Music Streaming And The Two Drink Minimum

Ask the owner of any bar that hosts occasional live music how they make money and they’ll tell you it ain’t from the music. The music is there to draw a crowd to sell more liquor to, which is where the profits are. The cover charge helps defray the cost of the band so it doesn’t all come out of the liquor receipts. These days, the music streaming business is starting to look a lot like those gin joints.

While Spotify, Pandora and Apple are drawing pretty good crowds, none of them are making money from the music. And they’re starting to live_music_signcast about for other ways to make money. Pandora recently plunked down $450 million to buy live-event ticketing service Ticketfly, presumably hoping for some synergy between those who listen to music on Pandora and those who buy tickets to live shows and concerts. Spotify is trying to leverage its music audience to build a business around non-music content, such as online video.

Apple insists it can eventually make money from music streaming, but with Apple it’s always at least as much about finding new users for its devices, where it makes nearly all of its profits, than about any particular service.

All have invested heavily in data and analytics, initially for internal use but almost certainly with an eye toward turning their data into a product in its own right. Read More »

Apple Makes Music Fans An Offer They Might Refuse

As expected, Apple’s new music strategy is to try to be all things musical to all people. Or almost all people.

The newly christened Apple Music, unveiled Monday at the World Wide Developers Conference, includes a $10 a month streaming service that offers on-demand access to Apple’s 30 million song library, along with cloud storage and playback of your own music collection and the option to let Apple’s experts curate personalized playlists for you. It also includes a free, ad-supported internet radio service featuring featuring celebrity DJs and what Apple is billing as the world’s first 24-hour global radio station, Beats One. It also includes a reboot of Ping, Apple’s failed social media platform, now called Music Connect and featuring artist pages.

Apple_Music_iPhoneYou can also, of course, continue to purchase downloadable tracks and albums from the iTunes Music Store.

About the only thing Apple Music does not have is the sort of free, ad-supported on-demand tier that has helped make Spotify the world’s largest on-demand streaming service.

The lack of a free on-demand tier is partly Apple’s preference: It didn’t spend $3 billion to acquire Beats’ subscription-only music service last year to get into the free streaming business. But no free tier was also part of Apple’s pitch to the record labels, publishers and artists, all of whom have been agitating to get more people paying for music online, notwithstanding consumers’ demonstrably limited appetite thus far for paid streaming: Give us what we need to crush our rivals, Apple suggested, and we’ll do for paid streaming what they couldn’t. Read More »

Walmart Does That VOD Vudu

Let’s stipulate that the $100 million price tag being bandied about for Walmart’s acquisition of Vudu is exaggerated, or includes various earn-out targets that likely will never be met, making the ultimate price something less than nine figures. Walmart hinted at as much in its press release, indicating the acquisition would “not be material” to its first fiscal quarter despite being scheduled to close within that period, suggesting there are triggers and contingencies in the deal that will play out over time, if at all.

Yet the fact that we’re even talking about a price that could reach into the $100 million ballpark suggests there’s something more going on here than meets the eye.

Or maybe not. Perhaps, as has been suggested, Vudu,  somehow, simply blew smoke up Walmart’s ass and convinced it to overpay for a marginal VOD provider. Or perhaps, as Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn argues, Walmart simply doesn’t know what it’s doing in digital delivery and is setting itself up for another massive VOD fail.

But I think that’s too narrow a view of what Walmart is up to.

From Walmart’s perspective, Vudu has a number of valuable assets that make it more than simply a VOD provider with some nice content licensing deals. One of those is the HDX encoding format, which Vudu introduced back in 2008. With HDX, Vudu claims, it can deliver genuine 1080p video over the Internet in 4.5 Mbs of bandwidth. The format is optimized for LCD and plasma screens over 40-inches in size and incorporates a process Vudu calls TruFilm, which simulates the cinematic experience in a home theater by preserving film grain and other textural qualities of film. Read More »

Miscalculating movie release windows

Speaking of windows, Disney has touched off quite the firestorm in Europe over its plan to release “Alice in Wonderland” on Blu-ray and DVD just 12 weeks after its March 5 worldwide theatrical debut instead of the usual 16 to17 weeks. Holland’s National Board of Cinema Owners is up in arms, and has organized a boycott among that country’s four largest theater chains, representing some 80-85% of screens. Three top chains in the U.K. are threatening to follow suit, vowing to keep Tim Burton’s 3D extravaganza off 95% of the 3D screens in the realm unless Disney backs down.

Good luck with that. I don’t see Disney backing down on this one. It obviously picked this fight with theater owners now because it knows it has the leverage to win. “Alice in Wonderland” will be one of the biggest-grossing theatrical releases of the year, with or without wide distribution in The Netherlands, and it has “Toy Story 3” in the wings, which will be even bigger. In crude terms, the theaters currently threatening boycotts need Disney’s movies more than Disney needs their screens, and both sides know it (U.S. theater operators have more leverage, of course, which is why Disney apparently has cut some sort of deal with NATO that would let it “experiment” with windows on one or two movies a year so long as it doesn’t make a habit of it).

The real question is: why is Disney so intent on getting “Alice in Wonderland” out on DVD and Blu-ray so soon.

In an interview with CNBC last week, Disney CEO Bob Iger said the early “Alice” release would allow the studio to “put the video out before the doldrums of the summer and to put it out when the movie is very fresh in consumers’ minds.” Read More »

Publishers throw the e-book business out the window

Book publishers have been crowing this week over having wrested control over e-book prices from Amazon. After a brief showdown with Macmillan Publishing, in which Amazon pulled all Macmillan hardcover and paperback titles from its physical-book store, the Kindle maker blinked and agreed to the publisher’s demand to raise the price of its e-books in the Kindle store from $9.99 each to $12.99-$14.99. Other leading publishers, led by Hachette Book Group and News Corp.’s HarperCollins unit, quickly said they would demand the same deal.

The publishers, of course, have long been concerned over Amazon’s strategy of pricing most new release e-books at $9.99 to spur sales of Kindle devices. Though publishers earn the same $12-$14 wholesale price from Kindle editions as they earn from hardcovers, they fretted that low prices on e-books would undercut sales of hardcovers, which typically sell for $20-$25 at retail. Eventually, they feared, the reduction in retail revenue would result in lower wholesale revenue as well. So long as Kindle owners made up the largest slice of the e-book market, however, the publishers had little choice but to go along. Read More »

Alarm bells come too late for Sony Pictures

The memo Sony Pictures co-chiefs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal sent to employees Monday announcing massive layoffs, most of which will fall in the home entertainment and IT divisions, obviously wasn’t meant to be made public. But it’s fitting that it was leaked when it was, the same day that Bernstein Research analysts Michael Nathanson and Peter Choi published what amounted to an obituary for packaged media as a profit driver for Hollywood.

According to Bernstein:

  • For 2009-2012, we [previously] forecast overall U.S. home entertainment industry revenues to decline at a -2.1% CAGR. This underscores the mature nature of the industry, plus the importance of share gains for individual players. Over this time frame, aggregate operating profit declines of low single digits are also expected.
  • Now one year later, looking at the cold hard facts of 2009, retail spending on sell-through DVDs and Blu-Ray discs dropped by -18% while rental of these products actually increased by 4%. As a result, the sell-through of physical discs declined from 63% of the market to 57%.
  • This massive change in behavior continues to have negative implications for studio profitability as every home video executive would rather book the $16 of profit contribution per transaction from selling a disc vs. the $3.50 to $1.40 per disc profit contribution from rental.
  • [snip]
  • Our analysis also shows that the Blu-Ray format is having a more modest acceptance rate that traditional DVD. In 2009, three years after its introduction, Blu-Ray’s penetration of TV households stood at 4.4%, compared to 13.0% for DVDs in 2000. We also find that Blu-Ray [sic] has seen lower numbers of titles shipped per converted household relative to DVD. We don’t see Blu-Ray stemming the decline of physical sales. Read More »

Selectable outputs, or selectable logic?

The long-running battle at the Federal Communications Commission over the MPAA’s petition for a waiver of the rules banning the use of selectable output controls on devices that can receive TV signals is turning into a textbook example of how regulation can distort business decisions. I almost hate to write that sentence because I don’t want to sound like some sort of Cato Institute ideologue with a jones for deregulation. But the SOC debate has become terminally absurd.

And petty. Just before Thanksgiving, the MPAA filed an ex parte brief with the commission in which it called Public Knowledge legal director Harold Feld, in so many words, a liar.

First and foremost, MPAA would like to respond to certain Public Knowledge statements about the waiver request that, quite frankly, constitute blatant untruths. MPAA appreciates that different parties can reach different conclusions about matters of public policy. Indeed, MPAA has welcomed the opportunity to engage with Public Knowledge and its allies in an honest and open debate about the merits of the SOC waiver request. Regrettably, however, Public Knowledge, apparently having determined that its arguments on the merits have failed to gain traction with the Commission, has resorted to outright distortion and falsehoods. In particular, MPAA believes that the Feld Video Blog contains statements that are simply and irrefutably untrue.

 That drew a sharp retort from PK president Gigi Sohn, and a melodramatically “more-in-sorrow-than-anger” reply from Feld in a subsequent video blog post.

fcc-sealFor those joining us late, the MPAA’s petition has been pending before the commission for more than two years, but was victim of a pocket veto by the previous FCC chairman, who refused to put it before the other commissioners for a vote. With the Barack Obama Administration now in charge, however, there is a new FCC lineup and new chairman, and the studios have tried to capitalize on the changes to breathe new life into the old petition.

In very broad strokes, the MPAA argues that its member companies would like to introduce a new high-definition video-on-demand window for movies immediately following the theatrical window and before those movies are released on DVD and Blu-ray. The new window, according to the MPAA, would allow consumers to watch movies on their home theater systems earlier than they can today based on the current sequence of rlease windows, which generally doesn’t make movies available for home viewing until three to six months after their theatrical release when they come out on DVD. But the studios would only do that, the MPAA argues, if they’re allowed to remotely disable any analog outputs on receiving devices by inserting the appropriate “flag” into the VOD signal.

Why? Because analog outputs on HDTV sets and other devices do not support digital copy protection encryption like the High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP) system supported by HDMI and certain DVI connections. The studios fear that permitting their “high-value” content to travel over unprotected outputs would allow users to record the movies and then redistribute them over the Internet.

Public Knowledge and other opponents of the waiver argue that allowing the studios to turn off analog outputs would “break” as many as 25 million devices by preventing them from receiving or displaying the content and and is therefore anti-consumer. (There are also technical arguments over whether the MPAA has met its legal burden of proof to qualify for a waiver and other super-wonky issues that even The Media Wonk won’t delve into here.)

Here’s the problem: Because the debate is occuring in a public-policy context the MPAA is playing what it considers to be its best public-policy card: fear of piracy. We would only be too eager to offer this shiny new benefit to consumers, the studios say, if  we could just do something about the terrible scourge of piracy. But there’s a far more compelling business case for granting the SOC waiver that the studios are not making.

For its part, Public Knowledge is offering counter-arguments that, while they may address  the public-policy questions at issue, are utterly naive as to the business considerations distributors face when releasing a movie.

The studios know perfectly well that turning off the analog outputs for the proposed VOD transmissions will have little effect on the broader piracy problem (or, I should say, some people at the studios know that, some of them really are crazy). The reason they need to do it is to give themselves cover with Wal-Mart and other large DVD retailers who would raise holy hell over a new “unprotected” window ahead of theirs. Of course, they, too, know the piracy argument is a feint. But they would nonetheless use it to squeeze the studios on shelf space and price at a time when the studios can ill-afford to lose more DVD business.

Theater owners would also squawk, of course. But the studios have no doubt calculated that there is nothing the theaters can really do about it. They need Hollywood’s movies far more than Wal-Mart does.

Cable operators, who would benefit from the new window, have predictably come out in favor of granting the waiver. But they, too, would be all too happy to turn around and use “piracy” during the new window to squeeze the studios on licensing fees in the traditional VOD window. It’s business, after all. not a morality play.

And that, ultimately, is the flaw in Public Knowledge’s case against the waiver. To argue, as it has repeatedly, that the fact that a few independent distributors like Magnolia and IFC have released movies on VOD ahead of their theatrical or DVD release proves that piracy is not a real problem, and that the studios could release movies the same way now, is simply a non sequitur. Independent distributors are in a different business from the major studios. They do not have business relationships with Wal-Mart and Best Buy to protect.

family-watching-dvdAs things now stand, routinely releasing movies on VOD ahead of their DVD/Blu-ray release would not be a sound business decision for a studio to make, given all of the considerations that must go into the distribution of movies, and no business person answerable to shareholders is likely to make it. Would the use of SOC change that? It might, but not because it would do anything to prevent piracy. It might because it would give the studios a tool to manage their business relationships through a period of technological and industry transition.

That may not sound very noble (or compelling to regulators), but I don’t find it particularly nefarious, either. Making and distributing movies is a business, and expecting that it would operate on something other than business principles is absurd.

For similar reasons, I don’t find the “breaking 25 million TVs” argument very compelling, either.

Public Knowledge and the Consumer Electronics Association complain that “allowing the MPAA to shut off analog outputs will leave over 20 million TV sets and downstream devices like Slingbox unable to receive the MPAA’s content.” That may be so, but it’s also so that NO TV sets or downstream devices can receive the MPAA’s content in the proposed window as things now stand. And they’re simply not going to start receiving it just because Public Knowledge and CEA think they ought to be able to because it’s not in anyone’s economic interest to let them.

Granted, it may be that the likely consumer benefit of the new window is not a sufficient trade off for changing the rules that have governed TV receivers up to now. But “no one should have it if some people can’t” is not an argument to that point one way or another. In fact, it’s not really an argument at all. It’s an attitude.

And it’s not a sound basis for either business or public policy decisions.

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.

Lipstick on a pig

The Digital Entertainment Group takes the Sarah Palin Rouge-Lipped Hockey Mom Prize this week for slathering lipstick on the runtish snout of the home video market. The industry spinmeisters reported that total consumer home entertainment spending for the first half of 2009 was down a mere 3.9% compared to last year. Not bad, you say, in the depths of the Great Recession.

From the perspective of the Hollywood studios, however, things aren’t looking quite so “not bad.”

blu_ray_300pxMost of the good news, such as it was, came from DVD and Blu-ray rentals, which surged 8.3% through June, raking in $3.4 billion for the likes of Netflix, Blockbuster and Redbox’ dollar-a-night kiosks. The studios see a much smaller slice of the consumer rental dollar, however, than they get from DVD and Blu-ray sales, which fell a painful 13.5%. In a break from past practices, DEG didn’t break out DVD and Blu-ray sales this times. But Video Business calculated that DVD sales were down a whopping 17%, partially made up for by 91% growth (from a much smaller base) in Blu-ray sales.

The other “good news” came from digital sales and rentals (movie downloads) and cable and satellite video-on-demand, which combined grew 21% for the half, to $968 million. It’s not clearly exactly how DEG is counting things, but if that total includes Netflix’s subscription streaming business, that’s not really helping the studios much, either, since they see an even smaller percentage of that than of traditional rentals.

Bottom line: Consumer spending has shifted massively away from the studios’ most profitable channels into less profitable channels. And Blu-ray has done nothing to stem that tide.

While VOD is a good business for the studios, it remains tiny compared to other high-margin channels, to say noting of low-margin channels like DVD rentals and subscription streaming.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment president David Bishop was at least honest about where things stand. “People are trying to save money, and there is strong evidence that consumers are trading down. They are renting instead of buying,” Bishop told Video Business. “That is the growth category now in DVD.”