Apple’s Latest TV Tease

For the best part of a decade, the heads of Apple, including Steve Jobs and current CEO Tim Cook, have had a side-career teasing fanboys and analysts about a major move into TV and video.

Jobs famously told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, that he “finally cracked” the secret to re-engineering the TV viewing experience, and just weeks before his death called tech columnist Walt Mossberg to say he had figured out how to “remake” television.

Whatever it was Jobs had figured out, though, he took it with him to his grave because nothing like what Jobs described to Iasaacson was ever released.

That didn’t stop his successor, Cook, from continuing the tease, however. For several years after, Cook made a habit of dropping hints about some new TV project or another, and stories leaked out of Hollywood every six months or so that Apple content chief, Eddie Cue, was talking with the studios and TV networks about licensing content for some sort of new Apple video service.

Nothing ever came of those purported discussions, either.

More recently, thing had gone quiet on the TV front as Apple turned its attention to building up its music streaming service and squelching growing investor fears about the future profitability of iPhone sales.

On this week’s Q3 earnings call, however, the TV tease was back on.

“We hired two highly respected television executives last year, and they have been here now for several months and have been working on a project that we’re not really ready to share details about,” Cook said. But he assured analysts he “couldn’t be [more] excited about what’s going on there.”

OK, I’ll take the bait. What could it be?

It’s clearly not any kind of integrated Apple TV set, as Jobs seemed to be contemplating. Nor is it likely to be a new set-top box or dongle, as Cook had hinted at over the years.  The two executives he referred to hiring are Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, from Sony Pictures Television, where they were responsible for “Breaking Bad,” “The Crown” and “Rescue Me,” among other series. They’re not what you would call hardware guys.

But are Erlicht and Van Amburg there to produce shows or to take another run at licensing and acquiring content from the studios?

As Cook noted on the earnings call, pay-TV cord-cutting is happening at an accelerating rate, but he believes it will accelerate even further, “at a much faster rate,” than generally acknowledged. That means there will be a lot of potential video subscribers up for grabs over the next few years.

I wouldn’t expect Apple to try to launch a virtual MVPD service, as it seemed to be angling for in the past, though. With studios and networks increasingly looking to launch their own direct-to-consumer streaming services, and the consolidation underway in Hollywood, there is likely to be a lot less premium content and established TV brands around license, and prices will be sky high.

I wouldn’t expect Apple to go the Netflix route either. With 140 million video subscribers world wide Netflix has an enormous head start. It’s true that Apple has proved it can come from behind, as it did in catching Spotify in music. But in that case, Apple was able to obtain essentially the same catalog of content as Spotify at comparable prices. Though Apple is sitting on a mountain of cash, taking on Netflix’s $8 billion original content budget and well-oiled production pipeline would be a very heavy lift with a high potential for failure.

Whatever Apple is planning its target is likely Amazon. Apple can’t have missed noticing the strategic value Amazon has derived from Prime Video and its ability to drive business for other parts of the company.

Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and Alexa voice assistant have also given it a firm and rapidly growing footprint in the home, posing a serious threat to Apple’s ambitions in the connected home market. Alexa is also helping drive subscriptions to Amazon Music, which is starting to look like less of an also-ran in a market Apple hopes to dominate.

Apple needs an answer to Amazon in the home. And that means creating a credible alternative to Amazon Prime Video.

Whatever Apple is planning, it won’t be a Netflix-link standalone video streaming service. It will instead be tightly integrated with its broader strategic goals, the way Prime Video is tied to Amazon’s.

And Apple can’t keep up the tease much longer.

Thinking Inside The Box

Remember the Great Set-Top Box War of 2016? That was the brouhaha touched off by then-Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s effort to force cable TV operators to “unlock the box” and make their video service available as a standalone feed so that third-party device makers could incorporate the service into their own platforms and within their own user-interface functions.

The proposal met fierce opposition from the TV networks and cable operators, who feared losing control over the uses and presentation of their programming, as well as from the Republican members of the FCC itself.

After a bruising, months-long fight, Wheeler was forced to pull the proposal on the eve of a planned vote. It was later dropped altogether after Wheeler left and a new, Republican-appointed chairman took over.

Yet for all the sturm und drang, a pair of recent announcements suggests that cable operators and box makers are finding ways to move beyond the controversy to achieve at least some of Wheeler’s hopes regarding innovation in the pay-TV market, if not his ultimate goal of breaking up the traditional pay-TV bundle.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference this week, the world’s biggest (by market cap) device maker announced a wide-ranging partnership with number 2 cable operator Charter Communications to incorporate Charter’s Spectrum TV app into Apple devices.

As part of the deal, the Spectrum TV app will be available on Apple’s next-generation set-top box, the Apple TV 4K, due later this year. Spectrum subscribers will be able to access “hundreds” of live channels, according to the announcement, and “tens of thousands” of video-on-demand titles through the Apple box.

While Charter has made the Spectrum app available on Roku devices since 2015, the Apple integration goes deeper. For one thing, the Apple 4K will incorporate Siri, allowing at least some functions of the box and its apps to be controlled with voice commands.

More notably, Apple’s latest operating system for the 4K box, tvOS 12, will enable the device to access a broader range of Spectrum subscribers’ program permissions and authorizations, including TV Everywhere authentication — one of the principal goals of Wheeler’s proposal. As described in the announcement, “Apple TV simply detects the user’s broadband network and automatically signs them in to all the supported apps they receive through their subscription—no typing required. Zero sign-on begins with Charter later this year and will expand to other providers over time.”

The feature would still require subscribers to get both broadband and video service from Charter, but it moves Apple TV a step closer to being a viable replacement for the traditional cable box.

Also this week, Amazon unveiled the Amazon Fire TV Cube, which combines features of Amazon’s current 4K-capable Fire TV box with those of its Echo smart speaker, including the Alexa voice assistant.

While Amazon has not announced any pay-TV service integrations with the Cube, the box does support HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Though still a bit dodgy, HDMI-CEC is designed to allow devices connected to a TVs HDMI ports to communicate back and forth with the TV, which means Alexa will be able to control at least some functions of compatible TVs though voice commands.

The Cube also contains IR (infra-red) blasters and comes with an IR dongle that attaches to the back of the device, giving Alexa a measure of control over a variety of cable boxes, soundbars and other TV-connected devices.

According to Amazon, the Cube is compatible with “more than 90 percent” of cable and satellite services, including boxes from Comcast, Dish, DirecTV, Charter, and Verizon.

To be sure, both the Apple and Amazon solutions leave the incumbent pay-TV operators in control of subscribers’ program permissions, as well as how that programming is packaged and presented — a grip Wheeler had hoped to loosen. And they do nothing to break up the Big Bundle.

Yet, by introducing innovations such as effective voice control they could begin to render that packaging and visual presentation moot, achieving through attrition what Wheeler tried to achieve by fiat.

 

Modernizing Music Licensing

Just before Christmas, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers introduced the Music Modernization Act, which, among other things, would create a new blanket license for mechanical reproduction rights to musical compositions and establish a new entity to collect and distribute mechanical royalties.

The bill is meant to address one of the abiding sources of friction within the digital music streaming business. Musical compositions in the U.S. are subject to a compulsory mechanical license, meaning anyone can record a song and sell copies of that recording by sending a notice of intent (NOI) to the composition’s copyright owners and paying a per-copy royalty set by the Copyright Royalty Board.

Unlike the public performance right, however, where performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC aggregate millions of compositions and offer a blanket license covering their entire repertoires, anyone availing themselves of the compulsory mechanical license is required to identify and pay the appropriate copyright owners individually. Where the copyright owners cannot be identified or located, the user can file the NOI with the U.S. Copyright Office and the royalties paid are held in escrow until the rights owners are located.

The system worked well enough for many years when it was rare for anyone or any outlet to make bulk use of the mechanical reproduction right. With the rise of digital streaming, however, which has been held to implicate both the public performance and the mechanical reproduction right, the lack of an efficient system for administering mechanical rights has been a constant source of tension, between digital service providers like Spoity and Apple Music on the one hand, and music publishers and songwriters on the other.

That tension has frequently erupted into litigation, including the $1.6 billion lawsuit filed against Spotify in December by Wixen Music Publishing over Spotify’s alleged failure to pay required mechanical royalties.

Should it become law, the Music Modernization Act could go a long way toward easing those tensions. Since it’s introduction, in fact, the bill has gained broad support throughout the industry. In a rare show of unity, a group of more than 20 industry organizations representing music publishers, songwriters, record labels, PROs, and service providers issued a joint statement earlier this month endorsing the bill and urging its passage.

Much of the credit for the bill’s introduction and for rallying support behind it belongs to the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and its CEO David Israelite, who worked closely with the bill’s sponsors on Capitol Hill and helped broker the joint statement. Israelite will sit down with me for a special fireside chat at Digital Entertainment World on February 5th to discuss the Music Monetization Act, as well as other issues facing the industry, including the music industry’s notorious data challenges, and the future of performance rights licensing in the wake of recent court cases.

This week, we asked Israelite a few preliminary questions to set the stage for his fireside chat:

Concurrent Media: Last week, a group of music industry organizations jointly endorsed the Music Modernization Act, the Classics Act and the AMP Act. To what do you attribute the sudden outbreak of cooperation among so many different stakeholders?

David Israelite: We have a window of momentum and consensus that is ripe for action. Congressional leaders like Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who retires this year, has made copyright reform a priority, and with songwriter champions like Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) offering consensus bills like the MMA – and the Senate hopefully following suit – there is a real opportunity to move legislation that will significantly help the future of songwriting. Additionally, the MMA is not a wish list for music publishers and songwriters – it is a bill that took months to negotiate because it helps both the tech and music industries. No one got everything they wanted – but both sides are better off with the MMA. DiMA, which represents the biggest tech companies in the world is supportive, as are the biggest songwriter groups in the U.S.

Largely because of the momentum around the MMA – the music industry has coalesced around other music bills that will help legacy artists and producers. As I have always said – we are stronger together – and we have a great opportunity to not just help our segment of the pie – but to advance the whole creative class. After years of trying to develop and unite around reasonable reforms, it is truly exciting that today we stand together and that Congress is invested in these changes as well.

Where do you think the debate over the BMI/ASCAP consent decrees goes now in the wake of the 2nd Circuit decision?

BMI’s win sends a strong message that the DOJ cannot simply reinterpret decades of industry practice and upend the lives of thousands of songwriters. The new leadership in DOJ’s antitrust division hopefully offers a new path forward, and I believe they are looking at the consent decrees with fresh eyes. My hope is that they will ultimately abolish them altogether and give songwriters the free market that other intellectual property owners enjoy.

3) What is NMPA’s position on the various PRO database initiatives (ASCAP/BMI; ASCAP/SACEM/PRS)?

The PROs currently offer searchable repertoires. Their efforts to create a single database will bring clarity to the industry – however these initiative will take time and money. I look forward to seeing their progress in the coming months.

Click here for information on how to register for Digital Entertainment World.

Explaining Blockchain With Cats

When Satoshi Nakamoto introduced Bitcoin into the world, whoever he, she, or they were set the total number of coins that can ever be released (“mined” in Bitcoin parlance) at 21 million. While individual bitcoins can be sub-divided into an infinite number of smaller units (fractions of bitcoins), the total whole number of units is finite.

CryptoKitties fat cat Mack Flavelle

That inherent scarcity is one of the reasons for the dizzying run-up in the price of bitcoins: At any given time there is a fixed number of bitcoins in the world.

The key to establishing that scarcity is the blockchain, which leverages cryptography to ensure that individual bitcoins (and their subdivisions) are unique, identifiable, unalterable, and un-reproducible. Unlike the internet, where sending a digital file from one computer to another inescapably involves creating a new copy, bitcoins themselves are not really “sent” or transferred over a network so there is no need to create a copy. Instead, the shared ledger that records ownership of bitcoins is updated to reflect the new network address (i.e. owner) of a cryptographically unique asset on the network.

Those properties, of uniqueness and scarcity, are part of what has attracted many artists to blockchain technology. What is unique and scarce can have and hold value, and what has value can be bought and sold, traded and collected, or held as an asset in the expectation of appreciation.

Getting people who are not steeped in cryptography and are accustomed to the infinite reproducibility of digital files on the internet to become familiar and comfortable with the concepts of digital scarcity and uniqueness, however, is a challenge. Without that buy-in from consumers, the blockchain hopes of many in the media and creative industries could be broken.

It was that challenge that Mack Flavelle and his team of developers at AxiomZen set out to tackle. Their solution? Cats.

The team came up with a collection of digital illustrations depicting goggle-eyed, cartoon cats they called CryptoKitties and created an online game allowing people to buy, sell and collect CryptoKitties using Ether. The game also leverages smart contracts to make the kitties “breedable,” based on their unique “DNA,” creating new, unique CryptoKitties.

Why cats? While there are other blockchain-based digital collectibles on the market, most are targeted at limited audiences, such as RarePepes, based on the adopted alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog. Flavelle’s goal was to appeal to a broader market and introduce ordinary consumers to digital collectibels. “Cats are part of the internet,” Flavelle tells RightsTech.  “People are already familiar with the idea of trading cat videos.”

Trading in CryptoKitties has been robust. At one point, it became the dominant application on the Ethereum network, to the annoyance of others trying to use the network.

According to a third-party site that tracks sales of CryptoKitties, some virtual kittens have sold for the equivalent of more than $100,000, based on the then-current value of Ether.

Flavelle, who’s title is Fat Cat, will sit down for one-on-one fireside chat with me on February 6th, as part of the RightsTech track at the Digital Entertainment World conference in Los Angeles.

We’ll discuss the origins of CryptoKitties, what their creators have learned about the market for digital collectibles, what their popularity portends for consumer adoption of blockchain-based applications, and whether CryptoKitties are a fad or will prove to have nine lives.

Click here for information on registering for Digital Entertainment World.

 

Nothing Neutral About Disney’s Bid For Fox

It was fitting, albeit likely coincidental, that the Walt Disney Co. announced its $52 billion acquisition of most of the movie and TV assets of 21st Century Fox on the day the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules, because the deal is very much about the future of content delivery over the internet.

Disney CEO Robert Iger

Under the deal, Disney would absorb the 20th Century-Fox film and TV studio and its library, including the first three “Star Wars” films; most of Fox’s cable networks group, including National Geographic, FX, and 300-plus international channels but excluding Fox News or Fox Sports; and 22 regional sports networks (RSNs). The deal also includes Fox’s one-third interest in Hulu, giving Disney majority control over the streaming service.

Assuming the deal passes antitrust muster — highly likely given Rupert Murdoch’s closeness to Donald Trump — it will give Disney control over vast new libraries of content as it prepares to significantly expand its direct-to-consumer streaming business. Strategic control over Hulu will also give Disney a solid foundation from which to challenge Netflix and Amazon directly as an over-the-top content aggregator.

Yet, while the coming showdown with Netflix has grabbed most of the headlines about the deal, there is another important streaming dynamic likely to play out that has gotten less attention but which could be directly impacted by the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

Whether, or not, the bulked up Disney succeeds in challenging Netflix and Amazon, its growing direct-to-consumer ambitions give the Mouse a major stake in the coming contest between programming services and broadband providers over the terms and conditions of engagement on last-mile networks.

The over-the-top streaming business has so far developed very differently from traditional movie and television delivery businesses. In the traditional TV business, the owners of the last-mile pipes — cable and satellite operators, local broadcast affiliates — pay program providers for access to their content.

Disney, in particular, has been successful in leveraging that dynamic, earning ESPN the highest per-subscriber carriage fees of any cable network.

Unlike a cable TV system, however, internet access networks have utility and value independent of any particular content, allowing access service providers to build their networks — and subscriber bases — without having to pay for the content moving across those networks.

If anything, the monopoly or duopoly status most internet access providers enjoy within their footprints has raised concerns that ISPs could use the leverage of their control over their networks to compel content providers to pay for access to their subscribers.

The FCC’s original Open Internet Order was designed in part specifically to deny ISPs that leverage, by prohibiting the blocking or throttling of data based on its source, or accepting compensation for favorable treatment of data from a particular source. Those rules left the status quo in place, at least for the time being. But they left open the possibility that the streaming business could eventually develop more like the traditional TV business, in which access providers are compelled to

The FCC has now voted to lift those rules — their ultimate fate awaits the outcome of inevitable litigation — potentially upsetting the current balance of power.

Determining who will ultimately holds the leverage in that balance remains a work in progress, however. One way to read Disney’s bid for Fox is as an attempt to position itself not only against Netflix but against last-mile network operators for the inevitable battles ahead.

From that perspective, the real trigger event for Disney was AT&T’s (still pending) acquisition of Time Warner. Assuming that deal goes through, it will mean that two of Disney’s (and Fox’s) major competitors — NBCUniversal, now owned by Comcast, and Time Warner — will be owned by major broadband providers. That could leave Disney at a disadvantage in the struggle for leverage over the terms of OTT distribution.

One option would have been for Disney to sell itself to a network operator. But the only one out there with the scale to do it and not already betrothed is Verizon, and Verizon execs have made it clear they’re not in the market for a major studio.

By buying Fox, Disney is hoping to gain enough scale as a content provider to treat with network operators on equal or better terms.

 

Skinny Bundles vs. Set-Top A La Carte

Having resigned themselves to a future defined by cord-cutting, TV programmers are desperately trying to hold the line on bundling. The virtual-MVPD movement started by Dish Network’s Sling TV service began by trying to split the difference between the bloated traditional pay-TV bundle and true a la carte by offering a slimmed down package of channels at a lower price.

Since then, as more vMVPDs have launched to challenge Sling programmers have used their leverage to push up both the heft of the bundles and price tag, to where “skinny” bundles increasingly resemble what they aimed to replace, albeit at a somewhat reduced price.

That strategy isn’t cutting it with many cord-cutters, however. According to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, virtual-MVPD subscriptions are so far making up only about 60 percent of the losses from consumers cutting the traditional cord, a trend Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar sees continuing. Over the next decade, Venkateshwar projects, 31 million traditional pay-TV subscribers will cut the cord, but only 17 million will sign up for an internet-delivered bundle.

Assuming internet-delivered bundles are still around in a decade, that is. “Most of these [vMVPD] businesses are at best break-even or money losers,” Moffett told Bloomberg. “This is shaping up to be a truly lousy business.”

The a la carte on-demand subscription business, on the other hand, is shaping up nicely. Set-top streaming box maker Roku this month reported 15 million active monthly accounts, a 43 percent year-over-year increase and more than all virtual-MVPDs combined. The privately held company generated nearly $400 million in revenue in 2016 and reportedly is preparing to file for an initial public offering later this year at a roughly $1 billion valuation.

Notably roughly $100 of that $400 million in revenue last year came not from hardware sales but from its media and licensing business, which includes ad sales on Roku channels and fees it charges networks to be featured on the platform.

Roku isn’t alone on the set-top, either. According to eMarketer, Roku 38.9 million Americans will use Roku at least once a month in 2017 (including multiple users per active account), up 19 percent over last year, followed closely by Google’s Chromecast, at 36.9 million, and Amazon’s Fire TV, at 35.8 million.

One reason for that growth in connected-device usage is the growth in the number of U.S. households subscribing to more than one over-the-top subscription VOD service.

According to a recent study by Hub Entertainment Research 38 percent of U.S. TV households now subscribe to two or more SVOD services such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. That’s up from 26 percent last year. Some 14 percent of households subscribe to all three major services, up from 6 percent a year ago.

Not all of those SVOD subscribers have cut the cord, of course, but anyone who is subscribing to all three major services is paying about as much per month for them as they would for a skinny bundle. If consumers can be said to vote with their dollars they’re voting for a future that is on-demand and a la carte, not just over-the-top.