Get Ready to Rumble; FCC Launches Net Neutrality Rollback

Here’s how high tension is already running over the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to undo it’s own net neutrality order: At Thursday’s open meeting where the commission voted 2-1 to proceed with the first phase of the rollback, with security on high alert over online threats aimed at commissioners, security personnel “manhandled” long-time Capitol Hill reporter John Donnelly and removed him from the building for approaching commissioner Michael O’Reilly in a hallway and attempting to ask him a question outside of an official press conference.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Tensions are only likely to get higher as the proposal moves forward. This week’s vote kicks off at least a three-month period of pubic comments, during which the commission can expect to be deluged with input, ranging from the substantive to he hysterical. Democrats on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are vowing “all out war” to prevent any rollback.

Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn used Thursday’s public meeting as a platform to denounce the proposal and to call on members of the public to challenge the rollback in court, a tactic many legal experts say would stand a reasonable chance of success, given that the commission’s abrupt reversal on rules implemented just two years ago could well meet the legal definition of the sort of “arbitrary” and “capricious” actions federal agencies are supposed to avoid.

There’s also the possibility that Clyburn herself will leave the FCC at the end of June, when her current term expires, which would leave the already depleted commission one commissioner shy of the quorum needed to give any of its actions the force of law. Efforts to fill the by-then three vacant seats on the panel could well set off a major battle between the White House and Democrats on the Hill, which given the current chaos in Washington (Nostrovia!) could drag on indefinitely.

All of which is to say, we’re a long way from any formal rollback of the rules taking effect. Between now and then, though, we’re likely to hear a lot of overheated rhetoric and exaggerated claims from all sides of the debate.

As with the first time around, much of the public debate will focus on the alleged dangers of introducing “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on consumer broadband connections or the blocking or throttling of disfavored content by ISPs.

For the streaming industry, however, the most substantive of the proposed changes would be the elimination of the current regulations’ “general conduct” standard for reviewing possible violations of open internet principles not covered under the rules.

That somewhat nebulous concept was introduced by previous FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to give the agency the authority to review interconnection agreements between edge providers and last-mile ISPs without issuing formal rules governing those arrangements, which were still evolving at the time.

That effort was in someways the linchpin of the entire previous rulemaking, including Wheeler’s decision to reclassify broadband access as a Title II telecommunications service. Whereas rules prohibiting blocking and throttling likely could have been sustained under the FCC’s existing authority without reclassification, asserting authority over interconnection arrangements could only be sustained if internet access was brought fully under FCC jurisdiction, with its public interest standard. Legally, that could only happen if internet access were formally classified as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

For all the sturm und drang over fast lanes and slow lanes, the number of confirmed cases of content-based throttling of consumer bandwidth is very small. Prioritization of favored content via zero-rating is increasingly common, and in some cases paid for, but it’s not clear that providing consumers with what amounts to free bandwidth qualifies as the sort of consumer harm that the FCC could or would prohibit, even under Title II.

Interconnection arrangements, however, were the source of fierce and genuine disputes between streaming services like Netflix and ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

You could argue, as many do, that the government should stay out of such disputes and let market forces sort out the arrangements. But you can’t argue that interconnection arrangements aren’t directly material to the business of streaming. For better or worse, rolling back Title II would likely end the FCC’s jurisdiction over those arrangements, which could well rekindle the peering wars.

 

Competing With Paid

The rise of subscription streaming services, in both the music and video industries, has given the lie to the old complaint that consumers won’t pay for content online. But to many in the music industry, to say nothing of streaming investors, too many of them still don’t.

Ad-supported free streaming services remain the bête noire of the record labels and music publishers. They rail against YouTube, even as they’re making deals with it, and have fought to restrict the copyright safe harbors that allow YouTube to profit from music posted without license by users. They’ve maintained pressure on Spotify to shift more of its free users to its paid subscription tier, a tune now echoed by potential investors as Spotify eyes an IPO or public listing of its shares, and have begun to restrict when new releases are made available on the service’s free tier.

Pandora, the largest free streaming platform after YouTube, felt compelled to roll out a new subscription tier as it tries to woo investors and potential suitors.

To hear many in the music business tell it, the industry would be better off if free streaming went away altogether.

The video streaming business, however, has lately been moving in the opposite direction, at least on certain fronts. While over-the-top subscription streaming services continue to proliferate, streaming platforms continue to invest in free, ad-supported content.

Ad-supported streaming service Tubi TV this week announced a new, $20 million funding round led by Jump Capital, bringing its total funding since in launched in 2014 to $34 million. While Tubi is targeting the same cord-cutting consumers being catered to by the likes of Hulu, Netflix, CBS All Access and HBO Now, founder and CEO Farhad Massoudi thinks there’s a limit to the amount of paid content consumers will support.

“I think the market is delusional if they think consumers are willing to pay and subscribe to all these apps,” Massoudi told the Wall Street Journal. “In the next year or so these apps are going to disappear, or they’ll see there’s no clear path to significant scale.”

Tubi counts Lionsgate, MGM, Paramount and Starz among its 200 content providers, according to the Journal, and boasts a library of 50,000 movie and TV titles — an indication that TV rights owners are still open to distributing content via free platforms.

Little, if any of the content on Tubi TV is in its first release window, of course, and in many cases has been thoroughly monetized already. So the circumstances are not entirely comparable to the music business. But free, ad-supported video streaming is nonetheless attracting a growing amount of direct and indirect investment in new production.

Facebook, which has made ad-supported video streaming central to its growth strategy, is preparing to debut a slate of original series in June, ranging from mobile-friendly 5-10 minute fare up to more traditional, 30-minute episodes suitable for watching on TV.

Word of Facebook’s plans comes as YouTube is developing its own slate of 40 new original series intended primarily for its free, ad-supported platform. In a recent interview with Adweek, YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl made clear the primary role that ad-supported content plays in YouTube’s evolving long-form video strategy:

For many years, [marketers] have been asking me, “When you are going to do big original shows?” Of course, in their minds they mean free [programming] with ads. As you know, two years ago, we started a team to focus on originals, and we created YouTube Red with no ads. At the beginning of last year, we started to think about the fact that advertising is our core business. And big brands and big agencies are our biggest partners. This is something they have been asking for for a very long time, and we should deliver on that…

Secondly, when I started to look at the statistics, they showed a share shift from advertising-supported shows to ad-free shows, which started to increase. I just think that’s a trend that’s not favorable to our biggest partners. We are the biggest video platform in the world. We should play a role in changing that.

Even traditional media companies are eyeing investment in original, ad-supported streaming content, as the list of TV networks and studios lining up to create TV-like content for Snapchat attests.

The reasons for the differences in attitudes toward free, ad-supported channels are both historical and structural. Historically, the music industry’s primary ad-supported business — terrestrial broadcasting — was conducted under compulsory license by broadcasters. Rights owners earned only royalties based on use, under a formula set by the government, or, in the case of sound recording owners, nothing at all.

In contrast, advertising was for many decades the exclusive means of monetization for TV content and the industry’s corporate structure was built around that paradigm. Critically, TV rights owners controlled and conducted the majority of the advertising sales, claiming 100 percent of the revenue it generated.

In the streaming era, music rights owners have been able to tie their earnings more directly to the total advertising revenue pie, but they still don’t control ad loads or prices, and their slice of the pie is still calculated in part by the government. Video rights owners, in contrast, have been able to carry over their direct control of ad sales into the streaming era.

So, could the music business ever accommodate itself to ad-supported business models as the video industry has done? Not without major copyright and structural reforms. But the video industry’s experience suggests that paid and free channels are not inherently incompatible.

 

 

The Other Pay-TV Bundle

Hulu’s virtual pay-TV service went live in selected cities this week, offering a basic bundle of 60 channels for $40 a month ($73 a month with enhanced DVR capability). The launch, still officially in beta, brings to six the number of live, multichannel over-the-top services now available, including DirecTV Now, Sling TV, Playstation Vue, YouTube TV, and Fubo TV. More are likely on the way.

But while Hulu was rolling out, many traditional pay-TV providers were rolling over. According to an analysis by MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, based on publicly reported results and estimated results for privately held companies, traditional pay-TV providers collectively lost at least 762,000 video subscribers in the first quarter of 2017, more than five times their losses in the same period last year.

“For the better part of fifteen years, pundits have predicted that cord-cutting was the future. Well, the future has arrived,”  Moffett wrote in his latest quarterly overview of the industry. “It leaves the Pay TV subscriber universe shrinking at its worst ever annual rate of decline (-2.4%). And it was the worst ever accelerate in the rate of decline (60 bps).”

The news spooked investors, who sent shares of media companies tumbling. Read More »

From Fake News to Real Murder: Facebook’s Incentive Problem

Fake news did not originate with Facebook, nor with the 2016 presidential campaign. Planting damaging stories of dubious provenance about a political opponent in the newspaper  is a tradition nearly as old as newspapering itself. And spreading false rumors is as old as human society.

But as we saw in last year’s election, Facebook and other social media platforms have elevated merely spurious information into a weapon of mass dysfunction. During the final three months of the 2016 campaign, the top 20 fake news stories circulating on Facebook racked up 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on the platform, including such classics as “Pope Endorses Donald Trump” (960,000), and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” (560,000).

BuzzFeed, which compiled those data, notes that those 20 fake stories attracted nearly 1.5 million more instances of engagement than the 20 top-performing stories 19 major news outlets over the same period. But the issue here isn’t so much real vs. fake but the role that Facebook’s massive scale played in encouraging the production of fake stories. Read More »

The Net Neutrality Paradox

One of the more unfortunate wrinkles in the long debate leading up to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order, better known as net neutrality, was its increasingly commercial focus. There were important civil liberties issues at stake, to say nothing of the interplay of engineering and regulation of critical infrastructure and the private ownership of public goods. But much of the public debate boiled down to an argument over streaming — Netflix streaming in particular.

That was due in no small part to the efforts of Netflix founder and CEO, Reed Hastings, who made himself and his company the poster-children of the net neutrality cause by loudly proclaiming Netflix’s oppression at the hands of ISPs looking to impose interconnection fees on the streaming service.

Although net neutrality proponents eagerly embraced Netflix’s cause and Hastings’ pubic advocacy they worked to color the issue as essentially a commercial dispute between different types of service providers, which, paradoxically, is actually an argument against what the FCC did. Disputes between buyers and sellers are not really the FCC’s bailiwick; that’s more a matter for the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Read More »

Amazon in Good Field Position After NFL Deal

Amazon won the auction for live-streaming rights to this season’s Thursday Night Football franchise with a bid of $50 million dollars for a package of 10 games. That’s 5 times what Twitter paid last year for essentially the same deal: Amazon will share the games with NBC and CBS and will stream the networks’ feeds, including their ads. Amazon will also be able to sell a handful of ads per game itself.

The games will be available for free to Amazon Prime members.

Although the 5X increase in price is impressive — and was probably too rich for Twitter — $50 million is still pretty small beans, both for the league — whose deals with the broadcast networks run into the billions — and for Amazon, which has $20 billion on its balance sheet. For both, it’s largely an add-on business at this point.

For the NFL, streaming is still largely an experiment aimed at finding a way to reach cord-cutters and out-of-home viewers, and to test the viewership waters outside the U.S., not to supplant its traditional broadcast deals. For Amazon, the NFL deal is a way to enhance the value of a Prime subscription and to attract to new subscribers at a relatively modest price. Read More »

Courts and Congress Put Spotlight on Copyright Office

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed broadcasters a major win this week in their long-running legal battle with Aereo-clone Film On. A unanimous three-judge panel overturned a lower court ruling, which had held that FilmOn was eligible for the compulsory license under Section 111 of the Copyright Act that allows “cable systems” to retransmit copyrighted programming contained in broadcast signals without needing to get permission from the copyright holders.

In overturning that ruling, the circuit court closed an apparent loophole created by the Supreme Court in its 2014 ruling against Aereo, in which it held that Aereo was infringing broadcasters’ public performance right by retransmitting broadcast signals over the internet. In addressing whether Aereo was “transmitting” broadcast signals as defined in the statute, Justice Stephen Breyer reasoned that Aereo was acting, for all intents and purposes, like a cable system, which unambiguously “transmits” a signal, and therefore Aereo required a license under the statute’s Transmit Clause.

Maria Pallante

FilmOn seized on that reasoning to argue in its defense against a lawsuit brought by Fox, that it should be treated as a cable system for purposes of the compulsory license, which is a related but legally separate issue under the law. Several courts rejected that argument (FilmOn was sued in multiple jurisdictions) but one judge, U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, accepted it, ruling in Aereo’s favor, which led to Fox’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Read More »

More Than One if Five Broadband Households Have No Pay-TV Service, Study Finds

You don’t have to look far these days for news on cord-cutting. According to a report out this week from Leichtman Research Group the largest U.S. pay-TV providers lost a combined 795,000 subscribers in 2016. According to a report out last week from TiVo the share of cord-cutters who have dropped service within the previous year reached 19.8 percent in the fourth quarter, the highest ever registered, suggesting the phenomenon is accelerating.

In yet another report released this week, The Diffusion Group turned the telescope around and looked not at how many pay-TV households have dropped their service but at the number of U.S. broadband households that are going without pay-TV service. If anything, the view was even worse for the pay-TV industry.

According to TDG’s survey, 22 percent of the 100 million households that subscribe to broadband — some 22 million homes — do not have pay-TV service. That’s up from 9 percent of the 85 million broadband subscribers in 2011, or 8 million households, and up from 18 percent just since the beginning of 2016. Read More »

Broadcasters’ Goal-Line Stand

CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Les Moonves has long been one of broadcast television’s most indefatigable boosters, so it was no great surprise this week to hear him tell an investor conference that he expects the traditional broadcast networks to remain the mainstay of the National Football League’s TV rights package when the current contract is up in 2022, despite the near-certain interest from Facebook, Google, and other aspiring digital TV outlets.

“Look, the tech giants all want to be involved in the NFL. It’s the best product in television,” Moonves told the Deutsche Bank 2017 Media and Telecom Conference. “There’s going to be a lot of activity. As we head toward that large deal, I think these companies are going to be part of it, [but] I think the NFL still believes in the sanctity of broadcasting.”

Moonves was also likely correct in his assessment. Despite the accelerating pace of cord-cutting, and the ongoing unbundling and rebundling of the pay-TV ecosystem, and declining overall viewership the broadcast networks remain atop the ratings heap. While all of those trends are likely to accelerate further between now and 2017, the broadcast networks are likely to remain the NFL’s most efficient path to the largest audience, however those channels end up being delivered. Read More »

Plenty of Bundles, Not Much Joy in Linear OTT

YouTube this week formally unveiled its long-gestating linear over-the-top services, YouTube TV, which will feature a skinny-ish  bundle of about 40 live channels for $35 a month. When it begins rolling out later this year in select cities YouTube TV will join Dish Network’s Sling TV, AT&T’s DirecTV Now, and Sony’s Playstation Vue in the linear OTT sweepstakes, and will soon by joined by a previously announced entry by Hulu and perhaps one from Apple.

As with those other services, however, the lineup of channels in YouTube’s bundle is a bit of a hit and miss affair at this point. Subscribers will get all the major broadcast networks, along with ESPN, USA, Bravo, Fox News and MSNBC, but no CNN, Turner or TBS, and no Viacom-owned networks.

Sling TV will get you CNN and Turner but the broadcast networks are only available in select markets, and again, no MTV, Nickelodeon or Comedy Central.

DirecTV Now will sell you a big bundle of 100 or so channels at the skinny-bundle price of $35 a month, but so far AT&T hasn’t figured out how to deliver it to you without its crashing. Read More »

A Chunk of History: The Medieval Roots of Digital Publishing

One of the wonderful paradoxes of the digital era of media is its retrograde quality. We tend to think of inventions like the internet and peer-to-peer digital networks as apotheoses of modern communication, but their economic impact on many media industries has been to unravel their modern industrial structures and to resurrect many of their pre-industrial, folk foundations.

Nowhere has that been more true than in the case of music. MP3 files, P2P networks, and now streaming have blown up the multi-song bundle we called the album — and the profit margins that came with it — and restored the single to prominence, as it was in the days before the invention of the long-playing record (LP).

The much-derided phenomenon of unlicensed “sharing” of music over P2P networks also carries echoes of music’s past. Until the Gramophone and the Phonograph made private performances of music practical, music was almost always shared, in the sense that it was usually experienced as part of a public performance. While the industrial technologies of recording and playback made private performances lucrative the instinct to share music never really went away. Read More »

Apple TV Needs To Get Off The Couch

Earlier this month Apple poached Timothy Twerdahl from Amazon, where he had headed up the Fire TV unit, to serve as VP in charge of Apple TV product marketing, raising hopes that Apple is gearing up for another try at transforming Apple TV from a hobby into a meaningful product line. But if so the transformation won’t be immediate.

Apple is reportedly testing the next iteration of the Apple TV set-top box, which could be released later this year. But early indications are that it will be another study in incrementalism, adding support for 4K streaming but no groundbreaking new functionality.

Apple is also rolling out two new original TV series, a long-form version of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments from the “Late Late Show,” and reality TV-type series called “Planet of the Apps.” But neither series is being launched under the Apple TV banner. Instead, as Apple content chief Eddy Cue explained at the Code Media conference this week, both will be made available through Apple Music in a bid to boost subscriptions to the music streaming service. Read More »

Have Netflix, Will Travel: EU Digital Single Market Inches Closer

Negotiators for the European Commission, the European Parliament, and European Union member countries this week reached agreement on new rules that will allow citizens from one EU country to access digital services they subscribe to, such as Netflix, Spotify, and sports live streams, when traveling in another EU country starting in 2018.

Up to now, exclusive territorial licenses between rights owners and online services, as well as other rules, have generally prevented services from granting access to subscribers from outside their home country.

“Today’s agreement will bring concrete benefits to Europeans. People who have subscribed to their favourite series, music and sports events at home will be able to enjoy them when they travel in Europe,” EU vice-president in charge of the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip said in a statement. Read More »

The Great Re-bundling: The Wireless Future of Music and Video

Bundled media services are becoming table stakes in the wireless business. With plain old wireless service (POWS?) at or close to the saturation point in the U.S., wireless operators are increasingly fighting over slices of a fixed pie, and feel a growing need to differentiate from their competitors in pursuit of market share.

With the costly build-out of 5G networks looming, operators also need to increase ARPU by adding services.

Thus, it was no big surprise this week when Softbank-owned Sprint snapped up a 33 percent stake in Jay-Z’s Tidal music streaming service. Sprint already had a partnership with Tidal, but as MIDiA Research analyst Mark Mulligan noted in a blog post,  the bundling game has changed for wireless operators, and meaningful differentiation increasingly means having your own skin in it.

“The original thinking behind telco bundles was differentiation, but when every telco has got a music bundle there’s no differentiation anymore,” he wrote. “Additionally, if you are a top tier telco and you haven’t got Apple or Spotify, then partnering with one of the rest risks brand damage by appearing to be stuck with an also-ran. By making a high profile investment in Tidal, Sprint has thus transformed its forthcoming bundle from this scenario into something it can build real differentiation around.” Read More »