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 »

The FCC Plays For Time in Charter-TWC Merger

The Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Justice Department this week each signaled their intent to approve Charter Communication’s $65 billion acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse Networks, subject to several conditions.

The mergers will create the second largest cable-TV provider in the country, with 17.4 million subscribers, behind Comcast’s 22 million. Strikingly, though, none of the conditions attached by the FCC and DOJ have to do with the provision of cable-TV service. Instead, they deal almost entirely with promoting over-the-top video as a viable competitor to cable.

FCC_headquartersUnder the deal with the FCC, the merged company will be prohibited from imposing usage-based pricing or data caps on its 19.4 million broadband subscribers, a tactic many cable internet providers have turned to lately to discourage video cord-cutting by indirectly raising the cost of using OTT services like Netflix.

Charter will also be prohibited from charging Netflix and other OTT providers with interconnection fees for delivering traffic to Charter broadband subscribers.

Under the agreement with the Justice Department, Charter will be barred from inserting or enforcing most-favored nation (MFN) clauses in its carriage agreements with programmers — a tactic many pay-TV providers, particularly TWC, have used to discourage programmers from making their content available on OTT platforms. Read More »

Why Sean Parker’s Screening Room Could Succeed Where Others Failed

Efforts to shorten the theatrical window by enabling early in-home availability of movies have a poor track record in Hollywood. DirecTV’s effort in 2011 to offer movies in-home 60 days after their theatrical release for $30 quickly foundered, despite the support of four major studios, largely because the studios, fearful of retaliation from theater owners, didn’t shorten the window enough to persuade consumers to shell out the high ticket price. Digital HD, heavily promoted by 20th Century Fox, offers movies in home three to four weeks before their DVD/Blu-ray release for a premium price, but support from other studios has been spotty and DHD has had negligible impact on consumer behavior.

home-theater-lightingEfforts to eliminate the exclusive theatrical window altogether, such as Netflix’s insistence on making its original feature films available on its streaming service the same day they’re released in theaters, have been met with a near total freeze out by theaters, and no major studio has dared try.

It’s no surprise, then, that the new proposal from former Napster co-founder Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju to offer movies in-home day-and-date with their theatrical release for $50, through a platform called The Screening Room, has sparked controversy in the Hollywood. Art House Convergence, which represents 600 independent theaters, released an open letter to the industry decrying The Screening Room concept.  “We strongly believe if the studios, distributors, and major chains adopt this model, we will see a wildfire spread of pirated content, and consequently, a decline in overall film profitability through the cannibalization of theatrical revenue,” the letter said. “The theatrical experience is unique and beneficial to maximizing profit for films. A theatrical release contributes to healthy ancillary revenue generation and thus cinema grosses must be protected from the potential erosion effect of piracy.” 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 Co-Dependent Marriage Of TV and Sports

According to a report released this week by PriceWaterhouseCooper, the revenue earned from media rights by the North American sports industry will surpass the revenue earned at the gate by 2018, when they’ll reach $19.95 billion and $19.72 billion, respectively, fulfilling the old adage that the sports business is really the TV business.

Increasingly, the reverse is also true: The TV business is really the sports business.

More than a third of all TV advertising in the U.S. today goes to live sports, and that doesn’t include ESPN, which shows a mix of live sports and sports-related programming. Add in ESPN and the share of advertising going to sport programming would top 40 percent, Advancit Capital partner and former Fox Digital president Jonathan Miller estimated from the stage at the New York Media Festival earlier this month. Franklin_Gutierrez_hitting_HRAt the same time, according to SNL Kagan, sports networks account for nearly 20 percent of the carriage fees paid by cable and satellite operators, and that doesn’t count the portion of the carriage and retransmission fees paid to broadcasters and general-interest cable networks that can be attributed to the sports programming they carry. According to an analysis last year by MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson, the aggregate of sports rights account for as much as 50 percent of the cost of the average cable bill. Read More »

Trouble By The Bundle

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“We understand the temptation for the FCC to take credit for resolving this impasse, but their intervention had nothing to do with it. We were very close to a resolution well before Chairman Wheeler got involved. In fact, the FCC process actually delayed the resolution, because it added more issues to negotiate, which lengthened DISH’s service interruption, not shortened it.”

That was Sinclair Broadcasting doing its best impression of Comical Ali, a.k.a. Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf, the hapless former Iraqi spokesman, insisting that the FCC’s unusual and urgent intercession in the retransmission consent negotiations between Sinclair and Dish Network had nothing to do with the outcome.

comical_ali_nothing_to_seeDish and Sinclair had been negotiating for two and half months without reaching an agreement, Sinclair had triggered the nuclear option by yanking 129 local stations from Dish subscribers in 79 markets, but within hours of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler blasting the blackout and summoning the parties to an “emergency meeting” at the commission, mirabile dictu, all issues were resolved and the blackout was lifted.

Yet one thing had “nothing to do” with the other. Hmm.

The actual substance of the dispute between Dish and Sinclair was no laughing matter for the future of the pay-TV business, however, nor was Wheeler’s intercession, whatever its effect. Read More »

The FCC’s Imperfect Path To Increased Video Competition

The conditions the Federal Communications Commission has attached to its approval of AT&T’s merger with DirecTV are being met with a predictably mixed response. Some groups, such as Comptel, a Washington-based lobbying group representing Netflix, Amazon, Cogent Communications, Level 3 and other network operators and service providers, praised the FCC for requiring AT&T to disclose details of its network interconnection deals. Others, such as Free Press, blasted the conditions for not going “nearly far enough” to address the problem of pay-TV consolidation.

Here’s what we know, from a statement issued Wednesday by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler:

An order recommending that the AT&T/DirecTV transaction be approved with conditions has circulated to the Commissioners. The proposed order outlines Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearinga number of conditions that will directly benefit consumers by bringing more competition to the broadband marketplace. If the conditions are approved by my colleagues, 12.5 million customer locations will have access to a competitive high-speed fiber connection. This additional build-out is about 10 times the size of AT&T’s current fiber-to-the-premise deployment, increases the entire nation’s residential fiber build by more than 40 percent, and more than triples the number of metropolitan areas AT&T has announced plans to serve.

In addition, the conditions will build on the Open Internet Order already in effect, addressing two merger-specific issues. First, in order to prevent discrimination against online video competition, AT&T will not be permitted to exclude affiliated video services and content from data caps on its fixed broadband connections. Second, in order to bring greater transparency to interconnection practices, the company will be required to submit all completed interconnection agreements to the Commission, along with regular reports on network performance.

Importantly, we will require an independent officer to help ensure compliance with these and other proposed conditions. These strong measures will protect consumers, expand high-speed broadband availability, and increase competition.

Read More »

Comcast’s Bid for Time Warner Cable Gets Bundled Away

In his statement on Comcast’s decision to drop its $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made it clear his agency was concerned about the merger’s potential impact on the development of the over-the-top video market:

Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services.

nbc-comcastSo, too, was the U.S. Justice Department, according to a separate statement by Attorney General Eric Holder:

 This is a victory not only for the Department of Justice, but also for providers of content and streaming services who work to bring innovative products to consumers across America and around the world.

It was certainly a victory for content owners and providers, many of whom, such as Discovery and Netflix, had lobbied aggressively against the merger and cheered the deal’s collapse. But “content owners and providers” is a group that very much includes Comcast, by virtue of its owning NBC Universal, lending an unavoidable measure of irony to the outcome here. Read More »