Category: Analysis

The 2019 Star Wars Business Report – Theme Parks

This is part III in a multi-part series estimating how much money Disney made off “Star Wars” in 2019. Go here for my larger series on Disney purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012.)

Introduction and Feature Films
Television
Toys

As a tremendous Star Wars fan, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Star Wars had a rough year. “Rough” from a certain point of view. Consider…

– It arguably had the third most popular TV series in America.
– It definitely had the third most popular film in America.
– And it launched a new “land” in two of it’s parks. 

And yet…since this is Star Wars we’re talking about…we’re worried.

IMAGE 3 Bloomberg Headline 3IMAGE 2 - Bloomberg Headline 1IMAGE 1 - WSJ Headline

The theme parks were the biggest disturbance in the force. Based on hyper-charged expectations, observers expected the new park to be utterly jam packed. Instead, Disney saw a decline in total attendance at Disneyland. Stories about Disneyland being “empty”—for July—were blamed on Star Wars. 

On the other hand, Disney raised prices again, finally topping a $200 per day ticket.

It’s all worth unpacking in our continuing series “How Much Money Did Lucasfilm Make in 2019?” (I promise we’ll have this done before the year ends.) This is an extension of the big series I wrote analyzing how much money Star Wars has made for Disney compared to its purchase price. Today it’s all about theme parks, the trickiest business unit to assign value to individual franchises. 

(And also the one most impacted by Coronavirus. Unlike past articles, some of which were written pre-Covid-19, I’ll address that in the final section. As a reminder, this series is about 2019, but it does have some forward looking elements.)

Bottom Line, Up Front

In 2019 Star Wars lost about $60 million in total across the theme parks business. The parks still had big costs in 2019 to finish the lands, which hurt the cash flow.

The story is actually more positive than the headlines suggest, though. Disney was able to drive through incredible ticket price increases (the combined average growth rate is well above 6%, depending on the time period). Given that attendance stayed flat in Disneyland and had the second year over year increase at Hollywood Studios, the new lands are working. (At least, until Covid-19 crushes the top and bottom lines.)

Theme Parks – A Cause for Concern?

The performance of Galaxy’s Edge epitomizes Star Wars’s 2019. The “best of times or worst of times” for Victorian literature, or the “light side and dark side” for Star Wars fans.

As befits everything Disney launches, the buzz was phenomenal back in May when it launched. With headlines like this…

IMAGE 4 - CNN Review

That’s Frank Palotta raving about it in CNN. Other outlets and Twitter matched this hype. These positive reviews—generated from previews given to journalists when the lands were virtually empty—matched the reviews of fans. The folks I know who have visited rave about it. I myself haven’t visited because I was worried the lines were too long. And it’s so damn expensive.

Actually, those two latter points really matter. I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. By July, the word was out that Disneyland wasn’t exactly full. It turns out the price increase was doing its job and keeping folks out of the park. Which led to an article in Bloomberg with this headline:

IMAGE 5 Bloomberg Headline 3

Did Galaxy’s Edge fail then? Not really. If folks were avoiding Disneyland, they weren’t avoiding Galaxy’s Edge, which required reservations to get into for most of the summer and was packed with people. Anecdotally, I think a lot of folks skipped visiting Galaxy’s Edge last year to wait for the crowds to thin out, or for the second ride which debuted in January of this year.

That said, this website is about “business strategy” not a travelogue. From that perspective, two things really matter when evaluating the launch of Galaxy’s Edge. First, Disneyland is thinking very long term with these investments. Like 20 years long time. So if we were evaluating the success of Galaxy’s Edge in July, that’s roughly 1.5% of the time period Disney expect to make it’s money back!

Further, the larger Disney strategy with parks is not to add more people, but to space them out throughout the year while charging them more. That’s summarized by this quote from the Orange County Register.

IMAGE 6 Disneyland Yield Strategy at Parks

The goal isn’t to have a one time bump in revenue, but to establish a brand new reason for families to visit every year. Meanwhile, they are charging those fans more to attend, and selling them more things. When Bob Iger says the Star Wars expansions are exceeding expectations—as he did in the first quarter earnings report in January—normally I’d throw my BS flag. In this case, I think the numbers back him up.

But how do we quantify that?

A Reminder – Theme Parks are Devilishly Tough to Assign Value

The last time I modeled theme park revenue, I complained bitterly about how hard it was. With a film, if you know box office, you can pretty well guess at everything else. 

Theme parks are more like evaluating a streaming video library. How much value do you assign to an individual TV series at retaining customers? If a streamer watches a dozen shows and four movies in a month, that’s a tough question to answer. (And I’ve attempted this before.)

Likewise, how much credit does any single ride get to bringing someone to Disneyland? Don’t many families go every year? Or multiple times? Or on scheduled vacations? It’s not like Star Wars on its own will bring in families.

Yet, if you didn’t add any new rides, the park would get stagnant. Thus, Disneyland needs to constantly add new attractions, and balance those costs against the expected gains. These new attractions then provide fodder for marketing people, new content for fans who go often and generally keep the park up-to-date.

Further, this is a tougher analysis to make for Disneyland than some other theme parks. For example, the Harry Potter lands at Universal Orlando and Hollywood boosted attendance by up to 30% in some cases. That connection is much tighter than Disneyland, which operates at near capacity anyways.

I model those gains in two ways. First, the increase in attendance year-over-year. Second, the increase in ticket prices (which have outpaced the gains in attendance). Once we have those for theme parks at large, the tough part is just assigning value. Which I’ve done, but it’s the biggest “magic number” in this model.

(What’s a magic number? I explained that in this article, but it’s usually the key number that makes a model work but is also the hardest to model.)

The Theme Park Results – An Analysis

To evaluate 2019, then, we just need to look at visitors and price increases. The story with visitors is fine for Disneyland and great for Hollywood Studios. (For those who don’t know, the Star Wars land in Walt Disney World opened in Disney’s Hollywood Studio, the most poorly attended of the Orlando parks.)

IMAGE 7 Theme Park Attendance

For those expecting blockbuster attendance at Disneyland, the results were mostly flat. However, the people were more spread out throughout the year, which helped Disney improve customer opinion. (Indeed, by December Disney had a day where they had to stop selling tickets.)

(By the way, all these numbers come from the Themed Entertainment Association annual report on theme parks. This report just came out on July 20th, so this data is fresh.)

The story is much better for Hollywood Studios. A park that often lacked a purpose, a Toy Story land opened in 2018 and Galaxy’s Edge opened in 2019. Combined, these new lands have boosted attendance from 10.7 million per year in 2017 to 11.5 million in 2019. (And likely would have gone up again in 2020 had Covid-19 not hit.)

As I said above, the real money make isn’t increasing the number of visitors, but increasing the price per ticket. In that lens, 2019 was another great year for Disney. Ticket prices hit new highs. The quick highlights:

– The top ticket price in 2020 at Disneyland was $154, up from $43 in 2000.
– Disneyland was able to introduce a tiered pricing system, allowing Disneyland to spread out customers throughout the year.
– In just the last 10 years, the average growth rate has been 10.3% at Disneyland, and CAGR of 7.5%.

Indeed, the tiered pricing system worked so well, Disney went from three tiers in 2018 to five tiers in February of this year. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Studios prices have started to match the Magic Kingdom prices.

There is one other piece I’ve modeled which is how much guests spend at the parks. Based on reports and some general industry rule of thumbs, I’ve estimated this at $40 per ticket. However, Iger has said that Galaxy’s Edge have driven this up another 10%, so I increased that in my model.

The Theme Parks Model

Let’s take that performance and put it into the model. I updated the 2018 and 2019 numbers with the actual performance for visitors, ticket prices and consumer spending. Here’s the results:

IMAGE 8 - Theme Park Model 2020

My initial estimates for attendance were relatively close. I had guessed that Star Wars could start bumping attendance by 2% at Hollywood Studios, and that’s what happened. (While Disneyland stayed flat, which I did not anticipate.) As a result, my model increased by about $50 million over the course of 2012-2028.

Given the demand for Galaxy’s Edge, I’m still going to allocate value as I had previously, which was starting at 100% of any gains and lowering year over year. These are definitely my magic numbers, and they’re in purple at the top of the model.

The big worry comes from looking at how much Disney still needs to make on the two Star Wars lands. My model only goes to 2028, and even then I don’t think Disney will make its money back on these two parks. Here’s a comparison:

IMAGE 9 Comparison

Of course, we’re not on track for that type of year in 2020, are we?

Coronavirus and Theme Parks

This year is devastating for theme parks. With Disney owning the most valuable theme parks in the world, this is particularly devastating for them.

This doesn’t, though, invalidate the building of Galaxy’s Edge lands. A global pandemic is like a recession: we all knew it was coming, but had no idea when it would happen. When Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, it made the right strategic decision to build these two new lands. And again they will pay off for the next two to three decades. 

What’s that? You still want to see a coronavirus-impacted model? Fine.

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 10.03.36 AM

Here’s the comparison to the other two models (my model from 2018, from this year without coronavirus, and with coronavirus).

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 10.03.44 AM

In other words, a world with coronavirus could cost Disney nearly a $750 million dollars in value. And that’s just the Star Wars allocation. The actual costs are much much higher.

Theme Parks and Resorts: A summary

Money from 2019 (most accurately, operating profit)

It’s a pinch misleading, but likely Star Wars still didn’t make any theme park money this year as it spent big to launch both new parks. It almost broke even, as I allocated most of the price increases in 2019 to Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. As such, I have Disney losing about $60 million dollars on Star Wars theme parks in 2019.

Long term impacts on the financial model and the 2014 deal

That said, the overall year was positive for the model since the price increases and attendance increases will likely help drive even better profitability in the future. In particular, the spending increase per customer really helps the model long term. 

At least, until coronavirus ruined everything.

I think Covid-19 in the average case will still cost Disney about $750 million dollars when it comes to Star Wars. Mainly this comes from the time it will take to get attendance back to pre-coronavirus levels. Though my margin for error is huge with this forecast.

Brand Value

Longer term, I don’t think Galaxy’s Edge will hurt Star Wars brand at all. If anything it will reinforce the brand position. Despite the lack of crowds, the reviews have been phenomenal for Galaxy’s Edge. That’s the piece I can’t look past. Even as the films disappoint (some) folks, the fans still want to relive and experience Star Wars in the real world. By all accounts the park delivers on that.

An Aggressively Moderate Take on Coronavirus and Sports

On Wednesday sports in America made their triumphant return! “The MLS Is Back” tournament declared that, well, the MLS is back.

This follows the June return for most of European soccer, starting with the Bundesliga and continuing to the English Premier League, the most popular global sports league.

Yet not all is sunshine and roses. The leagues are back…but the fans aren’t. And won’t be for the rest of the summer, if not longer.

So how should we think about Coronavirus and Sports? Well let’s bust out the EntStrategyGuy’s patented Covid-19 impact system to analyze it. We look at impacts on Supply, Demand and Employment (if relevant). We also try to separate what we know from what we don’t (and is usually guessed at).

(Curious for my “moderate” take on how Covid-19 will impact the rest of the entertainment industry? Here are my takes on…

The Entertainment Recession
Theaters
Pay/Linear TV
TV and Film Production

Supply

If you’d asked me in 2012 how sports teams made their money, I’d have told you extremely confidently that they made their money by signing huge TV sports rights deals. That’s what I kept reading in the news, after all. Then one day a famous NBA GM spoke at my school and disabused me of that notion in a way that’s stuck ever since. And understanding that explains the trouble for sports leagues over the next year or so.

Yes, the headline buzzy numbers about multi-year deals for TV rights are indeed true. Sports rights for TV have grown by about 4-5% per year for the last two decades. (Math here.) That’s tremendous growth! And hence why everything related to sports has also grown in value. (The price of teams, the salary of players, the size of sponsorship deals.)

But it isn’t the entire story. The second or first biggest chunk of revenue for nearly every sports team in America (and I believe globally) is ticket sales. That’s fans attending live games. It depends on market size, but not the way you think. Larger market teams like the Lakers, Dodgers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Cowboys and Knicks have even more of their revenue as a percentage from local ticket sales than smaller market teams. This is because seats to sporting events are a constrained inventory for a popular product often in very economically wealthy areas. That’s a recipe for high prices.

This explains why the sports leagues, initially, were more willing to postpone the season than play games in front of empty arenas. Empty arenas meant permanently lost revenue and the NBA, NHL and MLB desperately wanted to avoid that happening. (This article says all live revenue is about 40% of the NBA’s total revenue.) They waited as long as they could, but now it’s clear sports in front of fans aren’t happening this year. 

And since it’s better to get some revenue than no revenue, the sports leagues–sans the NFL–have figured out how to bring competitions back without fans. (Good for them!) This means sports in America will be back on live TV soon enough. (Technically the PGA is already back in the US and as I said above the EPL and other European leagues are already back.) 

Still, this leaves the situation with ticket sales unresolved. The owners and commissioners desperately want that other huge chunk of revenue back.

Forecasting when fans can return to arenas or stadiums is fairly difficult. It’s worth comparing them to theaters because the different situations imply different economics. With theaters, I remain convinced that there are measures that can reduce transmission dramatically: have everyone wear masks, keep a checkerboard pattern in design, have a reduced congestion plan when leaving. (This is definitely a minority take not shared by public health officials, so take it for what it’s worth.) Moreover, with a new film, a theater can flex it onto many, many screens simultaneously, meaning you can support a checkerboard pattern while potentially achieving mostly the same volume of tickets sold.

This is not the case with sports. If you’re an NFL team, you only get 8 home games. NBA team gets 42. MLB gets 424 (it feels like). And so on. You can’t surge it into more stadiums or games. (The very thing that drives up prices in the absence of coronavirus hurts the sports leagues here.) Moreover, unlike theaters, stadiums are filled with choke points where people will crowd. (You’d have to have folks arrive 2 hours early or more to avoid crowding at ticket entrances.) Not to mention, a checkerboard seating pattern won’t make sense because you’d have to rearrange nearly every season ticket holder. Yikes.

This means that to have sports return with live fans, you are much closer to needing a full therapeutic cure or vaccine before sports can safely resume.

When will that happen? Well I don’t know. And it’s the biggest variable–and potential hit to the bottom line–for sports teams. However, if you assume we will one day cure or eradicate coronavirus, the supply problem will eliminate too. In the meantime, I expect players, owners, stadiums and all adjacent dependents to take a hit to their salaries and values.

As for the “Bubble” situation, I’m reasonably confident the leagues will find ways to play the games in largely safe ways for the players. It will evolve and folks will get sick, but the revenue draw is too high to avoid.

Demand

Here’s the good news: all signs point to sports fans clamoring for the return of their favorite sports. The Michael Jordan documentary did blockbuster ratings for ESPN. Same for the NFL draft. Even golf is breaking ratings records!

Everyone is trying new things during this quarantine. Some habits may change. But abandoning sports doesn’t look to be one of those things.

Of course, the flip-side to the above supply scenario is that maybe fans will abandon live sports for fear of the coronavirus. This is a risk, but feels low probability. First, sports will likely be constrained by having a therapeutic or vaccine before they return. Unlike theaters, which will test audience demand for their product, I don’t see live sports in arenas this year. 

Second, I don’t think coronavirus has turned us into a world of shut-ins. If anything, folks want to flee their homes more than ever. Admittedly, this is my opinion. It’s an unknown and I could be wrong. A pessimists could say it’s as likely fans flock back to stadiums as they abandon them in perpetuity. Where specifically it lands on that spectrum is up in the air.

As fro demand for live-sports on TV, again I expect it to be high. If folks are in perpetual shut downs with concerts, live-sports and many outdoor gatherings prohibited, live sports rights should be widely consumed. Not to mention, the slow down in TV and film production has meant fall will be light on new content. Sports can instantly step into that void.

Employment

I do see lingering pain the labor market related to stadiums staying closed. Entire ecosystems are built around attending live sporting events. Everyone associated with working that from ushers to security to restaurant staff will be hurting until sports return.

Even the players, as I mentioned above, will likely see a lot of pain. As long as salaries are a percentage of basketball related income, then the players will see cuts if fans can’t comeback in 2021. 

Overall, I’m less worried about the impact on the economy from sports compared to either TV/film production or movie theaters, both of which employ a lot more people.

Bonus: The Breaking of the Bundle?

The one variable that is neither “supply” nor “demand” is whether the absence of live sports will cause a further deterioration of the cable bundle (and maybe satellite bundle in Europe) that props up the current exorbitant sports rights fees. I’ve seen this thesis floated out there fairly commonly over the last few months. (If not directly, then via the rhetorical question headline.)

If prices to be paid are any indication, the answer is no. The prices for live sports rights haven’t decreased even during coronavirus–they’ve continued to go up actually–meaning sports will definitely be the anchor propping up cable and satellite providers in the near term. I’d recommend considering this mostly wild speculation. Folks have been predicting the end of TV since the beginning of this decade. And it’s still kicking.

However, the true test will be the upcoming earnings season. After all, the bundle won’t die because companies let it, but because customers finally opt out. That will be the true final test.

Should You Release Your Movie Straight to Netflix? Part II: The Streaming (nee Netflix) Counter-Arguments

Last December, I started a series whose goal was to valiantly defend the theatrical distribution model. This doesn’t come (only) from some soft spot in my heart for theaters, but from the economics of making movies. Studios can earn a lot more money by releasing their films theatrically. I’ve taken to calling this the “Booksmart Conundrum”.

Nevertheless, the question I asked last winter—“Should you release your film straight-to-streaming (Netflix) or to theaters?—is as relevant now as ever. Indeed, it’s almost quaint to imagine an article from last December is still relevant, given all that’s happened:

– Coronavirus came and closed theaters.
– Comcast (via Universal) released Trolls: World Tour straight-to-video.
– Disney put Artemis Fowl straight to Disney+, and later Hamilton.
– Netflix bought the rights to countless films and put them straight on its service too.

Does all that news invalidate my article series? Far from it. Here’s the plan. I’m going to continue my Q&A as I had it planned last December. Then, I’ll dedicate an entire article to the post-Coronavirus landscape and it’s implications. 

So let’s do it.

Question: Seriously, you’re going to pretend “Covid-19/Coronavirus” never happened?

Not at all. Obviously the immediate impacts are real and I’m monitoring them in my weekly column. (Example of my latest back in June, here.)

But the core economics of releasing films in one streaming window versus multiple windows starting with theaters hasn’t really changed. They may have been tweaked given some of the new behaviors—but you know I’m skeptical on that—but Coronavirus is the “Asterisk Extraordinaire” of our time. The more confident someone is in predicting the future impact of Covid-19, the more likely they are to be wrong.

What matters for studios in the immediate term is when traditional theatrical releases restart. I still maintain that will happen before the end of the year, and likely in August. And when that happens 90% of the model will be intact. So that’s what we’ll discuss in this series.

Question: Fine, can you remind me where we were?

Sure, because I had to do it myself. To start, I finally built a straight-to-streaming financial model for films. This means that via Netflix Datecdote I can estimate how much money an individual film made for Netflix. How cool!

You can read how I built the model, why it works, and the results for The Irishman here. I built this model at the behest of the venerable Richard Rushfield for his Ankler newsletter, and showed how I can use this model very recently when I calculated the results for Extraction on Netflix too. I would add, Nina Metz at the Chicago Tribune did a great write up on my methodology too.

The most useful part of a model, though, isn’t the results but what the model tells you about how the world works. That’s the point of this series: take the model and use it to draw insights about streaming versus theatrical business models. In Part I, we focused on how much money a film makes in the various “windows” it transitions through. No matter how you cut it, theatrical distribution is a huge part of that window. Over 30% easily, but that’s actually rising as home video declines. (Also don’t neglect how home entertainment, TVOD, EST, and premium cable can add to the bottom line too.)

Another key insight is how much better the margins are better for theatrical viewing than they are for viewing at home. As a result, if you don’t release in theaters, you’re giving away potential revenue. Did I calculate this specifically for Netflix? I did, and found out, under a pretty reasonable scenario, they could have easily left $750 million dollars on the table in 2019.

Question: Three quarters of a billion dollars? Why would Netflix do that? If you were making the strongest pro-straight to streaming argument, what would it be?

The folks at Netflix aren’t crazy. They can build these models too. And the folks at Amazon tried to release their films in theaters. The most generous explanation I can give would go like this:

When a film goes to theaters first, it risks being viewed as unpopular if it flops. That would destroy the value on the streaming platform. Moreover, by going straight-to-streaming, Netflix and others have the added value of exclusivity on the platform, driving new subscribers. This is really the point of putting films on streaming anyways, to acquire and retain subscribers.

That’s really two explanations in one. First, failure at the box office destroys value and second that exclusivity raises value.

Q: Is this a strawman, or do you have someone making this argument explicitly?

This is the argument Scott Stuber—Netflix head of film— made to Variety at their conference. His quote:

IMAGE 1 - Stuber to Variety QuoteEssentially, he’s more afraid that film will bomb at the box office than it won’t perform on his service.

Well, I have a two word answer for him:

Late Night.

Q: What does Late Night have to do with it?

Read More

Is Disney Is Throwing Away Its Money Generating Machine? Thinking Critically About Deficit-Financed Business Units

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

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

If Disney+ has done nothing else, it has given the Disneyphiles tons of extra documentaries to consume. Making of Disneyland here. Insights into props here. More behind the scenes here.

My wife and I have watched some of “The Imagineering Story” documentary and there was a tidbit in the first episode about Disneyland’s launch which has stuck with me:

Disneyland was profitable by the end of the first year.

To compare Disney to the company that led the introduction to last week’s article, if Amazon opens a “BezosLand” in Seattle, do you think it would make money in its first year? 

Heck no!

It would probably never make money. It would be created as a unique bonus for Prime subscribers who could attend for free. We would never find out how much money they make and if there were rumors BezosLand was losing billions every year, they’d leak to a few favorite journalists that the “data” makes it all up for them in selling more socks.

It feels quaint what Walt Disney did in the 1960s: He saw a way to create value—have amusement parks that were clean and cutting edge that emphasized decades old beloved characters—and when he launched it, he was quickly proven right. This is capitalism at its finest: for his bet he earned lots and lots of money. Shareholders still are benefitting from his foresight.

Far from being quaint, Walt Disney was actually on to something. For most companies making money is key. This is true even in the streaming wars. But we’ve lost sight of that fact because so many companies entering the streaming wars with plans to lose oodles of money doing so. 

This is part II of my three part exploration of “flywheels” in the streaming wars. Last time I defined my terms. Next time, I’ll use the principles of this article to look at a few other new streamers. Today, the lesson is all about why making money still matters, even in streaming. And Disney’s future is the case study.

Summary

– The best way to evaluate any business is still Net Present Value.
– Even in flywheels and deficit-financed business units, the goal is still the same: to invest money in net present value positive endeavors.
– The risk of a “flywheel” with a deficit-financed component is that you simply lose money, not start the flywheel spinning.
– Disney provides the case study in this: if streaming can’t/won’t make money, their flywheel of toys, parks and resorts won’t make up for it.
– Thesis: The best business model makes money at every point, not “flywheels” that lose money in one area to make money in others. This is actually the forgotten lesson of Walt Disney.

A Reminder about Net Present Value

Fortunately, the key to evaluating flywheels is the same as the key to evaluating all businesses: 

Net Present Value

Or NPV. The short hand for calculating “net present value of the discounted future cash flows”. That’s a finance-y way of saying that a company should invest in businesses that promise to make money. Again, we’re talking Finance 101 here. But it’s worth repeating because I’ve seen many businesses or ventures praised in the streaming world who likely won’t make money, even on a net present value basis. (They use narratives, not numbers. And strategy is numbers.)

Read my explainer for this concept here. (And no website can do it justice, you really should read your finance textbook to understand the details.) But for a reminder, since I use it a lot, 90% of NPV decisions look like this:

– You invest a lot of money at the start. (Capital expenditure)
– You slowly start to make some money. (Revenue)
– You still have some ongoing costs. (Cost of goods sold.)
– You subtract the two, and keep the remaining. (Profit)
– You take those future sums and account for the time value of money. (Discounting)

Since we’re talking Disney, here’s a look at my big series on how much they made from Star Wars toys:

IMAGE 2 - Discounted Star WarsThe problem I keep running into with streaming video is folks seem very willing to ignore these two core principles when evaluating the streaming wars. Most money losing/unknown streaming or digital video ventures are excused because frankly we don’t know. Since we don’t have the numbers—and it’s hard to calculate them—we use narratives instead.

If you take nothing away from this article, remember that even a flywheel can be evaluated on NPV terms. It’s components can, nee MUST!, be evaluated on NPV positive terms as well. Otherwise, companies run a huge risk.

“A License to Lose Money”: Explaining Deficit-Financed Business Units

Consider:

– Prime Video (money made unknown) isn’t around to make money, but to sell more socks, thus spoke Jeff Bezos.
– Apple TV+ (will spend $6 billion on content) isn’t around to make money, but to sell Apple devices and Apple Channels.
– AT&T (will spend at least $3 billion on HBO Max) isn’t around to make money, but to sell more cellular subscriptions.

In these cases, the explanation is that video is a means to an end. At extremes, defenders of the “lose money in media to make money elsewhere” even call it a “marketing expense”. 

It’s worth dwelling on the concept of “marketing expense” more. Because in the previous world—the old fashioned/traditional business world—it wasn’t like you could just label something as marketing and spend as much as you wanted on it. Indeed, marketing was always taken out of your operating profit. So the more you could trim marketing while keeping sales the same, the more you trimmed! That’s why advertising is the first thing to go in an economic downturn.

Despite the branding as marketing expenses, there is real money being spent on video. These are real products from real business units. Not simply “marketing”. We need a new name, which is why I’ve come up with:

Deficit-Financed Business Units.

DFBUs. Yes, I was in the Army so I acronymize everything. It’s worth unpacking the phrases to see why these definition makes so much sense. 

First, a venture is “deficit-financed” if the plan is to never make money on it. Or to make money, but so far in the future that current financing is still net present value negative. Thinking about this abstractly explains why. Say I offered you a billion dollars a year starting in 2050. The key is you have to pay me $20 billion now. Should you do it? Heck no! You could just invest that $20 billion and probably double it multiple times before 2050, making more than enough to pay yourself $1 billion per year.

That same scenario is a microcosm of “net present value”. Should Apple invest $20 billion right now to make $1 billion a year in 2050? Heck no! Just keep it in cash or cash equivalents. No matter if it is marketing.

Second, I like business unit because it really distinguishes between streaming video companies  and a marketing expense. Plopping down several million dollars for a Super Bowl ad could be a net present value negative decision. (And should be evaluated in those terms.) But we should distinguish from genuine efforts at marketing versus creating brand news businesses, that in most other contexts would need to make money. 

The Riskiness of DFBUs: You Don’t Make Actually Make Money on the Flywheel 

My worry for companies and investors is that they don’t insist on looking at these business ventures with an NPV lens. As a result, DFBUs become a license to lose money for big tech companies. They may even grab market share—that’s certainly the case with all of them—but that doesn’t mean they actually make money.

That license usually has a justifciation, though. If we lose money on this part of a flywheel, can it make more money elsewhere? In other words, the key question is:

Can Deficit-Financed Business Units Turn a Flywheel?

This is really the supposition that has fueled the rise of streaming video. If you have a true flywheel or ecosystem, getting more customers in will help cause it to spin. That’s expressly Jeff Bezos’ logic. Apple’s too. AT&T even.

The answer? Maybe. It depends on the flywheel.

My thesis is that they can, but they are risky and hence rare. Losing money is easy for a business to do. Allowing someone to lose money means they will. It makes their thinking sloppy. Moreover, it’s easy to get the tradeoffs slightly wrong, and you deficit-financed business unit just becomes a money losing hole.

And I think I can illustrate this with Disney. If you’ve been following me on social, you’ll know that my household has been into Disney’s Inside Out recently. Which is appropriate to call back to, for this scene:

That’s how I’d describe DFBUs, they’re shortcuts that should be labeled danger. The current danger-disguised-shortcut facing Disney is losing money on streaming (Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu.) to make it on extra toy sales. The rationales I’ve seen justifying Disney’s move into streaming reinforce this money losing narrative. I’ve seen the same arguments used by the tech conglomerates trotted out for the House of Mouse. For example, I’ve seen Disney’s streaming efforts explained as…

– They’ll lose money on streaming to get folks into the “ecosystem” of theme parks and toys.
– Disney has a flywheel and streaming video will bring more subscribers into the flywheel.
– Disney should disrupt the theatrical business model to own the customer relationship in streaming. 

So all the buzz words. Of course, since strategy is numbers, the question isn’t what narrative you employ to justify losing money, but whether or not the investment will make it up in the long run. So let’s quantify—for what I think is the first time on the internet—the actual numbers behind those narratives.

The Messy Financials of Disney

One of the first explanations for Disney’s push into streaming was so it could “sell more toys”, just like Jeff Bezos sells more socks. But take a gander at this Hollywood Reporter image I love trotting out:

IMAGE 3 - THR Disney 2018

Toys—from here on “consumer products”—is a small, small part of Disney’s overall operating margin, isn’t it?

Let’s dig deeper. I approach a company’s financials like a hostile witness on the stand. What are they trying to hide? What don’t they want me to know?

For Disney, I looked at their financials going back to 2009. And a huge red flag jumps out, which should be a clue for the quality of the toy business:

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Read My Latest at The Ankler (Paywall): Are Superhero Movies Doomed?

If you don’t follow me on social or subscribe to my newsletter, you may have missed my latest guest article at The Ankler (behind a paywall). It’s a short one, but a goody. 

In it I compared Netflix’s recent Hard R action films, and their “datecdotes”, to Netflix’s other big swings, like Bird Box and The Irishman. It’s behind The Ankler’s paywall, but worth it to find out about my provocative title. Not to step on the toes, but I don’t see how $15 a month streaming will ever make $200 million production budget feature films profitable. And this has ramifications for superhero, sci-fi and even animated films. Even if you don’t buy that thesis, it has a good comparison of all their films recent performance.

Check it out!

The Flywheel Is a Lie! Distinguishing Between Ecosystems, Business Models, & Network Effects and How They All Impact 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

This is probably the most popular image for business school students about Amazon. Heck, anyone describing Amazon has probably used this image. 

Amazon FlywheelIf we’re supposed to be neutral observers of businesses, you can’t help but notice after a moment of reflection how insanely positive this take is. Man, Jeff Bezos can really sell his positive vision and have it repeated universally.

If you were really cynical—hey, I am—what would the pessimistic version of this flywheel look like? The “Flywheel of Evil” if you will…

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.08 AM

What changed? Well, first, the idea that you “sell more things” is great, but if you lose money on every transaction, that’s “sub-optimal” in business speak. Or bad in human speak. And Amazon does in many cases. 

To fund these losses, you need to start a really successful company that is totally unrelated to your retail business or its membership program, which is where Amazon Web Services comes in. There’s an alternate history where an Amazon without AWS (cloud computing) doesn’t take over retail because it doesn’t have a cash flow engine driving its growth. (In that timeline, Ebay becomes our overlords.)

Even more potent, though, is combining already low prices with Amazon’s decades long refusal to pay local taxes. Could you point to the continued imprisonment of poor Americans to online companies not paying local taxes? Maybe! (As local tax bases erode, some communities turned to police forces to extract rents, like in Ferguson, Missouri. Seem relevant to our current times?) Amazon does pay some local taxes—now—but only after it became an advantage to them in furthering their monopoly power.

Now that it has this “flywheel” rolling, Amazon uses its size to both crush new entrants who want to compete and to punish suppliers, capturing all the value from their product creations.

Which flywheel is “right”, then? Well, both actually. Both describe valuable methods for how Amazon grew to the size it did. Some of those methods were good for customers; some were bad for society. You can’t tell their story without both.

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.39 AMWhat’s the lesson? Flywheels are simple whereas reality is complicated. As tools, flywheels are fairly inexact. They’re not even really tools, but narrative devices we use to help make sense of a complicated world. In other words, a “heuristic”. As behavioral economists like Kahneman and Tversky taught us, heuristics are useful, but can carry pitfalls if we aren’t careful.

What’s the point for the streaming wars? Well video has become a spoke on multiple company’s supposed “flywheels”. Everyone from Disney to Amazon, but most critically Apple last fall. Whether or not these were actual flywheels was less important than merely invoking the term and using it to justify nearly any amount of spending. 

Let’s call this another key piece of “terrain” in the streaming wars. The “Forest of Flywheels” if you will. The problem is the business and entertainment press has been fairly sloppy with our language when it comes these types of endeavors. Due to this sloppiness, we’ve allowed a lot of companies to launch video because they’ll “lose money on video to make money on X”. 

Today, I’ll explain the key terms. In my next article I’ll critique deficit-financing in particular. And then I’ll finish it off with an analysis of some of these business models to show their potential strengths and weaknesses. 

Summary

– Flywheels are the most overused term in business, and it’s important to know what different terms mean.
– Ecosystem is probably the most commonly confused term with flywheel. Ecosystems are also rare.
– A true flywheel is a self-perpetuating cycle of growth that is incredibly rare in practice.
– As such, in pursuit of flywheels, we’ve seen many digital players launch money-losing video efforts. I call these “deficit-financed business units”. And they’re one of the biggest factors in the streaming wars.

Defining Traditional Business Strategy Terms

You’ve read articles bemoaning jargon in the workplace. (This New York Magazine piece is the latest in hundreds on the subject.) Even I just denigrated “sub-optimal” above, a term I really don’t like. Still, I don’t take that extreme of a position on business nomenclature. Often, jargon really does have a role in explaining new concepts.

The problem comes in overuse. That’s what is currently happening with “flywheel”. It’s almost become synonymous with “successful business”. But it’s much more specific than that.

So let’s define our terms, so we can better understand what is and is not a flywheel.

Business Model 

It turns out if you want to stymie business school students, just ask them “what is a business model?” Indeed, they’re taking classes called “Strategy and Business Models”, but answering, “What is a business model?” can stump them. I’ve seen it.

At its most basic, a business model is a plan or process to make a good or service and sell it for more than it costs to make. Make a widget for $1, market it for $1 and sell it for $3. Or replace widget with service. The model is how you make money. On a financial statement, this is usually called the income statement. When I build a “model” for this website, that’s usually what I’m building. 

How do business models relate to flywheels? Well, you can have a successful business model that isn’t a flywheel! It’s just a good business. In the olden days, you would have probably described the dividend producing stocks as just good businesses. They don’t have huge growth prospects, but they still generate a return on investment. Cable companies in the 2000s fit this bill. They had good business models, but were absolutely not flywheels.

Where it gets complicated is usually a given company is actually a collection of many business models. Arguably for every product they sell. Or you have distinct models for different business units in the same conglomerate. Which is actually a good transition to our next definition.

Business Unit

Most companies on the S&P 500 aren’t just one business, but multiple types of businesses lumped together. This is the reality for most conglomerated businesses. When analyzing a compnay, it’s key to differentiate between its overall success and the success of its various pieces.

Amazon is a perfect example here. Retail is one business unit. But then it also has media businesses from live streaming to streaming to music. Then it also sells devices like Amazon Echo. Oh, and it has Whole Foods groceries too.

And then there is the cloud computing (AWS). Which I called out above. And it’s worth noting just how distinct that wildly financially successful enterprise is from the rest of Amazon’s consumer-focused retail efforts. It’s a business-to-business service that is powered by lots of fixed capital expenditure data warehouses. It barely relates. Yet, it’s part of Amazon.

How do business units relate to flywheels? Well, flywheels often fail to take into account entire business units. Take the Amazon flywheel of success…it totally ignores AWS! For years Amazon survived because it had an incredibly high margin business in cloud computing that could provide necessary capital that enabled Amazon to continue building its retail business. This also kept Wall Street happy.

That makes the Bezos flywheel not just wrong, but almost negligently wrong. 

It’s business malpractice to point out that a flywheel helped Amazon to succeed if you don’t include AWS’s role in propping up the balance sheet!

I would add, many of the “flywheel” charts you see out there are often just describing a company with multiple business units. (I’ve seen this with Disney and Epic Games.) Every business can benefit from owning multiple business units, from lowering costs or providing learnings. That used to be called “synergy”. Now we call them “flywheels”.

Ecosystem

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AT&T Really is Going All In, Amazon is the New Standard Oil, and Extra Thoughts on the HBO Max Launch

HBO Max launched last week! A $4 billion endeavor that required a monumental merger to make it happen. Can one measly column capture all my thoughts on HBO Max’s launch? 

Of course not.

So here are my extra thoughts, strategic insights and, in a first, a mail bag of questions/comments from folks on Twitter. (Be sure to follow me here or connect on Linked-In here.)

Strategic Thought – AT&T Really is Going “All In”

If you favor bold, decisive action in strategy—and I do—then AT&T deserves some applause. Two specific readings have helped push me further on this take, both quoted in my recent newsletter.

First, writing in TMT and Chill, anonymous Twitterzen Masa Capital makes the case that AT&T has made a big financial commitment. AT&T is devoting billions just to HBO Max, in addition to whatever they were going to spend at Warner Media, TNT/TBS, and HBO to make original content. That’s a financial spend many analysts said AT&T would never do.

Second came from Kirby Grines in his latest newsletter. AT&T isn’t just serious about spending money, but owning the customer relationship. That’s why AT&T “spent” the legitimate customer dissatisfaction of last week. Long term they know that controlling the data, identity and experience of customers will pay off long term.

In particular, last year Grines called out how bad Amazon Prime’s UX is for third party content. Frankly, Amazon doesn’t treat third party content well. So if you’re spending billions making content for HBO, is it worth it for Amazon to use your content simply to build their platform, while not even making it easy to use? Strategically, that’s a huge no.

(I mean, has Amazon launched customer profiles yet for Prime Video? For years they didn’t have that basic feature.)

It comes down to this: the streaming wars are divided into the major players and the niche players. Niche players will go to bundles like Amazon, Roku, Apple channels and Hulu and others. The major players will insist on their own apps. 

So yes, AT&T really is all in. Because they insist on their own app.

Media Coverage – It Really Was Anemic

Are you really a major player if you launch and no one cares? 

That was partly my take from the coverage. Yes, the usual Twitterati were obsessed by it. We always would be. But did regular America care? Not the way they cared about Disney. To use one example, the Byer’s Market newsletter put HBO Max news “below the fold” on the days up to and after launch. Facebook/Twitter drama beat it out.

Hey, bring some data to this, EntStrategyGuy. What does Google Trends look like?

IMAGE X - Google Trends

Yikes. Maybe no one can catch up to Netflix.

My “Business” Review of HBO Max?

Given that the HBO Max that just launched is essentially the HBO Max we were promised last fall, I could just push you to my column form last November. 

Now that’s it’s launched, do I have any priors to update? Sure, with the caveat that a lot of “reviews” of a new streamer are often excuses to just find examples to reinforce preconceived biases of whatever narrative we came in with. My process is always the “5Ps” of launching a streaming product: Product (Content), Product (UX), Placement (Distribution), Pricing and Promotion, which is how I’ll look at it.

Product (Content)

From everything I see, this content really does rock. That was my take in the fall and using the service I still see that. From Harry Potter—the big surprise—to all the HBO content to lots and lots of movies, this is a strong lineup. (Also, kids content may be a secret source of strength.)

Warner Media also decided to have the content move in and out of the HBO Max catalogue. I’ll be honest, I love that decision. Given that customers can’t identify all the Warner Media content the way they can with Disney’s content, this will provide a lot of reasons for folks to keep their subscriptions. 

Last point, since content is the most important piece, is that the loss of all the Warner Media/HBO content will be felt on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. It’s such a big library that all the other libraries will get weaker.

Product (UX)

It worked fine for me, though I had my gripes. The UX doesn’t let you turn off autoplay. For me, I can’t stand kids content that autoplays. It invariably causes fights with my daughter, especially if I miss the opportunity to disconnect. It also didn’t have any playback flaws, which is to be expected since HBO Now made up the backbone of the system, and it’s worked for years.

As for everyone else, some folks didn’t like it; others found it easy to use. So where does that leave me? Honestly, I’m gonna call it a “we don’t know” since that’s my call for most UX. 

Also, I’m beginning to suspect that customers fall into two categories on UX: Those who want the unending scroll and those who don’t. Netflix and Prime Video will appeal to former; HBO and Disney+ to the latter. More to come.

Placement (Distribution)

If we’re judging on results, not the “why”, which I explained in my last column, this is bad. Getting near 100% distribution is key to reaching the most customers. As I just said, they’re in a majority of connected houses, but not over 80% as Disney was. While they’re on lots of cable providers, video games and Apple devices, the Roku and Amazon devices is a big black hole.

Pricing

It’s expensive, that’s for sure. And we’re in a discounted streaming world right now. So this has to count as a negative as well. Is it a negative for HBO customers? No, but likely anyone who isn’t already “borrowing” HBO from a parent isn’t going to start paying for it at this price point.

Promotion

They were never going to be able to promote as Disney could, but overall they’ve done a strong job. Not to mention, ad rates are so low right now I suspect they’re getting a terrific bang for their buck.

Add it all up?

Well, HBO Max has the content, but it’s expensive and not widely available. So not the worst launch, but definitely far from perfect.

The Lack of Datecdotes Is Deafening

This exchange on The Verge’s podcast is a must read for Julia Alexander’s dogged pursuit of a nugget of data. Anything to indicate it’s working. 

IMAGE X - Julia Alexander Quote

Did she get any data? Nope. Meanwhile, the Sensor Tower data is all over the place. And no one has any leaks yet.

So my judgement? The lack of a datecdote on performance is probably a bad sign. Though it’s just the second quarter and we have a lot of game to play still.

Mailbag!

First up, Andy’s Very Good Tweets asks

Why has HBOMAx not just taken over the whole DC Universe library? DCU can’t be making enough to justify two streamers, especially with so much overlap, so what’s the sense in sharing licensing on many (but all) DC titles and only Doom Patrol from the originals?

Let me start by saying I have no inside information so can’t answer concretely. But this is the most glaring error on the platform. My second or third click on the website was the DC universe button, and the general impression was, “Eh.” Call it the inverse of when I clicked on the Marvel button.

My gut is that HBO Max wants to do the opposite of Disney and rotate content in and out frequently, promoting it when it comes in. Add to that the fact that Netflix still owns the rights to a lot of CW shows that streamed in the last decade, and potentially a lot of the best content just isn’t available. 

Last note on this is that DC Universe is also an amalgam of both video content and digital comic book subscription. Which means Warner Media can’t just kill DC Universe and port it to HBO Max. Which means it’s tricky.

Second up, Masa Capital asks about the biggest immediate strategy change by HBO Max

Takes on the decision to accelerate the release of Love Life. And if that means HBO Max may be considering stepping off the no #BingeAndBurn promise or not.

I bet this is a Jason Kilar special. Most digital media execs preach at the alter of binge model, and I could see Kilar coming in and insisting on this. The other potential explanation is that a lot of content was in production and crushed by Covid-19. Meaning, normally they would have so many originals they could space it out. As is, they need to keep folks on the site until new content arrives.

Are they right? Well, you know I love the weekly release if a show is a hit. But lots of customers don’t. (This could be the second big divide between customers: there are those who love the binge and those who hate it.)

Penultimate Point – The Big Negotiating Hold: Amazon is the New Standard Oil

Last week, I wrote a bit about Spotify’s monopoly play, and I’m returning to that well this week. Not because I want to focus on this issue, but because you can’t understand why Amazon is doing what it is doing without seeing the monopoly implications. It launched Prime Video using profits from AWS. It launched Fire TV the same way, mostly getting expansion by essentially giving away the sticks for free.

Now, Amazon wants its ROI on Fire TV.

That will come as a tax on applications on its service. This tax is passed on to both creators/talent—who will make less money—and customers—who have to pay more because of the tax to be on Amazon’s platform. 

The counter is that Amazon is providing a unified platform. As one Twitterzen pointed out, it’s very convenient to have all your TV shows in one place. This is true.

Of course, if that’s the value Amazon is providing—in other words, the service Amazon offers—Amazon should actually pay streamers to be on its platform. If the value is bundling all the services, then they need to entice the streamers into that user experience. That’s what happened to cable providers. To get channels onto their services, they had to pay the channels a set amount per customer.

So why aren’t they? Because they’re betting on market power, not value creation. If they have market power, they can outlast their competitors. 

Last Point – AT&T Wants to Be a Platform as Well

I speculated this back in the fall, when John Stankey rolled out his thoughts on HBO Max and I’m more convinced hearing the executives talk over the last week or so. 

Part of the reason AT&T won’t just cave into Amazon Channels is that someday they’ll have AT&T channels as well. Heck, AT&T TV is essentially that, just not streaming focused. Yet.

It’s a monopolist’s world, we’re just living in it.

My Unasked for Recommendations for Disney Streaming (2020 Edition)

Do you remember last year before Disney+ launched and I had this series of recommendations for how they could catch up to Netflix? They were…

1. Go dirt cheap on the prices. [Check]
2. Schedule weekly releases for adults [Check]
3. Bundle with other streamers [Check]
4. Get all your key library content on board. [Check]
5. Give it for free to all theme park attendees [No]
6. Release weekly ratings. [Hell no.]

You might have trouble finding that article. Why? Because I never actually finished it and published it. If I had, I could keep pointing back to it for how right I was. 

(Instead, I published an article worrying that Disney+ wouldn’t have the Marvel films or half the princess movies. Oops.)

Given that last week was a bit of big news for Disney+, I think it’s worth providing Disney another round of unasked for recommendations. Rebecca Campbell—the new head of streaming—definitely doesn’t need my advice, but everyone else might find it interesting to know what I would do if I were offering my strategic advice.

I’ll focus on streaming here, with the knowledge tha the entire Disney enterprise has a had a bad few months. It’s almost the perfectly designed disaster to hurt Disney’s business. But given that forecasting the course of a pandemic is pretty uncertain, I’ll wait to opine on Disney’s business model for a pinch.

Recommendation 1: Add a local streamer to your “bundle” overseas.

This was the “a ha” that got me to finally write this article. Two weeks ago, I called my biggest story of the week Disney’s decision to pause international growth plans for Hulu. In these cash strapped times, Disney is worried about the costs of Hulu internationally. Some of this is marketing, some is product, but most of it is likely licensing claw backs. Or foregone licensing revenue. 

As I wrote two weeks ago, I’m not sure a streamer built around the FX stable of content will be a huge winner internationally. American TV shows don’t travel as well as folks think, and really “prestige-y” type shows travel even worse. (This isn’t a uniform pronouncement. Some of the Fox TV studios shows will travel. Like How I Met Your Mother. Just not all.) The Fox movies will have some appeal too, though a lot of the best have been pulled for Disney+ already.

The challenge is that if Disney doesn’t launch Hulu internationally, it will lag Netflix for potentially ever.

What to do? 

Well, keep bundling. The bundle with ESPN+, Hulu and Disney+ has already been successful in America. Likely internationally it will have some appeal. That’s a no brainer.

Even better, though, is to add a local streamer to each bundle. If that’s Hulu’s biggest drawback—lack of local content for adults—don’t opt for the expensive proposition of licensing it all, just partner with a local streamer. Essentially make them the fourth pillar in a country-by-country bundle. Especially if ESPN+ isn’t launched globally for sports. 

Even though we in America don’t realize it, nearly every country has a local streamer trying to fight the streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix. Disney could look like a hero by bundling that content with its other shows. Hulu then gets to come along for the ride. And overall, my gut is this strategy would be cheaper than trying to license local content territory-by-territory. 

Consider this too, an extension of what’s already working. Disney+ was tied closely to Hotstar in India. (Which Disney got in the Fox deal.) They’ve also partnered with local companies for distribution deals like with Canal Plus in France. My pitch is to just take that strategy even further with more bundles in more territories. Even if it means giving local partners most of the benefit in the short term, in the long term this will help with adoption.

Recommendation 2: Seriously, give away Disney+ to anyone going to a theme park.

Let’s re-up my biggest recommendation from last year. It’s super expensive to go to the Disneyland or Disney World. Disney+ is very cheap. So just combine the two and if you buy two tickets to a theme park you get 3 months of Disney+ for free. Those free trials are worth it.

(Yes, parks are closed. They won’t be forever.)

Recommendation 3: Add another “F-BOSSS” Level TV Series. My pitch? Modern Family

Back in January, I coined the acronym “F-BOSS” for the big TV series that were being clawed back from Netflix or secured for multi-hundred million dollar licensing deals. (Friends, The The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Seinfeld, Simpsons, South Park) Now that the biggies are off the table, the smaller series are coming off the board too.

Disney, for its part, has mostly moved 21st Century Fox TV series to Hulu. Like How I Met Your Mother. However, 21st Century Fox has a big one coming up that isn’t as big as those others, but could be. That’s Modern Family. Which just ended its last season.  Back in 2013, Fox licensed it to USA network for a big sum. I looked but can’t see when that deal comes off the board. But when it does, either Hulu or Disney+ is its all but guaranteed landing spot. 

Of the two, I’d say that Modern Family should go to Disney+. This isn’t a no brainer by any means, but that’s because of how hard it is to fit content onto the Disney+ brand. The challenge is Disney+ content needs to be both family-friendly, but also adult-appealing. That’s a hard balance to strike.

I considered some of the older “TGIF” series like Home Improvement (distributed by Disney back in the day, and made by Touchstone, which is owned by Disney). Disney should get that series to Disney+, but it probably isn’t a game changer. It is too old to move the needle. (So they shouldn’t’ buy out whatever rights is keeping it off streaming early.) (The other series on TGIF like Full House or Family Matters aren’t worth it even to license from Warner Bros.) I considered some of the Fox animation series, but they feel too edgy. (It’s still funny The Simpsons made the cut when you think about it.)

This makes Modern Family the key choice. It’s got lots of episodes (250) for folks to binge—the main requirement—and both customer/critical acclaim. (High viewership for a long period of time and multiple Emmy wins.) It does touch on some politics, but overall isn’t controversial enough to cause too much hot water with family groups. (It’s on syndication nationally and on USA Network right now.) So for me, this is a big content priority.

Side Note: About the “Big 5” Pillars

I’m not sure they have a name, but the “Five Big Pillars” is what I’m calling these:

Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 5.06.44 PM

These pillars are both a blessing and a curse for Disney+. Blessing because these pillars have shown that they can launch a streamer. Hence, Disney getting to 50 million subscribers and beyond. It’s an incredibly strong brand defined by these five pieces.

The curse is that they limit what Disney can do going forward. Already, The Simpsons is above the pillars in most applications because they don’t fit one of the four categories. Same for some of the Fox films like Ice Age. Is it Disney? No, but it’s somewhere on Disney+. 

But really the limitation crystallized for me in Disney passing on the Studio Ghibli content, that will appear on HBO Max tomorrow. Studio Ghibli movies are great, but where would Disney put them? I’m not sure they know either, and not saying it’s the only reason but they passed on it for licensing.

If Disney does add a big piece of additional content, like a Modern Family, they may need to rethink these five pillars. 

Recommendation 4: Provide a major product improvement

I probably use the Disney+ app more than other streaming app. My daughter isn’t allowed to use the iPad unsupervised, and we watch one short film before the bath. So I’ve scrolled the app a fair bit. Meaning I know it’s limitations and positives better than any other (iPad) application. (I caveat “iPad” because I don’t know if they are problems on other operating systems.)

So it’s time for Disney+ to roll out a new feature that doesn’t upend the entire user experience—folks hate that—but provides more functionality. My pitches?

– Make the Disney animated shorts their own section. And make it easier to scroll and search for new shorts to watch.
– Add a “Sing-a-long” version. And make it easy to find the songs to watch as their own thing.
– Fix the “additional content” to be more like a DVD-bonus features. 

Side Note: Disney Needs to “Proof Read” Its Content

If you’re a heavy user of Disney+, you notice little things. My guess is they are mistakes that are the result of automating the entire process. Which is key for a streamer to get launched, but sometimes a human touch can fix the errors. Meaning someone would need to manipulate the metadata to make sure the service is as accurate as possible. For example…

– The timing for the length of short films includes foreign language credits. Which means a Pixar short appears to be 9 minutes long, but four minutes are credits. That needs to be updated.
– A shocking amount of ratings claim that a given Disney short features tobacco use. (The only authentic one is Steamboat Willy.) I have no idea why this is the case.
– Some content still only has one version. For example, Mickey and the Beanstalk is only included in Fun and Fancy Free, when that version features a nigh unwatchable ventriloquism scene. So on one hand, they have this content. On the other, it isn’t the best version of it.

Recommendation 5: Get NFL Sunday Ticket on ESPN+ somehow.

NFL Sunday Ticket is the killer app that gets ESPN+ mandatory adoption. Will this be pricey? Yes. Will Comcast and AT&T still want pieces of the NFL? Yes. Is the least likely recommendation? Yes.

The NFL is the sports straw that stirs the content drink. As it is, ESPN+ doesn’t have enough reasons for folks to subscribe. Plus, Sunday Ticket keeps from cannibalizing linear views as Disney can pitch to MVPDs that it is just adding Sunday Ticket as DirecTV did before. 

Coronavirus Impact on Entertainment – Film and TV Production

Over the last few articles, I’ve avoided the “C word”. Not that one, the Covid-19/Coronavirus words. If some of you are like me, you both devour coronavirus content, but sometimes find yourself sick of reading any more of it. (Every so often I just delete all my news podcasts that mention Covid-19 or the economic impacts. I need a break.)

I’ve been trying to strike the right balance between ensuring we cover one of the most important events of American history, but also focusing on all the other stories as well. Since my column last week was mostly non-Covid-19, let’s pull out the crystal ball to ask: how will the coronavirus impact the production of filmed entertainment?

Before we get any further, you can read my two previous analyses of the future of entertainment in a post-Covid-19 world.

The Entertainment Recession
Feature Films and Coronavirus
Pay TV

Compared to many analysts, I’m very uncertain about the future. If I could predict the future accurately, I wouldn’t be writing articles. I’d be trading stocks. (Read my first article to understand my methodology and approach.)

Still, we can sketch out some details and try to separate some overreactions from the proper reactions. And since we don’t have clean “demand vs supply” issues the way other parts of the value chain have, forecasting production changes should be a bit easier. (Customers are usually the problem in forecasts.) I’ll break out my analysis into two time frames, long and short term for how Coronavirus could impact production.

(By the way, I use “Hollywood” as a stand in for all global film production in this article.)

Long Term – Somewhere Between Two Extremes

Given my uncertainty, I’ll review all the scenarios using the good old Hegelian method. I’ll explore both extremes and try to guess where the middle of “the impact on production” could land.

Thesis – Coronavirus will make “Youtube-style” the norm.

I’ve seen a narrative that since Covid-19 has enforced universal lockdowns, this somehow represents the triumph of self-produced content. In the future, we won’t need fancy set ups and teams of people to produce content. It turns out that a celebrity sitting in their home can put out a content in HD that looks pretty damn good.

Call this the “triumph of Youtube/Twitch” narrative. (Yes, I loathe narratives.)

In some cases, constraints become the style. With lots of folks watching vlogs and Youtube videos from home, and everyone staring at Zoom cameras, people are used to this style. It permeates the culture.

We’ve already this style invade traditional broadcasting. The broadcasters have mostly embraced the Youtube style for live shows. Disney’s Sing-a-longs in particular had fairly strong production quality, all from at home. Same for Saturday Night Live at Home editions. And Hollywood Game Night’s special worked really well for a remote production.

Expand this view to Instagram/Snap Chat/Tik Tok influences on video, and you could argue there is no future for traditional Hollywood-style production.

I’d emphasize why “filmed from home” productions look so good. While I’ve used the term “Youtube style”, the distribution method has nothing to do with it. Instead, the reason why filming from home looks so good is because cameras have gotten so, so, so much better than even ten years ago. Or more precisely, they’ve gotten much much smaller. 

 

This was fueled by the push to have phones on everyone’s cameras and the push to shrink the technology down. In turn, Go-Pro made fantastic cameras that are also incredibly small. And surprisingly easy to use in production. Like an actual camera. Or to mount in different places. As a result, professional cameras have also gotten cheaper and cheaper to rent or buy.

Combined with increasingly powerful home computers, anyone can shoot, edit and produce their own TV shows or films from their own home. Even do post-production work in many cases.

So that’s that. Everyone can shoot from home and it will look great.  

Antithesis – At home productions still have some key flaws.

How can you tell a production is cheaply made nowadays? Well, the sound is no good. 

For all the advances in video recording, the advances in audio have been much slower. As a result, poorly made student films tend to have bad audio, but can still look fantastic.

Some of the at home productions have solved this, but a few have run into issues. (The musical ones have also likely featured a lot of recording at home separately from the video with high quality equipment. It is fairly easy to do audio recording—ADR—at home with the right investment in equipment.) 

Lighting is another issue. Properly lit films are hard to do well, but make a genuine difference to the final quality. And folks can tell. Make-up is another hurdle. Folks just aren’t great at putting on “TV make up” and that shows up every so often.

Finally, and obviously, the limitations on the number of people in one place has been stark. And no one has loved that experience. It’s still really hard to overcome issues of lag, which are functions as much from computing power as they are functions of raw physics, in some cases. So while everyone is making it work, it just works even better if two people are in a room talking to each other. Or even better a whole group of people.

It also helps to have a team of people behind the camera too. Even with the advances of camera technology, having someone behind the camera to dynamically move it just looks better. That’s why productions in many cases have stubbornly held on to teams and teams of people. Reality shows taught everyone two decades ago that you could make a show with a limited crew of a producer and some cameras. Same for independent productions that have made it by on shoestring budgets for years.

So why do armies of people still exist? Because in most cases they add value. The grips get better lighting and the sound folks record better audio. Add a camera man to free up the director. Then an AD to balance the demands of the lighting and camera. Then add another AD to organize it all. Plus makeup, costumes, sets, props, special effects, actors, craft services. And producers to you know “produce”. Suddenly, you have an army of people. 

So that’s that. Eventually traditional production will return.

Synthesis – The Longest Term Impact is Somewhere in Between

Likely, the future is somewhere in between. Which is the “aggressively moderate” take on it.

When studios can get people back together in the same room, they will. That’s a no-brainer. If studios decided years ago that they preferred smaller teams, they could have made it happen. Guerrilla filmmaking or independent filmmaking isn’t new. Again, reality TV has been making very cheap shows for two decades now for cable in particular.

Contrariwise, Hollywood can see change but not embrace it. Until it is forced to. (Example: streaming.) Will coronavirus cause a complete rethink for how many folks are really needed on set to make a TV show?

In the long term, maybe. Hollywood—and Bollywood, Nollywood, Hong Kong, European and anywhere that makes movies—production isn’t monolithic even now. My gut is this will further expand the divide between huge blockbuster productions—super hero, sci fi and fantasy films and TV series—and everything else. If dramas can be made with less people, they probably will be. Meanwhile, most reality production is probably about as cheap as it can go.

In most cases when production can go back to what it was before, it will. Broadcast multi-cam sitcoms will go back to multi-cam and single-cam will stay single-cam. All the folks making their own shows from home will continue to do so. And when it’s safe to go outside, the low-budget productions of the world will return too. And the blockbusters will be blockbusters. Some folks may try to innovate on the margins, but it’s uncertain if they’ll succeed.

Short Term Impacts on Production – Definitely Smaller Productions in the next 3-9 months

That’s the higher level impact, in the near term there will be some inescapable impacts on productions, whenever they get the green light. You’ve probably read about these impacts, here’s my take on who will benefit.

– Less shooting on location, which is good for production hubs. I don’t think talent will want to travel for fear of airplanes. While I mostly think worries about travel will be overcome quicker than folks expect, in this case, an over-abundance of caution will limit travel. (For instance, traveling on an airplane is actually a low likelihood of transmission.) This will be good for Los Angeles and New York in the short term, assuming demand returns. Potentially Montreal as well, but likely not as much for New Orleans, Georgia or eastern Europe.

– More shooting in soundstage and controlled environments, which is good for studios. If you’re not traveling, and worried about moving around, studio lots provide a controlled environment with centralized testing. While this is generally good for the studios, owning a studio lot isn’t a cash cow business anyways.

– Limited number of people on set, which is bad for support staff. Given the demands for testing everyone on a production, studios will likely limit the number of people to keep headcount down. This should limit costs slightly. (And studio execs/producers won’t be allowed to just hang out on set as much.)

– Fewer shows in front of live studio audience, which is bad for the vibe. Which you know if you watch any late night show. But shooting in front of live audiences will follow the reopening of live events. I’m more bullish on theaters, but could see studios being more risk averse than theaters. 

Bottom Line: So When Are TV Shows Coming Back? 

The question is how long these changes last. I’m more bullish in the upside case then most, but if you expect lockdowns to last for 18 months—which would ensure a depression as deep as the 1930s—then that’s how long they will last. However, like lots of things as people get used to opening up, as long as new outbreaks don’t flare up, they restrictions will gradually decrease. 

Again, this is just my read on the situation, given the huge amount of uncertainty. And studios/productions will keep innovating under restrictions to get as much done as possible.

Will this hurt content output? It’s tough to say for sure. 

Given how many different countries and how many different time frames for when lockdowns could be lifted, it’s tough to know when the slow down will end. (Everything being shut down is definitely delaying shows being made in America.) Meanwhile, other countries are figuring out how to restart production, which will encourage others to start back up.

Netflix is a Broadcast Channel – Implications, Insights, Strategic Impacts and Criticisms

My most popular article of the year is clearly this buzzy headline titled,

“Netflix is a Broadcast Channel”

Why? Since Netflix is the sexy topic in entertainment—a titan of digital subscriptions—my article probably got some clicks because it’s an “aggressively moderate” take on Netflix. (A lane I’ve decided to lean into as heavily as I can.) Most headlines go the opposite direction. 

If your thesis is that Netflix “will become TV”, I basically say, “Uh, not really.” Netflix won’t become TV, they’ve become a broadcast channel. Take a look for yourself.

Image 1 - EstimatesBut that last article was missing, in my mind, the most important part of any in-depth analysis. Which is all the implications from the data. Today’s article will fill that gap. I’ll start with the implications and strategic impacts of this data look. Then, I’ll discuss some potential criticisms of the approach.

Implications

Implication – Netflix is a Broadcast Channel…So They Can Launch Shows

That’s the upside take. A show like Love is Blind or Tiger King doesn’t just become a hit, it becomes buzzy sensational show that seemingly everyone is talking about. When you’re a broadcast channel, your top shows can do this. Fox can launch The Masked Singer or Lego Masters that still gets a lot of coverage. Or NBC can have This Is Us.

This is why being one of the top players provides so much of an advantage to incumbents. When you do put out something good, it is immediately amplified. This is why Netflix can drive so much of the conversation, while Amazon/Hulu seemingly can’t. (No matter how many times Bosch super fans recommend it.)

IMAGE 3 - Total Viewing Q4

Implication – On the other hand, Netflix is *only* A Broadcast Channel

If I took this list of broadcast Primetime ratings, you’d likely shake your head and say, “Hmm, decline of TV is right!”

Image 11 Anonymous 1

Image 12 - Anonymous 2Honestly, did anyone else know that Altered Carbon season 2 came out? Me neither. Talk about a season 1 to season 2 decline. (Read my take here for why this is important here.) Obviously, the difference is growth. Netflix and Amazon are growing, whereas linear TV is decaying.

But we can learn something from these ratings. They explain why even some “buzzy” Netflix shows can stay anonymous in the conversation. Take Outer Banks right now. If you polled a majority of Americans, I bet they have never even heard of it. Which is fine for Netflix. If you polled a majority of Americans, another big chunk wouldn’t know that The History Channel has a successful show in The Curse of Oak Island. 

In other words, even being a successful broadcast channel in today’s day-and-age is just enough to launch some shows. The rest fade quickly, even for streamers. And even “hits” can be unknown by most of the population.

Implication – Amazon Prime Video is a Cable Channel

That’s just what the data says to me. Besides their most recently launched show—Hunters, about Nazi hunters in New York—every other show is pretty old. In other words, based on their ratings they’re a decent cable channel. The question is if providing one decent cable channel is worth the potential billions Amazon is spending. 

(Side insight: Hulu is a cable channel too.)

(Side insight: How many Amazon series are about Nazis? The Man in the High Castle. Hunters. At this point, I’m worried Hitler will show up in The Lord of the Rings.)

Implication – The Broadcasters Aren’t That Far Behind and Netflix May Be Losing Marketshare

Which could be good news for all their streaming services. The folks at Hub Research do some pretty good surveys on a quarterly basis and one slide in particular caught my eye. 

Hard not to see how valued the broadcast channels still are. Which begs this question: Is Netflix worth more than ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC put together? Moreover, can all the new streamers based around those broadcasters compete to take more Netflix market share? I think it’s possible. If not likely.

Meanwhile, as Netflix has told us before, they are 10% of TV viewing in the United States. (From earnings report in 2018 and 2019.) Here’s my Tweet from when I first saw the Bloomberg article:

Yet, this analysis only has them at 5.9%. While the difference is likely chocked up to different measurement systems, it could be a trend. We’ll monitor.

Strategic Recommendation: Understand Segments Better

My favorite strategic frameworks of all strategic frameworks is the 4C-STP-4P marketing framework. Specifically the middle part where business leaders evaluate “Segment-Targeting-Positioning”. My read on the landscape is that a lot of the streamers are targeting the same segment: coastal elites.

Looking at these Nielsen ratings, though, there is a big untapped segment. Overly-stereotyped, I’d call it the “middle America” segment. (A real segmenting would need more data than this cursory look.) They’re still watching broadcast TV. But as the streamers spend more and more money competing for the same segments (Hulu, Netflix, Prime Video, Peacock and HBO Max all arguably are), it gets more and more expensive. Peacock made the most noise about being broad, but even their originals are light on typically broadcast shows. Same for HBO Max.

Implication: The decay is super real in linear TV

To pull off my analysis, I collected 4 years of annual Nielsen ratings. (Collected every year by Michael Schneider of Variety.) Despite adding more and more channels tracked every year, the ratings are declining as you’d expect:

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 11.40.42 AM

And that decay looks like it’s accelerating. Of course, this complicates the “Covid-19 will accelerate all changes” thesis, since the rate of decay was already growing. Meanwhile, as I mentioned last time, if you add streaming and linear, you get to 94 million, so the folks watching TV is growing with population. This makes me trust the Nielsen data more. 

Content Implications: Original versus Licensed Battles

The biggest open question—the debate point that riles up the most folks online—is whether or not Netflix’s original content strategy is working. Does this Nielsen data settle the issue? 

Hardly.

First, as Andrew Wallenstein pointed out on Twitter, when it comes to TV series, the Netflix “Originals” win hand down. 

Or do they?

As I wrote in my weekly column, some Nielsen data came out about the top ten licensed series on Netflix in the first quarter. (Here’s a “What’s On Netflix” article on it.) The gist is that licensed shows are still the most consumed TV series when you account for the entire quarter, not the most recent day’s viewing. As Kasey Moore points out, That 70s Shows has never made a Netflix top 10 list, yet it was third in total viewing. Clearly, new shows get lots of viewers initially, but series with lots of episodes drive more total viewership.

Second, when it comes to movies, the picture is out of focus. The top film in early March was Spenser Confidential. The top film in May, so far, is Extraction. So original films can claim the top spot and not let it go. (I’m writing a deeper dive on Hard R action films on Netflix for another outlet.)

That said, unlike the TV series, a bunch of licensed movies make up the rest of the Nielsen list. And have continued to do so. This makes me a little nervous for Netflix’s strategy. Especially considering that they launch something like 20 original movies every month. Their hit rate for those movies looks low, and licensed films are leaving the platform. (Also, kids films do show up on this list, which I’ll discuss later.)

Content Implications: The Decay Is Real

This is something I mentioned last time, when trying to calculate how much additional primetime viewership happened. (I made an estimate for every series not on the Nielsen top ten.) Netflix Originals drop quickly out of the top ten after premiere. Usually within two weeks or so from launch. The oldest show on this list is Locke & Key. This isn’t because folks are consuming all the content, but because they’re switching to something else. (Unless Netflix top ten lists exclude TV series that are older than one month from release, but I don’t know that for sure.)

Justification: Everyone Should Estimate Netflix

I can hear some silent critics out there. “Hey, EntStrategyGuy, you’re just guessing here, right? This is an estimate? Not facts.” The answer is yes, this is an estimate.

Of course, when you hear someone in the media commentariat opining about Netflix, they’re making estimates too. I’m thinking specifically of hyperbolic talk about Netflix on podcasts by so many reviewers or opinion makers. They’re making estimates of Netflix’s size, power and reach, just not explicitly. 

But because they don’t have an actual estimate, they use their gut. And often that gut goes wild. By some of the discussion, you’d think Netflix was 100% of TV viewing in the United States.

Meanwhile, there is a strategic rationale for making this type of estimate. Especially if you work in a strategy or content planning or marketing or any role in the business of studio, production company, streamer or network. If you don’t know how well your competitors are doing, you can’t properly plan. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more firms that don’t make well grounded estimates than firms doing proper competitive analysis.

So I fill in the gap. For free!

Evidence/Arguments Against My Thesis

Here’s is another great public service I provide that separates me from some other media analysts: I’m willing to criticize my own work! How rare is that?

Kids viewing vs Non-Kids Viewing

A huge variable this analysis doesn’t/can’t account for is kids viewership. Kids are such a small portion of the audience that they won’t crack Nielsen’s time specific viewership. This has historically been true on broadcast and cable too.

Yet, as others like Richard Rushfield have speculated before, a huge portion of Netflix viewership is kid driven. Even has high as 60%. Traditional TV, I don’t believe, has ever seen viewership percentages that are that large. Which could throw off the entire comparison I’m making.

All of which would imply that my argument that “Netflix is a broadcast channel” is too generous. I assume that Netflix’s percentage of all streaming TV viewership is the same as its percentage of all primetime viewership. If Netflix over-indexes on kids viewership, then it’s percentage of primetime viewership would go down. 

Without more data, though, we can’t know either way.

Or the Reverse: Netflix Has Higher Primetime Viewership

This is another argument I saw. Basically, some folks thought Netflix actually does better with adults so the day-part to primetime analysis doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t find any any data to support that, but the great thing about my estimates is if you want to tweak them, you can.

How Do Sports Impact This Analysis?

It does and doesn’t.

(This great comment from the excellent sports mind Steve Dittmore asking this question:

Yes, a TON of broadcast ratings are due to sports. Here’s the top 15 highest rated shows in broadcast from last year:

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 12.11.49 PM

It’s a lot of viewing. 26 of the top 50 shows in primetime were sports. And you can see the orders of magnitude higher viewership for something like the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, I don’t have the specific Nielsen data to answer this question for Steve.

On the other hand, Netflix doesn’t have sports. Which means it will never get these ratings in the first place. That’s a potential advantage fro DAZN or ESPN+ to get mindshare for Netflix. (In other words, it’s hard to become TV without sports or news.)

This Data is Out of Date From a Pre-Coronavirus World

True and sort of irrelevant as far as I can see. If you told me a vaccine was delivered by aliens tomorrow, and you wanted to know how viewership would look post-lockdowns, I’d rather have data from before the lockdowns started than during them. It’s more representative of what a viewership world will look like after the fact.

Also, why certain industries are gaining during lockdowns, it appears as if the market leaders are actually gaining less than their smaller competitors. In shopping, Target, Walmart and Shopify users are up more than Amazon. And it looks like Disney+, Hulu, linear viewing and Prime Video are up more than Netflix in terms of overall growth.