TV vs. Cable

The Media Wonk spent last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show where, everybody said, 3DTV would be the big story. And sure enough, nearly everywhere you went on the show floor folks were sporting either polarized shades or the full Geordi La Forge wraparounds and squinting at the new 3D displays tucked into carefully light-controlled alcoves of the display booths, like so many bug-eyed NFL refs going under the hood.

Yet for all the hoopla over 3D, the really important TV story out of CES was the explosion of embedded applications on Internet-capable HDTVs and Blu-ray players for bringing over-the-top (i.e. Internet-delivered) video into the living room. A year ago at CES there were only a few such TV sets on display, from a handful of manufacturers, and about all you could do with them was run a few Yahoo widgets and stream Netflix movies. At this year’s show, it was hard to find a home entertainment device that wasn’t Internet-ready, and if it didn’t come with its own app store it came embedded with one of the growing number of online content platforms from the likes of Vudu, DivX, Rovi and Boxee, among others.

Far more than 3D, set-makers’ growing commitment to enabling over-the-top video delivery to HDTV screens holds the potential to shake up the future evolution of the TV business. Read More »

Coming full circle on video rentals

I have covered the home video industry for as long as it’s been an industry. And it never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which the Hollywood studios will go to try to deny the reality of consumer demand. The latest case in point: their scheme to stop the shift in consumer spending from DVD purchases to DVD rentals by carving out a sales-only window before movies would be widely available for rental.

Since the studios can’t legally bar retailers from renting the “sales-only” copies (the First Sale Doctrine, and all that) they would have buy the rental outfits off, presumably by offering them a lower wholesale price for DVDs if the retailers agree to delay the rental window. In his third-quarter earnings call last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings suggested the DVD-by-mail service might agree to go along.

“If we can agree on low-enough pricing, delayed rental could potentially increase profits for everyone,” Hastings said.

If Netflix were to go along, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Blockbuster getting on board as well; it could use the earnings boost even more than Netflix could.  The trickiest case would be kiosk operator Redbox, which has been growing rapidly on the strength of dollar-a-night rentals, much to the chagrin of the studios. Relations are tense between Redbox and Hollywood, so a deal might be tough to negotiate. But it might be a way to resolved the litigation between the kiosk company and the studios.

Independent retailers would probably balk at the deal, seeing instead an opportunity to grab some market share back from the big boys by offering earlier rentals. But Netflix, Blockbuster and Redbox, along with perhaps a few other large chains (Movie Gallery/Hollywood) have enough market share among them at this point that the system might basically work.

Ironically, creating a protected sales window would completely invert standard industry practice back in the VHS days, when the studios maintained a protected rental window by pricing videocassettes at an un-sellable $99, before knocking the price down to twenty bucks or so three to six months later. But it would be no more consumer-friendly.

How about this, studios: Price all DVDs at $10, out of the gate, and make them available in 70,000 supermarket outlets nationwide. If consumers still wanted to rent, they could rent. But how many of those supermarkets would be putting in Redbox kiosks if they were simultaneously selling cassettes for $8.99, on sale? I’d guess about none.

You want to sell a gussied-up version with a bunch of extras and try to get $15 for it as a second SKU, go ahead. Knock yourselves out. Maybe you could get that for the Blu-ray, too. But a $10 base price would triple (or greater the size of the retail base for DVDs and make it easier for consumers to spend their money on packaged movies than on other entertainment options.

OMGZ! OUR MARGINS, I can hear the cries from Century City to Burbank. But what’s the point of protecting your margins if  you’re driving consumers out of the category? Why would you assume, at a time when aggregate consumer spending on DVDs is in free-fall, that you could convert any large number of Redbox renters into buyers at $15 – $25 a pop by actively frustrating their ability to rent?

The studios have been mis-pricing DVDs for a long time — from long before consumer spending started to decline — just as they’ve completely mismanaged the Blu-ray roll out (to say nothing of the high-def format battle that preceded it). They’re now paying the price for that mismanagement. Doubling-down on the same strategy isn’t going to fix the problem.

Blockbuster: Closed for renovation

It’s long been clear that there were too many video stores in America for anyone’s good. In the go-go years of the early 1990s, national chains like Blockbuster, Hollywood Video and Movie Gallery were adding stores at a clip of nearly one a day, each. Regional chains and independent operators expanded as well, until there were something like 10-15,000 video superstores in the country and probably twice that number of stores overall.

The numbers back then were compelling. Video stores were considered good tenants by strip-mall devlopers, stores ramped up quickly and threw off enough cash that much of the expansion could be financed internally. In addition to absolute growth in the market, the national chains could easily take share from incumbents when they entered a market, by virtue of their broader and deeper selection of titles, preferable locations and greater marketing clout. Read More »

Redbox, RealDVD and Hollywood’s long stuggle with consumer demand, Part I

There’s something about the video rental market, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, that causes the studios to get all wee-weed up.

Back in 1983, not long after the Hollywood studios began, ever-so tentatively, to release movies on the newly introduced half-inch videocassette for watching at home, they were horrified to discover that some enterprising video shop owners had begun renting the cassettes for a few bucks a night, sparing their customers the need to shell out $30 or $40 for a movie they might watch only once. Worse for the studios, the video shops had not licensed the right to rent movies and were not sharing any of their rental earnings with the studios.

Hollywood huffed and it puffed but, in fact, the video shops had the law on their side, specifically Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, which provides that:

[T]he owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.

In other words, the rental shops didn’t need a license, and the studios couldn’t stop them from renting. So Hollywood did what copyright owners had done at least since the introduction of radio: they went to Congress to get the law changed more to their liking.

Never mind consumers’ manifest interest in renting movies.

In the sausage factory of Capitol Hill, the repeal of Section 109, known colloquially as the First Sale Doctrine, became twinned with a separate studio initiative to outlaw the use of VCRs to record TV programs, or, short of that, to impose a royalty levy on VCRs and blank tapes to “compensate” copyright owners for such copying.

In 1984, however, with the legislative battle still raging, the U.S. Supreme Court threw a wrench into the works by handing down its decision in the famous Betamax case, which held that recording TV shows off the air with a VCR for private use was perfectly legal and that no royalty payment was required. With that, the studios’ effort to ban or tax recording equipment died in Congress, and with it its legislative twin, repeal of the First Sale Doctrine.

The studios were not ready to make their peace with rentals, however. Their next move was to implement a series of ever-more baroque “rental plans,” which involved various schemes to try to distinguish between “rental” cassettes and “sale” cassettes, including the use of different color plastics for the cassette shells. Thus, “rental” cassettes were red, while “sale” cassettes were blue.  The idea was that “rental” cassettes would not actually be sold to rental stores but licensed, thereby pulling an end-run around the First Sale Doctrine. Since the stores would never legally own the cassettes, they could not unilaterally exercise their right to rent them under Section 109 of the copyright statute. Instead, they were compelled to pay a “royalty” to the studio on each rental transaction. Read More »