Month: March 2019

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 29 March 2019: Apple Unveils…More

This was supposed to be “WGAxit Week”. (Has that been coined yet?) I didn’t realize that voting started on Wednesday of last week and went for five days, so passed the deadline for this weekly “most important column”. (It will be next week’s story. It look like it passed, with 95% yes.) So fine, the story of the week is…

Most Important Story of the Week – Apple Unveils…More

Last week, we were looking forward to Apple unveiling something this week. And something was unveiled. In the entertainment space, “Apple Channels”–which is like Amazon Channels, but Apple–and Amazon TV Plus–which is like Disney Plus, but from Apple. Listen, I don’t want to be snarky here, but we still don’t know how well the product will work, what the content looks like, or how much it will cost. Those are almost all my categories to judge a product. (My 5Ps of digital video are: product-content, product-UX, pricing, placement and promotion.) 

Still, I have to opine. Here’s the good news. I’ll have another article up tomorrow at Decider that somehow ties predictions about Apple with Batman. I don’t want to step on that article’s toes.

But Apple’s entry is so monumental that even those 1,500+ words don’t capture all my thoughts. I was actually surprised I didn’t see any  “Winners and Losers: Apple TV Plus Launch” since those seem like the article de jour for media. So you know what? Shamelessly “borrowed” from The Ringer or Vox here are my winners and losers from the launch.

Winner – HBO

HBO is the must have streaming service that isn’t Netflix. AT&T is building a strategy around it. Hulu and Amazon had to have it. And once Apple sent invites, it had to get HBO on the platform for launch. I think Apple bent over backwards on deal terms to get it done. Sure, there were a bunch of stars in attendance for Apple, but the biggest star may have been HBO’s dragons.

Loser – Value Creation

When something is priced below market price, that should be the red flag of red flags that a company is using its size to “capture” value instead of “create” it. (And some of this is based on the surplus of rumors that Apple will charge $10 for HBO and Showtime.)

Ask yourself, if we know HBO and Showtime cost $15 on every other platform on the planet, how is Apple lowering the cost? I mean, it isn’t like Apple owns a factory where Apple created some more innovative method to manufacture “HBOs” and while it costs $15 for everyone else to “manufacture HBOs”, there method is 2/3rds cheaper. No, in a licensed content reality, every company negotiates with HBO to get authorization to distribute it. And they split the price customers pay. In the olden days–on cable–this was closer to 50/50 ($7.50 to Comcast, say, and $7.50 to HBO). The terms are better in OTT for the channels, so I believe it is now 70%-30%, as referenced here by Variety. Do that math and that means $4.50 to the distributor (say Amazon) and $10.50 to HBO. (Though, feel free to correct me if someone has seen the specific contracts.)

If those latter numbers are true, then Apple is paying $10.50 to HBO, and losing $0.50, while customers pay $10. That isn’t value creation. It’s value capture. It’s great for customers in the short term, but it just isn’t sustainable. It is like that old saw about “we’re losing money on every unit, but we’ll make it up in volume. Worse, I have a feeling HBO demanded extra fees in order to allow Apple to undercut their prices elsewhere. Or huge marketing spend commitments. Either way, Apple is losing money, which for most businesses (fine, all businesses) is unsustainable in the long run.

Winner – M-FAANGs being big, consolidated and boring

I’m gonna bang this drum for a little while longer. Almost all the M-FAANGs are getting into video. Almost all the M-FAANGs have a music service. Almost all the M-FAANGs have devices. Almost All the M-FAANGs have a social platform. Almost all the M-FAANGs are even launching subscription video services.

They enter each of these new lines of business (usually) not by developing some innovative new product or better operations, but by using size. That’s what Apple and Facebook are doing in video, what Google and Amazon are doing in gaming, and what they are all doing in devices.

Really, the only outlier here is Netflix: it is still just a video service, and I have to give them credit for that. They aren’t making a Netflix stick or a music channel or even a “Netflix for games”. And in a world with strong antitrust enforcement, I’d respect this. But I don’t think we live in a non-vertically integrated world anymore. So I worry about Netflix. (More on that tomorrow.)

Winner – Bundlers (and Loser: Everyone else)

I’m working on getting “bundler” to be used instead of  “aggregators”. Alan Wolk used “aggregators” in a piece that beat me to the punch and obviously Stratechery uses it constantly. But whether it is bundler or aggregator, the point is the same: I can’t look at the state of the industry, and not see a group of people looking to bundle video, and hence offer a lower price to everyone as a result. Sort of like the old cable bundle, but digital.

Netflix stands in the way of this, but just barely.  The big debate was, “Was Apple’s new launch a Netflix killer?” In a bundled world, Netflix looks like just another streaming channel. I made this the centerpiece of my article at Decider, so you can go there to read those thoughts tomorrow.

(Also, the dreams of both Apple and Amazon to own the entire content journey–via discovery and engagement–which means ending the concept of “apps” seems pretty far away. Even Apple admitted that, despite the hype, other bundlers like Hulu, Playstation TV and DirecTV Now won’t play inside their app.)

Loser – Traditional Cable TV

Cause, obviously? The more better options for cord cutters, the more people will switch.

Other Contender for Most Important Story – AT&T and Viacom Carriage Wars

Man, these black out fights feel old school now, don’t they? With all the news about Apple, and an old-fashioned carriage dispute doesn’t get the coverage it used to.

The thing we’re all looking for is that final change. That time when the blackout starts and never ends. (I suppose there is Dish and HBO, but that’s a premium channel, so viewed slightly differently and Dish and Univision, which also ended recently.) Tara Lachappelle in Bloomberg had the best take, linking to her article on why blackouts will become more frequent. In the end, Viacom and DirecTV ended up agreeing on an extension. So we continue to wait for when the cable bundle finally breaks.

Context – Ignore the yield curve (sorry Cardiff Garcia), but watch for Brexit.

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Read My Latest at Decider! Why Did Hulu Lower Their Price to $5.99?

Last week, I was thrilled to announce that I had a guest article at TVRev, and I’ve followed it up with an article over at Decider. The folks over at Decider asked me about the Hulu price decrease a few weeks back—which as I mention, was really a promotional price continuation—and at first I didn’t have an “angle” on it. But as I thought about it—and really as offers of free Hulu kept coming (by my count Spotify, WaPo, Sprint, with probably more)—I realized I had my view: This is just their “hook” to bring in customers.

So check it out and hopefully I’ll be appearing over at Decider from time to time.

Other Lessons from MoviePass’s Demise

Often, when I write a long article, I have extra thoughts. MoviePass—and its demise—may be my “story of the decade”, when judging off the “hype-to-cash flow” metric. (Remember when I used it to explain subscriptions? Or logarithmic distribution of returns?) Recently, I wrote about the lessons of MoviePass’s demise at TVRev (here for Part I or here for Part II).

Today’s article is is basically the “director’s commentary” of that guest article. Whenever I write a long article, invariably I have a ton of extra ideas. For example, in my first draft, I tried to find historical examples of companies that made my same mistakes. (What is old is new again, or just digital now.) I found some, but couldn’t find others—and I was already long—so I cut that idea from the initial article.

So what to do with all those extra pieces? Well, put them on my website! Enjoy more thoughts on MoviePass. Today is all about “additional lessons” to be learned from the fall of the mighty ticketing giant. These lessons weren’t as great as the initial four in my TVRev piece, but I still wanted to make them. Especially the first problem, which I see happening a lot. 

Lesson 5: Beware of upper 10% companies pitching themselves to the masses.

This is one of the underrated stories in business right now. You know who the business press doesn’t talk to a lot? Poor people. Sure, the political press ventures to Middle America to find Trump voters, and can’t help but write stories about the Dollar Store, but overall, most technology writers talk to software engineers or product managers or venture capitalists or lawyers or biz dev folks who are really, really well off. They don’t do a lot of interviews with the contract workers who are cleaning offices or serving meals or working in retail. (Unless it is an expose. But they don’t usually ask about their thoughts on the newest VC round.) 

(Politicians don’t know much more either, since most Congresspersons are millionaires. Same with the interns, whose parents are millionaires.)

There is a gap in lifestyles between the top 10% and the bottom 80%, especially the bottom 50% and the top 5%. MoviePass started as a top 10% company. If you’re an intern at a TV publication and your parents pay your rent, then yeah adding a $10 MoviePass subscription is no big deal. That doesn’t apply to a family eking by to pay rent every month. So MoviePass felt like an upper 10% product to me.

Who else does this apply to?

Not to pick on scooters again—as I did in my TVRev article—but they are a classic top 10% company. A lot of the initial hype around scooters billed them as a way to radically transform urban transformation. And suburban too! This never quite made sense to me, from a mass transit standpoint. If you can barely afford a car to get to work, can you afford a scooter ride?

Let’s do that math. Say you add a scooter to your daily commute. And it is $3 round trip per day (Which may be low, depending on the commute. This also means you live very close to work or to a bus stop, which I didn’t add to the costs.). Well, at the end of two years—assuming you found a scooter every day and never crashed—you’d have paid $1,440 to Bird or Lime or Uber.

Of course, you could have bought a scooter online for…$300.

Scooter rides aren’t replacing commuting (and the math on Uber is the same). Instead, my theory is that ridesharing and scooters are additional expenses to people’s lives. The majority of users—in Los Angeles at least—ride in Ubers or Lyft for convenience: Uber replaces one person in a group staying sober enough to drive when going to a concert or dinner. Any of the stories of people who gave up commuting for Ubers are invariably about wealthy business folks (definitely in the upper 10%).

Why do we get this so wrong? Because the early adopters are rich. At least upper 10%, but in some cases upper one-percenters. Given that they have the extra cash to pay for the convenience, they do it. And they assume this applies to everyone, even those scraping along at the bottom for pennies. This seems to be a feature of 2010 tech companies: they pitch themselves as cost saving, but are usually about adding convenience.

Uber/Lyft – Pay to avoid having to drive home from bars.

GrubHub/UberEats – Pay to avoid driving to fast food.

Amazon Prime – Pay to avoid having to drive to store.

Scooters – Pay to avoid walking.

The Grub Hub rise is the most fascinating one to me too. I mean, delivery from Thai or Chinese or pizza restaurants used to be free! Now we’re paying 10% on top? (In fairness, this convenience, can be value creating, it if boosts willingness to pay.)

The new wave of “bring it to you” from massages to house cleaning to car washes are just variations on the above principle: you used to drive to get it, now it comes to you, for a fee. Which doesn’t mean the companies above are doomed, but if the growth rate for a company—and hence its valuation—is built on 100% market penetration, ask if that is even financially feasible for lower income Americans.

Lesson 6: Beware who you sell your company to.

If MoviePass had been acquired by Amazon, wouldn’t it still be in business? Amazon would hide its revenue losses in some anonymous sub-category of its earnings—or add it as a benefit to Prime—and we’d have no idea what is happening. ($240 million a quarter? Piece of cake for Amazon.) Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Amazon has lost lots of money on other businesses it has acquired or built. But we don’t know, do we?

You can’t explain the demise of MoviePass without acknowledging that it got bought by the wrong company. It was acquired by Helios Matheson, a data company that couldn’t handle exorbitant losses month and after month. It could lose some millions as long as it stayed buzzy and that floated the stock price. But a not-Fortune 500 data company can’t handle losing tens of millions every month like an Amazon or a Netflix. 

Lesson 7: Beware wildly fluctuating prices and/or UX.

Some companies just feel shady to me. Some hallmarks for me are… 

Hastily designed websites. Honestly, do you trust a company who looks like they are working on HTML 2.0?

Dozens of subscription options. Why so many? Where is the catch? 

Or promotional pricing. Is it really 40% off today only? What is in the fine print?

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 22 March 2019: The Week Ahead Edition (with AT&T Chaos)

My goal when I started this week’s column was to avoid having another monster long column. We’ll see how I do this week, but I’m not optimistic. There was enough news for two weeks last week, and next week heralds much, much more. Before our most important story, let’s look to…

The Week Ahead

A new feature, inspired by our dearly departed Economist podcast, here’s a look at the stories I’m keeping my eye on next week. I don’t know how often I’ll roll out this feature, but man, next week has the goods! We don’t always know when big news is coming–examples of this are all the #MeToo stories, merger announcements, unexpected firings–but sometimes we do–examples include legal decisions, product announcements, earnings reports and awards shows, the last of which is barely news.

WGA Votes on New Rules Regarding Agents

I’ve been on phone calls where the first words out of an agent’s mouth were, “We have package fees on this project.”  So yeah, agents have their priorities straight. (Package fees trump all other considerations.) The vote by the WGA on changing rules for agents–covered already by everyone–could be very, very important. Most businesses aren’t good with disruptive change, and if suddenly every TV show had to be staffed without agents, what would happen? Does pilot season survive? This is the best candidate for the most important story next week, even with the next story.

Apples Unveils

Unveils what? You tell me. (And a lot of people are trying.)

Lots of rumors dropped this week, with some bundling news, but still it has been mostly vague with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, Apple finally announcing something is news, even if they aren’t actually launching for who knows how long and who knows what. Still, Variety editor Andrew Wallenstein summarized it best in this thread which is basically questions about everything. Sure Monday (today when this posts) will tell us some news, but we’ll still have plenty of questions.

Most Important Story of the Week – AT&T Crosses the Threshold

Is threshold the wrong metaphor? The straw broke the camel’s back? The dam finally burst? They’ve crossed the rubicon (into bad strategy)? Choose your own metaphor.

Consider this an update to my initial opinion when Plepler/Levy departed. I definitely urged caution, especially about the Plepler hype. HBO has had a lot of leaders over the years, and one executive leaving wasn’t enough for me to proclaim the end of HBO as we know it. (I wanted more information.)

But as people have exited, the confidence that the Warner side of AT&T is in crisis is probably cemented. Update your priors when new evidence comes in, right? One executive leaving is one thing. But nearly all the leadership over a nine month period? That’s a different story. From my tracking it’s now:

Jeff Bewkes – CEO of Time-Warner (and an HBO alum)

Richard Plepler – Head of HBO (even if not title) (an HBO alum)

David Levy – Head of Turner

Kevin Tsujihara – Head of Warner Bros.

John Martin – Head of Turner TV before Levy.

Bernadette Aulestia – Head of HBO Now and Go

And probably more I missed. That feels like too many, though I wish I had a scientific formula I could unveil to prove that. I can’t. This many people leaving for whatever reasons–politics, misconduct, writing on the wall–is a bad sign. Moreover, AT&T needs to find the right people and the right strategy, and quickly. They are clearly the most skeptically viewed of the entertainment conglomerates, a view which is only growing over time. And they have a huge pile of debt they need to pay off.

Still, I feel I’m probably less worried than most. I worked at very well regarded American institution before business school–literally America says they trust this institution more than any other in the country–and it had a policy to change out literally every leadership position over a two year period. That’s right, after a unit returned home from combat–this is about the U.S. Army–nearly every leader at the brigade level down would rotate out of their job before the next deployment. In that context, Warner Media, well Warner-Media has retained a lot more people.

And like the US Army, there are lots of ready replacements who can do just fine. Mostly interchangeable studio and development executives are floating out there in the world, especially with all the impending Fox and Disney layoffs. Which isn’t to be flippant about people losing their jobs, but a lot of development expertise is more the system than one singular individual talent. Whether or not Bewkes, Plepler, Levy, Martin, Aulestia and Tsujihara were singular talents–only Plepler is commonly referred to that way–or just studio execs remains to be seen.

ICYMI – My Article at TVRev on MoviePass

I’ve spent a lot of March working on some articles for other outlets to help boost awareness of my website. My first is up over at TV Rev on MoviePass. I have four lessons from the demise of MoviePass that we can all learn from, in Part I and Part II. Check them out and thanks to TV Rev for letting me write for their site.

Other Candidates for Most Important Story of the Week

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Read My Latest at TVRev! Four Lessons from MoviePass

I’ve been a little light in non-Weekly Update articles this month because I’ve been writing some new pieces for other entertainment outlets. My first has gone up at TV-Rev so check it out and share. It’s on MoviePass, who I’ve been writing/thinking about for a while. As a company, MoviePass’s rise and fall offer us a lot of good lessons on the challenges of digital disruption and growth. Again check it out.

(Thank you to Alan Wolk and team for giving me the opportunity to publish on their site. They publish really good deep dives, like their most recent on how OTT is changing ad delivery.)

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 15 March 2019: Is Spotify the People’s Champion?

This week felt slow , but I’ll say this: March will end with at least one big story. Or two. Or three. So stay tuned for that. Meanwhile…

Most Important Story of the Week – Spotify and Apple Battle Over Fees

Technology duels sure are fun, aren’t they? On Wednesday, via press release, Spotify founder Daniel Ek went after Apple in the EU antitrust arena for being a monopoly. (And tattled on them to the EU regulators.) Apple responded back, also via press release, “Hey you’re the bad player you don’t pay artists.” Which is true: earlier in the week, Spotify was back in court to appeal a ruling that increased payments to songwriters.

More than anything, this story portends the forces that are looming future battles in the entertainment, communications, technology and media industries. Some of these skirmishes will undoubtedly benefit customers, but often, the consumers are just the pawns.

Force 1: Appeals to consumers

Customers aren’t going to decide if Apple Music can exist on Apple’s platform. But both Tim Apple Cook and Daniel Spotify Ek took their cases to the consumers with blog posts, that they knew would get picked up by every media outlet out there. And so they were.

It seems relevant that the companies at least feel the need to go to customers with their pitches. (Hey, Apple is raising prices!; Hey, Spotify is screwing artists!) When Standard Oil was marauding through the land, they just paid to bury negative stories. The techlash is real, and the companies who need to watch out are…

Force 2: Tech giants and aspiring tech giants

Monopolies make for strange bedfellows, and the smaller guys want to get in that bed. In this case, Apple sat out the lawsuit against artists, but in fairness to Spotify, they were joined by Google, Amazon and Sirius XM/Pandora in opposing paying songwriters more. I saw another article this week about Apple vs Facebook, previously Apple had gone to war against Amazon, and Google and Amazon fight regular battles too.

It really does feel like Pacific Rim, where giant jaegers fight giant kaiju, and the customers are just watching. A few massive companies wage battles over each other’s monopolies (or “industries” if you’re being generous). Meanwhile, a company like Spotify is too small to truly battle, but wants to be a fellow tech giant, but just isn’t big enough. So it turns to…

Force 3: Antitrust

Appeals to antitrust regulators is probably the new normal. The EU already has a very aggressive regulatory regime, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. If a Democrat wins, especially certain Democrats, you could expect the same on this side of the Atlantic. Sure, Spotify is only doing this out of self-interest, but it could help the market and us as customers. (I haven’t written about the Elizabeth Warren tech breakup proposal yet, but I will, in an entertainment context.) Of course, Spotify doesn’t really care about antitrust behavior, it cares about…

Force 4: Fees

At the end of the day, Spotify just doesn’t want to pay 30% cut of subscriptions to Apple. Neither did Netflix, and they thought they were big enough so they dropped payments from the App Store. Clearly, Spotify felt the same way, but unlike Netflix they’ve felt the crunch on premium subscribers more. Which isn’t to say Spotify’s complaints aren’t legitimate–they are and echo Microsoft in the 1990s more than a little bit–but it doesn’t make Spotify the people’s champion. And these splits on fees are the new battleground for streaming music, film and entertainment in the next decade.

So that’s it: Spotify wants to keep prices low. Which is good for consumers, but their biggest cost is still…

Force 5: Costs for content

Which is why Spotify went to court to keep royalty payments low. This is the story to monitor: Spotify’s costs rise as its usage does. Spotify is doing whatever it can to get to profitability and positive cash flow. Whether that means fighting artists or fighting Apple, that’s what it’s doing. Hardly the people’s champion.

Other Candidates for Most Important Story of the Week

Meanwhile, everyone else was repositioning their troops in the #StreamingWars2019.

Disney is Ending the Vault

If I have a big unquantified rule, it’s this: content is king. Distribution is not. Unless you have a monopoly. That helps.

But otherwise, content is king. Netflix knows this, which is why they are spending a fortune to build stuff they alone will own. Meanwhile, of all the studios, Disney has the best film content. (TV we could debate.) And before streaming times, this content was so valuable they could hold it back from customers to inflate the value even further. They called this putting films back in “the vault”.

This is why I pitched that Disney should have called their streaming service “The Vault”. I mean, it’s like you get access to the thing that was secret for all those years. That’s a great deal, in my opinion. “Disney’s Vault”. It’s better than “plus”. 

Either way, we’re going to get those movies. Bob Iger announced that all of Disney’s animated films will be available for streaming when Disney +/Plus launches. On the one hand, that’s a ton of great content immediately. On the other, rotating content in and out is a way to keep people subscribed, which would have been my tentative recommendation. Of course, anyone can second guess anyone else’s strategy. And you never know when the vault could return.

Apple Prepares to Launch (or Announce a Launch)

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 8 March 2019: Youtube (And all Social Platforms) Deal with Child Predators

I wouldn’t call this a “what a week in entertainment!” media week, but at least one outlet ran an “special emergency” newsletter, so clearly we had news. Instead of that big story–or the continued musical chairs at Warner Media–I’ve had my eye on a few stories that add up to a bigger one.

Most Important Story of the Week – Youtube Battles Child Pornography/Predators

This was a contender for the most important story last week, but got bumped since it isn’t really a “one-time’ story. It’s slightly evergreen. Since we invented video on the internet, we’ve had these problems. Slate had an article on Periscope and child predators back in 2017. So I’m not just picking on Youtube even though I put them in the headline; any social media platform (with video/images) eventually has to deal with predators targeting teenagers and children.

Let’s stick on that for one quick moment.

“Predators”

“Targeting”

“Children”

I just paused to think, “Is that too strong?” It really isn’t. It just describes what is happening. If you doubt this, read the excellent article that set off the furor on Wired. Clearly, this is a problem. (Again, pair it with the Slate article above and doubtless this problem happens on multiple social platforms.)

The best defense of Youtube (and others) has been something along the lines of, “Well, you know they do have to handle billions of videos and trillions of interactions. This is fair, yet I feel like I need a Matt Levine-esque analogy to explain why this isn’t really a defense.

Let’s say you owned a park. For some reason, you were able to monetize parks and turn the parks into private places. And since this is the tech age, say I turned one park into 10,000 parks. All sorts of kids started playing there, mostly with their parents, but sometimes you convinced parents the kids were safe in the parks without them. Then all of a sudden a bunch of creepy dudes in the forties started hanging out at the park without kids. And then they talked to the kids and eventually asked the young girls to expose themselves. If I was making money off that enterprise, is saying, “Well, I own 10,000 parks, I can’t keep child predators out of all of them!” The answer would be, “Well you better damn well try.”

See running safe parks is part of the requirement to run parks. And with video, running a service where people can’t target children should be part of the requirement.

The problem with Youtube, Periscope and others (who likely have the same problems) is that my 10,000 parks doesn’t even capture the scale. I’d need 1,000,000,000 parks! This is the challenge of social video, in that content is no longer curated by executives in Hollywood offices working by the dozens, but by engineers optimizing equations on computers anywhere around the globe.

Like I said above, what makes it work is also what creates this shady underbellies, as Slate called them. This is where I concede the very eloquent defense of the tech companies. Tyler Cowen (who I saw linked to by Kevin Drum) makes the case that when it comes to social media, we have a trade-off of three forces: the scale we want to achieve, the costs to review all the content, and the consistency to treat only get rid of bad content. Cowen and Drum argue you can only have two of the three. That’s hard to disagree with.

This view was echoed recently in Dylan Byer’s newsletter too, who linked to Wired writer, Antonia Garcia Martinez. To summarize the challenge facing Youtube and others, “All detractors have to do is point to one bad piece of content, whereas Youtube is hosting billions of videos.” That’s a hard point to disagree with. If you want Youtube to exist–meaning you think it is valuable–you have to accept it is huge, so hard to police perfectly. Further, it isn’t like Youtube is doing nothing to combat these issues.

Ultimately, while I understand the scale of the problem, I don’t think those defenses get it quite right. And I have a few counters for today. Basically, regulators should demand Youtube (and other social platforms with video or images) do better when it comes to children, and not just reactively to bad press:

First, this isn’t about all content, but clearly illegal/evil content.

The counter is summarized in this Chris Mim’s tweet, which doesn’t mention the child pornography issue, but is in the same family.

My “synthesis” is that we can’t control all content, but can try to control content that is clearly evil, for lack of a better word. Promoting genocide? Yep. Interfering with democracy? Yep. And content that hurts children. (Vaccines are a tougher call, but given that kids can die when they contract illnesses, it merits solutions too.) The fact is, as compelling as the “This isn’t a huge problem” argument is, if a social platform helped cause a genocide or creepy young men flock to teen videos, that’s a problem. And illegal. Even more so if you’re monetizing that interaction. One of the costs of running a video platform is finding this content and banning it.

Second, these companies are WILDLY profitable.

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 1 March 19: The Bones Arbitration

Early last week, I had an easy leading candidate for the “Most Important Story of the Week”. Then, on Thursday. AT&T had their “I am Spartacus” moment. Should I change just because that story took over Twitter and would get me more traffic? Nope, but it’ll be a contender.

Most Important Story of the Week – Fox loses $179 Million Bones Arbitration

My goal each week is to to pull out the story that will likely have the biggest impact on the future of the entertainment business, even if it wasn’t the biggest story of the week. Especially if it wasn’t the biggest story of the week. That feels like “The Bones Arbitration“–an unwritten Robert Ludlum novel?–to me.

What surprised me: This isn’t about content libraries.

When I read the headline, I guessed that a lot of this was about valuing libraries and shenanigans therein. Valuing libraries is hard. In my opinion, that’s where most “Hollywood Accounting” comes from. It is onerous to negotiate distribution deals for every single TV series and movie. As a result, many studios just negotiate an “overall” deal for future series and sell all their content to a streamer or channel, with maybe some carve outs.

Usually, that buyer has their own vision of what every piece in the overall deal is or will be worth. The seller probably has a similar view, but legally they try to pretend everything is valued equally. They want to pretend that less valuable (and usually less profitable films) are more valuable. This keeps profit from going to already profitable films or series, so the studio gets to keep more. This is “Hollywood Accounting” in a nutshell.

(Bonus: My article on film financing shows a quick example of this. Also, the economic distribution of hit TV shows is, you guessed it, logarithmic. So winners really should take home most of the revenue, which is why “Hollywood Accounting” is so flawed.)

What this is about: Double dealing between business units.

In the Bones case, though, the double dealing wasn’t tied to distribution deals. The negotiations with Fox broadcasting were done on a one-off basis (as most current series are with their distributors). Same with the negotiations with Hulu. And likely the international buyers. Since the conglomerate 21st Century Fox owns all those pieces, from the studio making the show to the distributors, they just sold the shows to themselves.

The temptation to resist double-dealing was too great. When the network threatened to cancel if fees went up, it isn’t surprising the studio caved. It is hard to go to war with a fellow business unit (one you may end up running!). Since studios will own even more of the value chain in the future–in AT&T and Comcast’s cases this includes the pipes streaming the content; in Apple, Amazon and Google’s case this includes the devices playing the apps–double-dealing will be even more of a risk. Seeing it so blatantly in this arbitration should worry talent.

Legal context: Arbitration is secret.

That’s obvious. But it has ramifications for a decision like this. Legal decisions decided in a courtroom, create precedent that applies to future decisions and contracts. That doesn’t happen in arbitration (or settlements with non-disclosure clauses). Because mandatory arbitration tends to favor the powerful, which is obviously the studios, this hurts talent. Just because Fox lost this one–and The Hollywood Reporter got a hold of it–doesn’t mean that it is as big a victory for talent and profit participants as if it were in open court. There is a reason this was “secret” until Eriq Gardner broke the story.

(So yes, mandatory arbitration is usually bad, in my Constitutionally-derived political position.)

The economic context: Will the huge punitive damages will discourage bad behavior?

Maybe. The Friday edition of The Business podcast noted that every agent or manager will now double-check the profit participation numbers from Hulu. That is true, and for future deals, lawyers will need even better language to deter double dealing. But honestly, would this huge award stop studios from trying to hide profit?

Probably not. Consider the total award is $180 million. Let’s say Fox tried to take $50 million or so from their ten biggest shows. (Fictional numbers to illustrate a point.) That’s $500 million, and they only got caught once. That means they’re still taking home $320 million. (Assuming no other talent payouts.) In other words, this is why every decade has a huge talent participation lawsuit: it just makes sense for the studios to keep trying it.

The future: This benefits Netflix?

Maybe. The argument here is that Hulu will have to pay well above market rates (or at least at Netflix’s deficit financed rates) in the future. Or when AT&T, Comcast, and Disney launch their platforms they’ll have to pay higher rates to keep talent from complaining about double-dealing. This would be to the dominant market player’s advantage (Netflix), since they can leverage international subscribers to outbid the others.

On the other hand, Netflix is winning the “profit participation” battle by just not waging it. If you don’t sell a show overseas, you can’t screw talent by selling it below rates. If you don’t sell merchandise, you can’t bury those costs in line items. If you don’t do electronic sell through, second windows, international or home entertainment, you don’t have to pay anything out. The windfall that would previously come to wildly successful TV shows–Simpsons, Friends, Seinfeld, etc making billions–will never come to any top Netflix talent.

(The way traditional studios could fight Netflix at their own game is to publicly bid on the rights to Stranger Things for say Syfy. Let those creators know the cash Netflix is not giving them in profit participation.)

Of course, the streaming landscape is always evolving and streaming giants are thinking about other ways to reward hit TV shows. They have their own versions of profit participations. Renewals will always feature renegotiations. That said, Netflix’s current plans are to just pay everyone ahead of time, which front loads all the risk. Of course, paying everyone like they are a huge hit has financial risks if most of those shows end up becoming duds, as usually happens with all TV shows. (And Netflix has a very ordinary track record here.) So we’ll see.

Is any studio better than any other?

If you just use the history, I mean not really. But yeah, let’s make a spreadsheet on this for future articles!

One solution: More distributors and competitors.

My pro-competition, anti-big business solution is simple: Bring back the value chain!

What I mean by that is each layer of the value chain–content creators, distributors, distributors of distributors, and the people who own the pipes–should go back to being not vertically integrated. (And not horizontally either.) The best way to eliminate double dealing is to not have business units in the same firm depressing prices artificially. If distributors like Netflix or ABC or NBC-Universal or Amazon didn’t own their own content, we’d likely have a many more independent production companies, which would improve overall quality of content.

More markets is the solution here. (Which feels like it should be the traditionally “conservative” solution, but is somehow the liberal/progressive position.)

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – AT&T Replaces Two Executives

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Do Popular Oscar Films Make for Larger Oscar Telecast Ratings? Maybe.

Often in my weekly column (the “most important story of the week”, click here!), I’ve called out the narratives behind one-off events. Take the Super Bowl. Were ratings down because we’re sick of the Patriots? The death of broadcast? Or because football isn’t popular anymore? 

Last year, a lot of people asked, “Why did Solo fail?” and identified four or five totally plausible reasons that all could have mattered or couldn’t have mattered at all. We just don’t know! (I also called out the Lego Movie Part II narrative too.)

If you take nothing else from my website, understand that we need to do better than narratives when it comes to the business of entertainment. (With the implications that execs/companies that rely on data instead of narratives will outperform the others.) One time ratings or box office weekends are noise that we try to force into signal narratives. (Yes, I’m a big Nate Silver fan.)

That said, as fan of film, the Oscars hold a special place for me. I still remember the first film I rooted for at the Oscars and felt devastated that it didn’t win. (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon if you’re curious.) And I’ve seen most Oscar films each year until I had my first child, even if the films I love the most (big, popular and genre) don’t tend to get nominated.

“Popularity” was the meta-narrative of the Oscar’s in 2019, after the Academy announced their intention to start a popular film category. (Well, and diversity.) I first looked at this last August, but now we have the ratings for the telecast on Sunday. Since this year saw a big jump up in box office, without the new category, we can answer the question:

“With a generally more popular set of films, did that boost Oscar telecast ratings?”

The quick answer is that ratings are up (roughly) 12% over last year’s telecast. But what does that mean? Can this one new data point impart the lesson to the Academy that more popular films lead to higher ratings? Not by itself. We need to analyze the larger trends.

Today, my goal is to answer that question, but I’ll be honest, I can’t. The sample size is too small to draw clear conclusions. Instead, my goal today is just to lay out what data we do have and the limits of that that data can explain.

Oh, and to correct the record. I screwed up in August with some data analysis, so I plan to correct the record and explain what went wrong. (With a really fun learning point.)

How to Craft Narratives

First, let me show how easy it is to craft a narrative. Consider these two narratives:

Narrative 1: Popular films boost Oscars. 

Obviously, the more popular films that get nominated, the higher the ratings. Is it really any surprise that the highest ratings of the last 10 years came in 2010 (for the 2009 films) when, uh, Avatar and Toy Story 3 were nominated? Meanwhile, the last two years had mostly sub-$50 million films, so ratings sank to their lowest since 2007’s films, which were so unpopular the Academy changed the rules entirely. With the highest box office total since 2010, it’s not a surprise ratings went up 12% this year. Not to mention, Titanic had the highest ratings of all time!

Popular films don’t really impact Oscar ratings.

Actually, it really doesn’t matter. The 2011 ratings were tremendous (10 million more viewers than this year) and the most popular film was The Help at $169 million. Or 2005. The biggest nominee that year was Brokeback Mountain (that’s a fun trivia question to stump your friends) with $83 million. And 38 million people tuned in. Sure popular films may matter, but even a juggernaut like American Sniper didn’t help boost the ratings, as they declined from the year prior. (It did way more box office than Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star is Born.) So yeah, if you care so much about Titanic and Avatar, maybe you just need an awards show devoted to James Cameron movies, and leave this awards show alone.

Why is it so easy to craft narratives? A small data set

Narratives don’t help. Instead, we need data. But data alone can’t solve our problems, and I’ll explain why. 

The Explanation 1 – Small Sample Sizes

In the realm of small sample size, everything can be true. Simultaneously. 

I weaved those paragraphs above by looking at my Oscar film table and picking high and low years, while cherrypicking the data. With annual data sets, you only get one piece of data each year, the Oscar’s telecast. 

Further, this data set is limited by history. I can’t justify including years before 1998, since that was a time period when broadcast shows like Seinfeld got ratings in the 20s. Since then—and even before—cable has been taking viewers. (Hot take: the biggest driver in the decline in broadcast ratings over the last 25 years has been cable television, not streaming.) 

Then in the middle of that data set, the Oscars expanded from 5 films to 10, then somewhere between 8 and 10 since. That means even my 20ish sample size is arguably only 10. And yeah, cord cutting started in the middle of that latter ten years. So a five year sample set? That’s small. 

The Explanation 2 – What are we measuring for?

This seems easy—popularity!—but is deceptive. Do you take viewers in millions—which is growing?—or ratings—which is declining? Or growth per year? Or rolling averages? 

Or take the biggest “input” being popularity. Obviously, box office is the best measure for popularity, because paying to see something is the truest expression of intent. But how do we measure those 5 to 10 films? 

This year, a lot of people just added up al the box office numbers to get the total box office. But clearly years with 10 films have an advantage over years that only have 8 (or 7 if one was on a streaming platform). So you could use the average to account for that, but then again one huge outlier (Avatar in 2009 or Black Panther in 2018) would throw that off. Or maybe not, since I’ve always said this is an industry dominated by logarithmic returns and the outlier could draw in more viewers.

Still, if you did want to account for the number of films appealing to the most people, you could factor in box office ranks or median box office or the number of popular or blockbuster films. All of which I did in this table (which has been updated to the last weekend of box office):

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 3.33.49 PM

The point is, I came up with 16 different ways to even ask, “is this set of films popular?” That’s partly why conflicting narratives can arise.

The Explanation 3 – So many variables

Finally, the last difficulty is that beyond popularity, quite a few variables can and do impact the ultimate TV ratings for the Oscar telecast. Off the top of my head:

– Presence of big stars in feature films

– Decline of broadcast TV ratings, in general

– Decline of broadcast TV ratings, because of cord cutting specifically

– Popularity of the host

– Quality of broadcast the previous year

– Politicization of the Oscars (cuts both ways)

– Popular films actually “contending” for Best Picture, not just nominated

And likely more. So a small sample set, with many ways to measure our variables, and a lot of potential explanations, of which most we can’t test. 

Trying to Answer the Question 

C’mon Entertainment Strategy Guy. Do or do not, there is no try. So here’s my try. 

Step 1: What is the null hypothesis? What is our hypothesis?

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