AT&T Prepares To Flex Its OTT Muscles

AT&T announced this week that it plans to take DirecTV over-the-top later this year through a multi-tiered streaming service that will be available to wireline and wireless broadband subscribers regardless of provider.

The top tier, to be called DirecTV Now, will feature “on-demand and live programming from many networks, plus premium add-on options,” which sounds more or less like Dish Network’s Sling TV OTT service. A mid-level tier, called DirecTV Mobile, will offer a stripped down video lineup and a “mobile-first experience.” A third, ad-supported free tier, called DirecTV Preview, will offer a “millennial focused” grab bag of digital-native content along the lines of Verizon’s Go90 service.

cable_TV_not1The announcement itself was no big surprise. AT&T obviously didn’t spend $48 billion to acquire DirecTV just to be in the satellite TV business — a business with little if any organic growth left in it — and extending DirecTV’s business onto broadband and wireless platforms is an obvious strategy. What is a bit surprising is the timing of the announcement.

As of now, AT&T has no programming lineups to announce for any of the tiers, no pricing information and no exact start date. And according to a Wall Street Journal report, negotiations with the networks to secure streaming rights have just begun. Read More »

Voices Raised Over Librarian of Congress Nominee

The Librarian of Congress is not generally considered a controversial post within the government. There have only been 13 of them in the Library’s 216-year history, which tells you something about the urgency with which Congress has historically regarded the appointment.

The job is largely administrative, charged with overseeing the libraries vast collection and providing research assistance to Congress. But it also

Dr. Carla Hayden

Dr. Carla Hayden

has some policy-making authority, exercised most prominently in recent decades through its oversight of the U.S. Copyright Office, which is a division of the Library.

Under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act the Copyright Office must conduct a triennial rulemaking proceeding to determine whether certain types of copyrighted works protected by access control technologies (“technical protection measures”), should be exempted from the DMCA’s ban on circumventing such measures in certain circumstances.

The process has, among other things, led to recognition of a right to unlock a cell phone so it can be used on another network and to circumvent DRM on DVDs for certain teaching purposes, and the right to circumvent DRM on ebooks to allow them to be used with screen readers to assist the visually impaired. Read More »

Paramount Needs A Strategy, Not a Strategic Investor

Under pressure from investors to “do something” about its plunging share price, Viacom has agreed to sell a minority stake in Paramount Pictures in hopes of boosting Wall Street’s valuation of the studio, which has lagged its peers for much of the past decade. But CEO Philippe Dauman has made it clear he intends for Viacom to remain in firm control of Paramount and is interested only in “strategic” partners.

“We have received indications of interest from potential partners seeking a strategic investment in Paramount Pictures and I have decided to pursue discussions with a select group of potential investors,”  Dauman said in a statement. “In this time of change and enormous opportunity in tom_cruise_MIour industry, a partnership will bring significant benefit to Paramount and Viacom, both strategically and financially, provide new opportunities for Paramount’s employees and talent, and enhance long-term value for all Viacom shareholders.

“Paramount Pictures has been a leading motion picture studio for more than a century and is among a select few that has significant reach and scale, a deep library, a robust pipeline with proven global franchises, and a high potential television production operation,”  Dauman added. “In addition, the value of motion picture content continues to increase with the explosion of screens and the rapid expansion of the global theatrical market. This is the perfect time to explore new strategies to capitalize on Paramount’s content expertise and global platform, maximize opportunities for its continued growth, and unlock the value of the business for the benefit of shareholders.” Read More »

FCC Goes Searching For A New Set-Top Box

At a press conference following the Federal Communications Commission’s 3-2 vote Thursday to launch a formal rulemaking proceeding aimed at unlocking the set-top box FCC chairman Tom Wheeler emphasized, as he has since announcing the proposal last month, that nothing in the proposed new rules alter existing licensing or content-protection agreements  between networks and pay-TV providers or disrupt existing advertising models.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingOn the contrary, he said, “the rules will require that the sanctity of the content is passed through” unaltered to any new device or app used by consumers to access pay-TV content. That includes, he went on to clarify, the network’s channel position, the content recording rules and the unadorned, original ad load.

“Nobody’s going to be replacing ads, or doing any kind of split screen, with ads on one side, or putting a frame around the content and putting ads around it; none of that,” he said. “The sanctity of the content will be preserved.”

In fact, it’s not clear from his comments what, exactly, Wheeler hopes or expects anyone to be doing with the newly open standards for set-top boxes, assuming the rules ever gets that far through the likely gantlet of lawsuits and foot-dragging  (the formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking the commissioners voted on has not yet been published by the FCC). He took pains at Thursday’s hearing to make it sound as if nothing much would change about set-top boxes at all under the new rules apart from the manufacturer’s name plate, going so far as to put up a pair of identical slides purporting to show before and after schematic drawings of how consumers would access pay-TV content. Read More »

What’s In A Network Name? Linear TV Brands Still Looking for Traction Online

HBO added 2.7 million subscribers during the fourth quarter according to Time Warner Inc.’s latest earnings report, “about 800,000” of which, or just under one-third, came from HBO Now, it’s standalone over-the-top offering. That suggests that, barely eight months in, HBO Now has emerged as an important contributor to HBO’s overall subscriber growth.

Since HBO Now is sold direct-to-consumer at $15 a month, moreover, those subscribers are likely worth more to HBO on a revenue basis than pay-TV subscribers, for which revenue is shared with operators.

Time Warner officials pronounced themselves pleased with the results so far.

sports_centerWall Street, however, had a different view. Analysts were expecting as many as 1.4 million OTT subs by now and investors responded by sending shares of Time Warner down by nearly 5 percent.

To be fair, Warner announced its results on a day when media shares got slaughtered across the board and Time Warner’s losses were in line with other media victims. On the other hand, Time Warner’s results, along with Disney’s the day before, were major triggers for the sell-off, as investors continue to fret about subscriber losses among among cable networks as consumers cut the cord or shift to cheaper, skinnier bundles.

Disney got dinged for subscriber losses at ESPN, despite posting a record-breaking quarter on the strength of “Star Wars: Force Awakens.” Read More »

Cable’s Q4 Bundle of Joy

Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter all reported strong video subscriber growth in the fourth quarter of 2015, adding 172,000 between them. That was a far cry from a year earlier, when they collectively lost 35,000 video subs.

The results led some to speculate that the worst days of cord-cutting are now behind the industry and that cord-nevers may be starting to change their minds about paying for TV.

Maybe, although the pay-TV industry as a whole continues to lose subscribers, at a rate of about 1 percent a year, according to an estimate by comcast_vanMoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. Most of that shrinkage in the fourth quarter came from telco and satellite providers, as those two businesses undergo restructurings.

Between them, Verizon’s FiOS TV service and the combined AT&T/DirecTV lost 6,000 video subscribers in the quarter, as Verizon shifted its video focus to its new mobile streaming service Go90 while AT&T shed U-Verse subscribers as it prepared to swallow DirecTV.

In Comcast’s Q4 earnings call, CEO Brian Roberts acknowledged that some of cable’s gain last year probably reflected a market share shift, reversing several years in which cable was losing share to satellite and telco. Read More »

The Value of Binging

Ever since Netflix began producing its own series, traditional network TV executives have driven themselves to distraction over its refusal to disclose viewership numbers, or to cooperate with outside measurement companies like Nieslen. Steeped as they are in the world of ratings and advertising CPMs, TV executives have never quite groked that Netflix reckons the value of content differently.

Their obsession has sometimes led to odd spectacles, such as NBC research president Alan Wurtzel’s recent big reveal of purported Netflix “ratings” derived by the network-backed ratings system Symphony, which passively measures Netflix viewing using audio recognition technology, Manchester_by_the_Seaand which Wurtzel seemed to think proved something, although what that was was not entirely clear.

Netflix does not monetize content, as traditional media companies do. It monetizes viewers. How many people watch a particular episode of a particular series within a certain time window, therefore, really isn’t relevant to its value to Netflix. What matters is whether the people who are watching the series continue to do so, and whether that continued viewing enables Netflix’s recommendation engine to surface other series they’ll go on to view. People who continue to watch a series will, presumably, continue to pay their monthly subscription fee.

As discussed here before, Netflix’s different calculus puts a premium on producing and acquiring a broad range of programming, rather than on trying to pick shows that will have a broad appeal and therefore generate high ratings. That, in turn, is attracting a growing roster of A-list talent to Netflix, Amazon and other subscription services, drawn by the opportunity to break out of the creative constraints of ratings-driven television. Read More »

Unbundling The Set-Top Box

Somewhere, Steve Jobs is smiling. Nearly six years after the late Apple CEO complained that real innovation in the TV industry could only happen if you first “tear up” the traditional pay-TV set-top box, the FCC is taking the first steps toward doing just that.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler this week announced that the commission will vote next month on whether to proceed with a formal rulemaking to “unlock the set-top box,” if not quite tear it up, by requiring cable, satellite and telco pay-TV providers to make elements of their service available to third-party device makers and software developers.

“Today, 99 percent of pay-TV customers lease set-top boxes from their cable, satellite or telco providers,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed published Push_button_cable_boxWednesday. “Pay-TV subscribers spend an average of $231 a year to rent these boxes, because there are few meaningful alternatives. If you’ve ever signed up for a $99-a-month bundle for cable, phone and Internet and then wondered why your bill is significantly higher, this is a big reason…This week, I am sharing a proposal with my colleagues to tear down the barriers that currently prevent innovators from developing new ways for consumers to access and enjoy their favorite shows and movies on their terms. The new rules would create a framework for providing device manufacturers, software developers and others the information they need to introduce innovative new technologies, while at the same time maintaining strong security, copyright and consumer protections.” Read More »

Apple’s Risky New Metric

With iPhone sales flattening, Mac revenues eroding and iPad sales falling, Apple broke out a new metric in its Q4 (fiscal Q1) earnings release Tuesday in a bid to direct analysts’ and investors’ attention toward those parts of the business that are still showing robust growth.

According to the “Earnings Supplemental Material” released with the earnings report, the “active installed base” of iOS devices has reached 1 billion, a figure Apple CEO Tim Cook said the subsequent analyst call has actually now been exceeded. That figure, which CFO Luca Maestri said Apple-TV-4reflects 25 percent year-over-year growth, represents the total number of iOS devices out there actively downloading apps, using Apple Music, buying music from iTunes, using iCloud and other Apple services in the last 90 days. And it underpinned, Cook and Maestri repeatedly stressed, $5.5 billion in revenue for Apple in the quarter ($4.7 billion net of the portion of some service revenue shared with rights owners), an increase of 15 percent over the same quarter last year.

“The market has not fully understood that we have a portion of our business directly tied to our incredible installed base that’s not driven by quarterly results,” Maestri said. “Those customers engage with our services and that business, which is a $20 billion business, is growing at more than 25 percent during the last 12 months.” Read More »

What Broadcasters Are Talking About When They Talk About Netflix ‘Ratings’

The chattering and sniping touched off by NBCUniversal research head Alan Wurtzel’s release of purported ratings data for Netflix last week during the Television Critics Association winter meeting, taken from network-backed Symphony, is still going strong.

After blasting the numbers released by Wurtzel as “remarkably innaccurate,” Netflix piled it on in its Q4 letter to shareholders this week:

The growth of Netflix has created some anxiety among TV networks and calls to be fearful. Or, at the other extreme, an NBC executive recently said Internet TV is overblown and that linear TV is “TV like God intended” [sic]. Our investors are not as sure of God’s house-of-cardsintentions for TV, and instead think that Internet TV is a fundamentally better entertainment experience that will gain share for many years. The challenge for traditional media companies, most of whom see the future pretty clearly, is to use the revenue from Netflix and other SVOD services to fund both great content and their own evolution into Internet TV networks. Seeso, BBC iPlayer, Hulu, CanalPlay, HBO Now, and CBS All Access are the beginnings of these efforts.

Our titles are watched on the go and at home on a wide range of devices, making measurement of the viewing of any given title difficult for third parties. We don’t release title‐level ratings as our business model is not dependent on advertising or affiliate fees. Instead, we release “ratings “ for Netflix as a whole every quarter with our membership growth report (75 million and counting!). It is member viewing and satisfaction that propels our growth.

It’s that bit about Netflix not being dependent “on advertising or affiliate fees” that is at the core of the controversy. Read More »

Fighting Piracy in Real Time

Ever since Meerkat and Periscope popped up on the scene, live event producers and rights owners have worried about the potential for piracy from mobile live-streaming apps. In fact, Periscope more or less made its bones, with the public at least,  during the Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquaio title fight last year, when the Twitter-owned app led to so much re-broadcasting of the HBO and Showtime feeds of the bout that then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, rather indiscreetly, declared Periscope the real “winner” of the night.

Since then, the threat has only grown greater as live-streaming apps have proliferated.

iphone_TV“We saw a lot of new live-streaming apps at CES that are just around the corner,” Clint Cox, VP of technical operations at the Ultimate Fighting Championship said at the Copyright & Technology conference sponsored by GiantSteps Media and the Copyright Society in New York this week. “It’s fairly common technology and it’s becoming a unique challenge for rights owners. It’s a very easy place to put infringing content quickly.”

The problem is doubly complicated by the fact that not all unauthorized streaming of live events is clearly infringing from a copyright perspective, particularly when it comes to live sports. While a licensed broadcaster’s pictures, descriptions and accounts of a sporting event are clearly copyrighted, the game itself — the action on the field, court, ice or ring, as it unfolds in real-time — is not.

Someone sitting in the stands pointing a Periscope-enabled smartphone at the field, therefore, may be violating the venue’s terms and conditions printed on the back of the ticket, but they may not be infringing anyone’s copyright. Read More »

Netflix Is A Ratings Winner

NBCUniversal president of research and media development Alan Wurtzel got a bit cheeky with Netflix this week, leaking some preliminary data from Symphony, the network-backed rating system (still in beta) that uses audio-recognition technology to measure viewership of unrated OTT channels like Netflix.

According to Wurtzel, Symphony measured the average audience in the 18-49 demo for each episode of Netflix original series within 35 days of their debut on the service between September and December, and over that time Netflix’s most-watched show was “Jessica Jones,” which averaged piper-orange-is-the-new-black4.8 million viewers per episode. “Master of None” was second, with an average audience of 3.9 million, while “Narcos” pulled in 3.2 million per episode. “Orange is the New Black” remains Netflix’s most-watched series, according to Wurtzel, but the current season was released in June and most of the viewing happened during the summer. During the period covered by the study, OITNB averaged 644,00 viewers per episode.

In comparison, the most watched scripted series in the 18-49 demo on linear TV channels during the 2014-2015 TV season, in the live-plus 7-day window, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” averaged 13.2 million viewers per week, followed by Fox’s “Empire” at 9.0 million and CBS’ “Big Bang Theory” at 8.3 million. Read More »

Fahrenheit 512

The Friday night document dump is a tried and true tactic used by businesses as well as government officials looking to avoid a conflagration over the content of the documents. Waiting until a Friday that happens to fall on New Year’s Eve, however, has a panache all its own.

That’s when the U.S. Copyright Office dropped a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) into the Federal Register seeking comments on whether section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, dealing with the procedures for notice and takedown of infringing material, is working effectively and as Congress intended when it passed the law back in 1996. But if the Copyright Office was hoping that few would notice the NOI, or that it might be able to keep the comments down to a dull roar it will almost surely be disappointed.

Library-of-Congress-Reading-RoomNo one who actually has to follow or apply the Section 512 procedures thinks they’re working well or effectively. Google alone was processing nearly 20 million takedown requests per week at the end 2015, while copyright owners see the system as a hopeless game of Whac-a-Mole, in which files get removed only to reappear quickly under a different URL. Litigation between copyright owners and online service providers — over the scope of the Section 512 safe harbor, which shields service providers from liability for infringing content posted by users if they follow the proscribed takedown procedures, the legal standard for culpable knowledge of infringing activity, and the efficacy of enforcement against repeat infringers — has formed a near-constant backdrop to the law almost since it took effect in 1998, most epically in the seven-year legal battle between Viacom and Google over content posted to YouTube. Many have been waiting years to get a crack at rewriting the safe harbor rules and they’re not likely to let the opportunity pass. Read More »

At CES, OTT Stacks Up

LAS VEGAS — If there was a consistent OTT theme running trough CES here this week it was about the need for solutions providers to move up the monetization stack as over-the-top streaming becomes a more important component of media companies’ bottom lines.

Previously focused on largely on video delivery and optimization as content traveled across the web, technology providers like cbs all accessConviva, Ooyala, Nagra and Adobe are increasingly focusing on building tools designed to help media companies make sure direct-to-consumer streaming becomes additive to their current business rather than cannibalistic,by better monetizing OTT viewing and viewers.

“This year we’re very focused on going further up the food chain at media companies,” Adobe’s directly of product marketing for Adobe Primetime Campbell Foster told Concurrent Media. “A lot of our [media] clients are looking to us to help drive net viewer increases, not just service the viewers they already have.” Read More »