Month: November 2019

The Great Irishman Challenge – The Specific Assumptions for The Irishman Part III

(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)

Tomorrow, we start to get data for the Great Irishman Challenge. Well, we don’t, but it will hit screens everywhere as Netflix releases it and presumably places it front and center on everyone’s Netflix homepage. One of our goals with this project is to set our criteria ahead of time, this way we aren’t back-fitting the results to our preconceived notions about Netflix. 

Now that we have our models for valuing film explained and re-explained, it’s time to fill in the specifics. Today, I’m going to lay out what we know about The Irishman before it launches. I’ll update some assumptions on the model and revenue streams from some feedback. Then I’ll describe two key inputs for the streaming model—Customer Lifetime Value and Attribution of Subscribers. Plus, I’ll touch on how I plan to triangulate popularity after The Irishman launches, which may evolve as we get more data or potential partners. Finally, I’ll talk about the benefits for this model and how I plan to draw insights from it in December.

Assumption 1: Production Budget

Discussing with Richard, we think this is high. Super high. A pretty good summary of this is Jeff Sneider’s take on his Collider podcast a few months back (episode 11 specifically at minute 54):

“I’ve seen [The Irishman budget] figures from $125, $140, $150, $160, $175, $200 million for The Irishman. If you go on Deadline you can read an article that says the budget is $140 and then two hours later another writer is under a completely different impression and says it’s $200 million. No one is on the same page on the budget for this film. And let me tell you what that means. It means the budget is way f***ing higher than any of you are imagining.”

Gosh, that type of cynicism about PR efforts exactly matches my own. If you hear tons of different numbers that can’t seem to decide how much something cost, well the likeliest option is that it was WAY WAY WAY more. At a minimum, this is a $200 million dollar film. And I’m going to do some scenario modeling up to even $300 million. Which means I’ll split the difference and call it a $250 million dollar movie.

Is this ridiculous? Not so much when you think about it. Consider, what does it cost to get Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci (out of retirement) on a film set? Especially if you’re buying out all the backend, which Netflix had to do since there aren’t any second window revenue opportunities here. (Which is cool too because it simplifies my model.) If I told you between those four it cost $100 million in talent costs, would you blink an eye? Is $150 million too high? I’m assuming $125 million in talent costs.

Then we can add in the extra production costs. This was a very long shoot. (I saw 300 days somewhere.) And then it was as VFX-intensive as some Marvel movies due to the de-aging process, which also required extra work because initial versions didn’t work. (Sneider lays out this situation with great details in his podcast.) This film required a VFX push to get finished in time for launch at the New York film festival, meaning it ran up tons of overtime. Does that sound like $125 million in costs? Absolutely. If not more.

Assumption 2: Marketing Budget

The Irishman will have two marketing budgets. First, the initial roll out. I looked for estimates online and didn’t find a ton. That said, I’ve seen billboards, online ads and even commercial spots. Which screams definitely something, but less than a franchise tentpole roll out. I’d say it’s probably between $50-$100 million, and since I went high with the production budget, I’ll go low here.

(Also, to echo Richard Rushfield’s “see something; say something” if you know a better number for the marketing budget, shoot me a line.)

Then we have the Oscar budget, which is a little bit harder to disentangle. Already, Netflix has started their awards campaigning, but has specifically tied many of their films together, from A Marriage Story to The Irishman. We know from Richard’s reporting that Netflix likely spent over $50 million on Roma’s Oscar campaign last year. They look likely to beat that again. The question is, will they spend $50 million just on The Irishman, or split it with A Marriage Story? Both are getting rave reviews, and I think Netflix is desperate for a Best Picture win. I’m going to end up calling it about $40 million for The Irishman alone.

Assumption 3: Profit Sharing and other revenue streams

We have a few categories here, so let’s run through them.

Library Value? Yep. 

I added library value, assuming the retention model is the equivalent of the theatrical window. Meaning it sets the “price” of the film. Then, we can our theatrical financial model to value library windows. Meaning, the “value” to Netflix for the film after the initial release. To provide an example, Bird Box got most its viewership in the first month, but folks will keep watching it out on Netflix for years. That has a value, which is the “library” value. Using my theatrical model, I’m assuming library value of 25% of first window value. (Specifically, the 10% “digital” revenue for theatrical films is about 25% of the the free, cable, syndicated TV, pay TV and digital second window buckets.)

Box Office Bump? Yep.

If a Netflix film wins a Best Picture, or even gets nominated, that will result in boost in viewership. I’ve seen that for past film and TV series for major awards series. For most Netflix films, this isn’t worth a line in the model, but for this one it is. In this case, I’ll use a 25% threshold of the initial window for the Best Picture bump. This will have a “halo” effect on the library window as well.

Second Windows? None.

Since Netflix films are exclusive to the streamer, every other potential window from home entertainment to licensing to cable channels is a zero in my model. This simplifies our model.

Merchandise? None.

Mobster films don’t really sell a lot of merchandise. Especially brand new films without fan bases or cultural cachet. 

Distribution Fees? None.

Since there aren’t second window or merchandise revenue to shield from profit participation, I don’t need to model any Netflix distribution or marketing fees.

Talent participation? Some.

Initially, I didn’t have any profit sharing, but then I got a note that Netflix for super-duper-huge stars did put a bonus system in place for feature films. Basically, if you hit a certain viewership level, you get a 20% bonus in your paycheck. So I’ve updated the model with that assumption in place, assuming that 80 million views (or “one Bird Box”) is the threshold.

Assumption 4: Calculate CLV

It’s crucial have to a good estimate for customer lifetime value. These are calculated fairly often by other people (see estimates here, here, or here). My difference is I don’t factor in content costs because I’m trying to value the content itself. If I did factor them in, I’d be double counting content costs, and that’s a huge “no-no” in accounting.

So here are my inputs for CLV. First, blended average price per month comes from Netflix’s 10Ks. Customer retention estimates come from various sources, including Second Measure. Crucially, though, I have a much lower rate for international because I’ve heard the churn machine is very high overseas. Finally, I use other estimates of Netflix’s marketing spend for customer acquisition costs. All this leads us to:

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The Great Irishman Challenge – How to Calculate the Straight-to-Streaming Film Profitability? Part II

(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)

On Monday, I explained the grand plan of Richard Rushfield and I plan to estimate the value of future Netflix films, starting with The Irishman, out earlier this month in limited theatrical release, but coming to the world’s biggest streamer next Wednesday. For traditionally released theatrical films with normal second windows, we have a robust model we can employ. 

What about streaming only? Well, that’s where it gets tricky.

A lot of folks do some back of the envelope math for this, and this can be a useful way to look at the problem of valuing streaming. Take Richard’s approach from a few weeks, back looking at Disney films that had been in theaters after 3 weeks (when Netflix pulls them from streaming). Of all the films, Disney earned roughly $310 million after 3 weeks of theatrical distribution. That’s the equivalent, Richard noted, of 4.3 million customers subscribing for 12 months on Disney+. If that number seems big, it should be, which shows the value of theatrical releases for studios.

Could we just take that approach and just apply it to The Irishman? Unfortunately, it has some flaws, mainly double counting subscribers. We need a different method to employ in “The Great Irishman Challenge”. Unlike traditionally released films, in steaming there are a few ways to value a given title’s performance, and each method has its own pros and cons, ranging from crippling to merely difficult to over come. 

Which I’ll (re)explain today, along with describing which ones are fine, which ones are incorrect, and which ones I prefer. At the end, I’ll explain which one we’re using.

Four Ways to Value Streaming Video and One Way NOT To

I’ve previously valued streaming video in two articles. First, back in January, I looked at Disney’s decision to keep theatrical windows for Star Wars films. Second, back in May, I explained streaming video models in order to put a value to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Today’s article will explain all the models from those two articles and add a new method I figured out how to calculate last month. (I had employed this method at a previous employer, but needed a key piece of data, as you’ll see.)

For each of these methods, I’m going to assume that Netflix had a feature film that was seen by 40 million subscribers in the first 28 days, divided evenly between the US and international. The film cost $115 to make and Netflix spent $50 million to market it. As for box office? Let’s say it had $120 million in the US and $80 million globally.

Sub-Optimal Method #1: Multiply Customers by Month by Price

This is the most common method of “back of the envelope” valuations I’ve seen for Netflix films. Usually, you hear folks do a version of this on podcasts, and I’ve seen it for Lord of The Rings on Amazon a few different times. Also, you could do “customer years” the way Richard did above. Here’s how the model for this approach would look:

IMAGE 7 By Viewers per Month

The problems? First, this is one-quarter of Netflix’s subscriber base attributed to a film in one month, which would probably be one-third of their active users. In other words, if Netflix had two other properties getting similar ratings, then every other film released that month would “financially” be a net loser. Second, this approach doesn’t account for “customer lifetime value”, which is really the better approach to valuing customers, versus the one month or 12 month view. Third, this approach doesn’t distinguish between films and TV series total hours of viewing (because it is just subscribers) so it’s tilted towards films, which are shorter and easier to finish.

Still, you can use this to ballpark how long a film would need to make its money back. It’s just sub-optimal because of double counting.

Sub-Optimal Method #2: Attribute Customers by Usage

One of the interesting ways to look at content is to think about what percentage of viewership a title makes up of all the viewership on your platform. If 10% of all hours watched are your platform are Friends, that has to mean something. The challenge is knowing how much people actually watch on Netflix. Netflix has helpfully told us twice (twice!) that they stream about 100 million hours daily in the United States. That means I can calculate potential usage of a TV series or film! That would look like this:

IMAGE 8 by Usage

The problems? First, getting the usage data is really tough. For films, we’d have a pretty easy time, but for TV series, we really don’t know how many people watch how many episodes. And getting usage numbers for Amazon or Hulu may be nearly impossible. Second, it also doesn’t factor in “customer lifetime value”. Third, it over-weights TV library content because there is just a lot more to watch, hence it’s “usage” is much higher, if you can get that viewership data. 

Still, you can use this to compare the usage of various shows and movies. It’s just sub-optimal because it’s tilted to shows with much longer runs.

The Bad Method: Multiplying Subscribers by Customer Lifetime Value

I’ve seen this mentioned in places, though running them down is tough on Twitter. So this may be a strawman, but it’s worth pointing out in case it hits anyone to do. Twice, I’ve criticized valuation methods because they don’t use customer lifetime value. You may be tempted, then to just take the number of subscribers and multiply by CLV instead. Like this:

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The Great Irishman Challenge – How to Calculate Feature Film Profitability? Part I

(For the last few weeks, I’ve been debuting a series of articles answering a question posed to me by The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield: Will The Irishman Make Any Money? It’s a great question because it gets as so many of the challenges of the business of streaming video. Read the rest here, here, here and here.)

Chatting with the esteemed Richard Rushfield a few months back—we share sensibilities on Hollywood and the (hashtag) streaming wars—he pitched me a straight forward question. Could we build a model that can answer this deceptively simple challenge:

Did The Irishman make money for Netflix?

It’s a good question because the buzz for The Irishman from critics has been so positive. From what I can tell—based on “film Twitter” reactions—this would be the greatest film ever made by man, except that with this masterpiece Martin Scorsese has elevated from mere mortal to filmmaking demigod.

It would be cool to know if Netflix made any money off it.

Which is pretty tough. I mean, we don’t even know the ratings for Netflix films…how can we determine if they are profitable? It will be hard, but to quote a famous president, we write these articles not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

So you know what? Richard and I are taking the law into our own hands. Yeah, we paint houses, with financial models and data hacks! 

Later this week, in The Ankler newslettersubscribe here for the must read newsletter—Richard will explain our purpose, reasoning and goals to start this project early. Today, I’m going start explaining how we’ll develop a “Feature Film Profitability Score”. In previous articles, I’ve pretty much built the models needed for this analysis. Now, I’m just combining them with a little special sauce. 

Moreover, we’re doing all this ahead of time. We’re not judging The Irishman based on preconceived notions, but based on its actual performance. Moreover, once we build this capability, we can leverage it for future releases on many streaming platforms.

Here’s what today’s article will explain:

– The specific profitability score we’re creating.
– The four models of film release in the streaming era.
– A quick review of the traditional film model.
– Some notes on competing theatrical film models.

The “bottom line up front” is that combining my methods for valuing theatrically-released films and streaming video, we can make a model of success depending on either box office results or streaming popularity. While the last seems unknown, using some publicly available data—mainly Google Trends, potentially other third party survey data, or even Netflix datecdotes—we can make guesses on popularity.

The Goal: A “Feature Film Profitability Score”

At the end of the day, the goal is to keep this project simple. So Richard asked if I could boil this down to one (1!) number for every film—streaming or theatrical—that determines, “How profitable was this?”

Well, I failed, but I have this down to 2 numbers. Let me explain why. The obvious start is that a film can make a lot of money. This is good. Making nearly $2 billion dollars on Avengers: Endgame, Avatar, or Titanic matters. That’s a lot of money. 

But you don’t just want raw totals. If it costs $1 billion to make $1.5 billion, that’s not as good of a value for investors as making a film for $200 million that makes $700 million. Same raw total, but one required less up front capital. This is a quick definition of ROI, by the way. The Joker is currently the ROI golden child of the trades. The all-time ROI club is films such as Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, or Saw that still fill the dreams of indie horror producers everywhere. 

If you wanted a quad chart of success, you could see this:

IMAGE 1 Profitability Quad ChartEssentially, films in the upper right are living the dream. Films in the lower right made a lot of money, but not a great return on investment. Films in the upper left made some money (they aren’t all negative), but had great ROI, meaning they were likely cheap but just not as big as some other films. And don’t be in the lower left—though most films are—which means you aren’t making money period. The majority of films in the current climate end up there. Combining these two numbers—with other metrics I’ll explain—brings us to this scorecard we’ll give The Irishman:

Ankler Image - Feature Film Profitability ScoreBeside the two promised numbers, I have four “breakeven numbers” for streaming films in particular. That’s because “breakeven” is easy for feature films (make more money than you cost), but with streaming the challenge is “what is making money”. I’ll explain those in the last section, but before we get there, we have to explain why I needed to build a new model in the first place.

The Four Models of Film Distribution in the Streaming Era

It’s no surprise that film distribution is changing. And commonly, we say, “Hey Netflix is skipping theaters.” That’s decision number one: to go to theaters or not; Netflix opts not; Amazon (formerly) and traditional studios opt in. Financial modeling wise, that’s an easy decision to calculate.

The tougher part to keep track of—and it is neglected in the media coverage—is the second window and beyond distribution plan. (I’m calling everything from home entertainment to Pay Per View to TVOD/EST to linear licensing to streaming licensing “second windows” for simplicity.) See, a new streamer like Apple is going to put its movies in theaters, but then—from what I understand—release it to Apple TV+ directly, exclusively and forever. Amazon too from now on. In other words, all these windows get condensed into this one:

IMAGE 3 - Traditional Second Window vs StreamingThe cool thing is that all the companies I think of make these two choices, meaning we have only need four models for films:

IMAGE 4 - Future of feature Film dist(Two quad charts in one article? Probably my favorite article of the year. Well, after this one.)

The one variable is Apple TV+. I believe they are doing streaming only, but haven’t confirmed yet. With that understanding, let’s build our models. I’ll need a model for theatrical and streaming only to evaluate the Irishman.

My “Traditional” Theatrical Model 

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Most Important Story of the Week – 15 November 19: Disney+ “Sparks Joy” in Customers. What Are the Business Ramifications?

Is content is king?

After this week, how could anyone doubt it? Disney+ showed what having the biggest movies of the last few decades can do for a streaming launch.

But that’s not all! Apple landed one of the biggest free agent producers in former HBO chief Richard Plepler, for a deal whose terms aren’t disclosed. Nor even his role. But we can’t look past Disney can we? Nope. In fact, we’re giving a triple shot of Disney: first, the strategic implications; second, the competitive ramificaitons; third, the numbers.

[Programming note: Starting next week, I’ll be on paternity leave for the birth of my child. I have some articles mostly finished to keep posting, but the weekly column will be on hold until December.]

Most Important Story of the Week – Disney+ and Its Customer Value Proposition

When in doubt, we should default back to the “value creation” model for every business. Is a company capturing value or creating it? 

Disney+ Value Creation Model

I’m going to use my personal example to get at where I see the customer value proposition here. Specifically why me—and apparently 10 million other folks—rushed to sign-up or log-in on day one. Marie Kondo—the famed personal organizer—has a simple test for whether or not you keep something in your house. When you look at it, “Does it spark joy?”

That’s how I personally felt about Disney+.

For once, every Disney film my daughter loves was in one location. Every Marvel and Star Wars film I love was there too. Along with hidden joys like the Swiss Family Robinson or The Journey of Natty Gann. Or the X-Men Animated Series! And Gargoyles! Seeing those films brought visions of how I will binge TV for the next few weeks. 

As I was scrolling through the interface—I didn’t have any troubles—Kondo’s phrase hit me, “Spark joy”. 

It’s fairly incredible a streaming video service can evoke that level of emotion. But that’s the best way to describe the initial experience. Caveat galore that this is just my anecdote. But to judge by my texts and social feeds, the majority of the Disney conversation was celebrating all these films that were previously divvied up between FX, USA, TNT, Starz, Netflix and DVDs into one easy location. By a few reports, some folks even stayed home from work for the launch. That’s the type of devotion only major sporting events or, um, Marvel/Star Wars movies can evoke. 

(Yes, plenty of people gave it an “eh” online too.) 

To put this into the “value creation model”, if my price is $4 a month, the difference between the amount I would pay and $4 is the “consumer surplus”. Right now, I have to imagine that for hardcore fans like me, even an HBO level price would probably make sense, if the shows stay at the quality of The Mandalorian. 

Critically for this analysis, just because the price is so low now doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Disney—like Netflix, Hulu and likely every streamer—is definitely underwater from a pricing perspective. Lots of folks locked in at $4 a month, and to produce even the new content will likely be more expensive than that. The key for Disney is figuring out how quickly they can make the price exceed costs. (Yes, as my big series of the year goes on, “An IPB of the Streaming Wars”, I’ll try to quantify this more exactly.)

Then the question is: at profitability, is Disney capturing value (just pricing below costs) or truly creating it? Given that Disney boosted my WTP for a streaming service, I’m leaning towards the latter. Moreover, Disney+ as a platform may drive some value beyond the access to its incredibly popular films. In other words, the whole of Disney+ may be greater than the sum of its parts. And these are valuable parts. (The biggest driver of entertainment WTP is simply having hit shows and movies.) 

So let’s explore the upside theories for Disney+’s value-added future. Since I’m never satisfied, I have some concerns too about some of their strategy.

Upside Theory: The Simpler User Interface – Decluttered

Let’s stay on Marie Kondo idea for a moment. Mary McNamara wrote an article in the LA Times not too long ago making the case that Netflix needs a Marie Kondo-style clean up. She’s not wrong. The reason—as emphasized by AT&T in their recent inventor presentation—is that it takes customers 7 minutes to find a show to watch. (Using a DVR, conversely, takes about 30 seconds…) Netflix is filled with lots and lots of shows and films, many of them “sub-optimal” from a customer perspective. Which makes finding shows difficult.

Well, the Disney+ app is made for McNamara (assuming she likes Disney movies!). Disney+ has a fairly limited interface—reminiscent of the HBO Go application—organized by the various content families. Within each section are the cream of the crop movies at the top, with the rest down below. In other words, the service doesn’t overwhelm you, and what is left will will “spark joy”. This is the best case for Disney+.

Downside Theory: The Nostalgia Factor Wears Off

Credit for this one goes to a Twitter conversation about how quickly “nostalgia” will wear off from the devoted fans. My answer is that in some cases, it never will. Those are the hardcore fans who go to D23. They aren’t enough, though, to build a media business.

For the rest, this is the biggest risk. Sure, I’ve had joy sparked at launch. How long does that last? How much does my daughter actually use the application? (We actually don’t let her watch alone on the iPad.) Especially for the older TV shows. Do they need more TV series to drive adult viewership, as I speculated here? I may find it cool to watch Duck Tales (1980s version), but do I actually binge the entire thing? Nostalgia may get folks in the door but a compelling offering will need new content to keep folks engaged.

Upside Theory: I Was Wrong about The Vault (It’s All Here)

Disney proved my August theory about missing films completely wrong. In the 11th hour they went out and got them all. Which is probably pricey, but helped the value proposition. Since they have all these movies, Disney+ would has something like 20% of the box office demand of the last decade on its service. That’s incredible compared to rival services. I was wrong and they have the entire vault for the most part. Here’s the box office films from the last four years:

image-5-disney-last-five-years.png

But this isn’t all good news. They likely had to pay huge amounts to other distributors to facilitate bringing all these films over. Will this immediate launch help pay that off? Absolutely, but they are deficit spending to make it happen.

Downside Theory: Why Did Disney+ Launch with Avengers Endgame?

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Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained)

In war, what really matters on a map is the “key terrain”. The place on the map that if you control it, you have a much better chance at winning the upcoming battle or war. In Army lingo, terrain that control “affords a marked advantage”. Usually this is the high ground, but can be anything from a bridge to a national capitol, or airfield or even castle, in olden times.

So take a gander at our “map” of the video landscape from last week.

Image 7 Video Value WEb

As a commander, where do we want to control? What gives us a “marked advantage”? Well, I highlighted it in yellow. 

Last week, I “defined” the map and area of operations. Now we move onto the challenging tasking of describing that map. While I won’t use all of the Army’s frameworks, the concept of “key terrain” really does resonate with business. (Don’t worry, we’ll use other business analysis frameworks as well.)

Today, I’m going to highlight the key terrain the streaming wars will be fought over, and it’s not what most streaming observers and customers think it is. (If I had to guess, they’d call it subscribers.) I’ll start with the “BLUF”, then describe the situation in broad strokes, the reasons why digital bundlers are in a powerful position, the stark choice facing streamers, and finally the ramifications for all players in digital video. 

Bottom Line, Up Front – Digital Streaming Bundlers Are Best Positioned to Capture Value

While streamers started as the aggregators—Netflix inspired cord cutting by offering it’s own bundle—in the next five to ten years, the new digital video bundlers (who I call DVBs) will be in the best position to capture value (meaning profit and cash flow) in the video landscape. This means the winners will be folks like Amazon, Apple or Roku, and not Netflix, Disney, Comcast or AT&T.

The Situation: Netflix breaks the user experience monopoly of cable TV

In the past—meaning just ten years ago—the landscape was relatively simple for TV: you turned on a cable or satellite box, and scrolled. Netflix changed that all. Using its installed base of DVD subscribers, it started offering streaming video to its customers. Thus, when you sat down at your TV, you could decide, “Netflix or cable?” Netflix provided a second user experience to watch TV. Some people—though less than usually hyped—cancelled cable just to use Netflix and were dubbed “cord cutters”. 

Netflix was so successful, it inspired copycats from Amazon Prime to Apple TV+ to Disney+, who launched this week. Of course, the best place to watch TV isn’t from a computer screen, but from a living room TV. Devices were released to manage all these different streaming platforms, like smart TVs, Google Chromecast, Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.

Which leads to my biggest theory of the landscape: customers will want to return to one operating system to manage all their television watching. Crucially, this may include bundling content. The cable companies didn’t just provide one user experience, they provided a bundle of cable channel at one fixed price. That bundle is dying.

But it’s returning. Instead of just channels, though, it will be a combination of virtual MVPDs (like Hulu Live TV, Youtube Live TV or AT&T TV), FASTs (like Pluto, STIRR, Xumi, and Tubo) and SVODs (like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon Prime). The question is who mediates that experience. Someone will. And potentially to manage all their payments. And if you’re managing all the payments, you can bundle all the streamers/FASTs/vMVPDs into one monthly or annual price. A bundle.

The question is what do we call them? I’ve taken to the acronym DVB:

Digital Video Bundlers. 

I’ve colored this in yellow on my map because of how important I think it is. If an Amazon or Apple can own the customer relationship, they’ll own all the data and be best positioned to capture value from suppliers or competitors. Before I get into the ramifications, let me explain why I think this will happen.

Reasons Why The Bundle Will Return

The return of the bundle doesn’t just seem likely, but almost inevitable.

First, a clear customer value proposition – One user interface for all content.

Both Amazon and Apple have touted a clear proposition to users, which is the idea that you have one place to go to watch all your content. Meaning: if you log in, every subscription video service is in one location to easily search and browse without having to switch between apps. 

(In some cases, this vision is still aspirational, as opposed to realized. But it’s both companies’ dream user scenario.)

This makes sense from the cable example. The big revolution wrought by Netflix stemmed from the idea that suddenly customers now had to choose between two different ways to interact with the TV screen. Once that was severed, the cable bundle no longer offers it all. But neither did the “Netflix only” option, since you missed all traditional cable channels. Or other streamers like Hulu. This makes deciding what to watch just that much harder (and was to Netflix’s advantage).

Most smart TVs don’t offer a simple way to scan between streaming services. Instead, you decide what app to use and go to its platform to browse. Amazon and Apple want to incorporate everything into one user interface, so HBO content would sit next to Disney+ content which is next to CBS All-Access, for example. Meaning you can organize all your video in one place. Here’s Amazon Channels right now to show this vision:

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 10.38.31 AM.png

(By the way, Amazon and Apple both ruin this customer experience with a clear user experience fail. When customers surf TV and streaming, the expect everything to be watchable for free. Pay Per View, historically, was always limited to clearly defined section of the cable interface. In their efforts to have an accurate search, Amazon and Apple both surface results for their TVOD businesses, which customers despise. Loathe. Hate. Keep your “pay for it” shows and movies clearly separated from your TV experience.)

Second, a vague customer value proposition – One source for payments.

The second reason cited by folks selling subscriptions is it offers simplicity in payments. I’m less sold on this value proposition because people will likely still search for the best deals. But it’s a potential for some customers and has some value.

Third, a potential value proposition: the new bundle. (Which everyone is predicting)

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Most Important Story of the Week – 8 November 19: Franchise Lessons from all the Game of Thrones and Star Wars News

What happens when one week has so much news and the next has very little? Well, you roll one topic over. So the “most important story” this week is last week’s runner-up. 

The Most Important Story of the Week – Game of Thrones and Star Wars Franchise Lessons

Last week began and ended with dueling Star Wars and Game of Thrones news….

– First, HBO cancelled it’s “Age of Heroes” prequel series for Game of Thrones.
– Second, HBO announced another prequel series for Game of Thrones, based on the book Fire & Blood about the Targaryens.
– Third, David Benioff & DB Weiss—the Game of Thrones showrunners—had left the Star Wars prequel they planned to make

Since HBO Max sucked up the oxygen out of the entertainment biz room last week, I didn’t really have time to examine what the big franchise moves meant for entertainment. Which is a shame; monetarily, these announcements would have been the most important story in most weeks.

Here’s why: both of these franchises are worth billions. As I’ve written extensively on here and here. And it’s not too bold to say that how HBO manages Game of Thrones and how Disney manages Star Wars will play a key role in either launching successful streaming services or failing (and losing billions).

Today, let’s look beyond how fans will feel about these announcements, to what we can learn from a business strategy perspective. Meanwhile, Marvel will keep coming up, because it’s the most well-run franchise in the game right now.

Business Issue 1: Pilots Are Great Investments

You’ve probably heard the old story that Seinfeld tested very poorly as a pilot. Development executives bring this up all the time when a pilot inevitably gets bad reviews. “Well, Seinfeld tested poorly too!” It ignores obvious counters that most pilots that test poorly ended up being poor TV series. Conversely, quality pilots are highly correlated with successful series. Take Game of Thrones. Sure, the initial pilot tested poorly, but the reshot pilot is one of the greatest in TV. The Breaking Bad pilot was similarly fantastic. 

This is why, I praised HBO for making a pilot for their “Age of Heroes” GoT prequel. You’re about to invest maybe a hundred million dollars in a TV series. Make a pilot and see if it’s good. Except then HBO went straight-to-series on their House of the Dragon prequel series. Sigh. Essentially, HBO Max made a good decision (make a pilot, it tested poorly, don’t go forward) and then made a bad decision (go straight to series). 

When it comes down to it, overall going straight-to-series is just another example of how prices are increasing for distributors without actually increasing the top line. It increases the upfront costs (full season commitments to talent) while decreasing the hit rate (no pilot data to kill duds early). HBO feels like it has no choice, though; since Netflix and Amazon are pushing everything straight-to-series, to stay competitive, everyone has to make everything straight-to-series.

Creative Issue 2: The Source of Game of Thrones Greatness

Still, there may be business logic for why HBO chose one pilot over the other here to go straight-to-series. Looking at what made Game of Thrones great, a lot of things contributed from the showrunners crafting a great story to Peter Dinklage just owning it. But if I had to pick the single biggest driver, it would be George R.R. Martin. Yes, Benioff & Weiss successfully managed a monster TV show, but at its core they wrote in an extremely fleshed out world of George R.R. Martin’s creation.

As a Game of Thrones fanatic, I’ve read everything GRRM has written on the series. Including a history book and the Targaryens Fire & Blood book (the one that is the basis for the straight-to-series order). If you asked me, what has a more fleshed out world, the Targaryen reign or the “Age of Heroes”, it’s the former by a landslide. (The Dunk & Egg books seem like a no brainer for a limited series as well.)

If that’s where you think the source of GoT’s success comes from, that makes the decision for which prequel series to order much easier. Go with the “Targaryens” every time. It has literally hundreds of pages of source material that will require much less from its showrunners than the “Age of Heroes”, which has about a dozen pages of material to draw from. 

Even in Disney’s own house, as the latest departure shows, they can’t  learn any of the lessons about leveraging your source material. Star Wars decided to toss out all it’s source material after the Lucasfilm acquisition. Specifically, the dozens of books in its “Legends” universe. (I’ve, uh, read all these too.) Instead, Kathleen Kennedy and team burned it all to the ground, and as a result had to come up with new stories from scratch. (Sometimes these stories had a vague connection to the Legends universe, but emphasis on vague.) Which makes the hit rate much lower than what Marvel is doing. It also requires A-List directors–or at least Kathleen Kennedy wants to work with A-List talent–which makes business point four below much harder.

Alternatively, Kevin Feige leaned into Marvel’s history. This source material is part of the reason Marvel has been so successful. It’s not like Kevin Feige is writing all these Marvel stories from scratch. He’s just adapting the best Marvel stories of all time, like Civil War or The Infinity Saga. 

Business and Creative Issue 3: Avoid Bad Villains

Multiple friends—all Game of Thrones fans; all unsatisfied with the finale season—complained to me about the prequel series being about the rise of the White Walkers. The logic goes, “They were dispatched so quickly and easily, I don’t want to see them in another series.” Yes, this is an unrepresentative sample size, but it speaks to very real creative issues.

If that sentiment showed up in the testing—and I believe HBO tested the latest pilot with focus groups—then that alone could explain why the prequel didn’t move forward. Doubly so if combined with the lack of source material on the “Age of Heroes”. 

There is a business lesson here too, one about coordination and intertwining storylines. If the ending of the White Walker story was more satisfying for viewers, then maybe my friends message saying, “Man, I can’t wait to see the beginning to that.” Instead, the abrupt/rushed downfall of the White Walkers in a dark episode of television fundamentally ended the ability to create another revenue stream for HBO/AT&T. 

Star Wars faces this too. The last trilogy create a brand new bad guy (Snoke), then [spoiler alert] killed him off, and is currently debating if the big bad guy–Kylo Ren–will become a good guy. Notably, in Avengers Thanos stayed bad the whole time. And now Star Wars may bring back Emperor Palpatine. In other words, after one of the best bad guys of all time–Darth Vader–Star Wars doesn’t know what to do.

Business Issue 4: Franchise Management is Hard. Really Hard.

The challenge for a network like HBO or a studio like Disney is managing not just the creative for one series, but thinking how the movements/plots in one TV series impact the larger business. Or one film impact the larger brand perception.

My current working theory is that Warner-Media doesn’t have as ingrained “franchise management” as a skill as someone like Disney. Disney has TV series and movies for Star Wars, Marvel, Disney animation and Pixar. Every character worth their salt has teams dedicated to manage that brand, building value over time. They really are experts at it and integrating it everywhere.

Compare that to GoT. Game of Thrones acts like an HBO property first and foremost. So HBO gets first crack at all the TV shows, but then nothing else happens. (Part of this is due to the fact that George R.R. Martin still owns the rights, but obviously AT&T should try to buy those.) We see the same thing with Harry Potter going the other way: lots of movies, no TV shows. (And slipping viewership.) DC probably has the most things being made, but with little connection between the movies and TV shows, just volume. (And a comic strategy of rebooting the whole thing every five or so years.)

This is likely the key issue with Lucasfilm too, in that top tier talent doesn’t want to sacrifice their creative vision for the larger universe’s needs. Which begs the question, “Why doesn’t Kennedy bring in creatives who will fulfill her vision?” That would mean not flashy names–like Benioff & Weiss–but directors who get the job done.

Really, only one person has figured out how to reliably do this right now.

The Reality: Marvel/Kevin Feige is the Best at Franchise Management Right Now

If you take all the lessons from Game of Thrones and Star Wars above, Marvel does each one well. Pilots? Feige does test shoots for controversial films to make sure they’ll work. (He did with Ant-Man, for example.) Source material? Yep, he picks the best stories and adapts them well. Good bad guys? Yep, Feige finds fresh bad guys each film. (Though arguably kills them off too quickly.) Coordination? Um, yeah we just saw that with Avengers: Endgame. (He found a set of directors who shared his vision, by the way, in the Russo brothers and gave them four huge films.)

Finally, he keeps the quality high. That’s a unique skill he has. (Unique as in one of maybe 5 folks in Hollywood.) Which is a credit to him. Marvel was barely anything when this century started. But by giving Kevin Feige the reins, his successful stewardship has created tons of value. And now he’s taking over TV whereas HBO/HBOMax is trying to figure it out and Lucasfilm fumbles for the next creative vision.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – Apple TV+ Launched

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Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

Part I: An Introduction
Part II: Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars)

As an Army officer, getting lost is sort of the death knell for your career. For the Band of Brothers junkies out there, I’ve always had the “hot take” that if Captain Sobel could have read a map he would have stayed in charge of Easy Company. 

Having had to pull out a map and lead a group of soldiers somewhere, I can testify it’s a nerve-racking experience. There was always this moment when I started planning a mission—from my time in ROTC with squads to training in Ranger School with platoons to being on the ground in Afghanistan—that I essentially had to “unroll my map” and figure out where we were going.

Every time, my stomach would start to churn as I looked to see if I could understand what a bunch of squiggles on paper meant in the real world. Inevitably, I could. We’d start and finish planning and head out. Honestly, my stomach is churning thinking about it.

Today we unroll the map for digital video. But where is the map? There are a few lay outs I’ve seen, like this one from the Wall Street Journal. 

IMAGE 1 - WSJ Map

Or this map from Recode, which is probably the most commonly linked to image I’ve seen in the streaming wars.

IMAGE 2 - Recode Map

Unfortunately, each has flaws. In both cases, neither links how the various companies relate to each other, merely the sheer size in one case, or the type of business in the other. The challenge is that while you can see the various areas, the concept of the “value chain” is totally missing. Who is producing content versus who is distributing it? Yes, ad-supported is different than subscription, but don’t they fill the same customer need? I’d argue they do. (Also, while the Recode map looks really cool, you know I sort of loathe “market capitalization” as a measure of size.)

So I made my own lay-out. This has been an idea I’ve been tweaking for over a year. Essentially, I’m not just reading a map, but drawing my own of the entertainment landscape. Which is even more nerve racking then just reading the map.

Today, I’m going to explain the two business school frameworks that inspired my map of the entertainment landscape. Next, I’ll talk about the “jobs” completed by various steps in the process. Then, I’ll show the “Digital Video Value Web”, with some explanations about the key pieces. Finally, I’ll highlight the most important terrain of the streaming wars.

A Quick Reminder on Value Chains, Porter’s Five Forces and the “Value Web”

The value web is the name I picked for a mashing together of two well established frameworks for business. The first is this little guy, “the value chain”, who I explained back in May:

True Full Value Chain(I use potato chips to explain concepts.)

Reread that article for a fuller description, but a value chain is essentially every step of a business process that results in a good. So suppliers provide the raw materials to factories that turn it into goods, which go to distributors to send to stores, who sell it to customers. The “value” component is really asking creates or captures the most value along the way. 

The limitation to “value chain” analysis is revealed by the WSJ image. I could make a value chain for ad-supported video on demand, for streaming TV hardware, for sports, subscription video and traditional cable bundles. All those value chains would start to get confusing. But to understand the landscape, we need to understand those connections between the value chains.

We have another tool for that, fortunately. In the past, I’ve also explained “Porter’s Five Forces”. (It’s one of my most popular articles, actually.) Read that article here. Here’s a visual of that…

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 3.11.46 PM

Porter’s Five Forces is a good organizing tool to lay out the potential threats and opportunities for a specific business. Its limitation is its focus: it only looks at one specific company in one part of the value chain. For example, if I used it for “cable companies”, it would leave out the studios distributing the content, merely the channels providing them content. That’s like a map that is zoomed in to one hillside when we need to look at the whole mountain range.

My insight was simply to realize that the value chain is going across the middle of a Porter’s Five Forces diagram. If I combined them on one table, I could make essentially an overarching view of any rough industry. My name for this is a “value web” because I couldn’t find anyone else making a similar layout and I elevate value above all other business concepts. Here’s my version from my Porter’s Five Forces article.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 3.12.03 PM

Now we can make one for digital video.

The “Jobs” Done at Each Step of Digital Video

The first step was to pull out my value chain for streaming video. I’d previously made that here:TV Value ChainThe challenge was that I left out a fairly big component of the video value chain when I focused on distributors. Really, after a distributor sells their film to a cable channel, they don’t care how customers get that cable channel. But someone is “providing” that feed of cable channels. For the streaming wars that matters.

To borrow a phrase from Clayton Christensen, essentially the cable companies do the “job” of providing access to bundles of entertainment. I like putting “ing” after a step of the process because it gets at the type of work being performed. Applying this to my value chain you get:

Talent (acting, writing, directing, so on)
Producing
Distribution
TBD
Providing

The challenge is that “TBD”. What is it that a cable channel is doing? Or a movie theater? Or a streaming video service? I’d argue they’re all providing the same job, which is creating a library of content to watch, even if they use different monetization methods for those libraries. Frankly, the best word to describe that is “aggregating”. (And yes, we’ll get to Ben Thompson’s Aggregation Theory later in this series.)

That explains part of the “TBD”, but not really the whole thing. Because cable companies then aggregate the “aggregators” or channels. So what do we call them? They are definitely NOT in the same step of the value chain. A a group of cable channels is a separate business from the channels themselves. In reality, they’re providing access to a “bundle” of content which they charge for one price. I call that bundling.

(To quote a second business thinker—cited by Mike Raab recently—James Barksdale has said all business is either bundling or unbundling.)

With that, we have our six jobs being performed (with customers waiting at the end). 

The Video Value Web

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Defining the Battlefield – Areas of Operation, Interest and Influence in The Streaming Wars

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling
The Flywheel is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact the Streaming Wars

Certain parts of the US Army’s IPB process have such a good correlation to business planning it makes me wish I had connected these two ideas—intelligence preparation of the battlefield and business strategy—earlier. (As a professor described me once before, I’m a sucker for frameworks and planning processes.)

Take this map from a Wikipedia page, based on the US Army’s IPB manual (available free/open source online, I was taught off an older version):

Image 1 Battlespace Lay Out

It’s a subtly simple concept: the area you are assigned (your area of operations) is part of larger area you can directly “influence”, but you still need to be aware of the even larger environment, the “area of interest”. 

Today, I’m going to define the entertainment battlefield within those three terms. I have four rough categories: entertainment business, related industries, geography and regulatory environment. But first, let’s define these terms to make sure we’re all on the same page. 

Defining “Area of Operations”, “Area of Influence” and “Area of Interest” in war and business

Let’s start with an example to illustrate this. Say you have an Army Brigade deployed to Afghanistan. (About 5,000 troops.) If they are assigned “Kunar Province”, that’s their area of operations (AO). The definition of this in the manual is (paraphrased) “the territory your boss gives you”. In practice, this means the place with all your troops that you defend, protect or attack into. 

Of course, while your area of operations is “Kunar Province”, that brigade commander could influence a larger territory. This could mean being able to deploy their troops or fire artillery into the surrounding area. In Afghanistan, this would likely mean the provinces around Kunar, like Nuristan, Nangahar or Kabul. (Here’s a map of Afghanistan for reference. Kunar is the upper right.)

IMAGE 2 Map Afghanistan

Of course, the commander can’t influence Pakistan directly, because it’s off-limits, but Pakistan can influence Kunar Province. (Specifically, by acting as a logistics base for insurgents.) Making it an “area of interest” the commander needs to monitor.

It’s a great framework because it reminds you to broaden your thinking to solve your problems. If you only focus on your area of operations, you miss new trends and forces from outside your day-to-day focus. On the other extreme, though you can monitor what is going on in your “area of interest”, you can’t influence it without losing focus. As well, the most important events that could impact your mission will happen in your area of operations. And if your area of operations is bigger than your area of influence, you’re likely spread too thin.

Do these lessons apply to business strategy? Absolutely. 

Let’s use my default explanation of potato chips. The brand manager for Kettle Chips has “chips” as their area of operations. That’s their AO; they focus on managing and impacting potato chip sales. But they can “influence” the entire snack market. They’re fighting for shelf space against pretzels, nuts, healthy snacks and candy. Of course, the rest of the retail industry is an “area of interest”. 

Most business leaders probably don’t think in these terms, but doing the thought exercise may reveal some insights into either blind spots or areas you’re spread too thin.

Defining Our Area of Operations: Digital Video

Since we don’t have a “battlefield commander”, our “area of operations” is up to me to define. As I said last article, I’m focused on digital video. This is the heart of the “streaming wars”. But I’ll include anything “digital” in this from streaming (SVOD) to ad-supported (AVOD) to virtual MVPDs to FASTs (free-ad-supported streaming). These “areas of operation” mean those things the digital players can directly control, including the apps they roll out, how they distribute those, the prices they charge, but most importantly, the content they put on those platforms.

Geography: The United States

I don’t have enough bandwidth to cover the entire world in this series. Though Netflix and Amazon have notably turned the streaming wars into a world war, with global launches in a hundred plus countries, the start of the streaming wars will be US-centric. The United States produces the most content and if its streaming companies cough, the whole digital ecosystem will catch a cold. 

Other Industries: Communications

In this case, “communications”—my catch all for cellular, telecoms, cable and satellite connections to transmit data—is the key industry included in our area of operations. If you can’t distribute your content over the pipes, you can’t compete. So we’ll check in on the big players in communications like AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Dish, Verizon and Sprint/T-Mobile.

Regulation: The FCC (and Other Antitrust Regulators in the US)

Since our geography is the United States, the roles of the FCC, FTC and antitrust regulators could have a key impact on our area of operations. In the last twenty years, the trend has been toward lax regulatory footprint. Whether that continues is a key question for entertainment companies, and it’s coming right as the streaming wars kicks off. (Meaning November 2020 could be important.)

Defining Our Area of Influence: Video

The story of the streaming wars is really a story of the evolution of “video”. There are the traditional distribution methods (theaters, home entertainment, broadcast, etc) that are being disrupted by digital methods. What that means for us is that the giant conglomerates battling in the streaming wars can heavily influence these others parts of the value chain, even if that’s not the ground being fought for. 

We’ve already seen the influence of digital video in one of the most important areas of Hollywood production: the price of content. Essentially, everyone is paying more for scripted TV series, with a parade of articles on how much more these cost every studio. Netflix—a digital only provider—started this push by its winning bid for House of Cards, but Amazon, Disney+ and now HBO Max are al competing to raise these prices even further.

When I roll out my “map” of our area of operations, I’m going to include all of the video ecosystem since it can so easily be influenced and influence the digital video space. 

Geography: High Income or Growth Countries

Just because I’m focusing on the United States doesn’t mean I won’t acknowledge the rest of the globe. Indeed, one of the descriptions of this battlefield is how certain firms paying for global rights—whether accurately valued or not—is impacting those content prices I just mentioned.

When it comes to what can really influence and be influenced, high income or high growth countries such as the European Union, Latin America, India and parts of Asia fall under this analogy. While lots of potential customers may live outside those limited territories, the bulk of near term streaming revenue will come from there.

Other Industries: Technology

Arguably, the tech firms are already inside the area of operations, but for this category I’m specifically referring to the new innovations in technology that can change the next generation of streaming. Digital video is already our battleground, but what comes next? Virtual reality? Artificial Intelligence? And how can the entertainment companies influence that in turn?

Regulation: The EU Antitrust Authorities

The European Union’s antitrust authority is the biggest influencer here. Already Google and Amazon are heavily trying to influence how they are regulated in Europe, to more or less success. Again, only some of these will impact our United States area of operations, but we need to monitor it.

Defining Our Areas of Interest: Other Entertainment Options

As Reed Hastings pointed out:

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Introducing An Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield

(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling
The Flywheel is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact the Streaming Wars

As the streaming wars kick off this month, one question is dominating every conversation online, whether implicitly or explicitly:

Who will win?

As if this were a professional sports league. And only one studio gets the championship each year. Or even more extreme, like it is a war to be won. To steal a quote from Game of Thrones, “When you play the streaming wars, you win or you die.

Listen, it won’t be that extreme, Mike Raab explained on Medium last week. Or as Alan Wolk has said, no one will “kill” Netflix anytime soon.

But if you’re an executive, there are plenty of questions about the streaming wars you still need answered:

– What is the landscape of digital video, and how is your company positioned?
– Who are the strongest competitors in digital video?
– What are the biggest economic, technological and regulatory forces facing streaming?

If you can answer those questions, you can then answer the most important question for your company, business unit or team:

– What should we do to “win” the streaming wars?

Frankly, what I described above is how an intelligence officer in the United States Army would approach the battlefield in a war. Before a military commander can decide what to do, she needs to know what she is facing. That makes this analogy between real wars and the streaming wars fairly apt. The biggest change is we’ll change “win” to “create or capture value”.

So if we want to explain the streaming wars, we need someone versed in both intelligence planning for the military and the economics of streaming.

Fortunately, I’ve worn both intelligence officer and entertainment strategic planner hats in my life…

Introducing: The Entertainment Strategy Guy’s “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” for the Streaming Wars

As the streaming wars kick off in earnest, it seems like the perfect time to reflect more broadly on the streaming war, going a bit beyond my weekly columns and analysis. There have been some great layouts of the industry the last few months, but none that captured everything I’ve been seeing (with my own unique nee skeptical) take on the industry. 

So that’s my job for November. A lay out of the streaming video landscape. An explanation of the business of streaming. An intelligence briefing for the streaming wars. Since I used to make those for the US Army—a story for another time—that’s the framework I’ll use to organize my thinking.

In today’s article, I’ll explain what the IPB process is, and how I need to translate it to the streaming wars. Then, I’ll explain what I will and won’t cover in my first version of this.

What is an “intelligence preparation of the battlefield”?

In truly US Army fashion, an acronym fills in where regular words will do. So Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield becomes IPB.

An IPB is both a process completed by a staff (the IPB planning process) and the product(s) that results, usually a powerpoint presentation, but sometimes a document or brief. It also usually results in maps and graphics. It can also include a plan to collect further intelligence.

The strength of an IPB is the clear process. For a bit now, I’ve been collecting thoughts on specific companies and larger issues in the streaming wars, but I didn’t have an organizing framework. The IPB process provides that. It’s a great tool because it’s flexible enough to be used by intelligence officers from small battalions to gigantic corps managing entire theaters of war, in situations involving a pitched battle with tanks in the desert to combating insurgencies in the jungles. 

Or in our case, the streaming wars.

Which battlefield in the streaming wars?

Crucially, I need to pick which battlefield I’m analyzing. The streaming wars will be a global war, but I’m going to start by focusing on the United States. Frankly, each country probably deserves its own analysis because of its own unique situation. But we have to start somewhere and I think covering the entire globe will be too tough for one month. 

Moreover, even in the United States, I’ll be focusing on digital video. Meaning streamers, bundlers, aggregators and virtual MVPDs. But digitally distributed. Broadcast, cable, theaters and home entertainment are all interesting, but for a future analysis.

With that, let’s explain this tool. (By the by, if you want to download a copy yourself. The U.S. Army hosts them online.)

Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield…Explained

An IPB consists of four parts:

– Define the Battlefield (in jargon terms, “operational environment”)
– Describe the Battlefield
– Evaluate the Threat (formerly “enemy”)
– Determine Threat Courses of Action

Let’s define a few terms to unpack that simple four step process. In previous iterations, the operational environment was called the “battlefield”, but that wasn’t an acronym so the Army had to change it. We’re going to stick with “battlefield” since it is so much clearer of a phrase to use and “IPOE” just doesn’t sound right.

The battlefield is where your unit is conducting its operations. In a lot of was this is the military analogue to properly defining the problem. If you don’t know where you can and can’t operate, you can’t properly plan. It’s also particularly important in the military context because knowing where fellow military units are prevents friendly fire. (It’s a simple leap to make an analogy to a giant conglomerate with competing business units here.)

Once you know the battlefield, you then describe it. For the Army, this usually means three areas: terrain, weather and civilian considerations. Weather is just weather. But the terrain is what most Cold War military veterans were raised on, and it was summarized by the acronym OACOK: Obstacles, Avenues of Approach, Cover and Concealment, Observation, and Key Terrain. After the post 9/11 wars, when counter-insurgency became a thing again, the civilian part of the OE was described with ASCOPE or Area, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events. We’ll use different tools to describe the streaming war’s battlefield.

Next comes the threat. In the olden times, the Army called this the enemy. But then insurgencies were filled with political and non-violent actors, so this became “the threat”. During the evaluation part of IPB, you basically ask, “How dangerous are they? How many of them are there? What weapons do they have? What can they do?” When the Russians were the main bad guy, this meant a lot of maps with graphics describing effective firing ranges for artillery and machine guns and what not. For insurgencies, it meant capturing a lot more data about the relationships of society. The best word to capture this is “capabilities”.

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Most Important Story of the Week – 1 November 19: My 6 Strategy Thoughts on AT&T’s HBO Max Rollout

Whoever writes the book on the (hashtag) streaming wars may call this week the seven days that truly started the fighting. Sort of like how Germany and Japan were doing bellicose things like building navies and mobilizing armies before World War II truly kick off in earnest. Disney started the week with a marketing blitz (a strategic bombing campaign?), Apple TV+ ended it by launching their service (a maritime invasion?), but in the middle came AT&T with their plan for the streaming wars (a mission brief?). 

Which by popular acclaim will take the spot as…

The Most Important Story of the Week – AT&T Unveils HBO Max

Before this week, we could only speculate on what HBO Max could or would be. Now we have a plan with the tactics to back it up so we can start to judge. My goal is to try to probe for insights we may have missed, but mostly, to talk about the strategy. Because finally we can.

A caveat. A giant one: this article will not contain all the thoughts needed to evaluate AT&T’s strategy. Consider this the appetizer for future strategy entrees in longer articles.

Strategic Thought 1: Offering AT&T Live TV with HBO Max is the Biggest Strength

Yep, content and product and marketing and even gratis distribution to current HBO subscribers are all important strategic factors here. But in my mind all of those are superseded by this chart introduced by John Stankey:

IMAGE 1 - Three Tiers

Frankly, most customers will want live TV of some sort in their lives. From sports to news to local channels, it’s just something folks want, and why, as Alan Wolk has banged the drum on, cord shaving or shifting is more common than cord cutting. By putting AT&T TV into their presentation, clearly AT&T sees a similar upside that I wrote about for Disney/Hulu here. It’s more profitable to be a distributor then just a streamer/channel.

Which isn’t without risks. The first risk? Playstation shutting down Vue shows the money burning proposal that MVPDs currently are. The second risk? Even AT&T is losing cable and faux-cable subscribers, as it announced on Tuesday. The third risk? See customer confusion down below. The fourth risk? Jamming in advertising, which will only muddy their offerings further.

It also dangles the biggest question mark which is does AT&T TV stay “vMVPD” or become “OTT distributor” too? Amazon, Roku and Apple are the latter with their dueling channels businesses, but Hulu Live TV, Youtube TV and AT&T TV are the former. The upside for AT&T is that once you have a streaming platform and a billing business, adding OTT add-ons from a technical perspective is relatively minor. But it could be lucrative.

Strategic Thought 2: Jargon May have Replaced Strategy

If thought 1 is the best case, this thought is the worst case. Let’s pair a key quote with the slide for it:

“We’ve created a vertically integrated company that will allow us to benefit from a virtuous cycle of development and growth. When you take our beloved, high-quality premium content and add innovative features to provide a superior user experience, it promotes subscriber engagement.”

That is a lot of buzz words packed into one sentence, and they laid it over a virtuous cycle/flywheel!

IMAGE 2 Flywheel

If you unpack Stankey’s words he’s saying: offering good content and a good product will increase our subscribers. Groundbreaking stuff here. But does he say how they will take an edge to get there? Crickets.

Instead, as the presentation eventually made clear, AT&T’s real strategy is about taking the past and just applying it to the future. AT&T is pretty much making the bet that “we have cash flow from cellular subscriptions to fund a streamer at a loss” and “Warner Bros/HBO have huge libraries” to be its content backbone. That’s their actual plan, not the virtuous flywheel above.

Having a jargon filled presentation doesn’t mean you strategy is bad, but I’d say it is highly correlated.

(And with this section, cross AT&T off the places I’ll ever get a job at.)

Strategic Thought 3. Targeting…Everyone?

To continue the negativity, if you had a clear strategy, you’d target a specific group of customers. Who is AT&T going to target? People. All of them. Which was probably the most-shared slide on Twitter. Specifically, how HBO Max targets all four quadrants:

IMAGE 3 Targeting Everyone

I’m not ready to condemn this though. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple TV+ and AT&T all see an upside in targeting “everyone”. (Netflix takes it a step further and is trying to target everyone in every country simultaneously.) Indeed, broadcast TV started by being “broad”, didn’t it? That’s the same plan for the streaming wars, we’re just replacing ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Fox with Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock and CBS All-Access. Everything else will be targeted, like our current cable channels.

In other words, we could rename the streaming wars, “The battle to be the new broadcasters.”

Disney+ benefits from this approach by their competitors, though. They alone among the streamers have said, “Our family channel is our family channel” and can then focus on Hulu not paying extra for kids content. Netflix, Amazon and HBO Max clearly can’t support a kids-only channel so they’ll be competing for families against that juggernaut as an add on to their broad option. (My quick take on the SWfK, streaming wars for kids, here.)

Strategic Thought 4. Let’s Talk the Biggest Upside: Content

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