Month: September 2019

Most Important Story of the Week – 27 Sep 19: Discovery Enters the Niche Streaming Business

Well, we got more Spider-Man news. He’s back at Disney! Hurray! Get ready for 2,000 words on superheroes and…

…I can’t do it. Thankfully, another conglomerate launched another streaming network. As buzzy as Spidey is, he really only moves the needle so much. Let’s talk niche streaming. 

(And apologies for the slight delay. Had some data intensive articles last week so it took the weekend to digest the news.)

The Most Important Story of the Week – Food Network Launches Another Niche App

Right off the bat, I both love and hate this new streaming service from Food Network. Before we start, let’s summarize what I know about the company to set our terms.

– Distribution: iOS, Android and FireTV. Of the latter, it will have an “exclusive” voice partnership.

– What: A cooking app, with live cooking shows and other on-demand recipes. Eventually it will have a live call-in help service.

– Price: $7

– Other Tidbits: You can order recipes directly from the app using Amazon Fresh, Instacart and others. 

– The “pitch”: The Peloton of food

In short, I love the focus on customers and the attempt at a new experience. What I hate is that this plan relies on a few economic mistakes. 

The “love” part comes from a few things. To start, having a target segment is always right, even if you eventually need to expand to all consumers. (And you do if you can’t price discriminate in content.) Does Food Network Kitchen know who their audience is? With this application it’s people who like to cook. As the streaming wars start in earnest, niche services will have a tougher time than broadly appealing service, but if you are niche, at least have a clearly defined audience. Both Food Network Kitchen and BET+, for example, do that. That’s good.

Next, while they clearly have a strong partnership with Amazon, it isn’t exclusive when it comes to distribution. (Except for “voice interactivity”.) When I first read the headlines, I thought this wasn’t the case, and honestly if your streaming service is exclusive to any device/OS, well that’s the end of your service. (Microsoft Studios is the case study here.) This new app will be distributed on all the tablets that matter (Apple and Android) and the ones that may in the future (Amazon). 

What’s not to love? Well, the economics. In this case, it’s pricing models. Frankly, Netflix has set the perception of the value of a streaming video service at rock bottom. (Even as their prices have surreptitiously raised over time.) More importantly, they did this with a “library” of content that is broadly appealing. It’s still a bundle, it’s just their bundle. And that even includes cooking shows!

The inclusion of cooking shows on Netflix makes sense. No single cooking show or channel is worth it on it’s own, but they make the bundle as a whole more valuable. For years, I wasn’t watching anything on Food Network, but now I’m back on the Alton Brown Good Eats train. Would I subscribe to this service just for that by itself? Probably not, but it keeps from any bundle that doesn’t have cooking shows.

But that’s like, “Just your opinion, man”. Sure. To put this in context this, look at the landscape of recent subscriptions across a range of categories. Essentially, $5 is the new barrier to entry to get into streaming anything…

Table 1

Besides Luminary–another biz model I’m skeptical on–Food Network Kitchen has the most niche, smallest library in comparison. If you’re looking at all these things that cost about the same, why would you add Food Network Kitchen, if it seems like a much worse value?  If I needed another data point, I’d point to the subscription fees.

According to Dan Rayburn’s website, Food Network is a $1.75 proposition right now. On say 80 million households. If you quadruple the price, you need the audience to only decay to 25% (20 million people). Worse, what if the $7 launch price needs to go up to truly sustain the model? It only makes it harder to justify the economics. 

The counter is that this is the “premium add-on” to the Food Network experience that the truly devoted fans will sign up for. This is a compelling case; it’s a way to partially “price discriminate” for Food Network viewers. Regular fans will watch Food Network on cable or vMVPD. For the hardcore fans, they can get a ton of new content. The challenge is defining “hardcore”. If hardcore is 1% of your audience–and Food Network reaches 90 million poeple, but doesn’t have nearly that many watching–than that’s not a lot of people. 

Then you ask, “Does this premium segment even exist?” Food Network is barely about cooking anymore. It’s cooking competition shows. And baking competition shows. And diners? It turns out that entertainment is the important part, not cooking. 

Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Trust me, at this point I can hear those of you touting a hidden business model:

Licensed merchandise, right?

I’ve written on this twice before, the entertainment press and commentariat tends to drastically overstate the value of licensed merchandise. (Here and here.) First, the actual revenue a studio/network partner makes is pretty small. It’s about 5% of the total revenue of a product. If you hear projections of a firm doing $1 billion in total licensed merchandise sales, they only get $50 million of that. Which is great! And what Star Wars, Marvel and Mickey Mouse do. But is Food Network Kitchen going to generate $1 billion in total retail sales to get $50 million to run everything?

Probably not.

I’d call licensed merchandise the world’s narrowest content funnel. Especially for adults. Even more for household goods. Frankly, for all the Game of Thrones fans, only a few ever plopped down their credit card and bought things. Honestly, it’s probably 2-10% of fans. Say those numbers apply to Food Network Kitchen: 

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Why I Think Netflix Will End Up with 70 Million US Subscribers: Applying Bass Diffusion To The Streaming Wars

(Before we start, I launched a newsletter! It’s weekly and it’s short, and I explained my logic here. Sign up here.)

My goal is to try, as best I can, to explain the complicated parts of the entertainment biz, trying to walk readers through what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Unfortunately, even when I’ve tried to simplify things, I’ve gotten comments that my articles are pretty dense. That’s what happens when you don’t have an editor. 

With that preamble, today’s article is math-y.

This is about as math-y as I can get. I’ll be slinging terms like linear programming and mean absolute percentage error. To help out, I’m going to start with a BLUF (bottom line up front) so you can read my findings even if you don’t want to read my process to learn how I pulled it off.

Today is the “Bass Diffusion Model” in action. In layman’s terms, the Bass Diffusion Model is a way to calculate a “total addressable market” (TAM or “market size” in non-jargon terms) for various new products or innovations. As the headline suggests, today we’re turning our gaze towards Netflix as a stand-in for the streaming world.

BLUF – Netflix’s Market Size in the US is closer to 70 million than 90 million

When you apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US operations, the model which fits best has a market size in the United States of around 70-72 million subscribers. In other words, a saturated US market is much closer to the low end of Netflix’s projected outcome (60 million) than the high end (90 million). 

The Bass Diffusion model fits the data pretty well. My average “error” fitting the Bass Model to Netflix is 1 million for streaming only and 600K for all subscribers.

That said, applying the Bass model to Netflix isn’t perfect. First, Netflix transitioned from a DVD company to a streaming company, which is arguably two different product innovations. Second, Netflix isn’t alone in the streaming world, and we only have current Netflix subscribers in any period, and don’t know how many folks are still streaming, but no longer Netflix subscribers. Third, this is a US only model. In the future, I plan to apply the projections to the international markets (which has its own problems) and for all streamers.

The Origin Story – Seeing Bass Diffusion Applied in the early 2010s.

Going to b-school during the Qwikster debacle of 2013 made for interesting class discussions. Overnight, Netflix became a laughing stock. Yet, even with that debacle the year before, they had kept adding streaming customers. They were the growth story already—23%!—leading some early analysts to throw out huge potential market sizes. How long would this double digit growth continue for?

That’s when my professor—a marketing professor, naturally—trotted out the Bass Diffusion Model. We’d all learned this model in marketing the year before; I’d never considered applying it here. He did, and out popped a total market size: about 60 million US subscribers. The model fit really well. 

That 60 million has stuck in my head and influenced my thinking ever since. It’s why I launched this series and why I kept my annual subscriber projections a bit lower than most observers last January. Seriously, look at this chart I made back for an article on Hulu at DeciderBass doesn’t leap off as strongly as it did for Fortnite, but you can see it for Netflix and especially see it for Hulu.

Image 1 - NFLX StartFrankly, because of that one application, the 60 million subscribers point in the US felt like the point where we’d see Netflix slow down. Then, in Q2 of this year…that reality finally happened.

The good news for Netflix is the last few years have had better subscriber growth for Netflix than that old Bass model. (For those keeping score, my projection last year was probably too low.) The bad news? Well, 90 million subscribers is looking MUCH harder to reach. But instead of relying on old estimates, today is about making new ones.

The Task – Forecast Netflix Subscriber Growth in the United States

Just to be clear, my goal today is to apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US subscriber count. Why US only? Well, it has a few more data points which will make it a bit more accurate. More over, the recent slow down point gives me a bit more confidence that we’re seeing the inflection, which I’m not sure we’ve seen internationally yet. 

I’ll be building two models, though, because Netflix has actually had two products: the DVD delivery and streaming video. Unfortunately, Netflix has been a bit tricky when it releases subscriber counts, which means I needed to make some assumptions. Let’s explain those.

The Data – Netflix Subscriber Counts Over Time

To really make the Bass model work, I needed to do a lot of cleaning of my Netflix subscriber data to make sure everything I was calculating was apples-to-apples. Wait, doesn’t Netflix provide this? They do, every year. Here’s a Statista table summarizing that. Can’t we just use that?

Unfortunately, it’s a bit unreliable. When I use data, I pull it myself so I can vet it. For example, with those Statista numbers, are those numbers paid subscribers or free? Streaming only? Or all subscribers? Many tables and charts for Netflix actually mix up those categories in the same chart.

In fact, even in my chart above—the one for Decider—I did a bit of that.

So I updated all my Netflix subscriber numbers, calculating streaming and all subscribers for Netflix from the beginning of time. This took me SO long—and I had some insights into Netflix’s history from it—that I’m going to write it up as its own, probably too-in-the-weeds, article. In the meantime, just know these colors are the six different ways Netflix has revealed subscribers to investors:

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Read My Latest at Decider: Netflix Is Five Guys and Hulu Is McDonald’s: How Hamburgers Can Help Explain The Streaming Wars

In case you missed it, my latest is up over at Decider. The title may sound a little silly, but I’ve been mulling on how all the streaming services are trading off price, quality and quantity as the streaming wars get kicked off in earnest this fall. And I loaded it with information on price, number of shows and other good tidbits.

It also features probably my favorite table I’ve made this month…

image-5-price-per-1000-episodes

Most Important Story of the Week – 20 Sep 19: The WGA Keeps Their Power

Between a host of streaming TV news–Peacocks, Portals and Seinfelds oh my–and old fashioned business news–AT&T!!!–this week felt like we had a lot of options for the biggest story of the week. But let’s avoid the big conglomerates to talk about the behind-the-scenes heroes, the writers.

(Programming note: between a music festival last weekend and house guests this week, I should have taken the week off. Check out my latest guest article at Decider “Netflix is Five Guys and Hulu is McDonalds: How Hamburgers Explain the Streaming Wars”. Seriously, who else will call Disney+ the In-and-Out of the streaming wars? Otherwise, more regular writing next week.)

The Most Important Story of the Week – The WGA Stays the Course

The “news” is that David Goodman was reelected as President of the WGA West, the guild (union) responsible for TV and film writers. The margin was fairly healthy and the election shattered records.

Why is this news? Well, a slate of other writers had run against Goodman–mainly backed by Phyllis Nagy–hoping to return to the negotiating table with the agencies (and, in my opinion, likely cave on packaging fees). Goodman and team have been negotiating individually with agencies, to some degree of success. Nagy was backed–and this is important–by mainly showrunners. 

To divert from usual–where I give my take, then provide articles to “read more”–let’s flip that. In the last few weeks, three long reads/listens prepared me for today’s column. Taken together, they really do illuminate the battle lines for this conflict.

– KCRW’s “The Business” with “Dueling” Interviews on “The Battle for the WGA” with Kim Masters

LA Review of Books, “A Fight in Hollywood” by Alessandro Camon

Variety, Why the WGA-Agents Battle Has Yet to Significantly Impact TV Dealmaking by Michael Schneider

A line stuck out to me from The Business podcast but Angelina Burnett. In her words, negotiations are about power and who has it. Being “friendly” or “reasonable” doesn’t matter if you don’t have the power. In my experience, um, yep! Understanding this fact probably explains why the writers and agencies have been and will be at it for a while.

Historically, the agencies have the power. Especially the big three really of CAA, WME and UTA. They know they can leverage the power their gradual consolidation gave them into bigger projects for their client, and bigger paychecks for themselves. (By the way, the idea that negotiations are all about power is the life blood of agencies, so they shouldn’t be too upset by this take.) As a result, they’ve tried less and less hard to get all the writers paid. Partly because it’s gotten harder to negotiate with similarly consolidated media conglomerates.

But then all the writers fired their agents. They were pretty fed up and that was a power move. As long as the WGA stuck together. The only bid really the agencies had to stop this was to turn the writers against each other, which they tried to do. Especially by focusing on the showrunners, who the big three agencies tend to represent. But this week showed that the writers really are behind their union’s push to end packaging fees. 

Well, mostly behind it. There is that 10% or so of the WGA that are showrunners and are fine with packaging fees. (And the group they convinced to vote with them.) And this divide between the top 10% of the guild and the bottom 90% is why this fight really does stand in for current American politics/economics and why it will drag on. (Go to the LA Review of Books article by Camon for that great take.)

At the end of the day, if packaging fees end, the showrunners–who currently don’t have to pay 10% of their earnings–will essentially see a “tax” on their earnings. Of 10%. That’s a lot! If Shonda Rhimes makes $250 million on her overall deal, that’s $25 million she’d have to pay her agents. Really, that’s the trade off for the agencies: collect packaging fees and don’t take 10% of showrunner salaries, or vice versa. But that money still comes from somewhere, and that likely meant lower salaries for newer writers over time.

That’s why KCRW had such a tough time finding a candidate running for the WGA board to come on the show.  Or any of the showrunners who signed the letter backing that slate. It’s hard to get millionaires to go public with the idea that they want to keep not paying taxes on their millions. Again, that’s a hard position to defend, the way defending lower taxes for millionaires is increasingly harder in today’s economy. And usually the defenders of “lower taxes” find tertiary issues to argue over instead (taxes are pro-growth or the rival WGA slate wanted “reasonableness”.)

Looking at this through the economics/strategy lense, I keep coming back to those millions of dollars. And that’s why I don’t see this stalemate ending. When it comes down to taking millions of dollars, well the folks you’re taking it from will fight back. 

The ironic part is that the Hollywood business as usual train keeps businessing as usual. That’s the point of the Michael Schneider piece and really what could end this conflict. Shows need to keep being made–and making money–so people will do that work. Including some smaller tier agencies. Or manager or entertainment lawyers or even showrunners themselves. Even if the networks worry about a slowdown, at the end of the day, they’ll get business done if they have to. Which comes back to the power issue. If you lose your power–and the WGA didn’t get lose any, but the agencies may have–then it gets a lot harder to negotiate.

M&A Updates –  AT&T Has an Activist Investor

Let’s see if I get the last week of AT&T stories right…

– Last week, AT&T announced further subscriber declines, even larger than last quarter.

– An activist hedge fund publishes an open letter calling for changes at AT&T.

– The hedge fund also leaks it wants DirecTV sold and doesn’t want John Stankey succeeding to the CEO spot.

– Then there is a shareholder class action lawsuit over fake DirecTV Now accounts.

– AT&T in response hires Goldman Sachs to defend itself.

– AT&T backs Stankey, but then news leaks that even more folks are leaving HBO in the next few months.

– This morning, AT&T actually considers selling DirecTV. By the afternoon, no they aren’t.

That’s just the last week.

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Most Important Story of the Week – 13 September 2019: Debunking Some Apple Myths

This is my third try writing this week’s column. Apple TV+ is clearly the “most important story” this week since it’s Apple’s entry into the streaming wars. That’s like the United States entering World War II. What did my first two takes look like?

Attempt 1: An article about “ecosystems”, since that was the explanation du jour of the week. I wrote too much for this column.

Attempt 2: Really calling folks out for not digging into Apple’s financials. But that required me to do them too, which took too long for this week’s column. That’s an analysis article.

Still, I had so many thoughts on Apple that we’ll have enough for thoughts on Apple TV+/Channels today and in the future. Don’t worry.

(Programming note: I’m traveling for a music festival—Kaaboo 2019, the film festival for the middle-aged. Seriously, that’s how the bill it—so if I make any mistakes, I was rushed. And I’ll have my newsletter next week! Sign up now!)

Most Important Story of the Week – Debunking Some Apple TV+ Myths

Reading the coverage of Apple TV+’s pricing announcement, the media ecosystem swung from “$10 is way too expensive” to “$5 wins the content wars” immediately. That sort of surprised me. Bit of an overreaction, wouldn’t you say? Along the way, too, I noticed a lot of observers leveraging a lot of the same explanations and even numbers to explain the news. 

Let’s debunk a couple of those. Plus, I’ll add in the strategic risks for Apple implied by these mistakes. First, though, a new product that actually does make sense.

Apple Arcade Solves a Customer Problem: No in-app purchases

I play a few more iPad games then I probably want to admit. I loath pay-to-play, though. Just not how I was brought up to play games and the best games don’t feature this mechanic, in my opinion. Apple Arcade, their subscription video game service, solves this problem. Potentially. Right now, they probably don’t have enough games to warrant a subscription, but like all new businesses it will grow. And I hate subscription biz models anyways (for customers). So we’ll see. 

However, compared to Apple TV+, at least Arcade solves a customer need. Now how many customers are like me–which is market sizing–is a future question. But at least it solves a problem; it isn’t clear that folks were clamoring for more TV to subscribe to.

Debunking One: Apple TV+ is free. 

This is kind of true, in that yes, if you buy an Apple device, the service is free. But I saw tons of folks saying this free first year meant that Apple made it essentially free. That’s too far.

After a year, customers will need to start paying. I assume some others assumed that if customers buy multiple devices, they can keep stacking on year long free trials, but that doesn’t sound like any free trial I’ve ever seen. Most likely, after a year, the device that logged the free 12 months will have to start paying. And that, my friends, is where the true test of a business starts.

Strategic Risk for Apple: The Promotional Carousel Is Hard to Get Off.

Ask DirecTV or Hulu how offering ridiculously low prices worked for customer churn. Even if Apple doesn’t report subscriber numbers—they probably won’t—we’ll be able to tell by the discounts Apple does or doesn’t offer whether or not churn is happening.

Debunking Two: Apple will have 250 million potential customers.

This number is in fact true. It’s roughly how many iOS devices Apple sells per year. Roughly. The implications are not.

But is number of devices really the potential market? Consider two things. First, many families are on Apple’ plans. Which means even if the family owns four devices, or bought four, they’re still only subscribing once. More critically, look at this chart from Business Insider on iPhone sales.

58d04a02112f701f008b57db-750-563

Huh. So the US portion is really 70 million phones per year, with another chunk of iPad and laptops, which I didn’t see reported anywhere. Everyone breathlessly went with the 250 million. Sure, Apple TV+ is launching in 100 countries, does that include China? It’s notoriously hard to launch content in China, and Netflix and Amazon aren’t there. So I’m skeptical. Overall, if you’re discussing Apple’s plans, be very careful about mixing up US-focused strategies and global numbers.

(Bonus chart. During research, I found this amazing chart at Asymco. It should look familiar.)

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The Bass Diffusion Model…Explained! The Most Important Shape of the Streaming Wars

(Before we start, I launched a newsletter! It’s weekly and it’s short, and I explain my logic here. In today’s social media age, it can be hard to keep up with independent writers like myself so my newsletter will link to all my writings at every outlet and the best stories I read on entertainment strategy each week. Sign up here.)

Here’s three articles. See if you can spot the underlying mistake. An implicit prediction about the future given the facts…

From Variety about CBS All-Access:

IMAGE 1 - CBSAA 50 percent

From Fierce Video about Roku:

IMAGE 2 - Fierce Video Roku

From Decider about Hulu:

IMAGE 3 - Hulu Decider

In each case, a new company is growing wildly. Not just wildly, but 40-50% growth. Which is excellent growth if you can get it.

Implicit, though, is optimism about this growth. This high growth will continue. And the growth is specifically compared to Netflix—entertainment’s boogey man—usually to (again) imply that these companies will overtake or match the streaming giant because of the double digit growth.

This is wrong!

But it isn’t unusual. Frankly, as humans, we tend to believe that patterns continue at their current rate. We like our trend lines to be linear. Stated in layman’s terms, we like straight lines on graphs. Unfortunately, reality is often curved.

Fortunately, though, we know what the curve should look like. One key shape shows not how unique those three companies mentioned above are, but how very, very ordinary that type of growth is. That shape, though, isn’t linear. It’s a double curve and it is one of the most well studied models in marketing and business.

It’s called the Bass Diffusion Model. Today, I’m going to explain what it is, how it works and show a few examples. My goals isn’t to teach you how to use it (we don’t have that type of time), but to recognize it when you see it. Then, over the next week or so, on other outlets and social, I’m going to release some examples. 

To start, though, let’s dig deeper into the problem above.

The Problem – Growth Doesn’t Work This Way

A few years back, I sat in a company-wide “all hands” meeting, and I saw the head of our entertainment group roll out a slide. Our streaming venture was pretty new overall. But we’d had fairly strong growth in the last year, building off growth the year before. Our growth was growing! Here’s a version of the graph he showed, and the numbers have been changed to protect the innocent. 

Image 4 - The Hypothetical

The key numbers are the growth rates between periods 4 & 5, and 5 & 6. Initially, customers are growing slowing. But then the numbers double in year 5. That’s great. And then they increase by 15 units in period six. Again, sixty percent growth, which is even better. The next part stunned me. The executive literally added a dashed line into the future which looked like this.

IMAGE 5 - Exec Projection

That’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? Your growth isn’t just growing, but accelerating as your business matures. To emphasize—because as I type this I shake my head so hard in disbelief I may throw my neck out—this was an executive setting expectations for his entire company/business division, and he expected his subscriber base to double and then triple in the next few years.

As soon as I saw his graph, though, I drew my own chart mentally in my head. I’d seen that sort of growth before in text books and business case studies and in the press, and far from watching growth accelerate further, I thought it would slow down…

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Introducing the Entertainment Strategy Guy Newsletter

Wait, do you REALLY need another newsletter. Probably not. Peak newsletter baby!

Let me defend why you should add just one more email to your already considerable deluge. Then I’ll give you the details.

In My Defense – Why You Need Another Newsletter

Here’s my guess as to how 95% of my readers start their work day. They come into the office, go to their desk, and turn on their computer. Then they open their email program of choice.

Then they read and answer emails. All damn day.

Am I wrong? Maybe. I’d love to imagine a small sub-segment who says, “Nope, I review my to do list, then complete my most important work task before turning on email.” But that’s not happening. If I’m wrong, it’s more likely that a lot of people woke up and the first thing they did was open their phone to see if they had any emails from work to read. (Then, Twitter.) 

That’s why newsletters have taken off among a certain psychographic set. They deliver news via the (dark) social media platform of necessity and convenience. This is especially true with the professionals—across entertainment, media, tech, academia—that I consider my core target audience.

Without a newsletter, I have to rely on folks 1. Stumbling across articles in their never-ending Twitter or Linked-In scroll, or 2. Remembering that good website they read once and hopefully bookmarked. (Do people even still bookmark websites?)

Even if you remember to return back to my website regularly, did you know I published at Decider or Linked-In or The Ankler? Probably not. Instead, let’s just be sure you can find all my stuff every week. And a very short newsletter is the best way to deliver on that promise. I’ve also heard from a few readers who want this service.

The Newsletter – What It Is

Here are the details on the newsletter:

Distribution – Substack

I looked at a few options and liked their combination of features, volume and pricing the best. 

Content

The newsletter will have links to all my writing of the last week. This is across all the outlets I’m writing for, including my website, guest articles, Linked-In articles and really good Twitter Threads. 

Plus, it will have the “media” related recommendations from my weekly column. So my “long read of the week”, “listen of the week” and “newsletter of the week” will end up here. This should hopefully make my weekly column a bit shorter.

As a result, the “Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads” will drop the “good reads” portion to focus on news and opinions including, “Most Important Story of the Week”, “Other Candidates”, “Data of the Week”, “Entertainment Strategy Guy Updates” and “Lots of News with No News”. 

Timing?

Once per week, weekly. No more. It will go out Monday in the AM covering the previous week’s stories. 

Price

Free. 

Is this locked in stone?

No. I wish I could say that my newsletter will be free for always. I debated making that bold claim.

But I need to make a living writing. With my guest articles for certain outlets, I’m getting there and I hope to add advertising in the future (FYC related), but if my weekly column is getting enough traction, I can’t rule out monetizing it. In the near future, though, this is the plan.

How do I subscribe?

Go here, and sign up. Hit me up if you run into any trouble. There is currently one sample draft from this week to review. I plan to keep about 4 to five emails up in the archives at Substack.

How do I help out?

Tell your friends. When the newsletter comes out, since it is free, forward it to everyone you think will find it interesting. Reply to a company wide email chain with the link and say, “Hey you should all read this.” (Kidding. Don’t do that. And never reply “Unsubscribe” to an email chain.)

I do appreciate everyone who has spread the word so far and will keep doing so.

Most Important Story of the Week – 6 September 2019: Quibi, Quibi, Quibi

Welcome to September. The kids are back in school, football is starting, and award season is bearing down on us like the Huns invading Rome. Meanwhile, the streaming wars will have their first battles, “The Invasion of Netflix-Land” by Disney’s 4th Army across the land will be joined Apple’s Airborne Channel Brigades. 

Meanwhile, one of the most talked about companies isn’t launching until…I still don’t know? And since I haven’t mentioned them, they get the top spot.

The Most Important Story of the Week – Quibi, Quibi, Quibi

Let’s take the Quibi story and change the name.

“Starting next year, NBC-Universal is launching MeeshMosh, a subscription short-form video on demand service designed for mobile. They have signed deals with top tier talent like JJ Abrams, Jordan Peele, and Greg Daniels. This will cost $5 a month with ads and $8 without. NBC-Universal plans to spend billions on this content in just the first year.”

To be clear, that is NOT true. I made it up. But if I presented that business model to you a year ago, would you have been ready to declare it the next champion of the streaming wars? No, right?

But that’s just the Quibi pitch with a different company. I can’t prove it but I don’t think that the current crop of Quibi fans would be as supportive of the NBC-Universal version of Quibi as the Quibi version of Quibi. What does Quibi have that NBC-Universal doesn’t? 

I can think of two things. First, NBC-Universal is legacy media and entertainment. And some observers just disdain anything that reeks of old Hollywood. The future is new and tech and disruptive, which is hard when you’re run by a cable company.

Second, is the “who”. You can’t read an article about Quibi without the inevitable mentions of Jeffrey Katzenberg. He is Quibi. Followed closely by Meg Whitman (of eBay, Hewlett-Packard and gubernatorial campaigns fame). Clearly a lot of the fandom of Quibi doesn’t reflect optimism over the product or content, but a bet on the founders being able to make good content and release a good product.

That’s why the news of the week is just a tad concerning. Over the last two weeks, the head of partnerships (Tim Connolly) and the head of news (Janice Min) left Quibi before it even launched. Listen, I don’t value any individual employee, even CEOs, super highly. Usually, the data is too noisy to draw judgements. But I don’t like “exoduses”. Two isn’t an exodus, but any more and we’ll start to wonder if Quibi is going HBO on us. 

Would folks have a reason to leave? These quotes from Dylan Byer’s scoop in his newsletter worry me:

Min had frustrations with Katzenberg’s management style, the sources said. The Hollywood mogul, though widely respected, is also known for being headstrong and relentlessly opinionated…

So if the strength of Quibi was its team, but that team isn’t actually functioning, what is its strength? Short form content? Do we not remember Vessel? Or Go90? YoutubeRed? Sure, a subscription for Hulu, Disney+ or Netflix at $8 makes sense–that’s long-form video–but do people want to pay for short form content they can mostly get for free?

Of course, Vessel, Luminary and Youtube all had/have different content strategies and pricing. Maybe Quibi will be the right mix of price and content to drive subscribers. But I’m skeptical.

(Josef Adalian has a good long read on Quibi’s plans here.)

Entertainment Strategy Guy Retraction Watch – Disney+ Vault Edition

Since I’ve called out others for potentially bad data, I should do the same self-reflection. Last week I heavily speculated that when Disney+ launches, it may be missing a few of its classic films and quite a few Pixar films. I did this based on a list of confirmed films at the LA Times and Bob Iger’s statements in the last earnings report. 

A few readers pointed out some other sources of information contradicting this assessment. In particular, at Disney’s Investor Day, they said the 13 “signature” films would make it on the service. I updated my Part II last week this data. Then, as the week went on, I discovered a few new data sources…

The New Data

On last week’s TV Top Five, Lesley Goldberg said that Disney said at D23 that the 13 signature films would be available on Disney+. If they repeated the 13 films at launch at D23, that’s pretty definitive, though it still leaves the newer Pixar and newer Disney films in the air.

Then, I read this great article from The Verge’s Julia Alexander reviewing Disney’s UX and platform from a D23 demo (which is worth a read). It doesn’t have any screenshots of films that weren’t in the LA Times announcement. Which could mean nothing, or could mean some of those films won’t be available at launch, as I initially speculated. 

The Chasm of Silence

The other data is the “dogs not barking” scenario. Which is I put up an article–and though my readership is small–I haven’t heard anything from Disney’s communications people. If they know I’m wrong, why leave out bad information? To further the silence piece, if Bob Iger knew that Disney’s 13 most important animated films will be available at launch, why not mention that along with the 8 Star Wars and 4 Marvel films? It seems like an obvious point to make.

My Explanation

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If “Content is King”, who is everyone else?

As soon as you start learning about the business of entertainment, you learn this aphorism.

“Content is King”.

I yell this from the rooftops too. I learned it so early that I can’t even credit one specific class or book or article with it. Searching my articles, I found that I wrote it on 5 different occasions in just the last year. It feels so true for me, that I won’t ever bother to quantify it or prove it analytically. Principally, I don’t think it’s something you can “prove”, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. 

However, it makes a great question: if content is king, what the heck is everything else? 

That’s what I’m going to try to do today. To explain which different business functions are who on the entertainment chess board. Chess is a game of war, and these are the streaming wars, right?

King – Content

The obvious first choice. Or is it?

If the chess analogy is true, the King on his own can’t win you the game. In fact, he does hardly anything in a typical chess match. He runs from his problems, just hoping to avoid getting trapped in a corner.

Yet, content is fundamentally an offensive tool. It’s on the attack, conquering viewership in box office, ratings points or whatever streamers feel like telling us. That sounds a lot like the Queen, the unstoppable killing machine moving any direction she damn well feels like on the board. As I thought about it, in terms of power/influence, the Queen is best analogue to content’s ability to shape the competitive landscape.

Let’s use the King for something else then. The endgame for a chess match is check mate. If the King dies, you lose the game. You’re out of business. What’s the one thing if you don’t have, you go out of business? Cash. Money. Financing. So…

King – Content Finance

Finance shouldn’t run any company—that’s the player moving the pieces in this super-extended analogy—but they are the rulers, usually, at the end of the day. And lots of great companies have succeeded simply through clever financing. Even if the finance folks don’t run the business, they’re usually second or third in charge. So the King is finance.

Queen – Content

Content is what enables everything else. If you don’t have great content, no matter how well you leverage the other pieces, you’ll be at a disadvantage, just like losing your queen in an unequal trade. And if you ever doubt if content is powerful, well, look at Disney’s movie slate. So the Queen is content.

Bishop – Distribution

After you learn that “content is king”, you learn that it is locked in a war with distribution. The battle gets phrased as the question, “What’s more important, content or distribution?”

In a classroom, both sides can be right trying to answer that question. Even if you end up deciding content is more important, you can’t deny that distribution can make or break your strategy. Right from the start. That’s why I made distribution “the Bishop”, the piece who is the most valuable at the start of a chess match.

Distribution isn’t the most powerful piece remaining—that’s the Rooks—but it sits next to the Queen of content and King of finance in the middle of the board. If you get down to just a one Bishop at the end of the game, you’ll have a damn hard time trying to checkmate your opponent. The way you can have great distribution, and bad content, and hence no viewership.

I also like it because Bishop’s are incredibly useful, in a misdirection sort of way. The Bishop never comes at you straight on, but from the side. Distribution is the same way. Most consumers don’t think about the deals a major studio signs to distribute their content, but happen to stumble upon it on their streamer of choice. Netflix convincing the studios to give it library content or the Pac 12 failing to get DirecTV distribution are examples of how distribution can make or break business models. Consumers may be aware of these squabbles, but often times they are oblivious to these conflicts.

I also like the historical symbolism of the chess board. For much of human history, power was a battle between rulers and religion, monarchs and bishops, like content versus distribution.

Knight – UX [Technology]

Before we go too much further, I should admit I’m not very good at chess. If you’re a former military officer, this is like admitting you don’t like running or short haircuts. But there, I said it.

I’m not a good programmer either, but I know good user experience (UX) when I see it. In fact, everyone does, if a current survey by PwC is true (and yeah, just one survey). But despite that survey and the blaring headline, UX isn’t more powerful than the money or the content or the distribution of said content. 

But once you have a platform—especially in the internet age—understanding how consumers engage with your technology is key. If that experience sucks—fine, is “suboptimal”—than customers don’t want to come back. Sometimes even the best content can overcome this, but only so much. 

Knights are thus the UX or technology of the chess match. They can really screw up your strategy by taking the queen off the board. But they can only hop two spaces forward and one to the side, so they aren’t the most flexible weapon. And they are slow to escape from a battle, like how UX is hard to update once you’ve screwed it up.

Rook – Marketing

You can’t watch a show you’ve never heard of. That seems simple enough. Usually, the best way to overcome this is brute force spending of marketing dollars. Marketing is a blunt tool. It fires straight at consumers, despite the dreams of targeted addressable marketing, it is still usually one trailer for everyone. 

Which is as blunt as a rook marching straight ahead or to the side. Moreover, Rooks get most of the action at the end of the game, the same way that marketing only starts once the content is finished and ready to roll out of the gate. 

And yet, the power! A great marketing campaign will ensure a TV show or movie gets launched. (Check out the buzz around The Mandalorian–in my opinion a well-made trailer–to see how good trailers can make a show or film.) And that trailer will make or break the content it is supporting. Good marketing can build buzz and bad marketing can end it. Losing your rooks recklessly can end your game too. Marketing is the Rooks.

Pawns – Research, Business Affairs, Business Development/Sales

It takes a village to be a studio, but I only had five major pieces to work with. (I guess I could have split the board in half, but eh.) 

Everyone else is a Pawn. Which sounds bad in our nomenclature—being someone’s Pawn means being manipulated—but yeah most of the other groups are manipulated for content’s ends.