The Studios Look For An Island In The Set-Top Storm

The Motion Picture Association of America really, really doesn’t want the FCC to tear up the set-top box. So much so that its filing with the commission last week regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) contained a thinly veiled threat of litigation should the FCC mandate disaggregation of pay-TV services into parts that can be reassembled at will, and on constitutional grounds no less.

“Mandating such a regime…could violate content owners’: 1) contracts with distributors regarding how their content may be presented, monetized, and accessed; 2)

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exclusive rights under section 106 of the Copyright Act to determine how their content is copied, distributed, and publicly performed; 3) First Amendment right against compelled speech; and 4) Fifth Amendment right against taking of property without due compensation,” the MPAA warned. “If third-parties wish to offer a subset of content, services, features, and functions rather than all the choices distributors offer customers in the way that they offer them, the appropriate course is through individualized negotiation, not regulatory fiat.”

What has the Hollywood trade group so exercised is a proposal by one faction within DSTAC, included in the final report, to require cable and satellite providers to unbundle their video feeds from other elements of their services, including the user interface, interactive features and billing, so those feeds can be incorporated into the UI of a third-party device and integrated with other video services. Only then, proponents of unbundling argue, can consumer electronics makers create devices that can compete fully with or replace set-top boxes provided by pay-TV operators. Read More »

For Amazon, Live OTT Comes With A Twitch

At his Streaming Media blog, Frost & Sullivan analyst Dan Rayburn adds a new wrinkle to the ongoing debate over why Amazon kicked Apple TV and Chromecast products out of its online store. According to Rayburn’s sources, Amazon has been chatting up content owners about offering a live, over-the-top video service of some kind.

Rayburn speculates that such a plan could help explain why Amazon recently acquired the cloud-based live streaming platform provider Elemental Technologies at an unusually high valuation:

cable_TV_not1Insiders say Elemental is on a run rate to do close to $100M in 2016. So if the rumors of Amazon valuing Elemental at $500M are correct, Elemental is getting about 5x projected 2016 revenue, a rather high valuation, unless Amazon is also placing value on them for other reasons, like the ability to power their own live OTT service.

I’ll add another data point in support of the notion: Twitch, which Amazon acquired last year for close to $1 billion. As noted in a post here last week, Twitch is rolling out a new set of tools to help its broadcasters linear-ize their channels, by mixing live and on-demand content and creating playlists that turn the channel into a 24/7 experience. Read More »

Apple TV Phones It In

Apple didn’t exactly “tear up the set-top box” to create the new Apple TV, as Steve Jobs once insisted was essential to any viable go-to-market strategy for any new entrant to the TV space. What it came up with instead is precisely what Jobs claimed no one would buy: another box, with another remote to clutter up the set-top and the coffee table.

Worse, as other commentators have noted, many if not most of the features and functionalities of Apple’s new set-top are already available on other devices from other manufacturers, generally at a lower price.

So, the new Apple TV is DOA? I wouldn’t write the obituary just yet.

The key is to think about Apple TV not as a standalone device but as an extension of Apple’s ecosystem, particularly the App Store, to the living room. As was first reported by 9to5Mac, the new Apple TV shares many internal components with the latest generation of iPhones, and runs a full iOS core optimized for a 50-inch Ooyala-q2-2015-mobile-video-trendsscreen. The Apple TV’s new touch and gesture-powered remote is clearly designed to echo and evoke the iPhone’s familiar touch-driven UI. From a hardware and OS perspective, the new Apple TV is essentially an iPhone for the TV, capable of doing most of what an iPhone can do short of making phone calls.

While that may seem incidental, it will allow developers to create tightly integrated mobile and set-top experiences to a degree that hasn’t really been possible up to now on other TV apps platforms. With 44 percent of video plays now occurring on mobile devices, according to Ooyala’s latest Global Video Index report, tying mobile and set-top video together in a single, seamless platform is obviously critical, for content owners and marketers, as well as for consumers. At the same time, the integration will allow Apple to tap the creativity of millions of developers already familiar with creating rich experiences in iOS to populate the new Apple TV App Store. Read More »

Will The FCC Finally ‘Tear Up The Set-Top Box’?

The FCC kicked off the second phase of a process this week that could, eventually, change how pay-TV service is delivered to the home and by whom. On Monday, the commission issued a formal notice seeking comments on a set of proposals developed by the Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee (DSTAC) for how to enable third-party retail set-top boxes to better interoperate with pay-TV services. DSTAC submitted its proposals last week and the FCC posted six-page summary of its report on Friday [note: the FCC’s IT system will be inaccessible  until Sept. 8 due to an upgrade, so links temporarily may not work].

The first phase of the process began in January, when the FCC convened DSTAC at the direction of Congress. As spelled out in the Satellite Television Extension and Locset-top_box_openalism Act Reauthorization law (STELAR) passed last December, DSTAC’s mandate was to “identify, report, and recommend performance objectives, technical capabilities, and technical standards of a not unduly burdensome, uniform, and technology- and platform-neutral software-based downloadable security system designed to promote the competitive availability of [pay-TV] navigation devices in furtherance of section 629 of the Communications Act of 1934.”

It did not go well. From the beginning there was disagreement within both the committee and the FCC as to the proper scope of the mission and the committee soon devolved into two opposing and roughly equal camps, with pay-TV providers and equipment makers on one side, and CE makers and technology companies, along with consumer advocates, in the other. In broad strokes, the first camp wanted to focus the discussion narrowly on the technical aspects of downloadable security, while the latter camp sought to focus the discussion more broadly on the goal of “promot[ing] the competitive availability of navigation devices” including security and non-security elements of pay-TV service. 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 »

Broadband Rubicon Crossed? Cablevision, CBS Reach OTT Retrans Deal

Cablevision is boasting today of becoming the first cable or satellite provider to offer CBS’s OTT channel, CBS All Access, to its broadband subscribers.

The multiyear deal between the network and the MSO includes retransmission consent for CBS-owned stations and continued carriage by Cablevision of Showtime, CBS Sports Network and the Smithsonian Channel, in addition to CBS All Access.

“This comprehensive new agreement builds on our strong relationship with CBS and ensures that every Optimum customer gets the highly popular CBS content they want across multiple platforms and screens,” Cablevision EVP of programming Tom Montemagno said in a statement. “As the first distributor to agree to provide tony_sopranoCBS new Internet services, Cablevision continues to expand its portfolio of next-generation offerings, connecting customers to the programming they value when and where they want it.”

For those who have paid attention to Cablevision in recent months the CBS deal is no big surprise. The MSO has been drifting away from the traditional pay-TV model since it introduced its “Cord Cutter” package earlier this year that included broadband service and an over-the-air antenna for tuning in broadcast channels. It was also the first operator to offer Hulu to its broadband subscribers and was a launch partner for HBO Now. But the CBS deal represents the first time that Cablevision — or any other MVPD — has licensed an OTT service as part of a broadcast retransmission deal.

I’m not sure other cable ISPs would see that as something to boast about. 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 »

Cheap TVs: Last Week’s Plunge In Pay-TV Stocks Could Have Lasting Effect

This post originally appeared at Smart Content News.

Last week’s meltdown among media stocks left many Wall Street professionals scratching their heads.

Objectively speaking, the earnings news that triggered the sell-off, first from Disney and followed by Time Warner, Discovery and Viacom, was sobering but hardly catastrophic. Disney made a modest downward adjustment to its full-year forecast for its cable unit, led by ESPN, from “high single digits” to “mid-single digits” due stock-arrow-downto continued subscriber losses among pay-TV providers. Viacom reported a 9 percent year-on-year decline in advertising revenue, driven by falling ratings for its cable networks, but its net income for the quarter actually beat Wall Street estimates.

Yet it was enough to start a stampede that wiped out more than $45 billion in market value across seven pay-TV companies.

Some of those losses are likely to be recovered over the coming weeks and months as investors get a grip on themselves and the companies trim spending to boost EPS. But the massive selloff could still have a lasting effect on the sector.

The abrupt selloff, well beyond what the fundamentals of the stocks would justify, seemed to reflect a dramatic shift in market sentiment regarding valuation benchmarks and appropriate share-price multiples for media companies as investors focus on structural changes in the pay-TV business.  Resetting those assumptions to pre-meltdown levels might require some restructuring of the sector. Read More »

ESPN Gets Caught In Transition

Back in October, ESPN, along with Turner Sports, renewed its broadcast and digital rights deal with the National Basketball Association through 2025 for $2.3 billion, more than twice the price of the previous deal, even though the old deal still had two years to run.

With prices skyrocketing for sports rights and new 24-hour sports competitors from Fox and NBCUniversal circling hungrily for deals that would put them in the game, locking up the NBA for another decade — even at twice the price — seemed to pencil out at the time. It was the last such major deal ESPN would need to nba_espnnegotiate for several years, having recently locked up long-term deals with Major League Baseball, the NFL, the college football playoffs and four of five major college sports conferences, thus putting a cap on its major cost-driver until at least 2021.

”We believe at the end of the deal it will feel inexpensive,” ESPN president John Skipper said at the time. ”It’s hard to imagine.”

After this week, it’s even harder to imagine.

As with any asset, locking in a price when prices are rising is a good strategy. Locking in a price when returns are falling, not so much. And for ESPN, the return on pricey sports rights are starting to fall. Read More »

DSTAC-ing The Pay-TV Deck

While over-the-top video services may soon need to ponder whether to become MVPD’s in the eye of the FCC, traditional MVPDs are wondering how far the FCC might go to force them to behave more like OTT services.

The FCC’s Media Bureau convened the penultimate meeting of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) this week, ahead of a September Cable_Guy4th deadline to come up with technical recommendations for a successor to the CableCARD. The report, and the deadline, were mandated by Congress as part of the STELA Reauthorization Act it passed in December in an effort to spur the market for third-party retail devices that can be used to control pay-TV services without relying on service providers’ proprietary set-top boxes.

Bringing more competition to the set-top has been an official goal of Congress and the FCC since 1996, when Congress directed the agency to come up with a solution as part of the Telecommunications Act — a provision knows as Section 629. Since then, however, the best the agency and the industry have come up with is the CableCARD, a hardware dongle for cable conditional access that does not support many interactive features, such as video-on-demand and which is not compatible with direct-broadcast satellite services or with IPTV systems like AT&T’s U-Verse. Read More »

Apple’s Changing Spot On the TV Dial

A report released Thursday by Adobe Digital Index provides Reason #4,327 why it never made any sense for Apple to build an integrated TV set: Apple devices already dominate over-the-top and TV Everywhere viewing, which is what “TV” is going to be the future.

According to the report, nearly one in four (24 percent) of all unauthenticated online video starts, including desktop, set-top and mobile, happen on an Apple mobile device. And as mobile viewing in general increases as a share of total online video viewing, Apple’s share is poised to increase disproportionately. According to the report, Apple devices (iPhone and iPad) account for more than two-thirds of all mobile views.

 

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Apple devices also now dominate in authenticated (TV Everywhere) online viewing. In the first quarter of 2015, iOS devices accounted for 47 percent of online authentications, up from 43 percent a year ago, more than tripling the share of authentications via Android devices or via browsers. Again, as TV Everywhere usage increases overall — now up to 13.2 percent of pay-TV subscribers — Apple will benefit disproportionately due to its dominant market share in authenticated viewing.
Read More »

FCC Engineers Some Cable Consolidation

Earlier this month, just after Comcast dropped its bid for Time Warner Cable in the face of opposition from the FCC and Justice Department, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler separately called TWC CEO Rob Marcus and Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge, along with several other senior cable industry executives, to let them know they shouldn’t consider all M&A deals to be off the table just because the agency put the kibosh on Comcast, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearingOn Tuesday, Charter took Wheeler up on that seeming invitation and announced a plan to acquire TWC for $56 billion. Charter also reaffirmed its plan to acquire it smaller rival Bright House Networks for $10.4 billion. Read More »

Bad Sports: ESPN Sues Verizon

No U.S. television network is more invested in, or has benefited more from the dynamics of the bundle than ESPN. The combination of must-have programming for a key segment of the pay-TV audience, and the must-carry leverage of its sister-broadcast network ABC, has given the Disney-owned sports network the power to command the highest per-subscriber carriage fees in the industry, ensure placement on basic tiers, and compel carriage of ancillary networks like ESPN Classics and ESPN Deportes.

espn_sportscenter_logoFor those pay-TV subscribers not in the ESPN demographic, however, that leverage has acted like a tax, imposing higher costs for networks and programming they don’t watch, yielding what amount to windfall rents for ESPN. Those windfall rents, in turn, have given ESPN the wherewithal to pay the skyrocketing rights fees for live sports. Thoseinflated rights fees, in turn, have become the primary economic engine of most professional and big-time amateur sports while acting as a formidable barrier to entry for would-be competitors to ESPN, yielding a virtuous cycle that reinforces ESPN’s dominant position within the pay-TV ecosystem. Read More »

Apple’s Bring-Your-Own-Streams OTT Hedge

ipad_remote_appAccording to a report by Recode’s Peter Kafka, which apparently is not a joke despite its April 1 dateline, Apple is asking the TV networks to provide their own streaming infrastructure and handle their own video delivery as part of Apple’s planned subscription OTT service.

The two leading theories for why Apple is looking to take such a hands-off approach are a) to avoid the costs involved in building out its own streaming infrastructure, and/or b) Apple thinks cable-based ISPs would be less likely to engage in f@ckery against the service if the networks are delivering the streams.

Neither theory is entirely persuasive.

The costs associated with streaming video are not prohibitive. The markets for transit and CDN services are very competitive and Apple would have not trouble attracting very aggressive bids for its business.

Read More »