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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

How Twitter Beat Out Rivals For NFL Deal

Twitter this week landed streaming rights to a 10-game package of Thursday Night Football games next season for a surprisingly modest $10 million, edging out rival bids from Verizon, Amazon and Yahoo, at least one of which reportedly came in 50 percent higher than Twitter’s offer. Another rival, Facebook, reportedly dropped out of the bidding last week over objections to the advertising framework imposed on the deal by the NFL.

Twitter, in fact, will get minimal advertising rights as part of the deal. As a technical matter, it will be rebroadcasting the CBS and NBC feeds of the nfl_gamegames, which the networks will also be streaming over their own, authenticated TV Everywhere platforms as part of their $450 million deal to broadcast the games, and the networks will be handling the bulk of the ad sales for both broadcast and digital channels. Twitter will get a little bit of inventory around the margins to sell, plus some pre-game, player-created spots on Periscope. The deal is basically a $10 million brand-building exercise for micro-blogging and live streaming platform.

The games, in fact, will be available for free, without authentication, both on Twitter’s own platform and across its entire, syndicated global footprint.

That last point was obviously critical for the NFL, which has been working feverishly to expand its audience outside the U.S. and sees streaming as a way to reach potential fans in territories where broadcast rights would be a tough sell. Read More »

We’re All Netflix, Now

On April 10th Showtime will make all 13 episodes of its new Steven Soderbergh series “The Girlfriend Experience” available on its VOD platform in a single, binge-ready dump. So too will Starz, with all six episodes of the new Andrew Dice Clay comedy “Dice,” as the pay-TV networks increasingly ape the strategy pioneered by Netflix.

They don’t have much choice. Bingeing is how Americans watch TV now. According to Deloitte’s latest Digital Democracy survey, 70 percent of viewers admit to binge-watching, defined as viewing three or more episodes in a single sitting, and one in three say they binge at least once a week. The average number watched during a single binge, fact, is an astonishing five episodes, which in the case of a drama series could easily eat up four or five hours. Millennials in the survey average six episodes per sitting.

We binge-watch so much TV in fact that we’re making ourselves anxious, depressed and lonely, according to a separate study by researchers at the University of Toledo. Yet our appetite is only growing. According to Deloitte, all age groups in its study binged more in 2015 than they did in 2014.

The seemingly irresistible trend, however, poses a dilemma for traditional linear networks. Making new series or seasons available for bingeing risks undercutting primetime ratings. 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 »

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 »

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 »

Amazon’s On-Demand MVPD

At a congressional oversight hearing last month, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler indicated that his earlier proposal to classify certain over-the-top video services as “multichannel video programming distributors” (MVPDs), a regulatory term of art that applies to cable and satellite providers, was on more or less indefinite hold.

“The purpose of rulemaking is to learn,” Wheeler told the committee. “We learned that [a] vast number of things are developing very rapidly, and we have not moved forward on that notice of proposed rulemaking and don’t see, until situations change, we would.”

Among those “vast number of things,” no doubt, were Amazon’s confidential plans to bundle third-party OTT services in with Amazon Prime, monitor_globeallowing Prime Instant Video users to put together a package of OTT channels through a single subscription. As first reported by BloombergBusiness, Amazon Prime customers “will have the option of adding other online subscriptions to their accounts, including major, well-known movie and TV channels, and Amazon will also sell prepackaged bundles of its own creation…[T]he new feature may go live as soon as next month.”

The offering would “resemble something between a cable-TV subscription, though without live programming, and the online array of video offered through devices from Roku Inc., Apple TV or Amazon’s own Fire TV,” according to Bloomberg. Read More »

For Amazon, Live OTT Comes With A Twitch

At his Streaming Media blog, Frost & Sullivan analyst Dan Rayburn adds a new wrinkle to the ongoing debate over why Amazon kicked Apple TV and Chromecast products out of its online store. According to Rayburn’s sources, Amazon has been chatting up content owners about offering a live, over-the-top video service of some kind.

Rayburn speculates that such a plan could help explain why Amazon recently acquired the cloud-based live streaming platform provider Elemental Technologies at an unusually high valuation:

cable_TV_not1Insiders say Elemental is on a run rate to do close to $100M in 2016. So if the rumors of Amazon valuing Elemental at $500M are correct, Elemental is getting about 5x projected 2016 revenue, a rather high valuation, unless Amazon is also placing value on them for other reasons, like the ability to power their own live OTT service.

I’ll add another data point in support of the notion: Twitch, which Amazon acquired last year for close to $1 billion. As noted in a post here last week, Twitch is rolling out a new set of tools to help its broadcasters linear-ize their channels, by mixing live and on-demand content and creating playlists that turn the channel into a 24/7 experience. Read More »