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.

If there’s a strategy here it’s well disguised.

The problem starts with Apple’s device-centric approach. Ever since Steve Jobs introduced his “hobby,” Apple has tried to re-engineer the TV viewing experience through better hardware. Over the years it has held talkswith pay-TV operators about replacing their own set-top boxes with Apple TVs and letting Apple redesign their UIs. When those talks foundered on operators’ fear of letting Apple get between them and their subscribers Apple held talks with media companies about assembling its own, skinny subscription bundle of channels for Apple TV. When those talks stalled over disagreements on price and the configuration of the bundle Apple declared that apps are the future of TV and added an app store and Siri-like voice control to Apple TV, essentially turning the set-top box into an oversize iPhone tethered to a big-screen television.

Meanwhile, the television ecosystem has been evolving away from fixed platforms and tethered devices.

Netflix proved that you can build a TV empire on the backs of other people’s devices, to the point where the incumbent pay-TV operators eventually feel compelled to integrate with your own delivery platform.  Amazon is building its TV empire on a combination of its own devices and others’ and bundling it with other services.

Any hope Apple may have held out for getting help from the government died last month when Ajit Pai was named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and moved immediately to kill his predecessor’s plan to force pay-TV operators to “unlock” the set-top box and allow third-party device makers like Apple to gain access to their content, as Apple had once tried to negotiate on its own.

The biggest threat to Apple’s long-term TV ambitions, however, assuming it really has them, is from the wireless carriers, the very service providers Apple once shoved aside by establishing its own billing relationship with iPhone users.

As discussed here in a previous post, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all building out mobile-first video and TV platforms, bundled with data, in anticipation of the day when 5G technology allows them to deliver robust TV service wirelessly into the home.

As I’ve argued before, mobility and wireless delivery are the keys to overturning TV’s ancien regime. And Apple, ironically, should be well-positioned to storm the castle. It owns one of the two dominant mobile computing platforms in the U.S. in iOS.

The current generation of Apple TV even runs a version of iOS called TVOS, which at first appeared to be effort to turn Apple TV into merely the in-home outpost of a mobile-first video platform. But Apple has done relatively little since then to encourage programmers and developers to create the sort of integrated experiences that might have differentiated Apple TV from Roku boxes, game consoles, Amazon Fire, or any of the myriad other ways consumers can stream content to the TV.

Instead, to the extent Apple has focused on Apple TV at all it has stuck stubbornly to trying to engineer a new TV experience into the hardware itself. They may fit Apple’s hardware-centric business model. But it isn’t likely to be a winning strategy in the wireless, cloud-based, and mobile-driven future of TV.

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 »

America Exits The World

For all intents and purposes, Donald J. Trump will assume the presidency in January with no discernable policy agenda. Apart from a few signature flights of fancy, such as building a wall along 1,500 miles of southern border and rounding up 11 million immigrants for summary deportation, his policy pronouncements consisted largely of an ever-shifting farrago of ignorance, indifference, truculence, and personal animus boiled down into 140-character outbursts. As a general matter, we simply do not know what the Trump administration might do.

trumpGiven the enormity his election represents, speculating on the fallout for any particular industry could seem petty, if not beside the point entirely. But for what it’s worth, the media and technology industries may be among the first to feel the impact.

As a near-term matter, Trump said on the campaign trail that he would block AT&T’s pending merger with Time Warner and would look to undo already done media mergers, including Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal. Setting aside the question of whether the Justice Department would have legal grounds to do either (and the perhaps more interesting question of whether a Trump Justice Department would feel constrained by established law and precedent), Trump’s rhetoric could cast a pall over M&A activity, just as the media industry seems poised for another round of it in the wake of AT&T-Time Warner. Read More »

While FCC Dithers, Google Ditches The Box

To hear the pay-TV industry tell it, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s original proposal to “unlock” the set-top box was essentially a sop to Google, a company many in the industry see as having effectively captured the agency, if not the entire Obama administration, and as coveting the incumbent operators’ position in the TV business.

Those suspicions were only strengthened when Google began offering members of Congress demos of a set-top box that fit remarkably with the sort of navigation device envisioned by Wheeler’s proposal, just days after the proposal was unveiled.

fccwheelergettyoffledeAlarmed, cable operators rushed out its own proposal to “ditch” the set-top box altogether and make their services available, essentially as is, via apps that could run on third-party devices — an idea Google opposed because it would leave the cable operators in control of the user interface and the bundling of channels.

The industry’s move was effective, inasmuch as it forced Wheeler to retreat from his original proposal, and come up with a new plan loosely modeled on the industry’s app-based approach. While Google said it could live with the new proposal, the industry still found much not to like, and an all-out lobby blitz again forced Wheeler to postpone a planned vote on the measure. Read More »

The Coming Wireless Video Wars

Having dropped $48 billion and change last year to acquire DirecTV, AT&T is now earmarking tens of billions more over the next 3 to 5 years to acquire media companies, according to a report this week by Bloomberg. Citing “people familiar with the plans,” the report said AT&T is targeting acquisitions ranging from $2 billion to $50 billion, with an eye toward “owning some of the content it distributes.”

It likely won’t be distributing it through DirecTV, however, at least not via satellite. According to an earlier Bloomberg report, AT&T will begin phasing out DirecTV’s randallstephensonsatellite platform within the same 3 to 5-year window, with any eye toward making internet streaming its primary TV platform by 2020. The company has lately been lining up carriage deals ahead of its planned launch of its DirecTV Now over-the-top service later this year. And it has been aggressively steering its wireless customers toward DirecTV by bundling unlimited wireless data plans with a DirecTV subscription, which so far has been taken up by some 5 million of its wireless subscribers.

DirecTV Now will also be “zero-rated” for AT&T wireless customers, meaning it won’t count against their monthly data cap. Read More »

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 »

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 »

Zero Tolerance

As the FCC awaits the fate of its open internet order (a.k.a. net neutrality) in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, language that could have mooted much of the legal case by limiting the commission’s authority to regulate internet access was stripped at the last minute from the 2000-page omnibus spending bill unveiled by congressional leaders Tuesday night to keep the government running into 2016.

The removal of the rider was a blow to ISPs, which had lobbied to keep the language in the spending bill, but net neutrality advocates have found plenty of other things to complain about lately regarding the behavior of ISPs. Top of the charts: the growing number of streaming services ISPs are selectively exempting from data caps.

FCC_buildingIn just the past three months:

  • T-Mobile introduced its Binge On plan, which allows mobile users to stream video from roughly two-dozen “partner” services, including Netflix, HBO Now, Sling TV, MLB.tv, Showtime and Starz, without those bits counting against a subscriber’s data cap;
  • Comcast launched Stream TV in a handful of markets, a live and on-demand streaming service that, unlike Netflix, for instance will not count against Comcast subscribers’ data caps where those are in place (as no doubt they soon will be everywhere);
  • Verizon launched Go90, its in-house streaming service for which data usage is “sponsored” by advertisers and therefore isn’t counted toward the user’s data cap;
  • AT&T hinted broadly that it, too, will launch a mobile streaming service that, like Verizon’s Go90, would be “sponsored” by someone other than the user.

Read More »

Pay-TV Operators Eye Mobile Video To Reduce Subscriber Costs

AT&T officials offered some pretty eye-popping numbers this week on the impact of the DirecTV acquisition on the bottom line. Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communicopia conference in New York AT&T CFO John Stephens said DirecTV pays $17 a month less per subscriber in content costs “on an apples-to-apples basis” compared to what AT&T has been paying per U-Verse subscriber.

AT&T is now working to “bring those prices in line” by moving everything to “the most efficient contract pricing in the house,” which is the DirecTV price. “So with 6 million U-Verse subscribers you can get your head around about $100 million a month,” in savings, he said, or $1.2 billion per year. “That’s sort of the easy math on iphone_TVhow you can conceptualize the scale” of the savings.

The math could soon get even easier for AT&T. “Right now we have 75 million smartphones and tablets and 50 million broadband locations that we don’t sell video to today,” Stephens said. “So we have 125 million locations we can take to the content team and say, let’s work together to sell something. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial situation, it’s here’s your growth and we built this integrated carrier model to take advantage of that.” Read More »

Retransmission Discontent

Last week’s meltdown among media company stocks seems to have subsided for now, but not before wiping out $60 billion in market value. Shares of Viacom fell 17 percent between August 4 and August 11; Discovery Communications and 21st Century Fox each fell 13 percent; Disney shares dropped by 11 percent; Time Warner by nine and Comcast (NBCUniversal), CBS and Starz all fell by mid-single digits.

Media CEOs complained, and many analysts concurred, that the sell-off was overdone, and that neither the actual earnings news that triggered it nor the underlying fundamentals of the business justified such a drastic repricing. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the market overreacted to events in the short term.

FCC_buildingIn fact, the stampede out of pay-TV stocks last week felt more like the release of pent-up anxiety among investors than a reaction to any particular bit of news. It began when Disney issued a small downward revision to its earnings forecast for its ESPN unit, which it blamed on “modest subscriber losses” from cord-cutting. The adjustment was a small one, but Disney chief Bob Iger has been among the most outspoken media CEOs in arguing that cord-cutting is a limited and manageable phenomenon, and that ESPN is well-positioned to profit from changes in the pay-TV business. If even Disney couldn’t paper over the impact of cord-cutting on ESPN, investors seemed to conclude, then maybe the problem really is as bad as we feared.

Similarly, ratings woes on linear TV channels are not new. But when Viacom reported a 9 percent drop in ad revenue from its cable networks investors seemed to take it as confirmation that even well-established media brands are losing pricing power in the advertising market. 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 »

Who Wants To Be An MVPD?

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler dropped a pretty broad hint last month that the commission is gearing up to reclassify at least some over-the-top video services as multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) as described in the Communications Act, putting them on roughly the same regulatory footing as cable and satellite providers.

In theory, the change could make it easier for services like Sling TV and Apple’s long-rumored subscription video service to add local broadcast channels to their Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearinglineups because it would extend the same retransmission consent rules to online video distributors as apply to cable and satellite providers.

Under the current retrans rules, broadcasters are required to enter “good faith” negotiations with any qualified MVPD for carriage of their signals. Similar rules, which presumably would also be extended to OTT services, require that cable networks owned by or affiliated with cable operators, such as the NBC Universal cable networks now owned by Comcast, must make their programming available to all other MVPDs.

Whether any OTT services actually want to be classified as MVPDs, however could be another matter. Read More »