Category: Analysis

Is Prime Video Fifth Place in the Streaming Wars?: Explaining the EntStrategyGuy’s US Paid Streaming Subscriber Estimates- Part II

(This is the last article in a three part series estimating how many US paid streaming subscribers there are in the US. Read the numbers here, and the first half of the explanation here.)

If you’re wondering, yes, I deliberately wrote three (almost) contradictory headlines for the last two days. In one, Netflix is clearly winning the streaming wars. In the other, Disney is almost winning. In the third, the often second place streamer, Prime Video, got ranked in fifth place. What’s the reality?

Somewhere in between. Or somewhere else entirely.

That’s what the point is for these articles the last two days. Not just to see the current subscriber totals, but to understand the nuances between them. To understand how the numbers interact so we can not just figure out not just who is winning the streaming wars, but what could happen as they get more competitive in the next few years.

Today, I’ll continue explaining how I estimated each streamer’s subscribers, but let’s start with why I did this analysis. At the end, I’ll put some fun charts that summarize this analysis.

The Reasons I Did This Deep Dive 

As I’ve been analyzing the streaming wars, it’s been increasingly clear that this is a war fought on a country-by-country basis. Netflix’s global growth is incredible, but it is only one, likely overrated, part of the story. The actual battles are in individual countries. 

Given how big and important the U.S. market is, it makes sense to start there. Since I’ve been evaluating who is “winning” the streaming wars, I needed to know how everyone is doing in America. Subscribers are one of those key metrics. However, if you search the interwebs, you won’t find a reliable estimate for each streamer. Thus, I needed to build these numbers myself and if I was going to do the work, I should share it here. 

Not to mention, I have a bias against using other folk’s numbers. My rule of thumb is that I don’t trust anyone. Especially if the source of a number is vague/uncertain/biased.

Lastly, I can do this analysis because I’m freed of some journalistic conventions. This website features my thoughts and analysis. Most journalists can only cite specific facts via companies or well-established consultancies/investment research. That’s what leaves most estimates wanting. Since I’m allowed to print whatever I want, I can mix estimates with facts. But I’ll just tell you the difference.

Analysis Continued: How I Determined Each Number

Prime Video

Time for some guesswork. 

As I wrote Wednesday, this will require an estimate of an estimate of an estimate. Or a guess.

First, we have to find the number of Prime subscribers globally. (Itself unknown.)

Second, we have to figure out the proportion who are in the US.

Third, we have to figure out how many actually use Prime Video.

Fourth, we have to guess of those who use Prime Video, how many use it and would pay for it?

Like I said, some guess work!

To start, I looked for US estimates of Amazon Prime subscribers and couldn’t find any numbers I loved. One firm does an annual survey, but they estimated 126 million US subscribers the same month Amazon announced 150 million worldwide Prime subscribers. That’s way too high then. However, the estimate isn’t for Prime subscribers, but folks with access to Prime. (Always ask “What is the ‘what’ in this statistic?”) So you could divide their number by 2.2 (for the number of people per household), and get the potential number of subscribers of around 50 million Prime subscribers in the US. That’s a floor.

On the other end, you could assume Prime membership is related to sales in a given country. Since Amazon breaks out revenue by United States versus Rest of World, we can see that here:

IMAGE 8 - AMazon Rvenue

If that’s the high and low ranges, then what I’ll do is take Amazon’s announced membership in January (150 million), and use some nice round numbers. (And yes, I didn’t model any Amazon growth this year, so yeah, more unknowns on top of unknowns.) 

The next question is how many folks actually use Prime Video. We could use third party sources for that—hang on a moment—but it’s worth building out the sensitivity table just to see how wide the range could be. I made a “Monthly Active” users sensitivity table to give myself a range.

IMAGE 10 - MAUs

If someone uses a service monthly, they are much more willingly to keep paying for it if they have to. (ie. if Amazon some how took Prime Video out of the Prime membership.) I also took a look at “annual active users”, but the range was too wide to be useful.

But I had one other piece of data floating around in my head. See, various streamers like Nielsen and Comscore track streaming usage. And Prime Video and Hulu have been remarkably close over the years. 

IMAGE 11 - Nielsen Total Mins copy

That image is from earlier this year, when I wrote that “Netflix Is a Broadcast Channel”. In other words, if Prime Video has about the same usage as Hulu, it stands to reason it will have about the same number of folks willing to subscribe (at a $6 price point). Prime Video looks like it has grown a bit compared to Hulu over the last few years, but in general, they have about the same amount of usage.

What about the range? Well, you could convince me of anything. For my table above, I could see literally as few folks as CBS All-Access (say about 12 million). On the other hand, maybe folks do value Prime Video more than Hulu. So I could see it up to say 50 million US subscribers. (I just can’t imagine it is as valuable as Netflix when few folks watch nearly as many Prime Video shows.)

Starz

Starz, on the other hand, provided us all facts. In fact, some of the best facts of any of the streamers. While they have changed definitions a few time, they straight list out their past numbers. See?

IMAGE 12 - Starz IR

Kudos for the transparency!

However, like HBO Max, the number of potential “streaming” subscribers is somewhere between the total of all linear and OTT subscribers, and the OTT subscribers only. You can decide where you think that falls, but I count them all for now.

Apple TV+

Now back to the guess work!

Apple has had a good year for Apple TV+, but they refuse to release any numbers on its performance. Complicating things, Apple TV+ is also available globally. This was the same problem we ran into with Disney+, only with less data. The last leak we had was from Bloomberg in February, which estimated that about 10 million folks worldwide are signed up for Apple TV+, with the caveat that maybe half are actually using the service. 

Time for the proxies. Since Apple TV+ is mainly for folks buying new devices, we’ll start there. If you want to analyze potential subscribers by iPhone sales, the best proxy for penetration, here’s the non-China iPhone sales numbers from 2017, according to Business Insider:

IMAGE 13 - iPhone Sales

My logic for Apple TV+ was to take that rough percentage, and boost it slightly for the US, given that most Apple TV+ content is US focused. Then we’d add a 35% “Covid bump”. (Roughly what Starz and CBS All-Access saw this year.) Bingo, we get our guess of 6.8 million customers. 

What about the range? Like Amazon, you could convince me of anything. The high could be all 10 million leaked customers were US based (or nearly so) and the Covid bump got it to 13.5 million. The low would be 2 million folks, all of whom are Ted Lasso fans. (The buzziest show among entertainment business Twitter after Succession.) 

AMC

More facts from AMC. They’ve leaked that they expect their portfolio of streaming services to end the year at around 4 million US paid subscribers. To be clear, this is me cheating slightly since their premiere service AMC+ (which includes content from their other streaming services) may not have passed the 2 million threshold. I’m counting all their streaming subscribers, when you could argue they belong with the “niche” services. Still, they expect to pass the 5.5 million mark by the end of the year. So that’s the high point, with 4 million being the low. 

(I haven’t written on AMC+ yet, but I am bullish on it as a “second tier” player. More to come.)

Peacock

Last guess. Peacock has 22 million “sign-ups”, up from 10 million at their first earnings report after Peacock’s launch. So how many of those are paying? 

I have no clue. None. Zip. Zilch.

But it’s likely small. Given that Peacock is advertising forward, the vast majority of users are likely interacting with it that way. (Of all the companies, I’d love this data point most of all. Well, maybe Apple TV+, then this one.) So I built a sensitivity table, and picked 15% as the number that made sense to me. I’d say the floor is 2 million (just making this list) and up to about 20% of subscribers, or 4.4 million subscribers, if folks are beating my estimates.

The Comparison Table

So with that, let’s make a few final fun tables. First, here’s the chart of my ranges of each estimate. In a lot of ways, this is more valuable than yesterday’s chart:

IMAGE 14 - Min Max Table

These ranges really tell us how wide the potential options are. Hopefully, we learn more over time, but you can see that the premium linear to streaming conversion will be an important statistic to monitor.

And now the confidence ranking table.

IMAGE 15 - Confidence Table in Rank

In other words, you can quickly see who provides clear numbes, who we can confidently estimate and who is the guess work.

Lastly, here’s my full table with the definitions and calculations explained:

Table - Full US Sub Estimates

So this provides a short hand way to know how I calculated the numbers.

Hope you enjoyed and again provide your estimates or feedback in the comments or on Twitter.

Disney Has Almost Caught Up To Netflix in the Streaming Wars: Explaining the EntStrategyGuy’s US Paid Streaming Subscriber Estimates- Part I

(This is the last article in a three part series estimating how many US paid streaming subscribers there are in the US. Read the numbers here, and the second half of the explanation here.)

I’ve become a pinch frustrated with media folks who don’t differentiate between the US subscribers compared to global subscribers. Why? Because it violates the number one rule of data, which is to compare things “apples-to-apples”. Meaning, one should compare the most similar numbers to each other. 

Not to pick on them because they do great work, but the wonderful Axios Media Newsletter (which reaches a lot more folks than I do) was guilty of this this week:

IMAGE 1 Axios - Total Subscribers

That looks at Netflix’s global numbers to HBO Max’s US only numbers. That doesn’t make sense, does it? Meanwhile, it’s compares Prime Video customers, who get it for free, to those genuinely paying for Netflix. And Apple TV+ can’t make the list since we know nothing.

So, as I wrote yesterday, I stepped up to provide some estimates for each of the major streamer’s US subscriber totals:

Chart - Updated Totals not title

And the chart. (With some typos fixed from yesterday.)

Table Abbreviated

If yesterday is the data shot, today is the analysis chaser, describing the details of what I did and how. Which is just as important. If you read yesterday’s article, you’ll learn some statistics. If you read today’s—and yes it’s long—you’ll learn about what is driving these numbers.

We have a lot to get to over the next two days. Here’s the outline:

– The rules I used to estimate US subscribers.
– The confidence levels for each estimate.
– The explanation for each of the twelve major streamers.
– The reason for this deep dive. (Mainly the need for “apples-to-apples” comparisons.)
– Finally, a chart with the ranges for each streaming estimate.

(As a reminder, sign up for my newsletter to get all my writings and my favorite entertainment business picks from the last 2 weeks or so.)

The Rules

In a quest to get to “apples-to-apples”, I had to figure out what type of apples we were dealing with. Here are the ground rules, in rough order of priority:

– First, US only. Global subscribers will come later.
– Second, subscription was the key. Free or advertising-supported services from Youtube to Pluto TV didn’t make the cut.
– Third, the goal is “streaming”, but I added “premium” channels too. Because frankly, lots of folks subscribe to HBO, Showtime and Starz directly. Ignoring that provides less context than more. So the premium companies made the cut. The linear channels paid through a cable bundle did not.
– Fourth, the goal is to focus on who “would pay” for a service. In other words, for Apple and Amazon, to try to figure out who would pay for those services if they suddenly cost money.
– Fifth, I had to draw a line somewhere or I’d have too many subscription services. I decided to focus on “major” services, which I defined as 2 million customers and above.
– Sixth, some services are very cheap as well, so I’m assuming roughly a $5 per month price point as the cut off. Yes, there are tons of discounts that get applied, but this is a good starting point.

My Confidence in Each Prediction Explained

Last year when I calculated how much money Game of Thrones made for HBO (a lot!), I realized I was dealing with a few different types of information. And I needed some categories to describe them. So I came up with this:

IMAGE 2 - Confidence Table

A fact is something a company has confirmed in a specific report or statement. Or in some cases ratings numbers and what not. Those are numbers we can believe in. Leaks are also from companies, but usually anonymous. They are fine, but always be careful with leaks. Companies are very self-interested and their PR folks—who are still good people—will mislead you. Specifically, with data that reinforces how well they are doing and hides any bad news. (The definition of bias.)

Estimates are predictions I am confident in. Usually it means I’m taking a few specific numbers and applying good models to them.

A guess, on the other hand, is usually when I have to estimate too many things. At which point my confidence in the estimate starts dropping. Which doesn’t mean educated guesses are bad, just uncertain. (Magic numbers are briefly explained here.)

Analysis: How I Determined Each Number

Enough preamble to the meat of this article. In order of the table above. 

Netflix

While Netflix discloses a lot of information compared to its streaming peers, on its US numbers it has become frustratingly vague. At the start of this year, Netflix decided to split the world into four territories to better show how its business is doing globally. Which meant for years we knew US subscriber numbers, but now those were bundled with Canada. Fortunately, they provided three years of data. Here you go:

IMAGE 3 - Netflix Subs over Time

In other words, US customers are about 90.3% of the UCAN total. That means we can estimate fairly well the current US subscribers based on the UCAN number. About 66 million US subscribers. Even though these numbers are so tight we probably don’t need it, I made a range for the estimate, and call this my 90% confidence interval:

IMAGE 4 - Est US Subscribers

(If you’re wondering where these numbers come from, I collected every Netflix subscriber number from here to olden times for this article. An update is coming next week as my “visual of the week”.)

Disney

Disney isn’t one service, but three. Two of those services aren’t globally available, which means we know for certain how many US subscribers they have. (ESPN and Hulu.) 

What about Disney+? Well, we have our first tricky estimating process. To figure it out, I looked for some historical data. To start, here’s my historical growth chart:

IMAGE 5 - Chart Disney Subs

That helps, but not perfectly. The best way to estimate Disney+ subscribers is to use some correlated variable we do know, and assume the subscriber numbers are related to that. For example, if a country is 25% of the worlds population, then you assume they are 25% of the Disney+ subscriber total. The problem is that no one variable is perfectly correlated. You could use population, but some countries are wealthier than others. You could use GDP, but it doesn’t quite account for size. Broadband and mobile penetration are also potential options. Ultimately, I decided to compare all the countries by population.

Yet this has a big problem for Disney+. The big wild cards are India and Indonesia. While most of Western Europe and Japan have similar economies to the US, India does not. Fortunately, Disney leaked that they have 18.4 million or so (a quarter) of their subscribers from India. So that means we now have to parse out how many of the 55.3 million or so are from the US.

In this case, I looked at various populations of the countries Disney+ has entered, compared to the total size.

IMAGE 6 - Disney Population Numbers

In other words, if countries adopted Disney+ simply by population, Disney has 40% of the population, so would have about would have 22 million subscribers. That’s too low. When Disney first announced numbers in December of 2019, they’d have already been at 21 million subscribers using the population method. So did Disney+ only gain 1 million customers this year? With The Mandalorian season 2 and Hamilton? Probably not. So I made a sensitivity table, which netted me this:

IMAGE 7 Sensitivity Table

Looking at it, the 54% of non-Indian subscribers having Disney+ is the most likely number. Or better phrased, between 25-35 million of all Disney+ subscribers are in the US. Any lower or higher feels unrealistic. And yes, I wish I had a more scientific way of triangulating this. Frankly Disney has released so little US data, and the data they have released has so many confounding variables that it’s probably the best we can do.

(Also, for the first of several times this article, if you want to disagree, feel free to do so in the comments or on Twitter and explain why.)

About The Headline “Disney Has Almost Caught Up To Netflix in the Streaming Wars”

Yesterday, I also included the total unique subscribers by company, because I do think that is the best way to compare companies. (See the table above.) 

Logically, if Disney could get to 50 million Hulu subscribers and 50 million Disney+ subscribers, and each was paying $10 a month—and those are numbers that are only possible 3-5 years in the future—then it would be hard to say they aren’t “beating” Netflix, if Netflix stays at around 65 million subscribers, but at a say $16 price point.

To be clear, I’m not predicting that happening. But that scenario is one of the possible futures. The fact that Disney has nearly caught up to Netflix with its three streaming services in terms of customers matters since it’s just starting out, even if average revenue per user is lower right now. (And yes, I only counted the “bundle” customers once for my summary yesterday. I assumed that all the ESPN+ growth, 6.5 million customers, since Disney+ launched was due to the bundle, which is a conservative assumption.)

HBO

HBO releases US subscribers and the number that have turned on HBO Max, which they call activations. The number of folks who would subscribe to HBO Max (if linear HBO disappeared entirely) is somewhere between those two numbers.

I’ll defend my lumping premium subscribers with streamers now. Frankly, I’ve never understood the logic of not comparing HBO linear subscribers to Netflix subscribers. Yes, one is direct-to-consumer and the other is sold through MVPDs. But ultimately, the customer is what matters. And HBO customers are very loyal. If the bundle goes away tomorrow, some customers may not continue subscribing to HBO, but more will. (And still do, frankly. HBO passwords are as borrowed/shared as Netflix, especially when Game of Thrones was on.)

As for the range, it’s between the activations and the total subscribers. So I provided both numbers. I’ll take the top of that range as my estimate (for now), but you can choose somewhere in the middle.

(If you want more details on HBO subscribers over time, check out my visual of the week from a few weeks back.)

Viacom-CBS

If I was going to count all premium subscribers for HBO, it only made sense to do so for Showtime as well. Fortunately, Viacom-CBS has leaked quite a bit of details to the press over the years, and their financial report provides specific numbers fort total streaming subscribers. (For this project, I searched for every number I could find.) For example, in September, sources told Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal that Showtime had 27 million total subscribers, including 7 million OTT. (That’s a very useful leak, if accurate.)

Meanwhile, in their latest earnings, Viacom CBS told us that between CBS All-Access and Showtime they have 17.9 million OTT subscribers. Assuming that ratio has held constant since the summer, then CBS All-Access has about 11 million subscribers. We can confidently estimate that. If you want an error range, since Viacom has said that subscribers are about evenly split between CBS All-Access and Showtime, the low would be 50% of the about 18 million subscribers and the high is the opposite end of that, or about 12.5 million subscribers.

However, unlike Disney, I didn’t try to disentangle ViacomCBS bundled customers at the company level. While Disney’s growth could easily be attributed to their bundle, it’s much less clear how many dual CBS All-Access and Showtime subscribers are out there.

4 Insights on Disney’s Content Strategy from the Last Summer

My last few weeks have been spent digging through all the data I could find on the streaming wars. What makes this different than the past is that we finally have a lot of data to parse. Firms like Nielsen, Reelgood, 7 Park and even Netflix themselves have started releasing insights into the streaming wars.

And for the first time, I started to get some insights into Disney’s streaming adventures. Since I was searching for the answer to “How well did Mulan do?”, naturally I found a lot of Disney+ viewership data. And some clear trends emerging about that platform. 

Without further ado, 4 insights on Disney’s streaming content strategy. (By the way, these insights are almost exclusively American since we still don’t have great global data.)

Insight 1: Disney is a Hit Driven Business

In entertainment, you don’t win with doubles and singles. You win with grand slams, since grand slams aren’t worth a bit more, but orders of magnitude more. The top film at the box office earns as much as hundreds of other films, for example.

Streaming hasn’t changed that. Hits are as important as ever. In the last quarter, Disney arguably had the most popular streaming release of the year with Hamilton. Check out Google Trends to see how much more interest there was than any other film in over the last three months:

Image 1 - G Trends with Hamilton

That’s the power of a traditional entertainment studio to find top IP and market it successfully. Going back to launch, arguably Disney+ only succeeded because it launched what is by many metrics the most popular new series in America, The Mandalorian. In other words, in less than a year of existence, Disney launched a show arguably as popular on steaming as Netflix’s top shows (either Stranger Things or The Witcher) and the most popular film of the last quarter. This is a look at just the last week to show how eagerly awaited it still is:

IMAGE 2 - Parrot Analytics Recent Demand

Moreover, as you’d expect, this drives adoption. Here’s Antenna’s sign ups by day chart:

IMAGE 3 - Antenna Longer Time Period copy

No surprise, but big events drive sign-ups. (And the Covid-19 lock down clearly drove signs up in early March, along with Disney releasing Frozen 2 and Onward early.)

Ramifications

The trouble with a hit driven business is you need to keep producing hits. Something Netflix has learned and worked to address in having a big hit each quarter. Disney will need to do the same, and their approach seems two fold: 

– They are building up to a Star Wars or Marvel TV series releasing roughly every quarter.
– Meanwhile, they’ll have their blockbuster films release on roughly a monthly schedule across all their brands likes Disney Animation, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel. 

Of course, the coronavirus-field production shut downs are mauling this plan. Black Widow was delayed into 2021 and the first Marvel TV series—Falcon and Winter Soldier—due in August still hasn’t had a release date announced. As such, until Disney gets the hits rolling, their new subscriber additions will suffer.

Insight 2: Disney+ Is a Kids Platform First and Foremost

In other words, the vast majority of the viewership on the platform comes from kids watching and rewatching Disney films. To emphasize, rewatching popular content. Look at this chart from 7 Park analytics on the most popular content in Q3, through the second weekend of September:

IMAGE 4 - 7 Park Long Time Period

The shiny object is Hamilton. Again it was a beast. But ignore it.

Instead, look at the next film on the list: Frozen 2. Then 5 and 6: Frozen and Moana.

Yep, Frozen 2 is a juggernaut. Kids don’t just watch it, they rewatch it and rewatch it. But notably, this table is of all audience figures, meaning that the largest majority of customers for Disney+ are families streaming kids content. 

Ramifications

Disney has successfully grabbed grabbed audience share from Netflix in the kid’s space. Arguably, as one of the most trusted brands in entertainment, they had never completely lost it. But instead of letting Netflix build its brand with kids, Disney now owns that part of the relationship. Indeed, in 7 Park’s data, kids content never shows up for Netflix, but it routinely shows up for Disney+ content.

As for the strategy going forward, even Disney will need to refresh its kids content, releasing new films and TV series to keep kids engaged. You’ll also notice this list is all content released this decade. (I assume this is the Aladdin live-action film.) As strong as Disney’s library is, you need to constantly build new franchises. 

Moreover, Disney+ will need those superhero and sci-fi series and films to avoid a reputation as “just” a kids channel. If it is seen as that, that fundamentally limits its global upside.

Insight 3: The Straight-to-Streaming Strategy is Working

You might think I’m talking about Mulan, which would seem to contradict my article from a few weeks back explaining why PVOD didn’t work for Disney. I’m not.

Nor am I talk about straight-to-streaming or quick-to-streaming releases such as Onward (from Pixar), Artemis Foul, or Soul, coming in December. (Also from Pixar.) Those aren’t deliberate choices by Disney, more “best option in a sea of bad options” decisions forced onto them by Covid-19.

Instead, I’m talking about this film in particular…

IMAGE 5 - One and Only Ivan

Again, let’s look at that 7 Park data from above:

IMAGE 4 - 7 Park Long Time Period

The One and Only Ivan held its own against other Disney titles with theatrical releases and in some cases major marketing campaigns. Now, some of this is the impact of marketing the film within the app. Shows and films that get “banner” placement on a streaming app naturally get more clicks. Ivan got lots of that love. And content has been light on Disney+ over the summer, so there were banner spots to be had. Still, looking at the summer as a whole, this film did well.

Ramifications

Well, straight-to-series can work, if you satisfy the number one criteria: keeping budgets in-line with potential SVOD revenue upside.

As well as Ivan did, you can’t attribute lots and lots of customers to it. Instead, this is a solid single that keeps families engaged with Disney+. But it doesn’t drive tons of new acquisition (like Hamilton) or tons of retention (like Frozen/Frozen 2). 

What does this mean? Well, it means you need to have budgets that match that level of demand. In other words, straight-to-streaming video needs to have straight-to-streaming budgets. That means that $150 million budgets are out. $50 million production budgets are out. Even budgets about $25 million are dicey.

Disney both understands this and has experience working in this milieu. High School Musical, The Descendants, and Kim Possible are examples of Disney Channel TV movies, some of which were very successful. I’d add the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime have worked in this budget range for decades. 

The challenge is understanding budget limitations despite the pressure to compete by spending LOTS more money on content. Activist investor Dan Loeb wants Disney to deficit finance to acquire subscribers. Netflix routinely shells out big, big bucks for straight-to-streaming films. And I’ve said they are losing money on some of these flops twice now. First the Irishman and then their big action films.

Image 6 Netflix Hard R Financials copy

Disney needs to invest in streaming without forgetting that theatrical really drives extra revenue. Or they risk losing as much money as Netflix.

Insight 4: Hulu has not Had the Same Success as Disney+

When I talk streaming and Disney, most folks immediately talk about Disney+. And likely it will be Disney’s largest streamer in America soon. But it’s not Disney’s only streamer! Hulu still exists.

When I reviewed all the potential winners of the last two months, Hulu was notoriously absent. I checked in on season 2 of Pen 15 and Woke, but they barely moved the needle compared to Amazon and Hulu’s champions. Here’s my Google look:

Image 7 - G Trends Hulu

Yep, Hulu’s big releases are the nearly flat yellow and green lines on the bottom. This matches my perception via 7 Park’s data too:

Image 8 - 7 Park Summer Data

In other words, Hulu didn’t have a great quarter. Hulu’s best content is still library content or second window shows. Which is fine for retaining customers, but not for adding subscribers. Moreover, Hulu runs the same risk that when deals with big traditional studios run out–like Comcast or CBS–they’ll lose those shows.

Ramifications

Frankly, the fewer hits someone has, the likelier their service is to not be used, which means the higher churn will be. That’s the game in the streaming wars. So take a gander at Reelgood’s comparison of Q2 to Q3 performance by it’s users:

Image 9 - Reelgood

Hulu and Netflix were the services that saw declines; Prime Video and HBO Max saw gains; Disney+ was flat. Hulu is aggressively positioning FX as the brand for that platform. We’ll see if that works, but they need some buzzy shows that drive lots of viewing, and fast. I’d also recommend they focus on crowd pleasing shows—procedurals and sitcoms—which may not win awards or critical plaudits, but that lots of folks watch.

The Content Battles are Competitive 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!

Wars tend to have their own cadences. Some start quickly and one side gains an advantage, and wins the war. Sometimes in months. (The Franco-Prussian War, for example.) Some wars bog down into stalemates, that take years, with neither side getting an advantage. (The first World War, for example.) And in some wars, one side gains a huge advantage, everyone assumes they will win for sure, only to find that the initial leaders lose the war. (The Axis in the second World War, for example.)

For years, a lot of folks have assumed the streaming wars are the first type of war. Netflix started streaming in 2008, and got out to such a commanding lead it looked unlikely that anyone would catch them. And as I’ve shown in charts before, Netflix really is far ahead.

IMAGE 1 Netflix a Broadcast

Netflix is so far ahead, some analysts say the war is over. (You know who they are, so even though I’m not linking to them, this isn’t a straw man argument.)

Of course, this begs the question: what type of war is this? Is this a Franco-Prussian War that is already over before it starts? Or a World War II, where Germany and Japan are doomed, they just don’t know it yet? 

Over at Decider, I’m writing a recurring feature where I’ll take stock of the last month (or so) and declare a “winner” for the most popular piece of content. (The latest went up last Friday.) I’m in love with the concept, because it forces me to check in regularly with how well shows are actually doing. In last week’s edition, I got a TON of insights that one article couldn’t contain them all. So here is one for today:

The streaming wars are increasingly competitive.

In other words, I think the streaming wars will look more like World War II than the Franco-Prussian war. (Fine, enough with the war metaphors.) 

If you want to know what separates the “bulls” from the “bears” on Netflix’s strategy/future/stock price, it’s this view of the war. If the streaming wars are already over, then Netflix is priced too low. If new entrants can gain audience share, then it’s a genuine competition. The last two months of data show an increasingly completive content landscape, and it’s a trend which will likely pick up stream. Let me explain why.

To start, we have more and more data to understand (American) streaming viewing.

Back in July, I mostly used Google Trends data to estimate what was the most popular film in America. I used some of the customer ratings too, but not much more. The problem is that each of these data sources can be noisy. Since then, though, the data situation keeps getting a lot clearer, as I wrote about in August:

– FlixPatrol is having their data consolidated by Variety VIP. FlixPatrol has shared their data with other folks as well. (They count Netflix, Amazon, Disney and other top ten lists around the world.)
– Nielsen started releasing SVOD Top Ten lists (though four weeks delayed) by total minutes viewed.
– And after Mulan came out a few companies gave peaks at their data, including 7 Park, Reelgood and Antenna. (They all measure in slightly different ways.)
– Parrot Analytics has been releasing their weekly top ten since last year.

Are any of these data analytics firms perfect? No. In fact, I have issues with each of them, ranging from questions about their methodology to questions about their sample size/make up.  Be assured, when the Entertainment Strategy Guy is reviewing a data set, I’m looking for outliers which make me question the data. If I see them, I’ll try to call them out.

Thankfully, most of the data sources are directionally aligned, meaning they are all likely measuring signal, not noise. 

Next, all of the sources are showing the trend of more and more “non-Netflix” shows/films in the top ratings

I noticed this first when reading Variety VIP’s write up of 7 Park’s subscriber data from August and July. 7 Park analyzes wether a unique customer watches a piece of content, so it’s gives some insight into how many different shows are being watched by various customers. Here’s the data from August and September that 7 Park shared with me. This is measuring “audience share” meaning it doesn’t account for how much customer watches, simply whether a unique customer engaged with a piece of content:

IMAGE 2 IPB Streaming Content Battle

That’s four different streamers in both charts. Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ each put a top show into the measurement. AA year ago, it would have been all Netflix red. Even Amazon wasn’t breaking through. 

(A note on 7Park data: I do have some questions about their sample size. It may over-represent avid streamers, as the Apple TV+ usage is higher than I would have guessed. This applies to some of the other folks as well, such as Reelgood.)

Like I said, though, directionally this lines up with other sources. Yesterday Nielsen updated their latest Weekly SVOD Top Ten. For the first time since they launched in August, a non-Netflix streamer made the list. And not just one, two!

IMAGE 3 - Nielsen Data

Again, Netflix is still the king. This is because usage makes it even harder for the smaller streamers to catch up, so Netflix owns 80% of the list. But the story isn’t about who is currently leading, but who is catching up. Here’s Parrot Analytics look at the current most “in-demand” series.

IMAGE 4 - Parrot Analytics

In this case, since they measure demand not simply viewership, the spread is much broader. This is driven by the popularity of a lot of traditional firm’s IP. 

(Regarding Parrot Analytics, I have concerns their data overrates the conversation around super heroes and genre. It also lags a bit too much for my taste.)

The Viewership Wars are Joining the Streaming Wars

Overall, this change shouldn’t be too surprising. The battle for viewership and dominance of ratings has been the quest of TV channel executives since the dawn of TV. And the battle for the dominance of box office has been even longer. 

Over both those battles, various channels and studios have taken leads. In the 1990s, NBC looked unstoppable. (Must See TV) CBS took over broadcast ratings in the 2000s by launching a series of “acronym” shows and Chuck Lorre comedies. In film, Disney took over box office in the late 1980s, then again in the 2010s. Even as most executives can’t sustain permanent advantages, everyone so often someone does.

Netflix is currently the leader. Can they retain it indefinitely? Probably not. 

Even now, as far ahead as Netflix is in viewership, it doesn’t own a majority of all TV viewership. In fact, it doesn’t own a majority of streaming time. This is why when you look at Parrot Analytics demand measurements for all TV, the view features even fewer Netflix shows, since streaming is still only 25% of all TV time.

IMAGE 5 - Parrot Analytics

This shows up in the Reelgood data as well. Reelgood tracks audience behaviors on a range of services, but inevitably their customers seek a wide range of shows and films. Take this look from the week Mulan launched.

IMAGE 6 - Reelgood

That’s everything from Disney films to films only on TVOD to Netflix Originals. In short, viewership is diverse in America. Netflix doesn’t own it all, even if it owns the mental headspace of many critics, analysts and decision-makers in the United States.

It seems clear that as more traditional broadcasters, cablers and studios launch their own streamers, they’re going to fight more and more for the streaming viewership audience. Ideally, if I had Nielsen’s data for the last two years, we’d be able to chart this rise. Ideally, I’d have Nielsen data for the last two years, and show that August or maybe last November was the first time a show made the top ten list.

But I don’t have that data and Nielsen just started releasing weekly top ten lists. Instead, I’m speculating here, but increasingly, it seems like the Disney’s, Prime Video’s and HBO’s of the world are launching the most popular shows in the world.

What Does this Mean for the Future? What Should We Look For?

Well, the streaming wars are going to be competitive. That’s what this means. The more shows that become “must watch” means the more services folks will need to own. Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings prequels will fit this bill. Same for Disney’s big shows. And I think Peacock has the best chance of developing new additional shows that fit this bill since they have a track record of doing that. (Their library with HBO’s is also the strongest.) Don’t count out Hulu or Paramount+ nee CBS: All Access either.

This means that split wallets are likely to be the case in the future. I don’t think anyone should have a model that implies that Netflix owns 50% or greater of a customer’s wallet. Probably even less than 25%. 

Obviously, this means that Netflix will be fine for the streaming wars. No one should say “Netflix killer” because they are clearly such an indispensable part of the streaming diet for so many customers.

Unless, of course, you care about the stock price. This competition means that Netflix can’t pull back on spending, because then the top shows chart will only feature more shows from other streamers. It also means they can’t raise prices or can only do so slowly. Given that Netflix has one of the mostly highly valued stocks compared to underlying economics, any situation where it fails to conquer all TV has a lot of downside.

If content is king—it is—this is a battleground to continue monitoring in the streaming wars. Looking at the colors on these streaming charts is key. If they stay all red, that’s great for Netflix. If they look like—pun intended—a peacock’s feathers, that’s good for the traditional players.

Should Disney Have Released Mulan to PVOD?: Part III of “Should Your Film Go Straight-To-Streaming?”

Last week, we figured out that Mulan was likely watched by 1.2 million Americans on its opening weekend. (Plus or minus 1-1.5 million.) We estimated this means it likely ends up with a global PVOD of $150 million.

But what I didn’t do was explain what all that data means.

Which is today’s article. As I was writing up my implications, I realized I was really writing another entry in my series on the changing film distribution landscape, “Should you release your film straight-to-streaming (Netflix)?” So here’s the latest version of that. As before (See Part I here or Part II here), I’ll be asking myself the questions.

Was the Mulan PVOD “experiment” worth it?

I’m probably too much of a stickler on language–I called out a much more influential strategic technology analyst on Twitter for mixing up aggregation and bundling this week–but I do believe terms of art have a role in setting strategy. Words have meaning and mixing them up can make for sloppy understanding.

The word “experiment” should be reserved for true experiments. Meaning scientifically rigorous processes to draw statistically significant conclusions. In business, this is incredibly hard to do. Most often, we have a sample size of “1”. Given that a company can’t split the universe into multiple alternate realities to see what happens, if they change their strategy they have only one data point to draw conclusions from. They only have the one strategy to adjust. It’s an “n of 1” as I wrote last Wednesday. Meaning we can’t draw conclusions from it.

I prefer “test” instead.

Fine, was the Mulan “test” worth it?

Probably not. Because most “tests” really don’t help refine strategy. Strategically, it’s usually a mistake to run “tests” that muddy your strategy and/or consumer value/brand proposition. In this case, Mulan was huge news. With tens of millions of dollars on the line, you shouldn’t run “tests”, but make strategic decisions that align with your long term strategy.

As it is, Disney got the data that PVOD sales didn’t match their expectations. Consider a question I’ll ask later: What if Disney had released Hamilton on PVOD? Then arguably the test would have worked! But the true difference is one film was the most popular musical of the last decade, and the other was a live-action adaptation. The track record on live-action remakes is more mixed: they’ve had a much more up and down reception. (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast did really well; Cinderella less so.) In other words, we could have guessed that Mulan could not launch well but Hamilton would have.

But that’s why Disney needs to decide if PVOD is a part of their strategy or not going forward.

Okay, my last try: “Was the Mulan PVOD release strategy the best one to maximize revenue?”

That is the best way to ask the question! Thanks, me.

I think it wasn’t. With the caveat that I’m second guessing the executives, let’s review the options Disney had in front of them. They could release in theaters now, or next year. They could try the PVOD test. They could release in TVOD. Or go straight to SVOD on Disney+.

Trying to run the numbers wouldn’t really help since it would require tons of estimates and just guess work. But if we’re ranking the options, my gut is Disney ended up choosing the 3rd or 4th worst option. I’d do it this way:

1. Release on TVOD in September in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.
2. Release in September in theaters globally, with a shortened window.
3. Release sometime next year in theaters globally.
4. Release on PVOD in September as above.
5. Release straight to SVOD in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.

Here’s my logic for number one: Mulan had higher brand equity than Trolls: World Tour, so it would have generated more interest. Indeed, the biggest release tactic that held Mulan back wasn’t the price, it was the distribution strategy. However, you could convince me that options 2 and 3 could have beat option 1.

As I wrote a few weeks back about “exclusive distribution channels” when it came to Spotify, Podcasts and Joe Rogan, when you go “exclusive” you artificially limit your upside. Disney essentially opted for the same path here. The problem was their exclusive channel doesn’t look to be worth it. Essentially, TVOD would have expanded the footprint by so much that it would likely have generated more sales. So that’s my number 1 option to maximize revenue. (And a lower price I think would have further convinced folks to buy it.)

What about the new subscribers Mulan brought in?

Uh, look at the Antenna data of new sign-ups in context of past releases:

antenna-longer-time-period-1

In other words, Mulan didn’t drive new subscribers. Because it was PVOD, fundamentally, it didn’t help with retention either. The number of new subscribers is barely statistically significant.

What about releasing in theaters?

Unlike Universal, Disney hasn’t been expressly antagonistic to theater chains. (Though as soon as AMC and Comcast agreed on a deal, they publicly became best buddies again.) So assuming Disney could have sold the theater chains on it, yes there is a chance they could have released Mulan in theaters followed by a simultaneous or 3 weeks later PVOD release. That would have made more money than PVOD only.

The logic for me is simple: give multiple options for customers to watch a film. The challenge is most theaters in huge markets are still closed. It’s that uncertainty that is hurting theaters more than anything. And the theater chains would have fought fiercely.

Could Disney have held it until next year?

They could, but three things are holding them back. Which I’ve been struggling to explain all summer, and think I just figured out.

First, the financial cost of capital. Which is the idea that if you spend $200 million to make a film, the goal is to eventually make $216 million accounting for inflation since the entertainment industry’s cost of capital is roughly 8%. (No matter what else you know about entertainment, that’s the key math.) If you wait a year, you need to make 8% extra to cover the costs of the delay. That’s the damage “cost of capital” does to a cash flow statement.

(Want an explainer on net present value/the time value of money? Go here.)

For big films, this is clearly worth it; smaller films it isn’t. If the next Fast and Furious film does a billion dollars, taking the 8% cost of capital hit is better than a 60% total revenue hit. Using this logic, Disney should have moved it back.

The second cost, though, may be the real driver. That of what I’m calling “organizational” cost of capital. If everyone moves their films back simultaneously, the problem is many of those films can’t release at the same time. And that means you can’t start making new films, since they won’t have anywhere to go.

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Mulan vs Tenet: I (Don’t) Declare a Winner

At first, I was tempted to call “Mulan vs Tenet” the biggest battle of the streaming wars. Each weekend in September, we’ve eagerly awaited answers to the hottest questions in film: Will Tenet save theaters? Will Mulan blow up the model? Who is making more money? Who is WINNING?!?!?

It turns out that the answer to the first two questions is probably no. As for the third and fourth, well, that’s tricky to answer. But since it’s the logical follow-up to my article on Monday, I’ll do my best.

But I wouldn’t call this a battle. If anything it’s a “skirmish” on one end of the larger distribution battle. (The sort of way that Pickett’s Charge was one tactical engagement in the larger Battle of Gettysburg.) Just because it is a skirmish doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Skirmishes are what win or lose battles! (For want of a nail…) 

So after three weeks of data, let’s analyze what we know. Here’s the outline of today’s article:

– First, two lessons on data that set the terms of the debate.
– Second, an analysis of what we know about each film, including US box office, International box office, and PVOD sales to date.
– Third, thoughts on each film’s revenue potential after these initial windows.
– Fourth, a comparison between the two films and declaring a winner.

Kidding! I won’t do that last part because I don’t know the answer. Moreover, I won’t draw giant conclusions about what this means for the future of film. Because frankly two films won’t fundamentally change the landscape. But I’ll explain that point in future articles. For now, the performance of these films to date.

(Also, I found that I was linking to a lot of my articles explaining the business of film. To keep this article clean and not polluted with links, I put a “reading list” at the bottom.)

Bottom Line, Up Front

– Comparing the box office of Tenet to PVOD of Mulan is comparing two different windows to each other. That isn’t apples to apples.
– That said, we can’t know the future value of either film because both “inputs” are “n of 1” meaning so unique that we can’t build a model.
Tenet will likely gross $325-350 in global box office.
Mulan will likely gross $70-100 million in global box office.
Mulan will end up with likely $155 million in global PVOD (with a big range of $105-$270 million.)
– As for lifetime earnings? No one really knows, because there aren’t good comps to make accurate estimates.

Two Data Lessons: Apples to Apples and “n of 1”

My primary job on this site, as I see it, is to explain the entertainment business. You can find lots of places on the internet opining about the entertainment business; I’m trying to teach you why it works the way it does. And in the “Mulan v Tenet” debate, I see two major mistakes being made.

First, Apples-To-Apples

That’s my simple term for comparing like-to-like. In some ways, statistics/data analysis/science is essentially the quest for comparing things like-to-like as much as possible. That way you can isolate the the true drivers of causality. (That’s why random controlled trials are random and controlled.)

Here’s a simple example from last week: folks saw that 7 Park’s data was much larger than peer analytics companies for Mulan’s debut. The key, though, was that they were measuring eight days of data, and not just the opening weekend. They were also measuring the percentage of folks who watched Mulan who were active users, not all subscribers. Once you accounted for this, their math (1.5 million subscribers), was close to other estimates (1 million at the low end for Antenna and 1.1 from Samba TV). Comparing things apples-to-apples solved the problem.

In “Mulan v Tenet”, the key question/claim at the center of the debate misunderstands this notion. Consider these major windows of movie revenue:

IMAGE 1 - Table Second Window Waterfall

The question I’ve seen written and been asked repeated is, “Is Mulan making more than Tenet?” We could reframe it based on the windows in question. Basically, “Is Mulan making more money in PVOD than Tenet in domestic box office?” That would look like this:

IMAGE 2 - MvT Current Debate

But this isn’t the right question. It’s comparing apples-to-hammers. (A Chuck Klosterman phrase.) Look:

Image 3 - MvT Good

This framing really sets the terms of debate better, in my opinion. Even after Tenet leaves theaters, it can go to US domestic TVOD and home entertainment. So even if the answer to the current question is, “Yes, Mulan has likely made more in PVOD than Tenet at the domestic box office,” the question doesn’t make sense.

(Since PVOD wasn’t a window when I first made this table, I added it above. And I summarized all digital/streaming the “pay windows” to show the timeline better.) 

Really the question is, who will make more domestic revenue? So we should fill in this whole chart, accounting for blacked out windows:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.23.54 PM

And we can see that two big chunks of revenue for that are the same: who will make more in Pay 1, Pay 2 and library distribution? (That means all the future revenue implied by streaming (like Netflix), airing on premium channels (like HBO), cable (like TNT) and other places. Now that question is tricky because of our next data point.)

“n” of 1

I was inspired by the “n” of 1 after reading earlier this year an article in the Economist about the rise of “n” of 1 medicine. “n” is statistics jargon for sample size. If you poll 3,000 folks about the Presidency, your “n” is 3,000. If your sample size is all Americans, that’s a sample (population technically) of 300 million. “n” of 1 medicine is referring to treatments designed for one individual with a unique life-threatening condition. It means the “sample size” is so unique it’s a category by itself.

This applies to box office and film revenue analysis. When we make forecasts based on opening weekend performance, we can do that because movies are similar and we can account for the differences to compare things apples-to-apples. Hence, we use Marvel films to forecast how much money films based on superheroes will make, while accounting for the time of year of the release and various other factors. (Scott Mendelson at Forbes is my favorite analyst at this.)

Once we have box office, we can use its results to forecast all the other windows a feature film is sold into. That’s how my film forecasting model works. It’s a fairly accurate system. We can also do it for PVOD, TVOD, streaming, TV and any revenue stream. Once we have an input, we can derive the rest.

The challenge for both Mulan and Tenet is they are unprecedented. They are without comps in the United States because: 1. No other blockbuster film has released during a pandemic that closed 70% of theaters and 2. No other film released to Disney+ exclusively for a one-time $30 payment. 

Because of this, making any forecasts about profitability is perilous. Or should I say, highly uncertain. Meaning, while I know what Mulan did in PVOD—see Monday—I’m much more uncertain about what this means for future windows. Conversely, while I know how well Tenet is doing, I don’t know what that means for future revenue streams, since Tenet is only available in 70% of US markets, that account for about 40% ticket sales.

So let’s start with what we do know.

The Data: International and US Box Office, Mulan PVOD and Forecasts

The easiest data to find is domestic and international box office. Since Tenet has been out a bit longer, it’s getting easier to see what its final total will be. So I’ve included the likely final box office total ranges offered by Scott Mendelson.

IMAGE 5 - Box Office with Rnagers

Are those numbers good or bad? Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so who knows? As Mendelson makes the case, for an original material sci-fi live action film, Tenet is doing really well!

Meanwhile, even the ranges on Tenet are fairly uncertain. I put $350 million as the likely ceiling, but if New York and California reopen theaters, there could be give it a late boost (and stronger “legs”) as folks go to see it. Or not! A recovery that happens quickly is also unlikely so it could stay middling. 

Meanwhile, we know from Monday about how well Mulan is doing on PVOD.

IMAGE 6 Mulan Summary PVOD

The wildcard of the Mulan PVOD numbers is the fact that Mulan wasn’t just PVOD in the United States, but globally where Disney+ is available. My analysis from Monday focused on US analytics firms since there aren’t a lot of estimates for global performance. It turns out Mulan was released in every Disney+ territory but France and India, which includes these territories:

IMAGE 7 - Territories and Price

You’ll note it’s also cheaper in dollar terms in other territories. Time to go to the comps. What I did was find the last five Disney live-action remakes, pull down their box office by territory, and use that as a comp for demand:

IMAGE 8 - Disney Live Action Comps

The way to read this chart is that the “Disney+ territories that have Mulan” tend to account for 43-75% of the box office of the United States box office. Great! That becomes our tool to forecast PVOD revenue in those other territories. My low will be 40% (slightly lower than the Jungle Book comp) and I made a high of 100% based on Scott Mendelson’s back-of-the-envelope estimate. I consider that the far outlier, but with this much uncertainty that’s okay. Here’s the results:

IMAGE 9 Mulan International

Of course, I had high case and low case forecasts from Monday, which we could combine. The worry with our estimates now is that we’re making estimates on estimates, which doubles the uncertainty. Which you’ll see in how big our range is getting:

Screen Shot 2020-09-23 at 1.27.19 PM

What do we know? We have estimates for how Tenet and Mulan both did in their opening “windows”, one of which was PVOD/theatrical, and one which was theatrical only.

What don’t we know? What comes next.

The Comparison: Mulan v Tenet

Here’s a rough look at the current revenue of both Mulan and Tenet. As in how much each film has brought their studios as of this (rough) moment, roughly through their first month of releases:

IMAGE 11 Current Revenue

To answer the question I said you shouldn’t ask up above, yes Mulan globally has made more money than Tenet as of this moment. Crucially, the presumed 90% net take beats the 50% domestic/35% international split of theatrical. (Though I think that Disney’s split with PVOD partners like Apple, and Amazon may actually be lower than 90%, but don’t know for sure.) Here’s the look at the question I said we should ask:

IMAGE 12 Lifetime Estimate

I love this look because it clarifies how much we don’t know. Which is frankly how much Tenet will make on TVOD/DVD, how much Mulan will make in home entertainment, how much more Tenet can make by going to premium cable, and how much both will make in streaming.

Why not try to estimate it? 

Because I don’t believe the Tenet or Mulan numbers are good comps for forecasting. 

If Tenet’s US box office is depressed because of Covid-19, then it’s home entertainment could make as much as Trolls: World Tour or Mulan at home. Meaning it could have as large a window as Mulan had since 60% of theatrical attendees couldn’t see it. It’s rumored that Mulan will go wide on TVOD (including iTunes, Amazon and maybe even Pay-Per-View), but I don’t know if that viewership has already been cannibalized by this PVOD experiment. If it hasn’t, it could add 33% more revenue as Trolls: World Tour did when it went cheaper on TVOD in July.

Meanwhile, Tenet will eventually be on HBO and likely HBO Max. But Mulan will stay on Disney+ exclusively? Could I calculate that exclusivity value? Nope. Because I still don’t know enough about Disney subscribers to conclude that this PVOD experiment drove subscribers or that Mulan will have good replay value on the platform. (Unlike Netflix, who we have multiple years of US-only data to parse.)

This is the “n of 1” problem I discussed above. There are so many conflicting variables that my usual methods of forecasting are out the window. Same for the studios. They’ll basically have to collect the revenue and see what shakes out.

Thus, at $35 million dollars difference between the two, I’m calling this a push. It’s as likely Tenet makes more money for Warner Bros. as it is Mulan makes more money for Disney.

In short, we’ll never really know who “won” this skirmish since our numbers are close enough to call it a draw. I’d add, using one proxy for demand, Google Trends, it looks like Mulan peaked higher, but Tenet may last longer.

IMAGE 13 G Trends Tenet vs Mulan WW

As for how demand shifts from here, we’ll see as they release on additional platforms.

Reading List

Really, this article is a continuation of this series I started in December on “Should You Release Your Film Straight to Netflix? Part I” and “Part II” In that series, I explore the economics of taking a film straight to streaming.

Previously, I built a model on how to forecast “revenue” for straight to streaming titles in this series, “The Great Irishman Project”. It’s fairly tricky to forecast streaming revenue, but definitely possible. (Netflix does it!) See my methods explained here.

I also built and explained a film finance model for feature films released traditionally, which I first explained back when I launched the site in a series evaluating the Disney-Lucasfilm acquisition.

1.2 Million Folks Bought Mulan in the US During It’s Opening Weeknd: The (Not) Definitive Analysis of Disney’s Mulan Experiment

How many folks bought Mulan?

That’s the buzziest question in the streaming wars right now.

Since we don’t know, we’re left to pick at the analytics tea leaves. Fortunately, as each day passes, we’ve got more tea leaves to pick through.

(Partly, the question is relevant because it gets to the buzziest question, “Who’s winning, Tenet or Mulan?”. I’ll answer that on Wednesday.)

Far from throwing my hands up, I’ve started to realize these tea leaves are signal not noise. So if/until Disney tells us otherwise, I’ve done my best to compile all the Mulan on Disney+ data we have. Consider this a “meta-analysis” on Mulan. First, I’ll summarize each data source and what it tells us, next I’ll try to compare this to Trolls: World Tour, then I’ll compare all the data sources, and finally I’ll make my estimates for Mulan’s performance.

(I covered some of these data points in a column and Tweet thread two weeks ago. Today, I’m updating all that data and tossing in my estimates at the end. Also, if you’re new to the EntStrategyGuy, my newsletter goes out every two weeks with links to my writings and the favorite things I read over the last two weeks.)

To start, though…

Bottom Line, Up Front

Don’t want to read the entire thing? Fine, here are the talking points you can deliver confidently without reading the whole article.

— The story about Mulan’s performance is remarkably consistent, if you ensure you are comparing “Apples to Apples”.
— Right now, I’m fairly confident at estimating that its opening weekend Mulan was purchased about 1.2 million times. (Other estimates range between 1 to 1.5 million, giving us a fairly tight range.)
— That implies that it made about $36 million on its opening in total revenue.
— Based on its rapid decay, the Trolls: World Tour comp and the fact that it will only be in PVOD for 8 weeks, I estimate Mulan will generate about $90 million in US sales over its lifetime. (Based on the estiamtes, this could be as smalls $75 million and as high as $135 million.)

What We Know: 6 Different Sources Tell a Remarkably Similar Story about Mulan

Disney took a big swing by releasing Mulan straight to Disney+ (and only Disney+) for $30 a pop. That left multiple analytics firms—each vying to get new customers to buy its data, a important point about self-interest to note—to fill in the gap. Reelgood said one thing about the popularity; Samba TV said something else; Antenna said something else and then Yahoo took 7 Park’s data in a completely different direction.

The better analogy than tea leaves is actually the old parable about the elephant and the five blind men. Each grabs a different part of the elephant, so feels something different. That applies to our measurement firms. One is measuring viewership; another purchases; another app downloads. Toss in different time periods and sources, and it seems bewildering.

But if you put the whole picture together, it’s not that confusing. After 7 Park put out a great thread clarifying their data this weekend, I’m fairly convinced each source is telling the roughly same picture.

Source 1: Google Trends

This source is so easy anyone can use it. So be careful. Google tracks search traffic data which has been shown to be a very good proxy for interest. Here’s the time period going back to when Covid-19 started featuring top streaming films:

G Trends - PVOD Comparison

What’s the simple takeaway? Interest in Hamilton far outpaced anything else in the straight-to-streaming space. (See my article in Decider for details.) This, for me, is the context of Mulan.

However, since we’re triangulating on Disney+, it’s also worth looking at a “Disney+ only” look:

G Trends - PVOD Disney Only v02

Mulan was big, but paled in comparison to Hamilton.

Source 2: Antenna

Antenna tracks subscription behavior across a range of services such as iTunes, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google Play and others. Last week, they released their analysis of Mulan’s opening weekend in this great chart:

Antenna Longer Time Period

This is the most skeptical look I have of Mulan’s huge driver in interest from Disney. Yes, it helped boost sign-ups for Disney+, but less than any other major theatrical driver of the last few months. Also note how this aligns/correlates with Google Trend data, but not perfectly. Black is King did better than Mulan, according to Antenna, but Google Trends has lower interest. (Google Trends has more interest in Artemis Fowl than Black is King.) 

There is a similar story with Frozen 2 driving more sign-ups than Onward according to Antenna, and Google Trends telling an opposite story. (This explanation is fairly simple: Frozen 2 launched right as lockdowns started, so that’s more the story of lockdowns driving parents to subscriber, not interest in Frozen 2.)

Antenna’s data goes further on Mulan. They also used their data to breakdown Mulan purchases by sign-up time period. 

Antenna Subscriber Percentages

Antenna also  released purchases by sign-up time period. So I took those numbers, and combined them with the above chart to give us this estimate of the average % of subscribers who dropped $30 on Mulan:

Antenna Subscriber Purchas Rate

Save that number, we’ll get back to it. But it’s not the only look Antenna provided. They gave some data to LightShed Partners (and then tweeted it), which compares daily sales of various PVOD releases with “purchases by day”:

Antenna Daily Purchases

This is great because we can use a few numbers to compare Trolls: World Tour sales to Mulan. Hang on to this number too. And pay attention to those steep decay curves.

Source 3: 7 Park

7Park is another data analytics firm, though they don’t clarify where and how their data is collected. However, they have been releasing streaming data for a while now.

7 Park entered the data fray this week with a buzzy article on Yahoo, that slightly oversold the analysis. 7 Park measured, through the first 12 days of September (which covers through Saturday of Mulan’s second weekend), the percentage of users who watched Mulan among all Disney+ users during the time period measured. That italicized portion is key. Which is why Mulan could get 29% of streams during its opening weekend, but then a much smaller number when you look at Q3 to date:

7 Park Long Time Period

How does that 10.3% compare to Antenna and Google Trends? Favorably. As 7 Park pointed out in their thread, the demand ratio from Hamilton to Mulan matches Google Trend very well. As for their data versus Antenna, they measure different things. One compares to subscriber base while the other compares to active users. Assuming active users are between 50-75% of the total subscriber based, then the numbers tell a similar story.

Source 4: Samba TV

Samba TV measures viewership on connected TVs specifically. Samba TV also ran an analysis on Mulan viewership, from the opening weekend, coming up with the number that 1.12 million folks purchased Mulan during the opening weekend. It’s unclear if this is connected TV’s only or if they extrapolated out to all customers. Does this match the other numbers? Yes, as we’ll see.

Source 5: Sensor Tower

Sensor Tower measures application downloads. For the streaming wars, they track how often folks are installing streaming application. (Hedgeye analyst extraordinaire Andrew Freedman uses their data to forecast Netflix and Disney+ subscribers fairly well.) According to Sensor Tower, Mulan drove a week-over-week increase in downloads of 68%, which compares to 79% for Hamilton during its opening weekend. This is a bit lower than the Antenna, 7Park or Google Trends data. Sensor Tower only tracks mobile viewing, which may explain the difference.

Source 5: Reelgood

The biggest outlier is Reelgood’s data. Reelgood is an application that helps folks find and curate their streaming offerings. Reelgood uses their data (they claim 2 million users) to then estimate demand for various titles. Here’s their chart with notably the streams as a percentage of top 20 streams.

Reelgood Top 20 copy

This genuinely surprised me since customers had to purchase Mulan, which should have decreased its viewership. Instead, in a follow up, Reelgood said that Mulan actually surpassed Hamilton, which only had 9.68% of streams. This is the only source that implies that demand for Mulan was higher than Hamilton. So it’s our biggest outlier.

Missing Sources

Just to note, of the major sources I track, Nielsen and Parrot Analytics both haven’t entered the Mulan fray. The reason is that both focus on TV series with their publicly available data. (Though Nielsen does have feature film viewership data.)

Trolls Would Tour Comparison

That’s the data, let’s make the comparisons. First, here is the leaked details or estimates of Trolls: World Tour’s performance.

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 12.59.08 PM

Unlike Disney (so far), Comcast was much more willing to leak positive data about their Trolls: World Tour experiment. A few things to note, these estimates aren’t quite as steep as Antenna’s data, but match real world churn/decay better. We’ve seen this with other streaming titles where the opening weekend is about half the viewership of the first month or so of a title. And then with trolls the opening month is about half the viewership of the title lifetime to date.

This point may be interesting, but its definitely possible that about as many folks watched Trolls: World Tour after it dropped to $6 to rent then watched at $20. This chart from The-Numbers shows how popular Trolls: World Tour was even 3 months after PVOD:

DEG At home

WIth these numbers, we can compare purchases between Trolls: World Tour and Mulan using Antenna’s data. I did this by measuring the various peaks in the above Antenna chart with purchases by day.  Which made this chart:

Antenna Demand as Trolls

Since they’re decaying at roughly the same rate, we can use this to estimate Mulan sales. In other words, I estimate that Mulan had about 61% of the sales of Trolls: World Tour on PVOD. The caveat is that Mulan is available in less places than Trolls or Scoob, meaning demand could have been as high, but without additional TVOD channels it reached less customers. But that still results in lower sales/demand.

Comparing all the Sources

Wow. So if you’re still with me, here’s my summary of everything we know. Here are the estimates I derived for purchases for the first weekend, where the data allowed me to make that estimate:

Summary Comparison v01

Let me explain this. Given that Antenna and 7 Park are percentages of subscribers or active users, the 15-35 million are potential ranges of Disney subscribers/users. Then I picked the number that is my current “best guess” for each. In other words, I think Disney+ has about 30 million US subscribers, and about 20 million active users in a given quarter. If you disagree, pick another input. For Samba TV, I just used their estimates. For Trolls: World Tour I multiplied the estimated 2.25 million Trolls opening weekend customers (40 million divided by $20) by 61%, the rough proportion from the chart above.

All these sources say about 1.1-1.4 million folks watched on the opening weekend. Splitting the difference, and picking the number I like best, gives me an estimate of 1.2 million.

From there, we can estimate lifetime sales. I’m using my estimate that opening weekend will generate 50% of the first month’s sales. Both Antenna and Google Trends back this up. For example, it has already seen a second weekend drop in demand of about 75% in Google Trends. Also, given this decay, I think its second month will only see about 20% more sales:

Summary Estimate Lifetime

Using best case scenarios (33% viewing in the second month, 1.5 million opening weekend), I get to $135 million lifetime PVOD. Using worst case, I get to $75 million.

Phew. I’m wiped out. There are tons more issues to unpack, especially how this compares to Tenet. But I’ll do that next time.

How Fortnite vs Apple Could Impact The Streaming Wars: Imagining a “Maximalist” Scenario

The first thing to know about the streaming wars is that it is really multiple wars simultaneously. One war is between the streamers. They compete fiercely against each other, with Netflix in the lead. (This is by far the most covered battleground.) 

If those are the established powers, the upstarts are the free, ad-supported streamers are trying to take territory, er attention/mindspace/viewership, from both. Youtube leads here, but is followed by the hot new crowd of Pluto, Xumi, Tubo, Roku/IMDb Channels, and more.

Yet, those land armies’ power is dwarfed by that of the air forces of the world. Who in many cases set the terms of the streaming wars. And in this analogy, that’s the platforms that deliver the streamers, be they devices or operating systems or other bundlers have just as much, if not more, power. In a moment, a platform could blow up an entire business model, like dropping a nuclear bomb on an opponent’s army.

(The Game of Thrones analogy patented by Dylan Byers also explains this well: streamers are the traditional houses of Westeros, ad-supported streamers are Daenerys and the Dothraki, and the platforms are the White Walkers.)

If you want to understand the scope of Epic Games going to war with Apple, this is it. Epic Game’s army is fighting Apple’s air force, with the expected outcome that Apple nukes Epic’s business.

For those who don’t know, Epic Games (maker of the Fortnite game and Unreal video game engine) tried to implement in-app purchasing outside of Apple’s payments system. This resulted in them being kicked off the Apple app store, lawsuits and countersuits.

The Fortnite gambit will directly impact the streaming wars. The ability of platforms to dictate terms to the streamers directly hits streamers’ top, bottom and cash flow lines. If Fortnite wins, it is like taking away Apple’s (and Google, Roku and Amazon’s) ability to drop bombs. (Okay, I’ve taken this analogy about as far as it will go.) That’s what I’m going to explore today:

  •  First, explaining the relationship between aggregators, streamers, bundlers and platforms.
  •  Second, describing the “maximalist” scenario where platforms are heavily regulated.
  • Third, understanding the impact across the three forms of streaming business models: 

–  Transactions (Pay per usage)
– Subscriptions (Pay a recurring fee for access)
– Advertising (Free, but watch/listen to advertisements)

Putting this In Context

As I wrote last November, the key to understanding the streaming wars is to know that a huge amount of power is vested in what I call “Digital Video Bundlers”, the folks bundling multiple streamers into one experience. Here’s where they are on the map, yellow:

Image 1 Video Value Web copy

Fortnite would slot in where I put “aggregators”, though that term is more apt for streamers than gamers like Fortnite. Apple is the bundler, since they allow a user the opportunity to play multiple games on one device. Crucially, Fortnite—like many app makers—wants to be more. They want to sell additional things within its game to make more money. Epic Games also wants to set up an entire app store on its own. (Really, Epic Games has dreams of being a bundler as well.)

The conflict stems from those in-app purchases. Since Apple owns the operating system, it wants a piece of any money being exchanged on its platform. When you buy an application, you pay Apple 30% of that price. On some level this makes sense. Apple set up the platform so they should get paid for letting you on the platform.

This is a “platform tax” that Apple charges to have an application on its App Store. And Amazon and Google have similar taxes. (You could call it a “fee”, “rent”, or other term, but I like tax.) A tax for doing business on their platform. Apple says this is the price needed to run its App Store.

That’s what makes the terms of this court case so large. If Fortnite wins, they won’t just change their own terms, but alter the fundamental case law around platforms. The results could impact Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Google, Amazon, Roku and any other platform.

The Maximalist Scenario

That’s the world I want to imagine today. I’m calling this the “maximalist” scenario. It assumes a judge/judges/legislative bodies/regulatory agencies use the Fortnite case to legislate/regulate/litigate maximum concessions from an Apple, Amazon or Google on their platforms. Call this the “worst case” for platforms or the “best case” for streamers, applications and games. Say…

– A 3% cap on fees (or cap on fees up to a given maximum).
– Guaranteed carriage on non-business issues
– No tying disparate business unit negotiations together.

Essentially, in this scenario digital market places like app stores are governed as utilities. The government would be saying, “Since you have de facto monopoly power over app stores, we have to regulate your business to ensure you don’t abuse your power.” I’m not assuming this happens, but exploring the “what if” scenario where it does. 

Impact on Transactional Business Models

The impacts on the transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) market would probably be the starkest of any of the business models.

Fundamentally, the platform tax makes any external TVOD business unworkable on any mobile device. The math is fairly simple. If you’re Apple, and you own your own TVOD business in iTunes, your gross margins look like this:

Image 2 - Apple TVOD

Now compare that to an independent service trying to run a TVOD business on iTunes:

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Who Will Win the Battle for the next “Game of Thrones”?: How “People” Change the Odds of Success

(This is another entry to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:

Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework
Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained!
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained! Part 1
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained Part 2
Appendix: Subscription Video Economics…Explained Part 1
Where We’ve Been)

Two weeks ago, we checked back in on the news about the contenders vying to be the “next Game of Thrones”. Let’s keep the momentum going and get right into the “People” portion of our framework. At the end, I’ll unveil my current working model for evaluating TV series.

Why “People” Matter In Every Deal

The “people” in a typical venture capital deal are the leaders of a start-up. This means the founders and the soon-to-be chief officers. Is the CEO a great technology guy, but not great at scaling? Or an operations guy who has a dynamite CTO already in place, but no marketing experience? Conversely, is the product great and so is the opportunity, but you need to replace the leadership to make the company truly succeed? (Uber/WeWork much?)

In a real world example, lots of investors in Quibi invested because of the team of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman. He could handle content; she’d handle everything else. (Only later did we find out they couldn’t work well together.)

As I use the “POCD framework” for evaluating TV series—a concept I dabbled with at my previous job—I’ve found the “People” portion to be extremely important. Who is the showrunner? Who is the creator? Are they the same person? Or do you need to bring in a more established showrunner to replace the creator’s vision? Does the showrunner have the ability to manager a team, or will they do it all themselves? Can the writers work with the directors to bring their vision to bring the show? Are the producers able to corral the showrunner and bring things in on-time and on-budget?

Hopefully, the answer to all those questions are positive. Meaning the creator has a great vision, the showrunner can deliver on their vision, the writers room writes great content, the directors can film it, and the production team will run everything well. The reason this is important is because, if a studio can hire the right people more consistently than competitors, they can achieve outsized returns.

Those outsized returns fall into two rough buckets. The first bucket is the “quality” bucket: Can the show runner make a good nee great show?

Well it depends. Unfortunately, most showrunners and creators are…average.

Average isn’t bad, you see. It just means that while all showrunners are great people—and indeed highly skilled at what they do—their “hit rate” is average. Which means that most of the time the shows and films they make are bombs/duds and a few times they are blockbusters. (About 1 in ten.) That’s just the math. That’s right, logarithmic distribution of returns applies to the people making shows too:

Slide03 copyAt the far right end, some showrunners can buck this trend to reliably churn out hits, but they are few and far between. Think Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, Mark Burnett or Chuck Lorre. Even then, they have more duds than you initially remember when you scan their IMDb. If either Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings had a top tier showrunner attached, it would increase the likelihood that a show becomes a “hit” or “the next GoT/superstar” in our model. (Or if they had a top tier development exec with a similar track record. No streamer does yet.)

The converse to good showrunners is a chaotic leadership situation. If a show has lots of creators moving in and out and lots of directorial turnover, that’s a bad thing. (Though not always. The Walking Dead did just fine and it’s on its fourth showrunner.) 

My model also punishes showrunners with extensive mediocre track records. Which unfortunately is quite a few showrunners out there. For all its admiration of experimentation, Hollywood is surprisingly conservative at decision-making. Development executives hire the same writers and directors instead of trying someone new because it’s “safer”. These showrunners produce a show for a few years that is mostly “Meh” (a technical term), and then move on to another pitch/job. In the model, if I saw a fantasy series had that type of showrunner, it would increase the likelihood that a show is another also ran TV show, not the next Game of Thrones.

The second outcome is the “logistics” bucket. Can a show come out on time and on budget?

When it comes to making blockbusters, this is less important. However, if you’re running a business, given that 95% of showrunners are average, this can be the difference between profit and loss. This can be forecast, with the right data, pretty reliably. I, for example, knew that certain showrunners and directors who worked regularly with our streamer would be late or over budget when we hired them, because they were late or over budget previously. Unfortunately, this type of data isn’t public available—studios don’t make a habit of sharing when they go over budget—so I can’t use it in this series.

It is worth noting that this was part of the genius of HBO and Game of Thrones. They managed to keep that show on every single year while being the most expensive show on television. But an incredibly efficient expensive show, if that makes sense. 

(The great production houses out there—Jason Blum, HBO the last two decades, Marvel this decade—really do deliver on time and on budget, while hitting high quality bars. That’s not an accident.)

Meanwhile, most of the streamers struggle to get second seasons out within 18 months of big shows. We don’t know if these shows are “on budget” but with the way Netflix spends money, probably not? While this is important, it won’t make the model because we won’t know about financial/timing trouble until it happens.

The Results

With that explanation in mind, I’m going to be fairly conservative on evaluating these leadership teams. While picking people is really important, the benefits don’t show up on an individual show, but on a long-term/portfolio level.

Thus, I’m more worried about overvaluing “noise” than true signal in evaluating these leadership teams. (Long term, I hope to do more data analysis to better judge creative hires, but I don’t have those databases yet.) As a result, I’ll default to the “null hypothesis” more than usual.

Let’s go show by show.

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Is Antitrust the New Deregulation?: The Strategic Implications of Ending the Paramount Consent Decrees…and What Comes Next

In his very good book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, professor and globe trotting strategy consultant Richard Rumelt makes a key point about how evolving industry trends impact strategy. After describing why military strategy is obsessed with “the high ground”, and how companies often focus on the technological high ground, he makes this point:

The other way to grab the high ground…is to exploit a wave of change. Such waves of change are are largely exogenous–they are beyond the control of any one organization. No one person organization creates these changes…Important waves of change are like an earthquake, creating new high ground and leveling what had been high ground. Such changes can upset the existing structures of competitive positions, erasing old advantages and enabling new ones…They can enable wholly new strategies.

The first example he trots out is router technology. AT&T, Apple, Microsoft and other computing companies would have seemed like the obvious contenders to develop routers for the boom in internet traffic in the 1990s. Instead, it was small–now big–Cisco Systems. That’s because Cisco understood that the value they could add was in software, and updating it regularly, whereas AT&T, Apple and Microsoft were hardware companies. They didn’t see how underlying technology trends would upset the industry.

That’s technological high ground in a nut shell. But sometimes changes in government regulation can have even bigger impacts. 

For this, Rumelt takes us to airlines. When airlines were a heavily regulated industry, wild profits could be made on long haul flights, since the Civil Aviation Board set rates at essentially “cost plus”. When deregulation happened, many airlines continued to operate as if pricing would remain at that fixed level. Instead, prices plummeted for long haul flights and profits went with them. Of course, one airline developed a strategy to thrive in deregulation and thrived, Southwest.

My read on the “entertainment business” coverage–roughly the trades, the full-time entertainment business reporters, the analysts at some sell side firms, and in particular the “techno-futurists” touting their wares online–are obsessed with the former (technology disruption) and largely ignore the latter (government regulation).

This is unfortunate and largely to our strategic detriment.

The big story of the month is that a Federal (unelected) judge allowed the “Paramount Consent Decrees” to expire, based on a decision from the Department of Justice last fall. In my weekly column, I tried to explain what could come next. But really, understanding what comes next requires understanding what came before. And that’s today’s long article. I’ll explain why regulation is such a big deal in media and entertainment. Then, I’ll try to figure out what comes next. In particular, setting the potential shape of the future so clever strategists can seize the advantage.

(Yes, this is an “American-focused” issue, and I have more and more international readers.  I don’t hate you Europe, but don’t know your regulatory landscape nearly as well.)

Government Regulation is Hugely Important in Entertainment/Media

Just go back to George Orwell’s 1984 to understand why government regulates media so tightly. He who controls the news, controls the present. And so on. As a result, as soon as mass broadcasting technology was invented, it was regulated. In America by the FCC, FTC and others; in Europe and the rest of the globe, each country regulates their media in some fashion. (The furthest extreme is China.)

Many strategic tools take this into account. The best framework for this look is the McKinsey-originated SCP framework, “Structure Conduct and Performance”. SCP stands in contrast to Porter’s Five Forces, as the conduct and structure focus on a lot of the structure and regulation of an industry can impact profits and strategy.

When you analyze entertainment as an industry, one must take the heightened scrutiny of media/entertainment into account. Take America. It’s still against the rules for foreign ownership of domestic broadcast and cable channels. Hence, Rupert Murdoch had to get American citizenship to launch Fox/Fox News and Sony is the only conglomerate without cable channels.

Two Regulatory Forces of Entertainment Media: Vertical Integration and Concentration

The Paramount Consent Decrees—and their ilk—were born from this heightened scrutiny. Going back to the dawn of film, the concern was always that giant players would box out the little guy if they controlled both the production and distribution of content. And they did! Thus, the government sued the major studios in the 1940s and the “Paramount Consent Decrees” were born. They regulated that movie studios couldn’t own theaters, with the goal that theaters should show films from all the studios/distributors. (Did this contribute to the “golden age” rise of independent films in the 1970s? Maybe.)

This impetus to avoid vertical integration extended to broadcast television and through the 1980s broadcasters had limits on how many of their own shows they could buy.

(Why are so many NBC shows on HBO Max, not Peacock? Because of those regulations.)

These specific regulations were more aimed at preventing vertical integration. And the media/entertainment conglomerates have shown that if they are allowed to vertically integrate, they will. The idea that if a firm can control everything from production to distribution, they can maximize their revenue. Indeed, AT&T was explicit that its goal in acquiring Warner Media was this level of integration.

A related issue is general industry consolidation. Notably, the American government never passed a law or bill rescinding the Sherman Antitrust Act. That bill is still the law of the land. However, since the 1980s, it’s power has dwindled and actual enforcement since the government case against Microsoft has been weak to non-existent.

While we haven’t seen this in movie studios (we’re still at six and have been for some time, maybe more counting the new entrants of the last decade), we’ve seen it in music, movie theaters, cable companies, TV channel conglomerates, general entertainment conglomerates, cellular communications and more. 

This tends to be great for the surviving conglomerates, since they can use pricing and monopsony power to boost profits. (The losers are consumers.)

The question is what comes next. The government’s logic in ending the Paramount Consent Decrees was that it no longer made sense to keep one particular distribution method separate when every other part of the chain is vertically integrated. I can see that logic. But will it continue? And what about general concentration?

Predicting Antitrust Enforcement: It’s Hard!

Let’s start with the obvious: predicting the future is really hard!

Not for some analysts, as I sarcastically write and subtweet regularly. They know who they are and they can predict with fairly precise certainty that some things will happen on vague timelines. (Usually the bigger the platform, the bigger the confidence.)

Of course, this is foolish. As of September 2016, we all knew who was going to be President. Yet, we were wrong. (Don’t worry for the folks who can predict the future knew both that Clinton would win and Trump would win, and can usually point to examples where that support both predictions.) Has the regulatory landscape altered between a President Trump regime and a potential President Clinton campaign? Absolutely. Likely, the Paramount Consent Decrees would still be in place. How different would everything else be?

Probably not as different as it could be. Likely there would be some more antitrust enforcement, but remember the Obama administration approved the Comcast-NBC Universal distribution, which was a much bigger blow to vertical integration than losing the Paramount Consent Decrees. Frankly, I don’t think a Clinton administration would have worked to aggressively break up Big Tech or Big Entertainment. (Would they have tried to stop either the Disney-Fox merger or the AT&T-Warner Media merger? Probably not, actually.)

The lesson? Be very, very, very cautious predicting the future.

If a Democratic Presidency Happens, What comes next for Antitrust?

Yet, we have to make predictions to make strategy. So let’s answer the key question for antitrust and entertainment: 

Are the Democrats in a different place with regards to antitrust enforcement now? 

Maybe. A very tentative maybe.

Between the antitrust subcommittee hearings on Capitol Hill, the broadening discontent with big tech, the rise of the New Brandeisians (and their increasingly visible boosters like Tim Wu and Matt Stoller), and the continued scholarship showing that increasing inequality and stagnant GDP growth are tied to economic concentration, a Democratic administration could maybe just finally start reversing the trends of increasing consolidation across industries in America.

Again, maybe.

If you ranked every Democratic candidate for President by their emphasis on antitrust enforcement–guess what? I did. I’m a single issue voter now on antitrust enforcement–the bottom two would have been Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Joe Biden is a force for moderation, and he’ll likely hire traditional Democrat power brokers in Washington. In antitrust, this means lawyers trained that mergers are a good thing. Meanwhile Kamala Harris has been supporting Big Tech since she first ran for DA in San Francisco. She’s not advocating to break up those companies. From Dealbook:

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 2.42.04 PMScreen Shot 2020-08-13 at 2.46.25 PM

Thus, predicting the future, two key variables will determine if antitrust enforcement (with potential new rules on vertical integration in media/entertainment) changes. First, does a Democratic administration take control in November? If Trump or another Republican is in office, antitrust enforcement will stay lax. (Nate Silver’s model gives Trump the same probability right now as it did on the eve of election night last year.)

Second, when in power, do Democrats fundamentally change enforcement? For this question, look to Biden’s hiring. If Elizabeth Warren takes either Attorney General or Treasury Secretary, it’s an antitrust game-on, Donkey Kong. (Congress could also take a stand, but that’s only if Democrats control both houses.)

Third, does renewed antitrust include regulation on vertical integration? Or just industry consolidation? Or maybe regulations on platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Apple? How regulation happens is just as influential as whether or not it happens.

My Big Idea: Antitrust is the New Deregulation

Taking Professor Rumelt’s advice, 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. 

Essentially, since the Borkians seized control of antitrust via the courts, nearly every merger has gone through. It’s how we went from a dozen cell phone companies to three. Notably, private equity noticed this trend in the 2000s, and their buying sprees were often to deliberately create monopolies. And no on stopped them. This trend didn’t occur in a big legal decision, but accreted over time. Its reversal would likely take the same course.

If Democrats embrace the “antitrust enforcement mantle”, it would have “deregulation-sized” implications. For example, if Congress wisely (in my opinion) passed a rule that streamers had to own 10% of their own content, I’d invest in an original production company. Letting the 90/10 rule lapse is what essentially killed independent production in the 1980s. Reviving it would be great for independent producers and talent in America.

(This is why in Europe I’d invest in original production right now. Given the requirements for local content on the streamers, independents could thrive.)

My Recommendation? Monitor Which Way the Antitrust Winds are Blowing

Thus, leaders should carefully monitor the landscape. As long as deals keep getting approved with little to no scrutiny, I’d be in an acquisition mode.

Meanwhile, if more enforcement is coming, be prepared to divest quickly and smartly. If you’re private equity, be prepared to buy either independent production companies or other pieces of talent to take advantage of more competition.

Yes, that’s a lot of hypotheticals. But it’s how I’m thinking about this. When it comes to the future, most folks are obsessed with everything digital and technology. Not boring things like contract law and economic consolidation. That’s a miss. Antitrust could be huge in the 2020s. Potentially the defining economic change in the next decade. Especially in media, entertainment and communications. Or maybe not.