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 »

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 »

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 »

Music In the Antitrust Crosshairs

File this one under “be careful what you wish for.” Two years ago, a group of major music publishers, along with ASCAP and BMI, which collect performance royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers, asked the Department of Justice to consider changing how it enforces the antitrust consent decrees that have governed the two leading PROs, to allow publishers to withdraw digital rights to their repertoire from the PRO blanket licenses.

DOJ took it under advisement and this week gave its answer, according to a report by Billboard, and it was not at all what the publishers were hoping for.

elizabeth_warrenUnder the decrees, ASCAP and BMI are not allowed to pick and choose which songs in their catalogs to license. They must either grant a blanket license to the entire catalog or not at all. Thus, if a song is in their catalog for one use it’s in it for all uses.

The publishers raised the issue because they were unhappy with the royalty rate that internet radio services (cough — Pandora — cough) were paying under the compulsory performance license available to broadcasters, including internet broadcasters. Those rates are set by the rate courts that oversee the consent decrees and get collected by ASCAP and BMI. Having failed to persuade the courts to raise them, the publishers wanted to be able to withdraw digital rights to their songs in the PROs’ catalogs and negotiate directly with internet broadcasters.

This week, according to the Billboard report, DOJ said no. Read More »

Fighting Fraud And Piracy With Blockchain

Anyone who has ever posted a photograph or original piece of artwork on the internet knows that credit is fleeting. No sooner is it pinned, retweeted or shared then any metadata or watermark linking it to its source is stripped away or simply left behind as it spirals across social media platforms. By the time it reaches the end of the viral chain, even if someone wanted to offer proper attribution that information is all-but impossible to find.

A growing number of entrepreneurs are starting to tackle the issue of digital attribution and authentication, however, by leveraging the Bitcoin screenshot-www.verisart.com 2016-03-24 18-34-07blockchain. This month, New York-based Blockai and Los Angeles-based Verisart went live with new services that allow creators to register their works on the blockchain to create a permanent, indelible record certifying their patrimony and ownership.

The startups join a growing list of blockchain-based authentication services targeting the graphic arts, including Monegraph, ConSensys, ascribe, Stem, Mediachain and others. Just as the blockchain provides an open, self-verifying and decentralized ledger of Bitcoin transactions, it can also be used as a self-verifying database of other types of time-stamped events, such as the registration of a copyright. Those records, moreover, can contain a variety of kinds of data, including a hash of the work itself, the metadata to be associated with it, and information about permitted uses. Thus, any new instance of the work without that metadata would not match the original record and would be shown to be a copy. The permanent records also make it possible to recover the metadata even after it has been stripped away through subsequent uses of the work. Read More »

Vizio Gives Its New TVs A Mobile Heartbeat

For people who still want to watch TV programming on a big-screen TV, cutting the cord means accepting a series of kludges. You can use the built-in apps on your smart TV to stream Netflix, Hulu and other popular over-the-top channels, but you’re still stuck navigating through menus and login screens using a point-and-click remote that’s often less functional than an ancient cable remote navigating a grid-style program guide.

You could buy a new Apple TV device with it’s sleek-looking, touch-based remote, but you’ll still be scrolling through menus and fumbling through on-screen, point-and-click keyboards. You can use a Chromecast dongle, and do your navigating on a mobile device, but Chromecast basically just turns the TV into a dumb display. Your mobile device isn’t really talking directly to the TV — the dongle is simply discovering your tablet or google_chromecast_2_hdmi_port_thumbsmartphone inputs by virtue of being on the same network and then fetching the content requested itself — which introduces latency between command and response. And if you need to answer your mobile phone in the middle of a show it can interrupt your cast.

But the biggest problems with most connected TV streaming platforms, whether embedded in the TV itself or implemented in a set-top box, are that their operating systems are generally static and the apps you use are no one’s priority.

TV makers are not really OS companies, and their streaming platforms show it. The UIs are primitive, and the OS functionality is limited by the computing horsepower — often not very much — built in at the time of manufacture. Since people generally don’t replace their TVs very often — certainly compared with how often they upgrade their phones — OS upgrades are limited to firmware updates, which don’t happen very often. 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 »

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 »

The Future of TV: Platform or Service?

Amazon on Tuesday unveiled its expanded Prime Instant Video service and it seems to be more or less as advertised. Prime subscribers will now be able to add subscriptions to other over-the-top streaming services, including Showtime, Starz and an array of niche channel for prices ranging from $3 a month to $8.99 a month for Showtime, on top of the $99 annual price ($8.25 per month) for Prime.

Amazon SDDChannels can be ordered a la carte, and subscribers can change their line ups each month. Prime subscribers can also user their Amazon credentials to log in to any of the standalone apps for their add-on channels on other streaming platform, which means Prime subscribers can watch Showtime on Apple TV despite the absence of Prime on the Apple set-top box.

For the participating networks, the expanded Prime means forgoing a direct relationship with subscribers, as Amazon will handle all billing and customer service functions, presumably in exchange for a cut of the add-on subscription fees, while gaining the leverage of Amazon’s reach and merchandising strength. Read More »

The Wrong Debate Over Set-Top Boxes

Today (Nov. 9th) was the last day for filing comments with the Federal Communications Commission regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) and folks in the pay-TV industry were clearly getting nervous that the FCC might finally, really do something this time to “tear up the set-top box.”

Last week, eight of the largest pay-TV providers, along with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Motion Picture Association Push_button_cable_boxof America, and several equipment manufacturers together sent a phalanx of lawyers and lobbyists to FCC headquarters, ex parte, in a desperate bid to head off any movement by the agency toward a rulemaking that would require pay-TV providers to disaggregate their services into rearrangable  parts as proposed by the technology company and public interest faction of DSTAC.

The group was particularly exercised by an ex parte filing with the commission in late October by Public Knowledge, Google, Amazon and Hauppauge purporting to fill in the technical details of the “virtual head-end” proposal made by the technology faction of DSTAC for separating out the components of pay-TV services. According to MPAA, NCTA et. al., however, the new version “is so changed that it is barely recognizable from [the technology group’s] earlier proposal in the DSTAC Report,” and required more time for study before they could adequately respond to it. Read More »

Red Zone: Why Apple Music Should Fear YouTube Red

The most notable feature of YouTube Red is what’s missing. There is no more Music Key, the long-awaited YouTube subscription music service that has been in beta for much of the past year but never gained much traction. Nor will there be any more dedicated subscription channels, where users could get ad-free access to a single creator’s channel.

Instead, for 10 bucks a month, you’ll get ad-free access to virtually everything on the YouTube platform, including YouTube Gaming and Apple_Music_iPhoneYouTube Kids. There’s also a YouTube Music app for those who simply want to use the service for listening to music.

YouTube Red subscribers will also automatically be subscribed to Google Play Music, Google’s subscription streaming and cloud storage service that up to now had cost $10 a month on a standalone basis.

In effect, Google is now making all of its music and video content services available on both a free, ad-supported basis, and an ad-free subscription basis. (Those who are complaining that YouTube is being mean by hiding the videos of creators who have not yet signed up for the subscription program are missing the point. The point is to have two identical services with two distinct monetization strategies, and letting the consumer decide which to use.) Read More »