(This is an “Appendix” to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here: Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained! ...
Distracted by a new birth in my (extended) family, and a big article that will launch next week, I didn’t get to write a lot for this website this week. But I’ll be back in a big way next week. In the meantime, I had lots of stories to choose from for this week’s round up of entertainment business news.
(Seriously, if you’re a TV journalist, be on the lookout around Tuesday for a big number you should definitely retweet or pick up as an article. It involves GoT. So you’ll get clicks. Consider this my first “hey, pick up this story” plea.)
The Most Important Story of the Week – The CW Ends Their Netflix Output Deal
This story made the usual “Upfronts” news cycle, but I think it deserves a bigger look than that. And yeah, I think it is bigger than the Hulu news. Disney was going to get Comcast’s Hulu portion eventually. Meanwhile, I don’t trust AT&T and CBS to pass up cash when they can get it, so kudos for making the right call here. We may look back on this move as when AT&T finally took control of their streaming future. (CBS has already done that.)
That said, the headlines gave a different flavor of the news than the full articles did. Even my headline is slightly misleading, so before the strategy implications, let’s correct some initial misconceptions.
First, “The CW” is less accurate than “Warner Bros TV/CBS TV”
Because The CW is a network. The shows are produced and eventually owned by the parent TV studios of Warner Bros TV and CBS TV. These are licensed shows on The CW, not shows owned by The CW. I explained the difference between owned and licensed here.
The CW has been one of my favorite channels since business school. They are the subject of a pretty widely used Harvard case study–if you take the entertainment biz classes–and I’ve followed them since. The CW is is a fascinating joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros (get where the C and W come from, if you didn’t know?) that only exists so that those TV production studios have another broadcast channel to sell to. So the vast majority of CW series come from Warner Bros/DC, Warner Bros TV, CBS TV or, in a lot of cases, both. So that’s really who we should say ended this output deal, those parent library companies.
Second, this only applies to new shows going forward.
This is key, because these CW series are really valuable to Netflix. In the last two weeks, Netflix has started releasing weekly “top ten most popular” lists in the UK and Ireland as tests. Assuming the data is accurate–and with the caveat we have no idea how this is calculated–here is what Netflix is telling us is popular on their platform in the UK (hat tip to All Your Screen Rick for the data)…
So in the UK, CW series make up 3 of the top 10 in these last two weeks. That’s really valuable. Is it irreplaceable? Surely not. But you can only lose so much content before it begins to impact engagement, retention, acquisition and general content performance.
The key, though, as I first read in The Verge, is that these shows won’t be leaving. If a show premiered before 2018/19 season, it will eventually wind up on Netlfix. So it’s not like suddenly a lot of Riverdale fans will need to subscribe to another streaming service to catch up.
Third, Netflix will still bid on individual series (and may have cancelled the deal).
Meanwhile, it seems like both sides wanted to end a library output deal and move to individual series acquisitions. I can see the logic. For the TV studios, you can now put the series directly on your aspiring streaming platforms. For Netflix, the entire deal may not be as worth it as individual series–so Riverdale isn’t worth the tax of the underperforming series in the deal–especially if you won’t control the rights in perpetuity. As Netflix moves to a wholly-owned strategy, this makes sense.
(Though, I’ll be honest, most of the tech sites seem to default to “Netflix is right” in their commentary, so part of me thinks this may be Netflix positive spin, and Netflix may have wanted to keep the deal going.)
The Strategy Impacts for the Future
With those misconceptions cleared up, it’s time for the lessons for us for the streaming strategy going forward. Well, as I started saying, AT&T and CBS are getting serious about streaming. Couple this with the AT&T news that they plan make Friends and ER exclusive to their new streaming platform, and you start to see a serious strategy. (I’m focusing on AT&T, because CBS has at least already launched its streaming service.)
If you’ve been following me, you know how valuable I think some of these library TV series are. Both at engaging customers–especially as no Netflix shows make it to fourth seasons–but even for acquiring customers. When you scan the homepage of a streaming site, it helps to see a bunch of shows you recognize. Warner Bros TV has a killer library catalogue, in this respect, and finally getting it all on their own streaming platform could be a huge head start.
Meanwhile, I love the approach used by The CW. If you believe internet Twitter, literally no one watches broadcast TV. Not a soul. That’s what some Netflix bulls will tell you. And yet, these shows often get 500K live viewers and multiple in later viewings. Those are real customers, in just one windwo. Here’s a Salil Dalvi tweet that explains the CW business model:
I’m a Mark Pedowitz fan in general, and he sees his job to launch TV series into future windows. This strategy for the CW makes sense given both the state of his network and his dual corporate ownership. He provides a channel to build awareness, and meanwhile he lets his corporate studios sell into lucrative second windows.
He also got on the comic book trend early–while finding a hit maker in Greg Berlanti–and meanwhile he doesn’t cancel all his shows every year, meaning he can let shows build audiences. He also saw how much more valuable scripted series were than reality series for the streamers, so almost all of his programming is scripted dramas.
As to the comic books, and since whenever we mention AT&T, invariably we find some messed up part of their strategy their screwing up, what the hell is going to happen to DC Universe, their streaming platform? I mean, if you’re taking back the rights to Batgirl, and it could be a hit, why wouldn’t you put it on your DC streaming site instead of the WarnerMedia site? I don’t in general believe in the niche approach to OTT sites, and I can’t tell if AT&T does either. Sometimes they support niche sites and then other times they don’t.
Other Contender for Most Important Story – Disney Acquires the Rest of Hulu Stake (Eventually)
Early this week, we had our lead contender for “the most important story of the week” and it is big enough news I’m giving it it’s own section.
Let’s get this update out on a Friday like it is intended.
Most Important Story of the Week – Mergers and Acquisitions in 2018 Update (Finally!)
For some reason, PwC never released their 2018 update for Media and Telecommunications merger & acquisitions update. Or if they did, I never saw it. But PwC did release a first quarter 2019 update and it happens to include the quarterly data for the last two years, so we can update our table from last July! First, the data update, then some insights. (Also, hat tip to Axios’ Sara Fischer who pointed wrote about mergers in her weekly newsletter.)
Before I dig into, the basic headline is above: despite the headlines in June, M&A in media, entertainment and communications was basically flat in 2018 compared to 2017. Yeah, it didn’t seem like it, but it was.
The Data Update
I’ve been looking at three measures for mergers and acquisitions (which PwC calls “deal activity, including some investor activity) which is: total number of deals, total deal value and the number of “mega-deals” or deals valued over $5 billion. Fortunately, PwC has been keeping this data for a few years now, so, for the most part, I’ve been able to figure out the data going back to 2009 in a consistent way.
(I’ve been meaning to write a post with all the links, but search PwC and mergers and you can find regular articles in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and their website going back a few years.)
The basic trend for M&A is that the deal activity was there, but it wasn’t as big as past years. Total deal value fell from $140 billion or so in 2017 to $122 billion in 2018. Which is still one of the five biggest years for deal activity, but also the lowest in the last five years. Here’s my updated table:
Oh, you don’t like tables? Okay, here’s the total number of deals going back to 2009 in visual form:
Like I said, that looks flat, doesn’t it? That’s why I use three measures and that’s just the first. Here’s the other two, total value and mega-deals:
I like this chart because you can definitely see that M&A has been picking up in terms of mega-deals and total value, but the last two years we’ve been coming back down. Also, the PwC report didn’t include the number of mega-deals in 2018, so I can’t speak to how that number has changed, though my gut says it stayed about the same.
Looking at all this, I’d say that M&A will continue, just on the same path it has been. What is that? Well, my favorite look at M&A has been the rolling five years, and here’s that updated chart which is a pretty good prediction for me for this year (so another 800 or so deals, with say about $120-$175 in total deal value with 15-20 mega-deals, again).
To start, I’ll toot my own horn. I called out last July that the “tsunami of deals” soon to swamp entertainment, media and communications may not ever land. And sure enough it hasn’t . That’s what the numbers clearly show.
My working theory is two fold. Part I is about how even though deals were approved, they haven’t been approved easily. AT&T still had to go to court and fears of deals not getting approved scared of Comcast and AT&T from bidding on Disney’s RSNs. Moreover, a Democratic congress looks to be hungering to take on Big Tech, which may discourage them from doing more deals.
Part II is about uncertainty. There have been rumors of a trade war with China since last year and a few stock market scares. So I think that has scared of some mergers and acquisitions, along with the fear that already bloated balance sheets with debt can’t really absorb more mergers. So unless an Apple or Google or Amazon want to buy something, there aren’t a lot of available buyers. Also, as the table above shows, in a recession all deal-making basically freezes and it takes years to recover.
Other M&A News – Netflix buys Story Bots (kids TV Producers)
As if to prove the point above, the recent deals that I’ve seen again fall into the bucket of smaller deals that are far from needle-movers. Like Netflix buying Story Bots.
Apparently, Netflix has only ever acquired three companies. All I can say is, “respect”. One of my favorite questions in b-school was “build it versus buy it?” My natural leaning is to “build it”, though most people on the finance side tend toward the “buy it”. Netflix appears to really, really insist on the “build it” approach, really only buying a production company for studio space and two other companies for IP. (Though I see the counter that if they had bought a content library, they’d be in a better place content-wise. But with what money?)
Other Contenders for Most Important – Earnings Reports Galore
As I’ve started writing full-time, I’ve found myself paying more attention to earnings reports. The logic is fairly simple: they’re news generating juggernauts. Over the span of a few weeks, we get all sorts of news tidbits dribbled out. While we do get some fun facts, most of the time we don’t learn that much. Most of the coverage regards earnings estimates compared to actual earnings, which is vital for investors, but from a strategic standpoint how does it matter that Wall Street is either good or bad at its job?
(This is an “Appendix” to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:
Today, we continue our journey explaining how a TV show makes money for its producers. Last week, I started describing the model along with describing costs and the first set of revenue. Today, I continue explaining the revenue piece, touch on why I didn’t build this model for the upcoming Star Wars series, describe some of the fees involved, and provide some final thoughts. Finally, I link to my two main sources.
The bulk of the value of a TV series—especially non-hits or mega-hits—comes in the first window. Especially when you talk about value as “money”. For 90% of TV series, the initial license fee usually represents most of the money a show will ever make. But if a TV series takes off, then the other windows will have much more value. And let’s start with one of the newest of those windows.
TV came to home entertainment late, and may be out of it soon. This window couldn’t take off like movies in the 1990s because the number of VHS tapes required was unwieldy. When DVDs made entire seasons the same size as a VHS, right as the quality of top series drastically improved (I’m thinking of The Sopranos here), then the TV home entertainment market took off. With the rise of digital you could buy series without any space at all. (This is a great example of technology enabling a business model.)
Yet, as soon as digital sales started, they ended, didn’t they? So the lifespan of this window was fairly small. I mean, why buy or rent a TV show episode if Netflix will buy the rights and stream them all for you? Still, I’m including it in the model because home entertainment is still something, but more importantly, it was REALLY a thing for Game of Thrones. Franchises that inspire super-fans—which is a short list—can still generate home entertainment sales. At the height, these can be in the millions of units sold per season, at least when GoT started. That can add up and really offset production costs.
So including the first-run licensing revenue, here’s our model so far.
Licensing – Renting Your Show to Other People
I don’t like the word licensing in TV. It sounds too close to selling either naming rights or toy rights. But it is used constantly in television. Instead, I’d call it “TV renting” because that’s really what you’re doing: renting the rights of your TV show out to various players. Still, licensing it is.
For all the sturm und drang about streaming video, in a lot of ways, they were just another window for licensing. Instead of counting the number of runs and paying broadcast residuals, you sold them for unlimited runs to a streaming network, and because it was digital (and not covered by guild agreements), the studios also had to pay less in backend compared to syndication.
The variations in licensing come down to who you licensed to, when they get that license and where they are. Typically, production companies expend the most energy on the first, domestic window and everything else is a bonus. To summarize:
International Sales – The US TV model built up around selling to American domestic broadcast. Once you did that well, you could sell the rights of a TV show to the international market. That’s the big form of potential revenue. However, the shows that fit international market tended to be broad comedies, crime procedurals or genre series. (Many prestige shows don’t travel at all.) This has also blended in with digital sales as streamers can now buy out global rights instead of just US versus international.
Syndication – Again, another legacy of US TV model, syndication was selling a broadcast show—and sometimes a cable show—to TV broadcast network groups to run in off-primetime hours. This still goes on for shows like Friends to Mom to Law and Order: TBD. Since this was done for whole of series runs, often, this could be worth literally billions for a handful of shows. (Again, the kings are Friends, Seinfeld, Cheers, Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men and other broad comedies.)
Second Window Licensing – I’m using this to refer to cable channels getting in on the game. You could take your broadcast series, and instead of selling them in syndication, sell them to cable channels in deals that looked roughly similar, but had less impact on residuals and participations. And premium channels could get in on the game too (HBO sold Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Entourage). Recently, even streaming series (Bojack Horseman on Comedy Central) have been sold into syndication. Really, what you need to know is that a lot of TV producers made money by selling their shows to a second channel after the first window ended. And then…
Digital Sales – Digital sales can happen in the first, second or library windows. And many times it doesn’t even conflict with the syndication window above (unless the streamer pays for exclusivity on that window too) which is why Friends is on Netflix and TBS right now. (Friends is such a mega-hit in the TV business I use it a lot.) Since so much money is involved in digital, sometimes the streamers buy out global rights simultaneously, which is a change in business driven by the rise of global streamers.
This gives us four new revenue lines, the three categories above plus “library” which is the placeholder value for time periods after a series is fresh, say five years from the last season and older.
Tax credits are a great euphemism. We could just call them, “government bribes to movie studios”. What else do you call a straight cash payment to a business to come to your state or country? It’s the utter opposite of the “free market”, and states of all political stripes take advantage of it. (*Cough* Georgia *Cough*)
I didn’t calculate this explicitly for films because at the size I was working—hundreds of millions—it would wash out in the production budget. (Though lots of big budget films, including Marvel films take advantage of these credits.) I’ve also seen these accounted for as “negative COGS” as opposed to revenue, if that makes sense from an accounting perspective. (It isn’t money you make, but money that offsets your costs.)
That said, for TV shows in the low millions of dollars range, a couple million dollars can really hit the bottom line. Some TV producers—I’ve heard—have the goal to breakeven on everything else, and their profit is the tax credit. Starting research for this series, I found this Variety article where Penny Dreadful managed to convince California to pay them $25 million. That’s a hefty bribe, er, paycheck.
Smaller Pieces – Merchandise, Product Placement
For 98% of shows (my assumption) licensed merchandise will never be a thing. People just didn’t buy NYPD Blue shirts or Cheers hats. Yet, that has changed as nerds have taken over the world. I own not one but two Game of Thrones shirts. Breaking Bad—another megahit—had two iconic shirts in both the Heisenberg and Pollos Hermanos t-shirts. So I’ll include this line item because if any of my fantasy series becomes a “megahit”, they’ll make some money off of that.
Since I took off two Fridays ago, I had a lot of content to sift through for this week’s update. If you have to know, I took off to see Avengers: Endgame (loved it), then, my wife and I threw a baby shower (she threw it; I cleaned), and then we both got sick (and I’d taken the previous day off to take care of our sick toddler) so basically all my writing plans got delayed. Then I spent almost all of last Friday trying to read through all the news to get this out.
But…I won’t have a “double-sized” weekly column this week because that would drive you crazy. (Or you just won’t finish reading it.) Instead, a lot of stories are going to get cut for space and maybe a few held for next week.
Most Important Story of the Week – Sinclair Buys Disney’s RSNs
Ironically, with all the extra time, I still had trouble finding a “most important story” of the week. One story–The Avengers mauling both Thanos and the box office–clearly sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Did it mean the most, though? Probably not.
When in doubt, I try go to the dollar signs to determine the most important event of the week. If one story is valued in 11 figures (the Sinclair buying Disney RSNs deal) and the other is “just” 10 figures ($3 billion total box office for Avengers), well, Sinclair wins by a hair. (Consider, though, that Avengers is making that revenue on just one window. The entire film will generate much more than that over its lifetime.)
Yet this deal stuck out to me because it has interesting ramifications on all sides.
What a revenue week all around. Huge box office and now another $10 billion or so to play with. You can use that to buyout Comcast’s Hulu stake, pay down debt or fund 10 years worth of streaming losses (at a billion lost per year). Or go really crazy and get that NFL Sunday Ticket for ESPN (with ABC Super Bowl rights?). Throw in the previous $3.5 billion they got from the YES Network sale, and their bottom line will look much better. Meanwhile, unlike AT&T, they’re selling assets that aren’t core to their future streaming plans.
Of course, there is always the question of how much more they could have made. We don’t know the cash flow of the RSNs, but right now instead of the expected $20ish billion Disney thought they could get, they ended up with $10.6, off about $3.8 billion in revenue. The pressure to sell (the FCC made them as part of the terms of closing the Fox acquisition) could be partly to blame here, along with general uncertainty for the lifespan of the cable bundle, coupled with the fact that Comcast and AT&T didn’t think they’d get regulatory approval, so didn’t bid. Given that Sinclair saw their stock price jump after the deal was announced and I’d say Disney could have gotten a better price for the RSNs if they had more forces in their favor.
You have to admire their focus. They want to expand their broadcast/cable footprint and even if the FCC shuts off one lane, they’ll move to another. Meanwhile they have a streaming product, so the RSNs could provide “must have” programming for them. If they can offer all these games as part of their ad-supported streaming platform, that’s interesting. So again, without running the numbers, this gives them good content. If it lasts. (See sports teams below.)
They can now convince Disney to pay top dollar for their Hulu stake. That rumor even dropped early in the week as this deal was closing. Now Disney has the cash to buy out Comcast from Hulu, and that cash can be used by Comcast to pay off its Sky debt. (Though, Comcast would benefit more from keeping their 30% stake in Hulu for strategic reasons. But the debt probably scares them more.) So yeah that Sinclair money could help someone pay down some debt, be it Disney or Comcast.
For MLB and Other Sports Leagues
I wonder if this deal shakes up the status quo just a bit. Sure, you still have your RSNs paying you top dollar for local rights, for now, but everyone knows this auction was avoided by a lot of traditional media companies. Worse, none of the big tech giants jumped in with serious bids. Is now the time to sell your rights to an ESPN+ or DAZN? Or Amazon or Apple? Or do your own thing?
For Amazon (and other rumored big tech buyers)
They still haven’t jumped all in. Sure, Amazon was part of the team buying the Yes Network, but we don’t know at what percentage (that deal has multiple players in it) and they blinked at buying into these RSNs too. As of this moment, no streaming company has decided to go “all in” on sports rights, which honestly could leave it open for ESPN+ or DAZN. (Though if DAZN does well enough, then it’s an acquisition candidate.)
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Avengers: Endgame Box Office
And yeah, if you want to talk “importance”, breaking a box office record is essentially a once a decade phenomenon. By my reckoning, backed up by Wikipedia, since Star Wars started the contemporary box office blockbuster phenomenon in 1978, we’ve averaged about one new champion per decade.
1978 – Star Wars ($410 million)
1983 – ET ($619 million)
1993 – Jurassic Park ($914 million)
1998 – Titanic ($1.8 billion)
2010 – Avatar ($2.7 billion)
2019 – Avengers: Endgame ($2.2 billion and growing)
(And these are unadjusted numbers. Yeah, I know it’s better to always use adjusted box office. Ticket price inflation is the real driver here.)
Avengers: Endgame is just this decade’s box office champion. If anything, I’m surprised the unseating of Avatar didn’t happen sooner. There are a few trends that have made the “winner takes all” economics even stronger. (And yes, technically Avengers: Endgame hasn’t displaced Avatar yet and may not do it. But it will take second which is close enough for this analysis.)
First, as I linked to last week on Twitter, digital is the big change in the game. When you have to cart six physical rolls of film into a theater, you can’t rapidly increase the number of screenings the way you can with digital projection. So Avengers: Endgame got to have round the clock showings as the demand filled up screens everywhere in multiplexes.
Second, China. The incredible growth in the Chinese market has basically created three massive markets: the US, China and the rest of the world. In the 2000s, it was still “the US” and “rest of the world”. It’s rare for a film to do amazing in all three markets simultaneously. The Force Awakens was huge in the US, but not “huge” in China, just really big. Wolf Warrior 2 and the Wandering Earth were huge in China but anonymous in America. Avengers: Endgame did well everywhere.
Third, social media did help make this an event people had to see before it got spoiled. That probably helped push even more people to the theaters for the first weekend. You just knew someone was going to die, but who? So that “conversation” likely had network effects for everyone.
My mild prediction is that this won’t be the last film to break box office records. It will happen again, before you know it. I won’t even try to predict who it will be, but it will happen, sometime in the next ten years.
More Original Content – Twitter and Walmart
This was the news out of the New Fronts last week that both Walmart and Twitter planned to expand their “original” content offerings on their platforms. I’m more skeptical of Twitter because I just don’t think people use Twitter for video. They use it to be a part of conversations. Instead, the logic, from Twitter’s perspective, seems to be, “We get paid more for video ads, so we want more video.” Notice, that doesn’t actually talk about the customer. Though customers do get news and sports updates from Twitter, and that seems to be the push for their new content. So it’s the right content, I’m just not convinced video is the right product.
Walmart is planning on originals for its Vudu service too. They want Vudu to succeed so they can try to move their DVD sales business online. So fine. You can lose a lot of money trying to compete in originals and failing, and I don’t’ think Walmart has the same Wall Street blank check that Amazon enjoys. But we’ll see. (And I may research further.)
Lots of News with No News
We also had a surfeit of stories that got headlines, but I feel will amount to very little. So I’ll run through them, with quick “Why this isn’t really news” explainer.
(This is an “Appendix” to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:
Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework
Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained!
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained! Part 1
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained Part 2)
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make the “ideal” TV Series business model over the last few weeks. Getting that right—and a bout of stomach flu/Avengers: Endgame that ruined/thrilled the end of last week—has been holding up this article.
But honestly, why bother?
As I was reflecting on my Game of Thrones series, I was thinking about my “gut” section from the introduction. Essentially, my gut thinking is what—if I were a traditional trade print columnist—I would have turned into my editors. It has a thesis, some data points and tells a nice little narrative about how well set up HBO is compared to Amazon. Add a little more certainty to the rhetoric and I’m done!
But it didn’t have any “proof” in it. To use my own terminology, it didn’t have any numbers. Since “strategy is numbers”, in my opinion “gut thinking” can’t prove the case. Today, we start on the path towards developing some numbers. I want to prove my case, which honestly I haven’t decided one way or the other yet.
My bar for “proof” in a business plan, though, isn’t the same bar as scientific proof. It’s not “scientific” because you can’t use the scientific method on future events. Instead, you can be rigorous. Have a model that you trust, and let its predictions be your guide. If your model captures, say, 80% of the potential of a business, that’s pretty good. That lets you know if a strategy is sound or not. For my Lucasfilm series, I had to develop a film model to make my conclusion. Today, I have to do the same thing for TV series.
Consider this the “Appendix: TV Series Business Models (Scripted) Explained”. The good news is once we have this model, I can build bespoke models for the Game of Thrones prequel, Lord of the Rings prequel and Chronicles of Narnia adaption. In today’s article, first I’m going to compare the film and TV models, distinguish between the participants in a model, describe the costs of a TV series, and explain the key revenue drivers during the initial window. In Part II, I’ll show everything else.
Thoughts on “What These Models Are For”
The purpose of any model depends on its uses. I’m trying to use these models for “strategic” purposes. The strength of any content company is it’s underlying IP, both the floor and ceiling of performance. And specifically how much cash they will generate. That means the numbers need to be close to reality, but not close enough to audit. These aren’t accounting statements, but strategic models to help us understand the underlying performance/economics. My goal is to build a model that will be flexible enough that I can use it for multiple projects. (I have an idea for how to use my film model for another project for example.)
Also, these “show my work”. If you opine on the business of entertainment, and don’t have any models (even rules of thumb) guiding your work, you’ll end up just reinforcing your priors. Even a simple model forces you to understand the drivers of a business. These models and my explanations will allow you to critique my conclusions and/or build your own if you disagree.
Comparing Film Financing to TV Financing
To refresh your memory, here’s my business model for a feature films:
(An aside: If you want another model of film profit, Deadline runs an annual “top profit” tournament for feature films. Their numbers for the Star Wars films are a bit lower than mine, and if I have time, by the end of the year, I’ll dig into the drivers why.)
Let’s start with the biggest difference between the TV and film models. Feature films are much easier. Essentially, once you have one piece of revenue—the theatrical box office—well everything else flows from that. So much so that often you can use percentages to get a pretty good guess of what the total revenues will look like. The studios have people who have this down to a science based on opening weekend, current deals and other categorical variables like genre, rating and such.
TV doesn’t have any similar starting point. Ratings can fluctuate season to season—as I showed in my most recent article—and even then the four major routes of TV—broadcast, cable, premium and streaming—each have different business models. Moreover, in success, the path a TV show can go is as varied as the initial platforms, while 90% of studio movies follow the same path. Meanwhile, the number of films made each year dwarfed the number of scripted TV shows historically, especially if you count “series” versus “seasons” as unique data points. To top it all off, the business model for TV has changed significantly in the last 20 years, from one about deficit financing in the hopes of syndication to adding in home entertainment (DVDs then EST), to adding in streaming to streamers having their own plans. So lessons from even 20 years ago no longer apply.
What does this mean for my TV series models? I’m not going to have a neat waterfall tied to percentages of box office like I did with film. I tried to do that, but I didn’t like the results. So I’m going to build a shell where all the potential revenue streams go in, and then build three bespoke models for each TV show. The first step to that shell, though, is determining which participants go in, which is another change from out film model.
If something does apply from my Star Wars film model, it is the inevitability of Hollywood accounting. (Which was since revealed in gory detail in the Bones Arbitration.)
Basically, a studio will always try to pretend it never made money on a TV show or movie to avoid paying talent. As a result, like my film model, our TV model needs two versions: one for the studio, one for the talent.
Let’s not stop there. My film model has two main participants: the studio, who paid for the film, and the talent, who acted/directed it. I could have added a third participant, which in a lot of cases is the “producer” if a film is independently produced. That happens so rarely for blockbuster films, and doesn’t happen for Star Wars films at all, that I didn’t include it. In terms of the value chain, the producer sits between talent and distributors.
For TV, though, producers and distributors are different more often. For my TV model, I need to add/account for this third participant. Sometimes they will be the same person—GoT on HBO—but sometimes they won’t be—New Line/Tolkien estate for LoTR on Amazon Prime/Video/Studios. And talent will still require a place in both. So my goal—and I’ll see if I can pull this off visually—is to make a model that can show all three pieces simultaneously in a way that doesn’t make the reader’s eyes bleed.
So that’s the shell. The plan is to start with revenue for the “TV producer” (in two parts) and then next week, fingers crossed, I’m going to talk about how the network or streamer makers money off the TV show. (That, um, is complicated.)
The Four Main Pieces for a TV Producer
Fortunately, the the four main pieces of the film model—revenue, costs, fees and talent participation—are the same. I’m going to talk about them in roughly the same order I did in my film model, which is in chronological sequence. First the monies going out, then coming in, then going back out again. Like last time, I’ll “build” the model as I explain each section.
In film and TV financing—well like most industries—the costs come first and the revenues may not come for years. Or ever. When it comes to the TV producer, the two main costs are development and production costs. In other words, how much it costs to produce a half-hour or hour of programming. Development comes before it all, as you’re getting all the pieces lined up (writing the script) and then actually making the episodes.
Then comes making the show. This is a key to understanding why TV producers are always so cash strapped. The TV production house pays all its costs up front. It pays the actors to show up, it rents studio space. It hires all the below-the-line workers. All paid in cash up front.
A simple multiplication problem then defines how much a TV series as a whole will, in general cost you: number of episodes times cost per episode. There are a few key drivers here, which I call my “inputs” in the model. First, the number of episodes in a season and the number of seasons a series goes for. Essentially, a 6 episode season is half as much (roughly) as a 12 episode season. (Some costs are amortized but in general this applies.)
The drivers of episode costs are related to the length of the episode and the quality of that episode. Very simply, it costs more to make longer shows. (You shoot a thirty minute sitcom in 3 to 4 days and a 60 minute drama for 5 to 8 days.) This even applies to the length of an episode; a 22 minute sitcom for broadcast versus 60 minutes for premium cable. On top of that length, “quality” can drive up costs. Or the production values. Shooting on a soundstage for a multicam sitcom gives one look, that saves costs, while shooting outdoors in Iceland for a prestige drama is another thing altogether.
To keep these straight, in my head, I added an information bucket above my model to capture the key production details. I’m calling these the inputs. So here’s the model now:
The last driver is talent costs. Especially as a series progresses into future seasons. Getting top flight talent attached to a series and to keep working on a series requires lots of money, usually paid per episode.
Finally, if we’re talking all costs, marketing costs come into play. In TV, the network/streamer pays the upfront costs for the season, and it’s up to them to market the show. I’ll only take these costs into account for the distributor/network/streamers, which is how this three part model could get confusing. To make it even more confusing, the fee the network pays, while revenue for the studio, is a cost for the network. Here’s the shell of the model, with the “inputs” on top and the costs that I’m going to account for.
Let’s get to the fun part: making money. My goal here is to list as many major sources of funding that I can, in order of perceived size. Or better phrased, their expected value. (Syndication is the largest bucket historically, but has a low probability of being achieved.)
First Run, Initial or Imputed License Fee
This is where you start as a TV producer. When you sell a show to a network, you negotiate fiercely for the network to pay you as much as possible up front. This is calculated as a percentage of the production budget. Historically, like 1980s historically, this was pretty low, I believe around 50%. According to Harold Vogel, this creeped up to 70% by the dawn of the 2000s, and in my experience and reported, now as streamers want more rights, this is well over 100% and sometimes up to 130% of the budget.
This fee is needed by the TV producer, because otherwise they are deficit financing, which is risky. The broadcast networks paid only a fraction of the budge and the TV producer had to make the rest on syndication. Since streamers offer so little potential future windows (Netflix gobbles all the windows up), the fees have increased since the producers have no chance at future revenue.
For that last case, what that means is that in exchange for all the future windows I’m talking about, the producer is paid essentially an upfront profit. So the producer makes the show for $5 million, get paid $6.5 million and call it a day. In the old days, the producer made the show for $5 million, and got paid $3.5 million, and needed the rest of these windows to make up the shortfall.
That’s why I’m calling this line three different things, that kind of mean the same thing and also don’t. If a TV producer sells just the first run rights to a network—with no co-production terms—that’s a “first run license fee”. However, for someone like a streamer, this license may extend beyond that first run, so you could use “initial” to just cover the length of the deal. Really, those two terms are semi-interchangeable.
However, when the network also has a piece of the show, calling it a “license” fee is a little disingenuous. Especially if it is wholly-owned by the network. Do you trust the network to tell you what a show is valued at? Isn’t that exactly how the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Bones controversies started? As a result, this fee is really an agreed upon price, which I call an “imputed fee”, that’s also based on the production costs. It acts the same way, but since the money isn’t actually trading hands it is imputed versus real. (And as I just clarified, it shows up as a cost for networks in this model.)
That’s enough for one session. I’ll be back early next week with the rest of the accounting.
A big topic in the streaming world has been who owns what. All I can say is, “Finally!”
For many years, we—sort of speaking of the business press, especially the casual observers—have treated all streaming TV shows interchangeably. If Netflix branded a show an “original” for all intents, the press referred to it as an original and lumped all the originals together. With the Friends on Netflix issue coming to a head last fall, we’ve finally started to unpack what it means to have licensed content on a given platform.
(Here’s a good article by Beejoli Shah at The Information that makes the distinction between licensed and owned content. I hope we get more of this.)
Here’s my hot take, though: the licensed versus owned conversation STILL doesn’t explain enough. Why?
In one word…co-productions.
This convoluted third category is like the love child between owned and licensed shows. Moreover, TV series can fall into different categories depending on the territory they are licensed in. Someone needs to step in and explain all this.
Since I need to clarify this distinction for my series on Game of Thrones versus Lord of the Rings versus Chronicles of Narnia anyways, I may as well write a full article on it.
For the streamers each ownership model has different pros and cons, and understanding those different models can explain why certain shows get renewed, while others don’t, why certain shows are branded certain ways and others aren’t and, mainly, the economics of all of them.
I’ll start by explaining wholly-owned series, then explain licensed series and co-productions. What they are, how they impact the business models and provide some examples. Along the way I’ll explain the traditional licensing windows and a geographical clarification. And since this article was directly inspired by my big series on GoT versus LoTR versus Narnia, I’ll pull examples from those three streamers for each of these definitions (as best as I know).
This is simple: the network distributing a piece of content also owns the content. 100% free and clear.
More granularly, the studio’s in-house production team owns all the rights to it. To get to this point—where a channel owns 100% of the rights—usually requires that the network developed the show itself. That means they either found the show runner—who wasn’t already under a deal with another T V production house—took her pitch and optioned her TV show; or they hired her under an overall deal, so that anything they produce they have first rights to. That’s step one, own the underlying IP. (Yes, if it is based on a book or movie or what not, you have to own all the rights to that too.)
The second step is to then pay all of the production costs. Most of the time, if you do those two things, you own a show outright.
What does this mean for a network/streamer? Well, they can do whatever they want with the TV series. (I’ll explain a qualification to this in a moment.) They can air the show for as many seasons as they want, as long as they’re okay with the production costs. They can keep it exclusively on their channel or syndicate it. They can raise or shorten the number of episodes. In short, they don’t have to negotiate with an outside producer because they are the producer.
The qualification to unlimited control is talent. Even a wholly-owned show has obligations to talent—especially key talent like showrunners or the lead actors—that can influence some of these pieces. If the talent’s contracts are up, and they don’t want to make the show anymore, they don’t have to (until they get a pay raise).
Since the 1980s, roughly, broadcast channels have become more and more likely to own their own shows, or at least air shows under the same corporate parent. (So NBC airs shows produced by Universal Cable Productions or Fox aired shows by 21st Century Fox Television.) This has happened since time immemorial, but became more common when the FCC relaxed primetime air time rules and ended “fin/syn” regulations (which I do not have time to explain today) in the 1990s. When the streamers got into the game, they prioritized “wholly-owned” shows because it enabled them to choose distribution plans they wanted.
(Note on verbiage: I called these “wholly-owned” at my previous job, and I’m sure different places can call them different names. I like wholly-owned much better than “original” because it is about who owns the series financially, not customer-facing branding.)
The downside to wholly-owned is one of costs. If you’re paying all the costs up front, that can quickly get expensive. For a licensed show, you can choose to pay a fraction of the total costs because the production house can make additional revenue later. Same with broadcast shows back in the early 2000s, when networks often paid 50-70% of the costs for co-productions. However, if you’re looking to own all the rights forever, or want exclusivity forever, owning the content completely is actually cheaper.
HBO – Game of Thrones. The Sopranos. The Wire. True Detective. Veep. Silicon Valley.
(Basically, nearly their entire catalogue. HBO as a premium channel has tried to own 100% of their content. That’s why HBO Go/Now’s offerings have nearly every TV show they’ve ever made.)
Amazon Prime/Video/Studios – Transparent. The Man in the High Castle. Mozart in the Jungle.
(Amazon has a fair bit of wholly-owned content, but some of their biggest swings will fall in later categories.)
(Netflix is rarely the producer of record, according to Wikipedia. However, as this Digiday article makes clear, Netflix is essentially acting like the wholly-owned studio by owning rights for extremely long time periods. These shows are examples of series that are functionally owned by Netflix, even if another producer originated the project.)
A “licensed” show is a TV show that the streamer doesn’t have any financial stake. They don’t own any downstream revenue. At all. It’s actually about as easy to understand as a “wholly-owned” show. If a wholly-owned show is 100% of the rights of project, a licensed show is zero percent of the rights. Zilch. Nada.
Ever feel like not taking your own advice?
I regularly admonish my readers to avoid overhyping single data points. I repeat this piece of guidance when things flop—Solo, The Lego Movie 2, NFL Ratings last season—or when they go skyhigh—most Disney movies, Netflix datecdotes.
And now a single data point—the Game of Thrones premiere is up to 17.4 million viewers—made my most important story? What?
Most Important Story of The Week – Game of Thrones Grows Its Audience
In my defense, this is more about the phenomenon than the data point: the fact that Game of Thrones has increased ratings year over year. That to me deserves a call out for the economics it implies. Let’s dig in.
The Rarity of “Mega-Hits”
I don’t have a huge data set of past TV shows and all their ratings by season year over year (yet), but based off my experience and some quick Wikipedia searching, I came up with roughly three (technically four) models for a how a series viewership changes over time. (And I saw this repeated a lot when I was analyzing viewership in my previous job.)
The most common model is to start out big and decay over time. I call this the “usual” because if a show doesn’t get an audience to start or build it quickly, well, it doesn’t make it to season 4 in the first place. I’d call this the “decay over time” model. (Again, by “common” I mean 80% of the time or more.) Here’s a great HBO example:
That’s from Wikipedia for Boardwalk Empire. As you can see, the huge names involved and its huge marketing as the successor to The Sopranos got it launched to a huge initial number. Then it declined over time. Looking for drama/genre examples that match this, my current example is Syfy-turned-Amazon’s The Expanse, which started at 1.2 million viewers, and its last season was about half that. I’d put Westworld in here too. (I can and have found more.)
I said “technically four” because a variation of this first model is just a series which never started out big in the first place. Specifically, it doesn’t grow or really decay. I’d call it the “stay flat over time” model. I’d put Mad Men roughly in this category or The Magicians currently on Syfy. (One of the few others fantasy series that has gone for more than four seasons, which is relevant to my Game of Thrones versus Lord of the Rings series.)
Of course, sometimes series turn out to be so good, they build an audience overtime. This is my second model, what I call the “build then decay” model. Wikipedia doesn’t have a neat chart for me to demonstrate this, but the example here is The Walking Dead. It started at 5 million viewers per episode, eventually hitting its stride at 16, 17, 14, and 17 million viewers for premieres between seasons 4 and 7. However the last two seasons have finally seen the decay at 11 and 6 million viewers respectively for the premiere episodes. So it tripled its ratings, and has since seen ratings decay over time.
Doing some quick research, The Big Bang Theory followed a roughly similar path. Starting small, comparatively to itself, and then hitting peaks, with an eventual decline. If I kept searching, I bet I could find a few more examples. This category is more common than the next type, but is still pretty rare.
Even harder, though is building an audience and not having it decay…ever. That, my friends, is the far right of my logarithmic distribution chart. In fact, I can only think of really two shows that have pulled that off. First, the king of the hill in modern TV, Game of Thrones:
That’s certainly impressive. Even better is this one other show, Breaking Bad.
I’d argue that hardly any other TV shows have had this sort of progression where they build and build, rising to 6 or 10x multiples of their initial viewership and never losing them. Especially in the post-2000s world of declining TV ratings.
Streaming Viewership: Even faster decay?
This is a particularly relevant time to look at these numbers, because my working theory is that streaming exacerbates the decays of all shows. Again, from my view of the numbers and experience. In short, streaming video accelerates the decay of viewership because of binge releasing (if you don’t like a season, you decide quicker to stop watching), the lack of set viewership time (meaning if a show isn’t working the algorithms bury it) and the “too much to watch” state of TV (meaning if a show starts losing creative steam, well you have a lot of other options). As a result, my gut says TV shows decay viewership faster than ever.
I realize, I’m not presenting any tables with an exhaustive view of how many shows fit into my four models of viewership decay and to prove this thesis. I wish I had that data, but let’s just stipulate it for now.
Streaming Business Models: The Economics of Fewer Seasons