Apple Tip-Toes Into Original Video

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Apple has begun talks with producers in Hollywood about buy rights to original TV series and movies. If true it would represent at least the third attempt by the iPhone maker to crack the TV code, so far without notable success, although its strategy this time appears to be different from its previous efforts.

I say “appears” because, according to the Journal, Apple itself  “is still working out details of its business strategy built around original content.”

The new shows, which could begin appearing by the end of this year, will reportedly be made available to subscribers of Apple Music, suggesting this isn’t an attempt (yet) to build a direct competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime. The fact that Apple is targeting individual movies and TV series rather than networks suggests this is also not some sort of skinny bundle play to compete with Sling TV and the new Hulu service. Read More »

Talking Back to the TV

TV manufacturers, set-top box makers and smart TV software developers have tried for years to get rid of the old D-pad remote control and on-screen programming grid for search and navigation. They’ve tried motion control, Bluetooth qwerty keyboards, touch pads, and casting from mobile devices. With the exception of casting, most have proved pretty kludgey.

At the International CES underway in Las Vegas this week, voice activation has emerged as the TV interface flavor of the month. Amazon announced that it has licensed its Fire TV interface — complete with its Alexa voice-controlled digital assistant — for use in a trio of low-end 4K TV brands based in China.

Display sizes will range from 43 to 65 inches and device will come with 3GB of RAM, 16GB internal memory for apps, and a remote control with integrated microphone for talking to Alexa.

Not to be outdone, Google announced it will bring Google Assistant to all TVs and set-top boxes running Android TV, including Sony’s Bravia models and Sharp’s Aquos line. Read More »

Copyright Makes Strange Bedfellows

It’s probably fair to say that Donald Trump was not the first choice for president among the majority of those within the media and entertainment industries. Since his election last month, however, their official industry representatives have wasted little time trying to ingratiate themselves with the incoming administration and to press the industries’ policy agenda.

“So much of what you wrote in your platform this summer about intellectual property and private property rights resonated with many of us, including: ‘Intellectual property is a driving force in today’s global economy of constant innovation,'” a consortium of music industry trade associations wrote to Trump this week. “‘It is the wellspring of American economic growth and job creation. With the rise of the digital economy, it has become even more critical that we protect intellectual property rights and preserve freedom of contract rather than create regulatory barriers to creativity, growth, and innovation.’

“As partners, many in the technology and corporate community should be commended for doing their part to help value creators and their content,” the groups added. “Some have developed systems to promote a healthy market for music and deter theft. However, much more needs to be done…[T]here is a massive ‘value grab’ as some of these corporations weaken intellectual property rights for America’s creators by exploiting legal loopholes never intended for them – perversely abusing U.S. law to underpay music creators, thus harming one of America’s economic and job engines.” Read More »

Autumn Of The A&R Man

The International Federation of Phonographic Industry (IFPI) this week released its biannual Investing in Music report and the numbers raised quite a few eyebrows. According to the report, record labels worldwide invested U.S. $4.5 billion last year in A&R ($2.8 billion) and marketing, ($1.7 billion), representing 27 percent of their total revenue, more than the pharmaceutical, aerospace, or technology industry spends on R&D in percentage terms.

His_Master's_VoiceThat represents an increase of 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively, over 2013.

Particularly eye-opening was the report’s claim that it costs a label anywhere from $500,00 to $2 million to “break” a new artist in a major market like the U.S. or U.K., factoring in the “upfront” costs of artist advances, recording, music video production, tour support, and marketing and promotion.

The report is clearly meant to bolster the case for the continued relevance of traditional record companies amid the simmering industry debate over whether artists still need a label deal, given the availability of cheap, DIY recording technology and the myriad independent distributors, aggregators, marketers and other service providers offering to help artists bring their music to market. Read More »

Unsafe Harbors: Fake News Is Part Of a Larger Problem For Facebook

Faced with mounting criticism over the proliferation of fake “news” stories on Facebook, and their alleged role in tipping the outcome of the presidential election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has fallen back on a familiar formulation: Facebook is a technology company, Zuckerberg insists, not a media company. It merely provides a platform where users can post, share, and respond to content posted and shared by others.

“Our goal is to give every person a voice,” Zuckerberg wrote in a somewhat plaintive blog post over the weekend. “We believe deeply in people. Assuming that people understand what is important in their lives and that they can express those views has driven not only our community, but democracy overall. Sometimes when people use their voice though, they say things that seem wrong and they support people you disagree with.”

BN-QU803_1115te_GR_20161115083039The clear and intended implication is that Facebook is not liable for what its users post, and has very circumscribed responsibility to police false, misleading, and tendentious content on its platform. While Facebook and other social media platforms are now taking some modest steps to discourage the spread of fake news content, they’re stopping well short of accepting editorial accountability.

“This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. ..I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.” Read More »

America Exits The World

For all intents and purposes, Donald J. Trump will assume the presidency in January with no discernable policy agenda. Apart from a few signature flights of fancy, such as building a wall along 1,500 miles of southern border and rounding up 11 million immigrants for summary deportation, his policy pronouncements consisted largely of an ever-shifting farrago of ignorance, indifference, truculence, and personal animus boiled down into 140-character outbursts. As a general matter, we simply do not know what the Trump administration might do.

trumpGiven the enormity his election represents, speculating on the fallout for any particular industry could seem petty, if not beside the point entirely. But for what it’s worth, the media and technology industries may be among the first to feel the impact.

As a near-term matter, Trump said on the campaign trail that he would block AT&T’s pending merger with Time Warner and would look to undo already done media mergers, including Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal. Setting aside the question of whether the Justice Department would have legal grounds to do either (and the perhaps more interesting question of whether a Trump Justice Department would feel constrained by established law and precedent), Trump’s rhetoric could cast a pall over M&A activity, just as the media industry seems poised for another round of it in the wake of AT&T-Time Warner. Read More »

While FCC Dithers, Google Ditches The Box

To hear the pay-TV industry tell it, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s original proposal to “unlock” the set-top box was essentially a sop to Google, a company many in the industry see as having effectively captured the agency, if not the entire Obama administration, and as coveting the incumbent operators’ position in the TV business.

Those suspicions were only strengthened when Google began offering members of Congress demos of a set-top box that fit remarkably with the sort of navigation device envisioned by Wheeler’s proposal, just days after the proposal was unveiled.

fccwheelergettyoffledeAlarmed, cable operators rushed out its own proposal to “ditch” the set-top box altogether and make their services available, essentially as is, via apps that could run on third-party devices — an idea Google opposed because it would leave the cable operators in control of the user interface and the bundling of channels.

The industry’s move was effective, inasmuch as it forced Wheeler to retreat from his original proposal, and come up with a new plan loosely modeled on the industry’s app-based approach. While Google said it could live with the new proposal, the industry still found much not to like, and an all-out lobby blitz again forced Wheeler to postpone a planned vote on the measure. Read More »

Music For The Masses

Music streaming has brought a lot of personalization to the experience of listening to music. Faced with the challenge of differentiating their service from competitors featuring substantially the same catalog of music, at a de facto standard price point, streaming services have focused on developing ever-more precise tools for personalizing the listening experience in the hope of keeping users engaged. So, Spotify has its playlists, Apple has its curators, Pandora has its music DNA project.

His_Master's_VoiceMusic rights owners too, in their approach to the streaming business, have also encouraged personalization. Burned badly by free music “sharing” sites, the record labels have been more than happy to reinforce the streaming services’ efforts to turn listening into a personal — and solitary — experience, such as by curating their own Spotify and Apple playlists.

Digital technology itself has also contributed to the bias toward personalization. Use of streaming services is heavily weighted toward mobile devices, particularly phones, which by design are personal, and in general highly personalized devices. Digital distribution also generates the sort of highly granular usage data on which personalization tools rely.

All that personalization has come at a price, however. With everyone cocooned inside their own playlists and cut off from the outside world by earbuds, the communal experience of listening to recorded music with friends or family has become a rarity. Read More »

The Coming Wireless Video Wars

Having dropped $48 billion and change last year to acquire DirecTV, AT&T is now earmarking tens of billions more over the next 3 to 5 years to acquire media companies, according to a report this week by Bloomberg. Citing “people familiar with the plans,” the report said AT&T is targeting acquisitions ranging from $2 billion to $50 billion, with an eye toward “owning some of the content it distributes.”

It likely won’t be distributing it through DirecTV, however, at least not via satellite. According to an earlier Bloomberg report, AT&T will begin phasing out DirecTV’s randallstephensonsatellite platform within the same 3 to 5-year window, with any eye toward making internet streaming its primary TV platform by 2020. The company has lately been lining up carriage deals ahead of its planned launch of its DirecTV Now over-the-top service later this year. And it has been aggressively steering its wireless customers toward DirecTV by bundling unlimited wireless data plans with a DirecTV subscription, which so far has been taken up by some 5 million of its wireless subscribers.

DirecTV Now will also be “zero-rated” for AT&T wireless customers, meaning it won’t count against their monthly data cap. Read More »

For Music Biz, First-Half Results Are A Glass Half Full

The Recording Industry Association of America this week reported that U.S. music sales through the first half of 2012 were up 8.1 percent over the first half of 2015, to $3.4 billion, the industry’s strongest rate of growth in more than a decade.

iphone-artist-spotifyThe surge was due almost entirely to a whopping 112 percent increase in revenue from paid streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal which more than offset a 17 percent decline in digital downloads (including albums, single tracks, and kiosks), and a 16 percent decline in sales of physical formats (CDs and vinyl).

Revenue from free interactive streaming, such as Spotify’s ad-supported tier, YouTube and Vevo, grew 24 percent but remained a tiny slice (5.9 percent) of the overall revenue pie. Revenue from non-interactive streaming services, primarily Pandora, was up 4 percent.

“Streaming in all its forms accounted for almost half of all recorded music revenues in the first half of 2016,” RIAA CEO Carey Sherman wrote in a post on Medium. “This represents a remarkable transformation and reinvention by a business that was principally physical products just six years ago.” Read More »

Why MVPDs, Studios Won’t Take Yes For An Answer on STBs

When Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled his initial proposal to “unlock” the pay-TV set-top box back in January, pay-TV service providers and programmers howled in protest. Operators complained that the proposal, which called for multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) to make their video feeds, channel listings, and subscriber entitlement data available to third-party device makers as discreet “information flows,” would require a major and expensive re-architecting of their systems. Programmers complained that making their content available directly to device makers with whom the programmers had no contractual arrangement amounted to a de facto compulsory copyright license, which the FCC had no authority to create or enforce.

FCC_buildingBoth threatened to sue.

The two arguments were, in fact, reinforcing. The current carriage agreements TV programmers and distributors have with pay-TV operators are premised in part on pay-TV systems operating in certain ways and not in other ways. Changing how those systems function could cause part of the premise of those licensing agreements to crumble. Read More »

The FCC Chairman’s Tactical Retreat On Set-Top Boxes (Updated)

After months of intensive lobbying by pay-TV providers and TV programmers, as well as mounting pressure from congress, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has apparently backed off quite a bit from his original proposal to “unlock the [set-top] box” and is preparing to adopt the broad outlines the industry’s app-based counter-proposal. But that doesn’t mean the struggle for control of the set-top is over.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingIn an ex parte filing with the commission this week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, along with DirecTV-parent AT&T, pushed back forcefully against elements of what appears to be Wheeler’s new plan to bring greater competition to the market for pay-TV-compatible set-top boxes, as mandated by congress more than a decade ago.

The new plan, as described in general terms in a series of ex parte filings in recent weeks, will apparently require multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to develop apps that can run on third-party devices but that replicate all of the features of MVPDs’ own services, including making all the operator’s linear and on-demand content available on similar terms.  It will also require MVPDs to make their content searchable by third-party, universal-search applications. Read More »

A Measure of Success: Frank Ocean, Netflix and the Value of Data

Frank Ocean’s surprise release “Blonde” debuted at No. 1 this week on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, racking up sales of 275,000 units, despite its not being released as an album in any physical format.

frank-ocean-blonde-x750So what were those 275,000 units? Some 232,000 of them were paid digital album downloads, according to Nielsen Music. The other 43,000 consisted of “equivalent album units.”

Say what?

An “equivalent album unit” (shouldn’t that be “album-equivalent unit?) is a metric devised by Billboard in 2014 to accounting for streaming activity and individual track downloads for charting purposes. Ten individual track downloads from an album as measured by Nielsen, or 1,500 on-demand streams of individual album tracks as reported to Billboard by the major streaming services, are counted as an equivalent album unit. In the case of Blonde, individual track downloads were not available at the time of the albums initial release, but they accrued 65 million streams. Dividing that 65 million by 1,500 yields 43,000 equivalent units. QED. Read More »

The More Things They Change, The More Digital Platforms Become The Same

YouTube is working on a plan to be more like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. According to a report by VentureBeat, the video platform has been developing a new feature internally called Backstage that will allow users to post photos, links, text posts and other non-video content alongside their videos. The new content will resemble a Facebook Timeline, presented as a feed scrolling in reverse-chronological order on the user’s channel home page, but also appearing in subscribers’ feeds and notifications.

Backstage, or whatever it ends up being called, is expected to be rolled out later this year on select YouTube accounts.

The move to make using YouTube more like using Facebook seems only fair at this point given that Facebook has lately become more like YouTube. The social network has, with considerable success, moved aggressively to turn itself into a major platform for hosting and sharing user-created videos — once the near exclusive facebook_videoterrain of YouTube.

Facebook has also lately taken steps to become more like Twitter, launching Facebook Live to rival Periscope, while Twitter has tried to become more like YouTube by making video a bigger part of its offering.

A similar convergence is underway in the music streaming area. Pandora is reportedly in the final stages of negotiations with the record companies to launch an on-demand tier to its service, which would make it more like Spotify and Apple Music. Spotify, meanwhile, is acting more YouTube and even Netflix, adding original video to its mix of content.

It’s getting to where you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard.

More to the point, it’s getting harder for digital platforms and services to differentiate themselves from each other. Music streaming services, which already share substantially the same catalog of content and now increasingly share the same business model, are trying, through the increasing use of  individual artist exclusives. Others have sought to make human vs. machine curation a point of differentiation. Read More »