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 »

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 »

Verizon Completes It’s Web 1.0 Roll-up, But May Not Stop There

With its $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo this week, coming a year and two months after its $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL, Verizon now owns the two dominant players in the web ecosystem — circa 1999. But at least it got them cheap.

Yahoo once had a market cap of $125 billion; AOL’s reached $224 billion in the immediate wake of its January 2000 acquisition of Time Warner — roughly the same as Verizon’s market cap today. So, scooping up both for less  $10 billion could be considered a steal.

YAHOO_headquartersThe question is, why bother? Neither AOL nor Yahoo is exactly dominant in its market today. In Yahoo’s case, it isn’t even clear what that market is. Even in announcing the sale to employees, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer could barely articulate a coherent description of what it is Verizon was buying, let alone why.

At best, Verizon is getting, in AOL and Yahoo, a disconnected assortment of online media properties and a pair of online advertising businesses built around display, rather than search, social, or mobile — the dominant modes of digital advertising today. While Verizon’s distribution reach in mobile may be able to breathe some new life into some of those media assets it has a long, long way to go before it could seriously challenge Facebook and Google, the dominant players it today’s digital media distribution and advertising ecosystem, if that’s really its goal. Read More »

How Twitter Beat Out Rivals For NFL Deal

Twitter this week landed streaming rights to a 10-game package of Thursday Night Football games next season for a surprisingly modest $10 million, edging out rival bids from Verizon, Amazon and Yahoo, at least one of which reportedly came in 50 percent higher than Twitter’s offer. Another rival, Facebook, reportedly dropped out of the bidding last week over objections to the advertising framework imposed on the deal by the NFL.

Twitter, in fact, will get minimal advertising rights as part of the deal. As a technical matter, it will be rebroadcasting the CBS and NBC feeds of the nfl_gamegames, which the networks will also be streaming over their own, authenticated TV Everywhere platforms as part of their $450 million deal to broadcast the games, and the networks will be handling the bulk of the ad sales for both broadcast and digital channels. Twitter will get a little bit of inventory around the margins to sell, plus some pre-game, player-created spots on Periscope. The deal is basically a $10 million brand-building exercise for micro-blogging and live streaming platform.

The games, in fact, will be available for free, without authentication, both on Twitter’s own platform and across its entire, syndicated global footprint.

That last point was obviously critical for the NFL, which has been working feverishly to expand its audience outside the U.S. and sees streaming as a way to reach potential fans in territories where broadcast rights would be a tough sell. 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 »

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 »

Verizon Opts Into AOL

Verizon is the largest wireless service provider in the U.S. with over 108 million retail connections as of the first quarter of 2015. But as the wireless business matures, providing connectivity is increasingly a zero-sum game among the four national carriers — Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint — leading to price wars in pursuit of marketshare and threatening margins.

Verizon_HQVerizon’s efforts to find new ways to monetize its user base, such as through advertising, however, have met with mixed results at best. It’s use of undeletable “super cookies” to track its subscribers’ web surfing, and the sale of those data to third-party marketers, led to an outcry among consumers and privacy advocates (and scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission), which forced Verizon to allow users to opt-out of the program.

Now though, with its $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL, announced Tuesday, Verizon is gaining a portfolio of over 100 million device IDs from consumers who have opted-into direct, content-based subscription relationships with AOL’s media properties. From a data-collecting perspective (to say nothing of the legal and regulatory implications) that’s a much safer starting point than anonymous, surreptitious tracking. But those opt-in content relationships will also provide a foundation for the launch later this year of Verizon’s own opt-in over-the-top video service. 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 »

Different OTT strokes for different folks

We’re just at the dawn of the virtual MVPD era and we’re already seeing signs of more market segmentation and product differentiation than with the current, facilities-based service provider model.

sling TV logoOn the heels of Dish’s breakthrough launch this week of its Sling TV service, Sony has begun to pull the curtain back a bit on its own virtual pay-TV service, PlayStation Vue, which is expected to launch by the end of the first quarter. GigaOM’s Janko Roettgers got a sneak peak courtesy of a beta tester, including some screen shots of the UI, and it’s clear the Sony service is a very different animal from Sling TV. Read More »