Category: Essay

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

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

“Content is King”.

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

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

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

King – Content

The obvious first choice. Or is it?

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

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

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

King – Content Finance

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

Queen – Content

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

Bishop – Distribution

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

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

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

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

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

Knight – UX [Technology]

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

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

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

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

Rook – Marketing

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

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

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

Pawns – Research, Business Affairs, Business Development/Sales

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

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

Our Incredibly Consolidated Future, Part II: My Thoughts on Mega-Corporations

(To read my vision of a super-mega-conglomerated future—where six companies control all media, entertainment, technology and communications, click here.)

Maybe I spent too much time on Wednesday’s essay. While I haven’t been working on it non-stop, I’ve been dabbling with it since December. Planning the next 12 years of mergers and acquisitions is fun. And time consuming.

That’s a lot of time, though, for a vague prediction of the future. Isn’t it a bit frivolous to decide, without any data really, how a bunch of companies could hypothetically merge in a potential future? That seems more fiction than fact.

But I don’t buy that. Beyond the fun, “Map of the Universe” I made—which is a pretty useful tool I’ll leverage in future articles—a strange hypothetical like this can often unlock ideas I wouldn’t have thought of via traditional means. And those ideas in some ways are more important than the exercise. Essentially, consider yesterday’s albeit hypothetical article the data set for today’s insights. 

So we’ll start with those, after one quick diversion:

Behind the Scenes – This was harder than I thought.

For two reasons. First, getting the companies “right” meant a lot of moving around to find what seemed to fit (Apple and Disney; Comcast and Vivendi), what didn’t seem to fit (Google, Apple and Amazon merging, for one) and what capabilities filled what needs (Netflix and Facebook). So playing around with that took some time.

Second, it never ceases to amaze me how much more there is to learn about entertainment. This is an admission from someone who calls themselves, “the entertainment strategy guy”. But you can always overturn another rock and find a whole bunch of new stuff to read and discover. In this case, the foreign conglomerates were my biggest blindspot. I knew about Vivendi (thanks to an HBR Vivendi Universal case study), but didn’t know much about Endemol Shine, Entertainment One and Bertelsmann (in particular) beyond name recognition.

I’d also add, you forget that even with all the consolidation in this industry, there are a ton of players. In the last 15 years, there have been plenty of new entrants from A24 to STX to Relativity (that is also now gone). 

Insight #1 – Europe is why this doesn’t happen.

After I’d assigned out all the American conglomerates, the missing piece was Europe. So I looked there to find the potential European champions, and ended up adding Vivendi and Bertelsmann, who I ended up lumping into Microsoft/Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T, respectively. 

But this won’t happen.

Likely many of my proposed mergers never happen. But this is one of the bigger leaps of faith. Even if I see a world where antitrust enforcement all but evaporates in the US—and even there I don’t see that—Europe is already tacking in a different direction. Even if, as a recent Economist article pointed out, Europe is looking for “European champions”, that doesn’t mean they suddenly love media consolidation. It also really means they don’t want their media companies being swallowed by giant American media and tech companies. The EU has gone after Google, Apple, Netflix and Amazon in various ways, so I don’t see it happening. This exercise further reinforced that in my mind.

(I did debate joining Bertelsmann, Vivendi and ITV, with maybe others as the European company, who could then swoop in for Dish, AMC Networks and Discovery (Scripps), but again tried to limit it to the rule of 6. But I do really like that company. I may have to update the article now…)

Insight #2 – Companies still ended up with “weaknesses”.

Even in a world of six massive, super-mega-corporations, they each still had weaknesses. This result surprised me, even as I was the person deciding on the fake mergers. In this new world the following companies have the following weaknesses:

Disney-Apple: No cable, cellular or satellite distribution.

MCV-NBCU: No social

Google-Mart: Limited film or TV production

Facebook-Flix-Ify: No TV channels

AT&T All Media: Limited technology

Amazon would be the most well rounded, especially if they buy Twitter. Amazon is the only studio without one of the former “Big Six” studios, but between Lionsgate, CBS Films and Amazon Stuidios, this isn’t really a big weakness. Some years Lionsgate beats Paramount for box office. Still, it was interesting that as you build out mega-conglomerates, it is still really hard to own it all and dominate every field.

Insight #3 – Device carriage will become the new “retransmission fee”.

One conclusion I had that wasn’t in the initial prompt was for “device makers” to get heavily involved. Obviously, Apple buys Disney. Everyone predicts that. But then I paired Microsoft with Comcast-NBCU and Sony with Facebook. Amazon and Google already make devices. 

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Our Incredibly Consolidated Future: What if all Media, Entertainment and Tech Companies Merged into 6 Mega-Conglomerates?

It’s been two weeks into the new year, but M&A is back!

Well, not officially. As I wrote about in December, despite the first six months of movement (with all its tricky ways to calculate), the last six months were relatively quiet in M&A in media and entertainment. (The biggest deal was Pandora getting snapped up by Sirius. Big but not earth shattering.)

But January is for predictions! With the end of year surge in “predictions for 2019” articles came the old standby prediction, M&A! I’ve seen predictions that Viacom and CBS will merge, that they won’t merge, that Apple will buy something (Disney?), Walmart will buy Roku, and Verizon will buy CBS.

On Twitter, I wrote at some point that with all the M&A expected, at some point between all tech, entertainment, media and communications companies we’ll have four companies left.

Huh. Four companies. Is it possible? 

So I started deciding who would join with who. Apple buys Disney. Easy. But who would Comcast buy next? Oh, Cox to expand its footprint. Amazon buys a cell phone company, because “Prime!” Others were harder. Who wants Sony? What happens to Facebook?

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. And now that joke turned into an entire article. But fear not! We can learn something about the strategic strengths and weaknesses of our current media & entertainment conglomerates by trying to imagine their hypothetical future.

The interesting part is that it isn’t like we were short on media overlords before this point. In 2000, we had six giant media conglomerates. In 2010, we had six even larger media conglomerates, but a cable company had just offered to buy one. In 2019, we lost a media conglomerate (Fox), but Netflix arguably replaced it. And AT&T bought another media conglomerate (while buying another communications juggernaut). If Paramount goes away, but Amazon buys Lionsgate and a some TV networks, arguably we’ll be back at six.

So that’s the goal: six mega-corporations who control our media and entertainment futures. Once the vertical integration barrier was broken, it was only inevitable that the rest join up. So let’s push this to it’s logical conclusion. Who are the six companies that will remain by the end of say the next decade? 

The Ground Rules

– I’m focusing on entertainment, media, communications (meaning telecoms/infrastructure) and technology firms. The tech firms are the big addition from, say, 10 years ago. However, if fun tangential companies pop up (they will), I’ll include them. 

– I’m going to avoid stealing M&A pitches unless they are very obvious (Disney and Apple) if I can. (I loved the if “CBS and Viacom don’t merge, and Verizon buys CBS” prediction from THR, for example. Since they came up with, I’m not stealing it. Though I am stealing the idea that Viacom and CBS ultimately don’t merge.)

– Microsoft gets invited to the technology party. Why? Well they have briefly overtaken both Amazon and Apple for largest global company by market capitalization. So they’ll join our other tech giants.

– This isn’t realistic. Especially from a regulatory perspective. This is contingent on the Department of Justice, FCC and FTC just about giving up. So basically, a second Trump presidency. Maybe just a Pence presidency.

– The mergers should make sense, from size, culture and need perspectives. I mean, since this is all fake, I can’t call this realistic. But economic rules should apply. For example, Netflix has a larger market capitalization than most entertainment companies, so an entertainment company can’t acquire it. On the other hand, Netflix has tons of debt, so it would struggle to acquire a movie studio. It’s complicated.

– My main criteria for matching up firms will be linking synergies, needs and then cultures.

– I need to end up with six. Some much smaller companies can be left out, but the goal is six super-giant conglomerates. 

The Candidates

Here’s my rough lay out of the “media, entertainment and communications” universe as it stands in 2019:

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NBA-to-Entertainment Company Translator: Part III “The Rest”

(Read Part I and Part II here and here.

The only downside of my NBA-to-Entertainment translator was that I only had 30 NBA teams to unleash my snark. In entertainment, we have many more companies that just couldn’t make the cut. So I had to expand the world of the NBA just a little bit to fit in a few remaining “just too perfect to exclude” translations.

Here you go: the Rest.

The G-League – Discovery (Scripps) and A&E Networks

I’m a hard core basketball fan like many people. But if you asked me to tell you how many teams are in the G-League, I couldn’t do it. (It turns out there are 27.)

I follow entertainment pretty closely. I couldn’t tell you how many channels Discovery (with Scripps post acquisition) and A&E Networks have either. So I looked it up:

19! For just Discovery (with Scripps).

10! For A&E.

That’s more than I would have guessed for both, and you know what, that gives these two a lot in common. Sure, they have a lot of channels/teams you can’t name, but they keep doing their thing. (The difference is a lot of Americans still watch a lot of these channels, which can’t be said for the G-League.)

LeBron James – Marvel Studios

Not the whole enterprise, just the part run by Kevin Feige. Consider these fun connections:

Both LeBron and Marvel started making waves in the early 2000s. Spider-man and X-Men made a lot of news, and you could tell something was brewing, just as LeBron was being called the greatest high school prospect in the world. Marvel Studios released the mammoth hit Iron Man in 2009, the first year LeBron won the MVP. Marvel Studios released the mammoth world building Avengers in 2012, the first year LeBrown won a championship. In 2014, nobody thought LeBron would leave Miami, but he did, and no one thought Guardians of the Galaxy would be a smash hit, but it was. Either way, both LeBrown and his 14 straight All NBA appearances is the equivalent of Marvel Studios launching all successful films since 2009.

In the present times, LeBron coming to the Lakers was the event of the season, like Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War, take your pick.

Yet, the questions remain for the future. Can LeBron’s health last? Will Kevin Feige keep churning out the hits? So enjoy the ride of Marvel Studios and LeBron while it lasts.

The ABA – 21st Century Fox

Their spirits live on! The ABA brought us the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. And 21st Century Fox will live on in Avatar and Spider-Man.

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NBA-to-Entertainment Company Translator: Part II “The Western Conference”

In the heyday of Grantland, they featured a piece from the good people at Men in Blazers to develop an “NBA to English Premiere League” translator. It helped novices to soccer pick a team in the most popular sports league in the world. It worked so well, I adopted Chelsea as my premiere league squad based off this little comparison to the Lakers:

“Your winning tradition has been soiled by an arrogance which, real or imagined, has caused you to be roundly despised across the league. You have a young coach attempting to gain the respect of a veteran squad, led by a soft Spanish big man and an aging Kobe, who could be any one of Chelsea’s graying superstars — John Terry, Frank Lampard, or Didier Drogba — attempting to substitute experience for pace.”

In 2011, that made a lot of sense. So if you want to pick an NBA team based off where you work, or want to invest based off your favorite NBA team, well I have you covered.

On to the Western Conference. The one with all the stars, all the hits, all the buzz. The “Bestern” Conference. Of course, they still have some teams near the bottom, just not as many.

Western Conference

Sacramento Kings – Spectrum

Let’s just pull the band aid off this wound: the Sacramento Kings are the worst team in the NBA (and have been since the Lakers beat them fair and square in the early 2000s) and Spectrum is just the worst. Honestly, if someone loves “Spectrum” (previously Time-Warner Cable) send me a message.

I’ll wait. Just like a Spectrum customer on hold trying to cancel.

So to “rebrand” Time-Warner became Spectrum a few years back. They said it was because of a merger, but mainly it was to hide from their past. The Kings changed from the Royals because they moved cities, and wanted to hide from their past.

Also, like T-Mobile failing to merge with AT&T, Time-Warner Cable was almost purchased by Comcast, and instead was purchased by Charter Communications. Those set of moves are the NBA equivalent of drafting Boogie Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein because they were “buddies”, while trading a lot of future draft picks to Boston.

(Yes, I know Spectrum co-owns the Lakers channel. They still are awful.)

Phoenix Suns – AMC Networks

The Phoenix Suns in the 2000s were the flashiest thing in basketball. The “7 seconds or less” teams featured passing & shooting, running & gunning, and won the hearts of NBA pundits, the equivalent of critics. They set the template for pace & space all that would come in contemporary basketball.

AMC Networks won the hearts of critics repeatedly over the same time frame. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Better Call Saul and even more obscure shows (Halt and Catch Fire; everything on Sundance TV) were the cultural equivalent of Steve Nash, Joe Johnson and Andre Stoudemire. (Nash is Breaking Bad; Shawn Marion is Mad Men; Amare Stoudamire is the rest of the obscure shows, cause he’s career ended too soon and so do they.)

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NBA-to-Entertainment Company Translator: Part I “The Eastern Conference”

Basketball is back!

And the town of glitz and glamour, the home of showtime—Hollywood—is back!

The stars aligned this off-season and the Lakers lured the biggest star in basketball, possibly the world (if you’re an American and ignore soccer), to the greatest franchise in sports history, the Los Angeles Lakers!

Here’s The Hollywood Reporter basking in the glory of LeBron James:

THR LeBron Cover

If you can’t tell, I’m a Lakers fan. At one point, celebrating the arrival of LeBron, I even compared LeBron joining the Lakers to The Walt Disney Company being able to acquire not just Marvel, but Pixar and Lucasfilm too.

Hmm.

That would make the Lakers “The Walt Disney Company” of NBA franchises. That sounds like an analogy. And a gimmick to write 6,000 words mashing together my love of NBA basketball with media & entertainment. That’s right, thousands of words over the next 3 articles celebrating the return of the NBA, giving every NBA team its partner in the world of entertainment (and occasionally media, tech and communications).

Ground Rules & Explanations

Like all things I do, this is a scientific and data-heavy enterprise. Supremely scientific. Yep, I used mounds of data from customer viewing behavior to financial performance to textual analysis of social media posts, Wikipedia pages and financial reports to develop a multi-variable complex regression that fed into a neural network that provided a clustered, nearest neighbor, that I modified via a random forest tree to make the optimal NBA-to-Entertainment analogies.

(Or I just made it up.)

Okay, an actual rule: I allowed myself to use both the conglomerates (Viacom, Disney, Comcast-NBC Universal, AT&T-Warner and others) and their subsidiaries, if the subsidiaries were significantly famous. So ESPN and Lucasfilm are a part of Disney, but they get their own teams, in addition to Disney getting its own team.

Second rule, I tried to use all the “entertainment” companies including conglomerates, studios, broadcast and cable groups before moving on to tech, print media and social media.

Third rule, I organized by conference in order of “power ranking”, which was a blend of ESPN, The Ringer, Zach Lowe and my preseason list of the best teams.

Fourth rule, have fun!

Eastern Conference

We’re starting with the Eastern Conference, that in days of yore we called the “Leastern Conference” since it’s talent paled so much in comparison to the West.

(Actually, it still pales in comparison.)

So we’ll start with the worst-er conference which means the bad movie studios (Paramount, Sony) and providers (cable companies, cellular and satellite companies). Speaking of which, our first translation:

Atlanta Hawks – Sprint
Orlando Magic – T-Mobile

Sprint and T-Mobile are trying to merge together to make a competitive cellular company. If you combined the Hawks and Magic, you (might) have a competitive NBA team. On their own? Sprint and T-Mobile would remain in 3rd and 4th place in cellular and The Hawks and Magic will be lucky to make it to 30 wins.

These analogies work individually too. Like Sprint, the Hawks have a long legacy with a lot of name changes. They started out as one of the original 8 NBA teams, were originally called the “Tri-City Blackhawks”, and possess a tradition that has been good, but never really great. (The Hawks last championship was in the 1950s.) I mean the best “move” Sprint made in the last two decades was luring Paul “Can you hear me now?” from Verizon, which is the cellular equivalent of the Trae Young trade last summer.

T-Mobile is the closest thing to an “expansion team” in the cellular game, like Orlando which was an expansion team in 1989. T-Mobile is also a Germany company trying to merge with a Japanese owned cellular company, which is geographically as confused as putting a basketball team in Orlando. (While Seattle still has approximately zero NBA teams.) Recently, T-Mobile has tried to sell itself, while failing and settling for merging with Sprint. The Magic had an all-NBA guard in Victor Oladipo, but traded him for nothing (basically), and now have a team of all power forwards. That matches.

New York Knicks – MGM

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