-written about “Unicorns” are seemingly due for some market correction – no bad thing for the tech sector – but what about the bastions of the industry, how are they looking?
Twitter – The firm would have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of last year, when original co-founder Jack Dorsey committed to returning to the company. There were promising sounds at first, but recently it has been mulling a move away from the 140-character limit that defines its modus operandi. It has the potential, according to Forrester, to repackage such long-form fare in the mode of Facebook’s Instant Articles. But attempting to emulate what has already been done cannot hold any hope for actually catching up with its rival. An article in The New Yorker this week derides the social network, calling out its lack of direction, and questioning its relevance in a growing pool of competitors. Twitter’s US penetration has been flat for the past three quarters, and Snapchat is nipping at its heels in terms of engagement. While overall Twitter is seeing steady growth, it’s rate of growth continues to decline
Facebook – By contrast, Facebook is doing well, particularly concerning its financial performance. Its increasing collaboration with telcos as it explores new revenue opportunities pave the way for sizeable rewards in the medium term. And it is slowly learning from the likes of WeChat and Kakao Talk in Asian markets on how to better integrate various functionality into its Messenger app; it’s first foray is working with Uber to allow users to hire a car without leaving Messenger. (This week Whatsapp also begun to get the message, no pun intended). We commented in our last article about how the social network is fast having to adapt to an ageing user base and lower engagement, but Facebook is attempting to combat such trends with numerous tactics. Sadly, its attempt to provide free internet services in developing markets has run into obstacles. In both Egypt and India, government regulators have interceded to stop the network from running its Free Basics service, under the guise of net neutrality (which in our opinion stretches the definition, and the spirit, of net neutrality).
Yahoo – The troubles for this company are more than we can summarise in this short review. Let it suffice to say that Marissa Mayer’s wunderkind sheen has been significantly tarnished since her arrival at the company in 2012. In an editorial in the Financial Times last month, the company was described as a “blur of services and assets of different values”. As her inescapably significant role in the organisation’s lacklustre performance becomes increasingly apparent – hedge fund Starboard Value has issued an ultimatum for her to either leave peacefully or be replaced by shareholder vote come March – reports are that Mayer will have to lay off around 10% of the company. The FT puts it well,
[R]ather like AOL, it is considered a service stuck in internet dark ages. It is what grandma uses to look up the weather. It is not for Snapchatting teenagers. And it is not what investors crave most of all: the prospect of growth.
Amazon – Until this week the company had been faring extremely well, and its most recent concern was not getting investors too excited about its recent profit announcement. And while it’s reporting this week of a 26% YoY rise in sales was welcome, its fourth-quarter profits of $482m were one-third lower than what Wall Street analysts were expecting; the stock plunged 13% as a result. The disparity between rising sales and profits that don’t align to such a rise are nothing new for the company, unfortunately.
Holistic sector frailty – Two excellent articles in The Economist this month reveal a sector that is experiencing growing pains as the current digital era reaches a period of relative maturity. As the hype dies down, what hath such new ways of thinking, making and working wrought? The first article examines the seemingly glamorous role of a techie working in a startup firm, and the pitfalls that come with it. The article reports that “Only 19% of tech employees said they were happy in their jobs and only 17% said they felt valued in their work”. In looking at the explosion of demand for the inadequately named Hoverboard, the second article identifies that globalisation has vastly sped up a product’s journey from conception to delivery at a consumer’s home, at the expense of a proper regulatory system; it is unclear with so many disintermediated players who should shoulder the burden of quality control. The Economist sees such risk as a parable for the tricky place the sector as a whole finds itself in.
*Our 2016 trends for the sector can be found here*
Our most popular article this year by far was a piece we wrote on trends in the media and entertainment industry for the coming twelve months. That nothing has been written since January that has proved as popular as that is a little disappointing, but it is a good indication of what users come to this blog for.
It’s been an interesting past month or so in the Technology, Media and Telecoms sector. We’re going to attempt to recap some of the more consequential things here, as well as the impact they may have into next year.
Star Wars – And the blockbuster dilemma
Friday saw the release of the first trailer for Star Wars Episode VII, due for release December 2015. CNBC covered the release at the coda of European Closing Bell, around the point of a segment a story might be done about a cat caught up a tree (“On a lighter note…”). They discussed the trailer and the franchise on a frivolous note at first, mostly joking about the length of time since the original film’s release. One of the anchors then went on to claim that Disney’s purchase of “Lucasfilms” [sic] and the release of this trilogy of films, given the muted reaction to Episodes I-III, constituted a huge bet on Disney’s part. This showed a profound lack of understanding. Collectively, Episodes I-III, disappointing artistically as they may have been, made a cool $1.2bn. And this is just at the box office. Homevideo revenues would probably have been the same again, almost certainly more. Most importantly (whether we like it or not), are revenue streams like toy sales, theme park rides and the like (see below graphic, from StatisticBrain). So we are talking about a product that, despite many not being impressed with, managed to generate several billion dollars for Fox, Lucasfilm, et al. With a more reliable pair of hands at the helm in the form of J.J. Abrams, to say Episodes VII-IX are a huge bet is questionable thinking at best.
It can be easy for pundits to forget those ancillary streams, but in contemporary Hollywood it is such areas that are key, and fundamentally influence what films get made. Kenneth Turan, writing in mid-September for the LA Times, echoed such thinking. As with our Star Wars example; so “with the Harry Potter films, and it is happening again with ‘Frozen’, with Disney announcing just last week that it would construct a ‘Frozen’ attraction at Orlando’s Disney World”. It is why studios have scheduled, as of August this year, some 30 movies based on comicbooks to be released over the coming years. Of course, supply follows demand. Such generic shlock wouldn’t be made again and again (and again) if consumers didn’t exercise their capitalist right to choose it and consume it. We have been given Transformers 4 because the market said it wanted it.
But is this desire driven by a faute de mieux – a lack of anything better – in said market? David Fincher may not have been far off the mark back in September when he mentioned in an interview with Playboy that “studios treat audiences like lemmings, like cattle in a stockyard“. But a shift from such a narrow mindset may prove difficult in a consolidated environment – Variety’s editor-in-chief Peter Bart pointed out recently that “six companies control 90% of the media consumed by Americans, compared with 50 companies some 30 years ago”. Some players of course are trying to change the way the business this works. The most provocative statement of this was in September when Netflix announced a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, to be released day-and-date across Netflix and in IMAX cinemas. Kudos. It’s the kind of thing this blog has been advocating since its inception. Though not in accordance with a capitalist model, the market is certainly showing a desire for more day-and-date releases. Netflix isn’t a lone outlier as on OTT provider trying to develop exclusive content that goes beyond comicbooks (that in itself should give Netflix pause; about a fifth of its market value has eroded since mid-October). Hulu’s efforts with J.J. Abrams and Stephen King, as well as Amazon’s universally acclaimed Transparent series (full disclosure, a good friend works on the show; Zeitgeist was privileged to take a look around the sets on the Paramount lot while in Los Angeles this summer). And that’s not to say innovative content can’t be developed around blockbuster fare; we really liked 20th Century Fox’s partnership with Vice for ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’, creating short films that filled the gaps between the film and its predecessor. Undoubtedly the model needs to change; unlike last summer, there were no outright bombs this year at the box office, but receipts fell 15% all the same. The first eight months of 2014 were more than $400m behind the same period in 2013. Interviewed in the FT, Robert Fishman, an analyst with MoffettNathanson put it wisely, “It always comes down to the product on the screen. And the product on the screen just hasn’t delivered.” An editorial in The Economist earlier this month praised Hollywood’s business model, suggesting other businesses should emulate it. But beyond some good marketing tactics there seems little that should be copied by others. Indeed, lots more work is needed. Perhaps the first step is merely rising that not all blockbusters need to be released in the summer. Next year, James Bond, Star Wars and The Avengers will all arrive on screens… spread throughout the year. Expect 2015 to feature more innovation on the part of exhibitors too, beyond having their customers be rained on.
Tech wars – Hacking, piracy and monopolies
Sony Pictures faced some embarrassment this week when hackers claimed to have penetrated the company’s systems, getting away with large volumes of data that included detailed information on talent (such as passport details for the likes of Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz). The full story is still unfolding. We’ve written a couple of times recently about cybersecurity; it was disappointing but unsurprising to see the spectre of digital warfare raise its head again twice in the past week. The first instance was with Regin, an impressive bit of malware, which seems to be the successor to Stuxnet, a spying program developed by Israeli and American intelligence forces to undermine Iranian efforts to develop nuclear materials. Symantec said Regin had probably taken years to develop, with “a degree of technical competence rarely seen”. Regin was focused on Saudia Arabia, Russia, but also Ireland and India, which muddies the waters of authorship. However, in these post-Snowden days it is well known that friendly countries go to significant lengths to spy on each other, and The Economist posited at least part of the malware was created by those in the UK. Deloitte, ranked number one globally in security consulting by Gartner, is on the case.
The news in other parts of the world is troubling too. In the US, the net neutrality debate rages. It’s too big an issue to be covered here, but the Financial Times and Harvard Business Review cover the topic intelligently, here and here. In China, regulators are cracking down on online TV, a classic case of a long-gestating occurence that at some arbitrary point grows too big to ignore, suddenly becoming problematic. But, if a recent article on the affair in The Economist is anything to go by, such deeds are likely to merely spur piracy. And in the EU this past week it was disconcerting to see what looked like a mix of jealousy, misunderstanding and outright protectionism when the European Parliament voted for Google to be broken up. No one likes or wants a monopoly; monopolies are bad because they can reduce consumer choice. This is one of the key arguments against the Comcast / Time Warner Cable merger. But Google’s share of advertising revenue is being eaten into by Facebook; its mobile platform Android is popular but is being re-skinned by OEMs looking to put their own branding onto the OS. And Google is not reducing choice in the same way as an offline equivalent, with higher barriers to entry, might. The Economist points out this week:
“[A]lthough switching from Google and other online giants is not costless, their products do not lock customers in as Windows, Microsoft’s operating system, did. And although network effects may persist for a while, they do not confer a lasting advantage… its behaviour is not in the same class as Microsoft’s systematic campaign against the Netscape browser in the late 1990s: there are no e-mails talking about “cutting off” competitors’ ‘air supply'”
The power of lock-in, or substitute products, should not be underestimated. For Apple, this has meant the acquisition of Beats, which they are now planning to bundle in to future iPhones. For Jeff Bezos, this means bundling in Washington Post into future Amazon Fire products. For media and entertainment providers, it means getting customers to extend their relationship with the business into triple- and quad-play services. But it has been telling this month to hear from two CEOs who are questioning the pursuit of quad-play. For the most part, research shows that it can increase customer retention, although not without lowering the cost of the overall product. Sky’s CEO Jeremy Darroch said “If I look at the existing quadplays in the market, not just in the UK, but pretty much everywhere, I think they’re very much driven by the providers who want to extend their offering, rather than, I think, any significant demand from customers”. Vodafone’s CEO Vittorio Colao joined in, “If someone starts bidding for content then you [might] have to yourself… Personally I have doubts that in the long run that this [exclusive content] will really create a lot of value for the platform. It tends to create lots of value for the owner”. Sony meanwhile are pursuing just such a tack of converged services in the form of a new ad campaign. But the benefits of convergence are usually around the customer being able to have multiple touchpoints, not the business being able to streamline assets and services in-house. Sony is in the midst of its own tech war, in consoles, where it is firmly ahead of Microsoft, who were seeking a similar path to that of Sky and Vodafone to dominate the living room. But externalities are impeding – mobile gaming revenues will surpass those of the traditional console next year to become the largest gaming segment; no surprise when by 2020, 90% of the world’s population over 6 years old will have a mobile phone, according to Ericsson. So undoubtedly look for more cyberattacks next year, on a wider range of industries, from film, to telco (lots of customer data there), to politics and economics.
Talent wars – Cui bono?
Our last section is the lightest on content, but perhaps the most important. It is the relation between artist and patron. This relationship took a turn for the worse this year. On a larger, corporate side, this issue played itself out as Amazon and publisher Hachette rowed over fees. Hachette, rather than Amazon, appears to have won the battle; it will set he prices on its books, starting from early 2015. It is unlikely to be the last battle between the ecommerce giant and a publisher, and it may well now give the DoJ the go-ahead to examine the company’s alleged anti-competitive misdeeds.
Elsewhere, artist Taylor Swift’s move to exorcise her catalogue from music streaming service Spotify is a shrewd move on her part. Though an extremely popular platform, driving a large share of revenues to the artists, the problem remains that there is little revenue to start with as much of what there is to do on Spotify can be done for free. The Financial Times writes that it is thanks to artists like Swift that “an era of protectionism is dawning” again (think walled gardens and Compuserve) for content. The danger for the music industry is that other artists take note of what Swift has done and follow suit. This would be of benefit to the individual artists but detrimental to the industry itself. And clearly such an issue doesn’t have to be restricted to the music industry. It’s not hard to anticipate a similar issue affecting film in 2015.
There’s a plethora of activity going on in TMT as the year draws to a close – much of it will impact how businesses behave and customers interact with said media next year. The secret will be in drawing a long-term strategic course that can be agile enough to adapt to disruptive technologies. However what we’ve hopefully shown here in this article is that there are matters to attend to in multiple sectors that need immediate attention over any amorphous future trends.
Late last month, Zeitgeist went with friends to his local theatre to see “Teh [sic] Internet is a Serious Business”. The play, a story of the founding of the hacktivist group Anonymous, was the most well-publicised dawn of cyberattacks on businesses and governments. The organisation, at its best, set it sights on radical groups that promoted marginalisation of others, whether that was the Church of Scientology in the US or those trying to dampen the Arab Spring in Tunisia. This collective, run by people, some of whom were still in school, showed the world how vulnerable institutions were to being targeted online. We wrote about cybersecurity as recently as this summer, summarising the key points in a recent report from The Economist on what was needed to mitigate against future attacks and how to reduce the damage such attacks inflict. The issue is not going away (and in fact is likely to become worse before it gets better).
It was back in January that management consultancy McKinsey produced a report, ‘Risk and responsibility in a hyperconnected world: Implications for enterprises’, where they estimated the total aggregate impact of cyberattacks at $3 trillion. There is much to be done to avert such losses, but the current picture is far from rosy. Most tech executives gave their institutions “low scores in making the required changes”, the report states; nearly 80% of them said they cannot keep up with attackers’ – be they nation-states or individuals – increasing sophistication. Moreover, though more money is being directed at this area, “larger expenditures have not translated into an increased maturity” yet. And while the attacks themselves carry potentially devastating economic impact on a company, their prevention comes at a price too for the business, beyond the financial. McKinsey reports that security concerns are delaying mobile functionality in enterprises by an average of six months. If attacks continue, the consultancy posits this could result in “a world where a ‘cyberbacklash’ decelerates digitization [sic]”. Revelations about pervasive cyberspying by Western governments on their own citizens could well be a catalyst to this. Seven points are made in the report for enterprises to manage disruptions better:
- Prioritise the greatest business risks to defend and invest in.
- Provide a differentiated approach to defence of assets, based on their importance.
- Move from “simply bolting on security to training their entire staff to incorporate it from day one into technology projects”.
- Be proactive; develop capabilities “to aggregate relevant information” to attune defence systems
- Test. Test. Test again.
- Enlist CxOs to help them understand the value in protection.
- Integrate risk of attack with other corporate risk analysis
Given the amount of business and social issues that involve digital processes – “IP, regulatory compliance, privacy, customer experience, product development, business continuity, legal jurisdiction” – there is a huge amount of disagreement about how much state involvement there should be in the degree to which enterprises must take steps to protect themselves. This is an important point for discussion though, and we touched on it when we wrote about cyberattacks previously.
But that report was way back in January, things must have solved themselves since then, right? Last week, PwC reported that corporate cyber security budgets are being slashed, even while cyberattacks are becoming far more frequent. The FT reported that global security budgets fell 4% YoY in 2014, while the number of reported security incidents increased 48%. Bear in mind these are only reported incidents. This is potentially no bad thing, if we’re to go by McKinsey’s diagnosis of too much money being thrown at the problem in the first place. At the same time, it’s not exactly comforting.
Only a few days after PwC’s figures were published, JP Morgan revealed that personal data for 76 million households – about two-thirds of total US households – had been “compromised” by a cyberattack that had happened earlier in the year. Information stolen included names, phone numbers and email addresses of customers. It was also revealed that other financial institutions were probed too. Worryingly, the WSJ reports that investigators disagree on what exactly the hackers did. It was also unclear who was to blame; nation state or individual. Such disagreements over the ramifications of the attack, the identity of the attackers as well as the delayed revelation of the attack itself, illustrate just how necessary transparency is, if such attacks are to be better protected against and managed in the future.
For those in London at the end of the month, The Economist is hosting an event for those who apply, on October 21, examining “how businesses can and should respond to a data breach, whether it stem from a malicious insider, an external threat or simple carelessness”. Hope to see you there.
A recent essay for Foreign Affairs, “The State of the State”, criticises Western governments for failing to innovate. The authors make an unfavourable comparison with China, which, though still autocratic in nature, has at least looked abroad for ways to make the state work better (if only in a necessarily limited scope). One doesn’t need to look much farther than France to see what happens when the state fails to innovate. President Hollande has done his very best to inculcate a backward ideology of indolence among its workers, but the negative effects of over-regulation have been present in France for some time. One major step that is in drastic need of undertaking is the simplification of France’s opaque labour laws, the code for which runs to 3,492 pages, according to a recent article in The Economist. A stark and laughable example of the limits of such a code is elaborated on below,
“[The code] impose[s] rules when a firm grows beyond a certain limit: at 50 employees, for example, it must create a works council and a separate health committee, with wide-ranging consultative rights. So France has over twice as many firms with 49 staff as with 50.”
France of course also has a strong sense of state oversight and sponsorship when it comes to the media industry. L’exception culturelle has long dominated discourse about what content is appropriate and designated to be high art. Such safeguarding of domestic product has been a thorn in the side of late of the EU / US trade partnership, threatening to derail negotiations. Some have argued that such promotion of homemade productions serves not to diminish foreign imports – a love of Americana has not subsided in France – but rather only to preserve a niche. Regardless, argues a recent editorial in one of France’s national newspapers, it has left the country’s media sector susceptible to disruption.
Today’s Le Monde newspaper features a front page editorial on the arrival Monday to the country of Netflix. The company announced its plans for European expansion at the beginning of the year. It won’t have everything its own way, though. Netflix will have to adapt to a very different market environment. The Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) market is well-established, and it will see much competition from incumbents (last year annual revenues for companies based in France providing such services exceeded EUR10m). These incumbents charge little or nothing for their services, relative to the $70-80 a month Americans pay to a cable company to watch television, according to The Economist, which states “Netflix struggled in Brazil, for example, against competition from local broadcasters’ big-budget soaps”. Moreover, current government policy dictates a 36-month long window from cinema release to SVOD. We’ve argued against the arbitrariness of such windows before, for a variety of reasons, but here such policy surely negatively impacts Netflix’s projected revenues. Such projections will be curbed further by stringent taxes and a further dictat that SVOD services based in France with annual earnings of more than EUR10m are required to hand over 15% of their revenues to the European film industry and 12% to domestic filmmakers, according to France24. As well as traditional competition, Netflix also faces threats from OTT rivals, such as FilmoTV. One possible way around such competitor obstacles is the promotion of itself as a complementary service. The New York Times earlier this spring elaborated,
“Analysts say Netflix, which has primarily focused on older content more than on recent releases, could also survive in parallel to European rivals that have invested heavily in new movies and television shows. Netflix in some ways serves as a living archive, with TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the 1990s or movies like “Back to the Future” from 1985. Such fare has enabled the company in Britain, for example, to partner with the cable television operator Virgin Media, which offers new customers a six-month free subscription to Netflix when they sign up for a cable package.”
Such archive content will come in handy, particularly given that, as Le Monde points out, Netflix had previously sold the rights to its flagship series ‘House of Cards’ to premium broadcaster Canal Plus’ SVOD service Canal Play (which itself is investing in new content). The article hesitates to guess how much of a success the service will be in France – something Citi has no problem in doing, see chart below – instead looking to the music industry for an analogy, where streaming has become a dominant form of engaging with the medium. As in other markets, streaming services have met with increasing success, particularly with younger generations. For Le Monde, the arrival of Netflix will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers, but the paper also hopes it will blow away the cobwebs of an industry that has become comfortable in its ways; it hopes the company will provide a piqûre de rappel (shot in the arm) for the culture industry. Netflix’s ingredients – by no means impossible to emulate – of tech innovation, easy access and pricing and a rich catalogue, should be a lesson to its peers. The editorial only laments that it took an American company to arrive on French shores for businesses to get the message.
UPDATE (16/9/14): TelecomTV reported this morning that Netflix has partnered with French telco Bouygues. The company will offer service subscriptions “through its Bbox Sensation from November and via its future Android box service. Rival operators are refusing to host Netflix on their products”.
It’s not quite as cool as Bond in his Tom Ford suit leaning on his wonderful Aston Martin while he plots his next move to unseat some despot. All the same, Germany’s recent apparent spate of typewriter purchases points to a renewed sense of fear of being overheard and compromised in an era of digitally pervasive content, vulnerable networks and indelible conversations. Spying and intelligence concerns coalesced with subject matter we’ve previously written about – including online privacy, governance, security and the internet of things – in a special report in last week’s The Economist, which produced eight articles on the subject of security in a digital landscape. Some highlights:
- Cybercrime is costly. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates the annual global cost of digital crime and intellectual-property theft at $445 billion – a sum “roughly equivalent to the GDP of a smallish rich European country such as Austria”.
- Focus on prevention rather than reaction. As with many things, the best way to make sure cyberattacks aren’t too damaging to your business is to make sure they never happen in the first place. It’s more difficult (and costly) with digital security because the process can easily feel like a Sisyphean struggle; businesses invest in new technology only to see it circumvented by more hacking, perhaps exposing a different loophole or vulnerability. But an iterative approach is better than leaving the door open and spending more money after the fact.
- Honesty is the best policy. After being hacked, a company can find it hard to admit it. This is understandable. Not only is it somewhat embarassing, it admits to customers and shareholders that the company is vulnerable, but it also suggests that their data is not safe with said company; perhaps they should shop elsewhere. However, transparency in such a situation is paramount if others are to learn how to combat such attacks. One suggestion is that the US government “create a cyber-equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates serious accidents and shares information about them”.
- Who to complain to? The perpetrators of cybercrimes are no longer limited to the teenaged hackers of yesteryear. Though ideological groups like Anonymous serve as a disruptive influence, often the biggest problems are caused by the governments charged with protecting things like individual privacy, security and freedom of speech. From the US to China, authorities “do not hesitate to use the web for their own purposes, be it by exploiting vulnerabilities in software or launching cyber-weapons such as Stuxnet, without worrying too much about the collateral damage done to companies and individuals”.
- External trends point to a worsening of the problem. The Internet of Things as a trend will have billions of devices connected to each other via the Internet over the next few years. With one of the fundamental ideas being that the user isn’t really aware of the connection, the likelihood of spotting a hacked device becomes all the smaller. This isn’t a huge problem in cases like a connected fridge receiving spam email, but it becomes more of a problem when hackers can gain remote control of your car. One of the barriers to improved security for everyday devices is that the margins are razor-thin, as are the chips to connected to the devices, in order to keep the product small. Any added security software or hardware and the cost and size of the product increases.
Zeitgeist believe the risk to IoT devices will be one of the key areas that businesses and regulators will need to focus their efforts in the future. Because it is still a relatively fledgling sector, the issue is not being discussed yet in many places. Deloitte, in association with the Wall Street Journal, recently reported on the nature of cyberrisks and how companies can help mitigate them. Well worth a read.
Having studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).
Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.
Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.
Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,
“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”
Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,
“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”
While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.
The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.
UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.
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.