Month: December 2020

Most Important Story of the Week – 22 Dec 20: CAA Settles with the WGA…Who Won?

Last week felt like the “winter finales” of the fall TV business season as we resolved two long simmering dramas in the land of TV. CAA settled with the WGA, bringing one of the last two major agencies into alignment with the WGA’s demands for agents. And HBO and Roku finally settled their long running feud over HBO Max. But which is more important?

While the latter story is certainly buzzier, I genuinely didn’t know if CAA would actually settle with the guild. (HBO Max on Roku felt inevitable.) So it wins the crown for my “story of the week”.

(Housekeeping: Expect my writing to be a little lighter with the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays. This will be my last weekly column until January, though I may have a few smaller articles pop up in the interim.)

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Most Important Story of the Week – CAA Settles with the Writer’s Guild

Right up front, let’s review the key deal terms:

– CAA agrees to phase out “packaging fees” by June 2022
– CAA will limit their ownership in production companies to 20%
– CAA will provide additional disclosures on their financial ownership.

Unlike our other contender for the week (HBO Max v Roku) we know a lot more about the actual terms of this deal. Thus we can talk a bit more confidently about who won or lost this deal.

Pyrrhic Victory Winner: The WGA

Look, the WGA got its major deal points. CAA won’t be able to own a production company, and packaging will go away eventually. The only reason why the WGA isn’t ecstatic with this outcome is they had hoped it would have come two years ago. The WGA wanted to settle with the agencies, moreover, so that they could negotiate a better deal with the studios. But since they couldn’t fight two battles simultaneously, their current agreement with the studios didn’t go as far as some WGA members wanted. 

Though, from the outside, the WGA looks well positioned for the next fight. Which will clearly be against the streamers. In the same way that folks say that Wonder Woman 1984 going to HBO Max helped the Roku deal, Warner Bros sending all their films to HBO Max may have sent a signal to the agents at CAA that they needed to settle with the WGA to protect their joint film interests. 

Loser: The Agencies

If anyone didn’t want the hold out of the last 20 months, it was probably the agents, given that it sunk one major agency’s IPO and then Coronavirus walloped the rest of their business models. Many agencies have had to lay off workers and furlough employees. Yes, Covid-19 caused that, but a concurrent work stand off didn’t help.

The most surprising part of it for me is the packaging piece. Ultimately, the agencies made a fortune off those arrangements. Why settle? My guess is the logic of “10% of something is better than 30% of nothing” ultimately won out. Agents made out like bandits in the packaging process, especially when it comes to lower level talent. Meanwhile, this deal also kicks the legs out of the agencies for their new business model of owning a piece of the content their talent makes. (Which was formerly illegal.) 

No change: The Studios

That’s the other funny outcome of the eventual deal: it doesn’t really seem like anything changed, did it? As many films and TV series as ever were greenlit, ordered and produced, but for the Covid-19 shutdown. Like all things, life/business finds a way. 

Which feels like the right end to this drama. (Though yes WME still hasn’t signed.) In the end, the business models will be tweaked, but talent is talent and the agents are agents, with a power struggle that is always ebbing and flowing, as they battle with studios in another power struggle.

Data of the Week – Nielsen Plans a Holistic Viewership Data for 2024

Nielsen is always updating their measurements, and this year rolled out streaming viewership numbers for public consumption. (A topic I’ve obviously loved, and, in full disclosure, Nielsen has provided me some data.) The news of a few weeks back is that Nieslen is planning to unify traditional linear viewership with streaming metrics. I’m intrigued by how they plan to do this (and how users can splice and dice the results) but this should be a win for any data heads out there. The only draw back? It’s still a long way off. (2022 it will start rolling out and by 2024 it will be their de facto measurement.)

Other Contender for Most Important Story – HBO Max and Roku Settle

The news is that Roku and HBO Max agreed on distribution terms, so HBO Max will replace all HBO apps on Roku devices. Like any deal, both sides had wins and losses. Let’s go by company, with who won what deal terms, and what we still don’t know.

Roku Negotiating Wins

– Roku can own the billing relationship. 

Owning the data? Valuable. Owning the user experience? Very valuable. Owning the customer relationship? The most valuable. Going forward, Roku will still be able to sell HBO Max subscriptions, which is key to the Roku platform business. Their key value add to consumers–besides the device itself/operating system–is to be able to sell bundled billing. While this deal can be a win for both sides (HBO could sell more subscriptions if Roku is pushing it), getting potentially 20% of perpetual monthly subscriptions for one sale is a great price.

HBO Negotiating Wins

– No more HBO period, only Max
– HBO owns the UX
– No free content for the Roku Channel

HBO meanwhile puts an end to the confusing branding proposition that has plagued them this year on another streaming platform. So that’s a win, and on Roku applications–from what I understand–HBO will get to own the customer user experience. Meaning you have to launch an HBO Max application to watch HBO Max content. As I said just above, in some ways, this is better than owning the data. (Though data and user experience are usually linked.) Best of all for HBO, they didn’t sacrifice any content to build Roku’s own streaming business. (Which probably would have been a deal-breaker for me too if I were HBO Max/Warner Media.)

Unclear Winners

– Split on ad-inventory (usually 30%)
– Split on subscription fees (usually 20%)

A lot of this is theoretical simply because we don’t know the results of the biggest point of all: who is getting what revenue? 

If HBO Max negotiated Roku to down to 5% of subscription revenue (unlikely!), that’s a huge win. If Roku kept it at 20% (unlikely!), that’s probably a win for them. Meanwhile, splitting ad-revenue is a big unknown since we still don’t have firm details on HBO Max’s plan. They could go big on advertising, or throw it in the trash heap. It remains to be seen. Since Roku has data on all viewing on their platform–including Netflix!–they have more upside with the ad monetization. There are some rumors that HBO caved on this point, which would also go into the Roku win column then.

Ultimate Verdict?

Both sides claim they’re happy with this deal, and that’s probably true. The biggest loser is probably both companies since this feels like a deal that could have been had in June. A lot of pain was had from May to now, without a lot of gain on either side (is my guess). Ultimately, though, that likely hurt HBO Max’s launch more than it hurt Roku’s sales.

Bonus Point: Antitrust Implications

These two quotes in the Wall Street Journal sum up the future antitrust implications if either Roku or Amazon take over a dominant position in device sales. (Or split the world and subtly cooperate on pricing.)

Screen Shot 2020-12-21 at 9.14.46 AM

Screen Shot 2020-12-21 at 9.15.18 AM

I’m clearly more bullish on a stronger antitrust future than most other business types. (I still read arguments that Amazon isn’t a monopoly and/or dominant player who uses their position to restrict competitors.) But with the deluge of Facebook and Google legal actions, it feels like the antitrust could be the future. And headlines like this won’t help Roku if one day regulators make their way down to video devices. (Dominant market position leading to higher rents being the key phrase.)

Also, this is just another data point that my thesis from last November is coming true.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Mind Geek and YouPorn Delete Lots of Their Content

The challenge with user generated content is make sure the users don’t generate bad content. Or frankly immoral, unethical and illegal content. The latest big tech player to deal with this is MindGeek, which owns a plethora of pornography websites. MindGeek had a fairly unscrupulous business model before a story broke that they turned a blind eye to child pornography on their site, including accusations of content piracy, revenge porn, monopolization and illegal content. Thus, Visa, Mastercard and American Express abandoning the website isn’t a huge shock.

Though it does mean something. On the one hand, Mind Geek could end up being a better partner to it’s actual suppliers of pornography, which it has largely ripped off. Interestingly, pornographic talent had been calling for this move for years. It will make it easier for legitimate users to make money. The downside for MindGeek is the value of user-generated content is usually because it is stealing other folks intellectual property. 

This shows the pitfalls of any business relying on user generated content. Even though it was obviously easier to have child pornogrpahy material on a site dedicated to pornogrpahy, many folks pointed out that Facebook, Youtube, Snap Chat, Tik Tok and others potentially have much worse problems with child predators, simply because they are much bigger. Yet, since those companies aren’t ostensibly pornography, they have much more good will. (It’s easy for everyone to pile on YouPorn.) 

All in all, this touches on the much larger political issues involving free speech, Section 230, piracy and countless other political issues. I will repeat a point, though, I’ve hammered Youtube on for years: It baffles me some of the most egregious piracy issues aren’t easier to solve/prosecute. Certain search terms are so clearly designed to lead to illegal content that I don’t know how that’s not actionable.

(For example, in sports. If Reddit users have threads called “Lakers Live Game Stream” it should be clear that’s an illegal stream of the game…right? How is that not actionable? The examples in child pornography are similarly egregious.)

So if it’s so easy to solve, why isn’t it? Money. All the user-generated content companies make billions. And some of that comes from content that skirts the line of legality. It’s better to pretend it doesn’t exist than to solve the piracy/illegality problems. That’s just the facts.

ESPN and SEC Sign $3 Billion Deal

Another huge sports rights deal, this time for the most valuable league in college football. Even during a pandemic, we’re waiting for the next sports rights deal that shows a flattening in growth.

You Won’t Believe How Many DVDs Frozen II Sold Last Year – Physical Disc Sales in the US in 2019/2020: Visual of the Week

Every so often, as I pull data for a given article or to make a point, I come across a database that’s worth exploring further. (Which is why I created the “visual of the week” feature!) For example, in 2018 I stumbled across The-Number’s home entertainment data for the United States. More specifically, the number of physical discs still sold to people in the US. (Both DVDs and Blu-Rays will be called DVDs in this article, but are both “physical discs”n.)

I’ve since used this data for various projects over the last year or so. Once, when I was trying to figure out how many DVDs Game of Thrones sold during the course of its lifetime. (A lot!) I’ve since used it to look at various blockbusters to refine my film finance model. Recently, I’ve been looking at Christmas movies. (Next week!)

This isn’t some esoteric data point, though. In 2020 Covid-19 made home entertainment the only window available. Then, Warner Bros smashed the theatrical window altogether. Thus, importance of this aging technology to film financing couldn’t be more important. We’ve all know we’re trading “physical dollars” for “digital pennies”, but what does that mean in practice, as opposed to slogans? Specifically, what are the numbers that implies?

So that’s the quick topic for the day. As always, the 5Ws of the data:

What – Physical disc sales in US (by unit and total revenue)
What – Top 100 shows or films, by units sold.
Where – In the United States
When – 1-Jan-2010 to 15-Nov-2020
When (time period) – Annually
How (did I get it) – The-Numbers.com
How (is it measured) – Survey of customers and estimated total sales

That resulted in a data set of 821 films across 11 years. Here’s the top line result of the top 20 physical disc sales for 2019 and 2020:

IMAGE 1 - Top 20

(All data in millions of dollars.)

To answer my headline, Frozen II sold 3.6 million physical discs in the United States, leading the pack for any film or TV series this year. Avengers: Endgame won 2019, with 4.8 million sales for $104 million dollars. (And Frozen II could catch Avengers, since they year hasn’t ended and my data set for 2020 only goes through mid-2020.)

Let’s run through some fun insights, though with this dataset:

– People still buy DVDs. Again, even in an age of streaming, when folks could sign up to Disney+, 3 million families in the US alone bought a DVD for Frozen II instead of watching it there.

– DVD sales aren’t films only. TV has always had a spot on the list. Here’s a rough categorization of how film sales looked in the last two years or so:

IMAGE 2 - Categorization

– Yes, that’s right, in the United States with just physical discs, the big studios sold $2.4 billion dollars worth of discs. Yes, studios don’t keep that whole price, but that’s still a lot of extra money for each film. (Say about 40% of the price, or $10 for a film.) And this just physical home entertainment, a shrinking market. Electronic sales are now a much bigger piece of the pie. (That I don’t have similar revenue estimates for…) So each of these films could add about 8-10% more revenue to their total revenue. When this market decays to nothing, that revenue likely goes with it.

– If you’re wondering if box office predicts home entertainment sales, they absolutely do. Box office is about 89% correlated with home entertainment sales. Here’s what that means in practice:

IMAGE 3 - Scatterplot

– Yes, this is a shrinking market. It’s declined by 62% over the last decade. (Since 2020 is in progress, we don’t know how it will ultimately fare yet.) Here’s how the top 100 films fared over the last decade (up through 2019, since we have full data):

IMAGE 4 - Decline by Year

– And yes, this market is also logarithmically distributed. Thousands of films sell less than a million units a year, whereas Avengers: Endgame sold over a $100 million dollars.

IMAGE 5 - Log Scale

How the Antitrust Case Against Facebook Could Upend the Streaming Wars: Most Important Story of the Week – 11 Dec 2

Disney is a marketer’s marketer. With the biggest brands in entertainment, they can serve up an investor day—an investor day that is for Wall Street investors!—that gets regular folks to turn in and trends on Twitter. Yet, for all the buzz, the basic story was that Disney is releasing Disney content on the Disney branded streamer. We’ll get to that, but another story could have bigger implications for entertainment.

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Most Important Story of the Week – The Antitrust Case Against Facebook

A few months back, following Epic’s Games epic lawsuit against Apple, I stated that I planned to follow “antitrust” news fairly closely. Because antitrust could be the new “deregulation”:

I’ve been scanning the landscape more over the last couple of months to look at the future. And the “blue ocean” space in the entertainment strategy landscape for me isn’t technology–again, the futurists have it covered–but how regulation could change business models. And this is a hypothesis I’m monitoring: 

Could antitrust enforcement could become the new deregulation?

Deregulation was arguably the biggest driver of disruption in the 1970s and 1980s. Deregulating industries across the globe from airlines to energy to telecommunications repeatedly enabled smart firms to seize new advantages. That airlines example above is a perfect example; Southwest likely doesn’t become Southwest without deregulation.

Generally, everything has been deregulated. So what comes next? My guess is a reversal of antitrust. 

Since then, the signs that antitrust is on the agenda have only picked up steam. Consider:

– The House Antitrust Subcommittee released the “Cicilline Report” which laid out how the four big tech firms have used their market power to hinder competition.

– The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google for specific antitrust violations. State Attorneys General are expected to follow suit.

– Joe Biden was elected as the next President of the United States. While there is some bipartisan support of renewed antitrust legislation (see Google’s antitrust suit, filed by a Republican), Democrats are still clearly more supportive than Republicans on antitrust.

– This week, 48 states and the Federal Trade Commission filed an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook. (Also a bipartisan move.)

In August, I laid out a few waypoints that I would watch to see if increased antitrust enforcement was likely coming. We hit the big one (Biden’s election), the next biggest (Congress increasing pressure) and now antitrust is headed to the courts (Specific lawsuits against Google and Facebook). As the future becomes slightly clearer, then, it’s worth expanding the potential for what comes next, especially for entertainment and media.

Predictions

What happens next?

To start, more antitrust lawsuits for the rest of big tech feels inevitable. Amazon seems particularly easy given that they have leveraged their market power in retail for years to enter new industries or stifle competition. The complaints from smaller vendors are legion. (The diapers.com affair from the start of the decade is particularly egregious.) Apple is more beloved than Amazon, but the Fortnite fiasco basically illustrated in stark terms Apple’s market power, and brought up a host of smaller competitors crushed under their power. Both Amazon and Apple, though, are more popular than Google and Facebook, which have both been embroiled in partisan bickering.

After that? The states/FTC/DoJ will either win or lose their lawsuits. That proposition is dicey because these suits are decided by individual judges, many of whom were appointed by Republican presidents with The Federalist society backing “Borkians” who tend to downplay antitrust concerns. Or in some cases just don’t believe antitrust is worthy of government attention.

If the states lose their lawsuit, then it would require Congress to change the laws around antitrust. That’s a much tougher challenge in today’s political landscape. But not impossible. (The Georgia run-offs will say a lot on whether this is possible.) Assuming that the Big Tech companies lose their fight, then come the potential remedies, which adds another layer of complexity to predicting what happens next.

Potential Outcomes

Let’s be honest and let the air out of the balloon right off the bat: The most likely outcome is that Big Tech is mostly left in place. Think Microsoft in the 1990s. In the worst case, the companies agree to some measures to control their behavior, but immediately go back to not following them and paying minuscule fines.

This is, essentially, what has happened with most merger consent decrees this decade. Facebook said it wouldn’t integrate What’s App’s data, then did it anyways. AT&T said prices wouldn’t go up after mergers, then raised prices. The companies pay the fines and keep consolidating. Disney said it would keep producing Fox movies, but now may release fewer films in theaters post merger than they did before.

The best case would be consent decrees that are enforced. Like the Paramount Consent Decrees of the 1950s. This helped movie studios and theaters thrive. Or AT&T’s forced divestment of patents in the 1950s. This spurred innovation across the U.S. landscape, which really did help competition. (It does say something that success examples of this happened 70 years ago…)

The bigger, and more fun to imagine, scenario is breaking up big tech. (And while I try to avoid my own policy recommendations, this is the outcome that I believe would benefit America the most.) These breakups could be either horizontal (the same industry) or vertical (different business units in the same company in related fields). 

Vertical is actually easier in most cases since the different companies don’t need each other to survive. So for Amazon, spinning off AWS, for example, would hardly impact Amazon’s retail business. (Though it would deprive Amazon of a valuable profit stream.) Google has multiple business units that could easily survive on their own. I’d add that splitting up Instagram and What’s App from Facebook are horizontal break ups, but relatively easy to contemplate since customers wouldn’t notice a change. (I’d make the same case for Amazon breaking up their marketplace from their other retail enterprises.) 

While vertical break ups in many cases don’t address market power, they are still very helpful for competition, since it means the firms left in a given industry can compete more evenly. (And most vertical integration tends to be followed by price gouging, product tying or other anti-competitive behavior.)

The key question for entertainment is whether each of the big tech titan’s entertainment enterprises get divested individually or remain as part of the bigger conglomerate. I could argue that Google should easily divest Youtube. Youtube can clearly survive on its own, but this would also give a powerful new internet advertising option to marketers. Apple could divest its media fairly easily (they are all just apps running on their operating system). Amazon has a better case for Prime Video staying in Prime, but even that isn’t ironclad. (Ask yourself: couldn’t Amazon pay the new Prime Video to stay in their Prime bundle? Yes, obviously. So why wouldn’t they? Because the value isn’t actually in the current video/data, it’s the market penetration to gain dominance overall.)

This is an unlikely scenario I’ve laid out. The plaintiffs have to win their lawsuits and then the remedy has to be the most extreme of remedies (break up). But imagine we do get here. Who are the winners and losers of this world? Imagine that Prime Video becomes its own company (with Twitch, Amazon Music, Audible and maybe a few other assets). Apple One becomes its own company (Apple Music, iTunes, TV+, Arcade and so on). And Google spins off Youtube.

Who wins or loses in this scenario?

Winner: Netflix

Say what you will about being bearish on Netflix’s business model, they aren’t a monopoly. Some investors want them to become one (building a “moat”), but a company with only 8% of all viewing in the United States is hardly a monopoly. Indeed, the biggest threat to Netflix, in my mind, is the unlimited cash reserves of Apple and Amazon. If forced to compete on an even playing field, this would benefit Netflix. (With the caveat that multiple new streaming companies on the NASDAQ may impact all share prices simultaneously, for good or ill.)

Winners: Traditional Streamers

Cord cutting is the biggest pain point for traditional media. But the biggest challenge, more than anything, is competing against competitors who don’t have to make money. If Big Tech had to compete on a level playing field–read not deficit financed–traditional media has a much better chance to survive in a streaming world.

Further, there is a big difference between radical disruption (where revenue drops by double digits year over year), and slow evolution (where profit margins slowly decline). Both get to the same place (which is the likely outcome from streaming), but one has a lot less pain for the incumbents and their suppliers. 

Losers: Prime Video and Apple

These seem like the two biggest losers in all this because most folks acknowledge that their streaming business models just aren’t based on actually delivering a valuable product. Phrased differently, no VC firm would invest in Apple TV+ if it weren’t owned by Apple; there is no business plan there. Spun off from their parents, these new media companies would be valuable, but much less invincible.

Losers: AT&T and Comcast

After Big Tech, if Congress wanted to find the industries that are heavily consolidated and hated by customers, cellular and cable are next on their wishlist. (Then health care.) Breaking up Big Cable would probably be the most popular move of the Biden administration. 

Winners: Roku and Sonos

If devices are sold at cost, the independent device makers have a chance to succeed and thrive.

Winners: Talent…probably.

In a lot of ways, the boom of streaming and peak TV is the best of times and the worst of times for talent. More shows and films are being made than ever before, but back end cuts are smaller than ever before. Meanwhile, junior writers work for some of the worst pay in the last few decades. Arguably, with many more streamers who are less powerful, the guilds could negotiate better rates, especially down the line. 

However, this may be offset by the end of the so-called “Drunken Sailor Era” (™ Richard Rushfield) as firms have to start making actual money. So they could cut back on content spend. That means less potential jobs overall.

TBD: Customers

Like talent, this could go either way. On the one hand, it has been great for customers to have multiple firms willing to subsidize cord cutting. The problem is those subsidies are harmful long term and entrenched market power is awful too. So prices could go up, but they’d reflect economic reality. Meanwhile, customer choice would come either way.

The Caveat: All of this is Unlikely

Does a huge break up of Big Tech, including spinning of media firms actually happen? Probably not. But without throwing out random probabilities, it’s probably twice as likely as it was even in August. (So yes, this is like a streamer saying a show grew 50% year over year. 50% of what?)

Yet, Biden was elected President, and that’s huge. Combined with renewed emphasis by the Democratic coalition, and I think corporate consolidation is on the table for change. He’ll likely appoint attorneys general, federal judges and administrators who could put a renewed emphasis on antitrust. That will impact entertainment eventually.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Disney Investor Day

Few analysts are (and have been) as bullish on Disney’s streaming future as I have been. I write that to put in context what I’ll write next: I don’t think this Disney Investor’s Day deserves the hype it has been given.

Take a few of the headlines touting “10 New Star Wars and Marvel” series coming to Disney+. That sounds huge. But given that this will take place over the next few years, is it? In context? Take this analysis by Emily Horgan:

Or take my timeline I’ve been using to model Lucasfilm’s financials:

base

And for kids…

kids

In other words, Disney confirmed what I’ve been modeling for a while now. This Star Wars volume is a pinch higher, but considering the volume of one-offs, not that much more than I modeled. But most of Wall Street/the trades seem surprised by it. I’d add there are a few more caveats for why the total volume of content may not match the reality:

– Shows will likely get cancelled. Like Ghost Rider, Benioff and Weiss’ Star Wars Trilogy, Howard the Duck, Rion Johnson’s Star Wars Trilogy, more Han Solo films, and countless other projects over the years.
– A lot of this content is animated and for kids. Which is crucial to Disney’s future, but likely replaces exactly what they were making for Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior. Which we weren’t getting super excited for before streaming times.
– Some of the announcements really are for a long way off (like a Rogue Squadron film in 2023). Most announcements didn’t have dates.

In total, then, I don’t think this is really much more content than Disney was planning on making last year or the year before. Some of it may have shifted from film (previous pitches for movies may have turned into TV series, like potentially Obi-Wan), but it’s probably similar. At the end of the day, it looks like from 2021-2023 we can bank on a Disney live-action adult series every 2 months or so on the platform for Marvel and Star Wars. 

That feels about perfect. If they can keep up the quality, that’s a big slate that will keep folks subscribed. It’s also the “if” that defines all success in entertainment.

(Though Disney+ still has a big hole for adult TV outside of Marvel and Star Wars. That’s a tough hole to fill.)

As for business strategy, the biggest news is no news. Hulu stays where it is. Star is officially becoming Disney’s adult brand globally. ESPN+ will continue expanding, and be available within Hulu. And lastly only one film is “breaking” the theatrical window, with Raya going to Premiere Access (like Mulan’s $30 release) simultaneous with theaters. (I have a feeling it will do much smaller business than Mulan on PA.)

An NFL Update: Ratings are Down, but Good for Broadcast

Is the state of the NFL viewership good or bad? Maybe both. Americans consume NFL football more than any other sport–arguably more than any other type of content period–yet the ratings aren’t as high as past years (down about 8%) because linear TV viewing just isn’t as high as it was (down about 30%). This of course begs the question for what happens next. I can’t see a world where broadcast TV doesn’t nab a few more years of NFL rights, even non-exclusively, but the key question is, “At what price?” Likely they will be high.

Disney+/HBO Max and Comcast Integration

Disney+ and HBO Max will soon be available on Comcast’s Flex operating system. This is a smart next step for both Disney+ and HBO Max. (If anything it should have come sooner.) For all the talk of cord cutting–and there is a lot!–one of the surprising survivors is the cable box. This makes it much easier to reach another big group of customers that Netflix and Prime Video are already reaching.

Data of the Week – The Hallmark Channel Is Still Winning Christmas

Josef Adalian has the details in a recent newsletter, but 3.4 million folks tuned in on one Sunday for a Christmas movie. Linear TV is dead, but it won’t lie down.

M&A Updates

Just because antitrust is back on the agenda doesn’t mean that mergers won’t continue fast and furious. The two latest biggies both have tangential relations to entertainment. Slack is the de facto messaging service of lots of Hollywood, and it was just purchased by Salesforce. Meanwhile, S&P and IHS are merging for a huge price tag because they are both financial data firms. S&P fascinates me because they had earlier purchased SNL Kagan, and Kagan was a tremendous source for entertainment data back in the day.

The Top Four Licensed Shows on Netflix Account for 6% of Netflix’s Viewing in the US – Visual of the Week

In 2020, Netflix lost the rights to Friends. In 2021, they lose the rights to The Office. How much do those big shows impact viewing on Netflix? 

Quantifying that via Netflix’s data is fairly hard, though, since they focus overwhelmingly on their original series, as that’s the key to “building a moat” in the eyes of shareholders. Fortunately, Nielsen is now tracking consumption in the United States. Which means we have one third party firm who can help us answer the question.

Today’s visual answers this question:

How have the top four licensed shows on Netflix done this year?

Here’s the “Data Ws” to answer how I calculated this:

Who – Streaming customers
What – Total hours viewed (Nielsen million minutes divided by 60)
What (platform) – Any service
Where – In the United States
When – From week starting March 9th to Nov 2nd 2020, minus March 23rd
When (time period) – Measured Monday to Sunday.
How (did I get it) – Nielsen provided weekly top ten.

Here’s the answer in visual form:

IMAGE 1 - Chart of Top 4

However, we need context. As in, what does this mean? Well, to start, here’s the total viewing over the 34 weeks I have data for. And you can see what a big percentage of this top ten viewing this makes up.

Screen Shot 2020-12-08 at 2.00.59 PM

To quote Shawshank, if you’ve come this far, Red, maybe you’ll go a bit further. And that is really asking this question, “Hey, EntStrategyGuy, does this matter in terms of all Netflix’s viewing? Nielsen doesn’t provide that, do they?”

No, but Netflix has!

In two different earnings reports, Netflix reported that they make up about 100 million hours of viewing per day in the US. (In the 2018 end of year report and again in 2019.) Let’s make some scenarios to cover our bases. First, we could assume Netflix has grown somewhat during Coronavirus. That’s the high case, and I’ll use Nielsen’s estimate of 44% growth from this year for that. But Netflix could have been cherry picking their 10 million hours per day number too, so I’ll use the lower estimate of 6% of all viewing Nielsen estimated in Q1. That gives us this range:

Screen Shot 2020-12-08 at 2.01.32 PM

Is 6% a lot of content to lose? I’d say yes, and we don’t know how losing Friends impacted them because we don’t have the data. The good news is Grey’s Anatomy isn’t going anywhere as long as it stays on the air. The bad news is The Office is gone this month. (I’m not sure for NCIS or Criminal Minds.)

One bonus insight: Folks may be tempted to say that the higher viewership of licensed shows happens during times when content is weak. This actually isn’t true. Netflix’s highest viewership of originals actually peaked this year in March, according to Nielsen, and licensed shows saw higher numbers during that time period. 

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Discovery+ Is Almost As Big as the Warner Bros 2021 News – Most Important Story of the Week: 4 Dec 20

Well, after two and a half years of writing this column, I’ve finally come to a tie. Sure, the buzz is with Warner Bros and the decision to finally end the exclusivity part of the theatrical window. Every columnist from here to Timbuktu will feature that in their entertainment newsletter this week.

And yet, Discovery+ feels as big. I could even make some back of the envelope numbers work for it too. Discovery makes $11 billion in revenue every year, which is, funnily, the same size as the US box office. If Discovery+ is as big of a success as David Zaslav hopes, that feels as important as the $10 billion a year theatrical window. (And that’s assuming theaters die completely, which is unlikely as I’ll cover below.)

But sure, I hear you. You want thoughts on both. We’ll start with Discovery+, and move to Warner Bros big plans.

Most Important Story of the Week – Discovery Announces Discovery+

Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m fine with Discovery’s late entry to the streaming wars and their general plan. Actually, “fine” probably doesn’t cover it. I think this could be a shockingly strong entrant, given how many folks have given Discovery up for dead.

Let’s start with Discovery’s biggest strength, which is owning its own content library. This is one of the first things that Discovery pointed to during their announcement of Discovery+ and it’s a great thing to point to. There’s the old saying that you don’t make money making movies, you make money owning a content library. Well, Discovery has that with, as they said, 55,000 episodes of reality TV to provide. Sure, this isn’t “buzzy” content like Disney or HBO’s libraries, but it is a lot of content. And it’s valuable to different demographics.

Discovery is late to the streaming game, but in this case, I don’t think that’s the worst outcome. As I’ve been writing a bit over the last few weeks, the name of the game is building streaming revenue while not obliterating the more valuable cable revenue. And don’t kid yourself, that revenue is valuable for Discovery. Here are their affiliate fees for their top four channels on linear TV:

Screen Shot 2020-12-04 at 11.41.09 AM

And that’s leaving out a few channels and all their advertising revenue. In other words, for every customer that leaves traditional cable for streaming, Discovery will lose money. So they waited as long as they could. Plus, Discovery probably figured that their customers are some of the laggards in cord cutting, so they could hold off as most of the early adopters of Netflix were hungry for prestige, scripted content, which isn’t Discovery’s forte anyways.

Discovery also flies under the buzzy radar. If you use linear viewing as a proxy for overall value, Discovery doesn’t have a presence in the top five channels. But after that? Yeah, Discovery is basically the channels to go to watch something pointless in the background, especially after the merger with Scripps:

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Even if you, the New York or Los Angeles Millennial/Gen-Xer, don’t watch those channels–and in some cases look down on those who do–tons of folks do watch. (Maybe even folks you know. We just don’t talk about it…) And since this isn’t buzzy content, those primetime ratings probably undersell Discovery’s content a bit.

To finish, this is also a great “zig while others zag” move. HBO Max and Disney+ went right at Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video with scripted content. Discovery is playing a different game and it will be interesting to see if it works. (To be fair to Disney+, it has its share of cheaper reality content too.)

What’s Next? A Merger with A&E Would Make Sense

The other distinctive part of Discovery’s plan is to include some A&E content in the lineup, specifically from their more reality/lifestyle brands. I haven’t heard anything specifically, but you’d have to wonder if Discovery has floated buying out Disney’s 50% ownership so that they could get a near stranglehold on cheap reality programming. Adding the buzzy A&E channels would also help Discovery brace for the reduced channel lineup world with even more channels to negotiate with MVPDs and vMVPDs.

The What If? Netflix Had Bought Discovery…

In a lot of ways, Netflix knows how valuable Discovery’s content is. That’s why so many of their shows are clearly in the mold of Discovery programming that has left the service or will leave as Discovery+ launches its own programming. Nature programming? Netflix is building that. Shows where folks buy houses? Sure. Shows where folks renovate houses? Check. Cooking shows? Check. Cooking shows that are just reality shows? Check that box too. 

The problem is Netflix has to buy or rent it all. And they can’t replace nearly that volume or for nearly that price. From scratch. Can you imagine if they had bought Discovery a few years back and could add 55,000 episodes to their catalogue? Heck, even the cash flow from Discovery would have made Netflix breakeven. I’m not a fan of M&A as a strategy in general, but this move would have made sense to me.

Most Important Story of the Week – Warner Bros. Sends Their 2021 Slate “Straight” to HBO Max

If AT&T was reading my advice, they’d have seen a few pieces urging them not to release films straight to streaming. Like here. Or here. Or here. If anyone on the Internet writes about how valuable the theatrical window is to traditional movie studios more than I do, I’d love to see it.

My thesis is simple: skipping multiple windows decreases the overall revenue of a given film. Even today I was tweeting that:

Yet, multiple big studios seem to have said by their actions that I’m wrong:

– Disney’s Studio chief speculated that that several live-action adaptions would be headed for Disney+.
– Warner Bros. moved Wonder Woman 1984 straight to HBO Max on Christmas.
– Universal launched a new partnership with theaters for a new 3-week premium window for their films.
– Then, the big move, Warner Media moving its entire 2021 slate to a “day-and-date” HBO Max window with theaters.
– (Plus, there has been a lot of speculation, including hints from Disney, that on their investor day next week they’ll announce an expansion of their premium plan.) 

Who are you gonna trust, some guy on the internet or all the studio heads? Taken together, this seems like a clear indictment of my belief that studios will make more money by keeping theaters around then going straight-to-streaming. 

So how do I explain this discrepancy? Well, I did that over at Decider. And I have four reasons:

            – Clearly subscribers are the only metric that matters to Wall Street.

            – If you’re in the growth phase, losing money to gain subscribers makes some sense.

            – Covid-19. Covid-19. Covid-19.

            – The calendar is going to be jammed in 2021 anyways for box office.

For the details, head over to Decider. 

Yet, while I explained why this move happened, I didn’t explain what happens next. Because I don’t know. Because I can’t predict the future. Still, that’s the fun part, right? And there is one key tradeoff that will impact all the players. 

The Big The Tradeoff (Defined)

The best article I’ve read this year is from Doug Shapiro’s “One Casualty of the Streaming Wars: Profit”. Shaprio focuses on TV in that article, roughly arriving at the idea that TV in the United States is something like a $110 billion dollar industry. And one with some of the highest profit margins around.

Well, theaters are an extra $10 billion piece of that pie in the United States, of which the studios take home about 50%. Moreover, that leads into a fairly lucrative window of purchasing, whether formerly of physical discs, but now mostly digital sales. Which is billions more. 

As Shapiro quantifies, this streaming window just doesn’t have the same margins or volume as the old theater to home entertainment to premium to secondary windows model had. There are lots of folks who insist this isn’t the case, and they usually base their view on rosy customer lifetime value scenarios. But the math is the math. (Even if Celebrity Wall Street Media Futurists insist it is the case.)

This is why studios held off from going straight-to-streaming for so long. They don’t want to add $10 billion more in lost revenue to the huge potential lost revenue coming too. As I wrote in Decider, though, they may have finally been forced by this once in a century pandemic. 

This also explains why the studios all have different plans. No one quite knows what the right new distribution plan, but straight-to-streaming by itself likely won’t cut it. Here’s my landscape of the current situation:

IMAGE 1 - Approaches to Theaterical

Or this septet chart: 

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 What does this mean for all the parts of the value chain? Let’s explore. 

Theaters

One of the big questions is whether Warner Bros. had a plan for the theaters. The answer? No.

As of now, the theaters won’t get an extra piece of the theatrical pie. I expect this to change and both sides will keep negotiating, but if theaters don’t get on board, then a lot of extra revenue is at risk. 

Let’s assume Warner Bros (and Disney if they follow a similar course with “Premium Access”) eventually come to terms with theaters as Comcast did. What does this mean for the future of theaters?

Well, I don’t know. Here’s a range I’d give you: theatrical revenue could drop to $0, or stay the same ($10-11 billion per year) or even grow. And that’s in the United States. In China, where the streamers aren’t allowed, there will be much less change. 

If I had to bet, I’d guess theaters definitely lose some theatrical window revenue. How could they not when subscribers could watch the films for free? On the other hand, Comcast’s plan may not change things very much. And Disney hasn’t committed to this path for all films. 

Yet there is a large range from “lose some” revenue to “wiped out to zero”. (Which I saw headlines touting the “death knell” for theaters. Death knell implies zero.) It’s very rare for an industry to go to zero overnight, and even if theaters are losing some revenue, like DVDs it will likely take decades to truly, if ever, disappear. 

Plus, if the losses mount without driving huge subscribers growth, or tapping out at some level, theater only windows could subtly creep back into our lives.               

Smaller Studios

Meanwhile, without streamers boosting the bottom line, it’s tough to see what Sony and Lionsgate do from here. In some ways, theaters may appreciate their films even more since they are—for now—exclusive to theaters. You could also expect some “arms dealing” as some of the streamers vie for their films as they’ll need inventory. (Amazon and Netflix)

Still, if the overall theatrical pie shrinks (say some theaters go out of business), that’s bad for the smaller studios overall, especially as streaming will eventually pay less for films. (See below.) 

Other Streamers    

For Warner Bros in particular, this move will be great for HBO Max adoption. Though how great, sort of like for theaters above, remains to be seen. It’s not like HBO didn’t have a supply of top tier theatrical films. They’ve always had a steady selection of Warner Bros, Universal and Lionsgate films in the first window after home entertainment. It’s unclear how much bringing films 3-6 months early will boost the perceived value.

Still, even more than buzzy TV shows, theatrical films are great at acquiring new subscribers. This is the dirty secret of most straight-to-streaming films by Netflix and Prime Video. Yes, they’ve had some “hits”, but nothing compares to true box office blockbusters like Avengers, Star Wars or animated kids films. The key question though is what drives that: is it the films themselves, or the marketing of the films which builds anticipation? If HBO Max drastically cuts marketing budgets with less theatrical revenue coming in, then maybe these films don’t play as theatrical releases on streaming.

I’d be willing to wager that Netflix’s films will keep doing well on their platform, but the HBO Max slate in 2021 will likely beat it overall in terms of minutes viewed (in the United States).

As for Apple TV+, they have the biggest opportunity here. If they committed to theatrical and big back end, they could easily become a go to spot for filmmakers. Plus, Richard Plepler has the cachet to make this work.

Production Budgets

Right now, HBO Max, Comcast and Disney are making a lot of release decisions for films that are already made. Those are sunk costs. Meaning they are just trying to maximize what they can going forward.

However, with these new models, films that are greenlit going forward are in this new reality. And if the new, streaming only reality really does have less upside than the old model, then something has to give.

Doesn’t it?

That’s why, when I first heard about Disney+ floating the idea of some of their live-action films going to Disney+, my response was “Oh, they’ll lower the budgets.” Even Alan Horn mentioned that going straight to Disney+ would save on marketing costs. But that was fine because no one cares about cutting costs on marketing. 

Folks do care, though, if you skimp on production budgets. (And talent cares about their pay!) Making a film that could cost $80 million for $20 million feels cheap. But it’s also inevitable. Again, Disney Channel, HBO and even Lifetime have made movies for years for TV. But they know that a movie going straight to TV has a limited upside, so the budgets are similarly limited.

That’s something to watch in 2021. If films really aren’t marking as much going forward, something has to give.

Talent and Backend

This is the biggest wildcard for me. Right now, the current workaround to go straight to streaming is to just guarantee more payment to top talent up front. This has its own risks, though. Mainly that instead of shifting the risk of backend to only guaranteed hits, you essentially make every film a “hit” in terms of talent costs. That hurts the bottom line.

So again, something will have to give. Either talent will make less money or the studios will.

Data of the Week – Daytime TV Viewing Is Up

I just wanted to point out this fun article from Nielsen because it is the worst indictment of working from home imaginable, and I think more managers should be aware of it. If your employees have time to watch TV, you need less employees. (And probably fewer Zoom meetings, not more.)

“The Mandalorian vs The Queen’s Gambit: Who Won November” at Decider

In what is now a recurring column, over at Decider I took a look at all the ratings data I could find to declare the streaming winner in the US for November. This one is packed with with charts, tables and data.

(If you’re curious for the older editions, here’s September and July.)

Also, I discuss the latest Nielsen streaming data in this thread: