Category: Weekly News Update

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 15 February 2019: Reddit…the Underrated Social Platform?

This week the media armies continued to position and reposition their forces for the streaming wars of 2019. Apple announced some plans, but then other rumors waylaid those. Meanwhile, all the TV critics gathered for TCAs where more studios announced shows and plans, but overall nothing big happened per se. Which leaves us searching the darker corners of the internet to find…

…Reddit.

Ah, social media. A huge player, but will it hurt or help media? Let’s find out.

Most Important Story – Reddit…the “Underrated” Social Site

The “news” if you will is that Reddit got another $300 million dollar investment from Chinese giant Tencent, which values the company at $3 billion dollars. This news came on the heels of an interview of Steve Huffman with CNBC which dropped some other “datecdotes” with which to analyze the company. Including…

– They have 330 million monthly active users worldwide.

– Half of these users are between the ages of 18-26. (And that means that really many of those are below 18 and lying.)

Reddit makes $100 million in revenue (which Reddit will not confirm, since it is private).

That last data point may be the most stark, since it is so low. Clearly, Reddit doesn’t monetize its users as well as places like Twitter and Facebook. Snapchat has eight times higher revenue than Reddit, with fewer users. That signals a lot of potential value, for both investors (to get good returns) and marketers (to get better ROI on campaigns). The latter is who I’ll be thinking about today.

Reddit is low on the marketing radar, in my opinion because Reddit just isn’t very buzzy. On a personal level, I’ll admit that until I started using Reddit last year, I was skeptical of its reach and power. I’m not anymore.

But plenty of others are. In the “power rankings” of social platforms–using my observations of Twitter as the guide here–I’d say that the media generally ranks Reddit last in importance, behind companies like Snap and Twitter, and maybe even Pinterest. My working thesis for this–some of this I floated on Twitter early this week as a trial balloon—is to blame it on media biases. Twitter is the home to journalists, so it gets a natural overhype. Facebook has everyone, so it’s properly rated. Instagram and Snap target Millennials, and media has a natural bias towards anything skewing young.

But media biases can’t explain it all. So I have four additional theories on why Reddit doesn’t get the love:

Theory 1: Brands can’t use it.

Why not? Strong community guidelines that militate against brands placing “native” content to promote themselves. This is the core ethos of the platform. If an individual entrepreneur tries to go on to just promote themselves, it usually backfires and they risk being banned. And their content too. This is a huge disincentive to using the platform. If you can’t use a platform, well it doesn’t matter. (I’d add you also don’t build an army of bloggers trying to sell you on how to make money on the platform, the way it has with Youtube, Twitter and Instagram.)

It could be a truism that no brand can “control” social media sites, but Reddit seems like the least controllable and most likely to backfire on brands if they try to engage there.

Theory 2: Not a lot of journalists spend time on the site.

This is my gut thinking, when compared to Twitter or Facebook. Again, Facebook wanted every media site to have a presence on its newsfeed, so journalist jumped in with both feet. And journalists naturally gravitated towards Twitter. So if you aren’t using something, you don’t write articles about it. (Hence why political trends bubble up in Reddit and 4Chan, which then catch 90% of news sites off guard.)

Theory 3: Reddit feels like it doesn’t target Millennials.

This is one of those ideas that was in my “blink” thinking, but isn’t as true as it seems. If you had asked me, I’d have said that Reddit was the home to middle-aged men spouting their political opinions or middle-aged fan boys with similar opinions or gamers debating tactics. Like most forums. But as I wrote up above, this isn’t true and Reddit skews very young.

Hmm, my gut would have said that the middle-aged men on the Gamergate and The Donald subreddits were the driver of the site. Which leads to a better theory.

Theory 4: Reddit feels associated with the alt-right.

When I say “Millennial” part of that includes a cultural aspect that means “liberal”. And Reddit doesn’t feel liberal. Of the news stories that do mention Reddit, they usually tie it in with clearly alt-right sites like 4Chan and other alt-right movements, like GamerGate or SadPuppies. Or other negative coverage like deep fakes or pornography or stealing copyrighted material. In other words, in its pure, unpoliced state, Reddit hosts a lot of communities that brands don’t want to associate with. So it gets less support. (Though clearly Twitter and Facebook aren’t free from hosting distasteful voices either.)

Conclusion: Reddit may really be underrated.

Add it all up, and Reddit feels like an underutilized resource. This means clever folks can get a great ROI for devoting the effort to a Reddit social strategy.

One of the things I’ve observed over the last 18 months or so, while trying to build social media profiles for various projects, is that getting the platform right is crucial. The targeting of market segments via social platform is far from a well-honed science. It seems like every media company uses Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and Facebook and that’s that. Retailers seem better than media, but new DTC companies seem like the best of all. (This, for example, is an infographic I like, but I’m not sure of its data sources.) Meanwhile entertainment companies are left in the dust. (Though notably CNBC notes that Universal is pushing Jordan Peele’s Us on Reddit.)

(Definitions note. I define “social” really broadly. So traditional players like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Linked-In, etc. But also media social like podcasts and Youtube. And I’m always fascinated by “dark social”, email and text threads.)

What I love about Reddit, and why I think the ROI might be high is the “time on site” metric. Look at it on website tracking site Alexa:

Screen Shot 2019-02-15 at 2.03.45 PM.png

It may be the sixth most visited site in the US, but it’s number one in ‘time on site” at 11:30, double some of the sites around it. This may be why it is underrated. Most digital marketing is still woefully underprepared to factor in time on site as the metric to judge a website. (Some other websites note its traffic and its high engagement levels.)

I’ve been noodling with this idea for a bit now: the most valuable things for a website isn’t just pageviews or users, but users who stay on a long time. Even better is websites who get this stickiness without resorting to tons of algorithmic manipulation.

Take for example–back in the Grantland days–a Bill Simmons column. When it went up on Fridays, hundreds of thousands of people like me would flock to Page 2/Grantland to read it its entirety. Grantland followed this up by employing other terrific long form writers like Bill Barnwell and Zach Lowe who were easy to find and also readable. (Now I couldn’t tell you how to read Lowe or Barnwell. It is by chance that I find their articles.) Right now, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Stratechery are examples of people I read weekly if not daily. That should be really valuable.

In other words, the gold standard is organic traffic from a dedicated audience. Reddit has a lot of that. The problem is algorithmic ad-buying doesn’t distinguish that sort of viewing versus the spam sites trying to get people to click through dozens of images to find a celebrity’s facelift gone wrong. Or at least, they don’t distinguish well enough. Nor do media companies–who usually just use giant ad-buying firms–understand this connection to really drive eyeballs to their marketing. (To Simmons’ credit, his podcast has started doing more ad reads for films, which I think is brilliant.)

So if you’re a marketer looking for an edge, consider Reddit. Many of your opponents haven’t. Or if they have, well it hasn’t shown up in the revenue for Reddit yet. So the ROI potential is still there.

(Final theory: Reddit has a bot problem like every other social platform. I don’t know how it compares though to other sites, and my theory is whatever population is fake on Reddit is the same proportion as Facebook and Twitter.)

(Final parenthetical: By the way, as bearish as I am on most VC/M&A news, I think the $3 billion valuation sounds super low for Reddit. This could be a deal like Google buying Youtube if my “undervalued” thesis is right. Let’s just hope they don’t launch “Reddit Originals” any time soon.)

Other Contender For Most Important Story of the Week – The Latest Lego Movie Disappoints at the Box Office

Again, don’t try to read into “why” this happened. That’s hard to judge. But, like many other potential franchises, holding on to greatness is really tough. So three movies in a row have declined for the Lego movies, which make them just average as a film franchise. (If indeed all four movies count as a franchise.)

I bring this up because pre-Lego movie, I thought that Lego was crushing it. And overall they are crushing it. Lego Ninjago did wonderfully as a TV show at selling product. Lego toys still sell really well. But it looked like after the first Lego movie that they could be another franchise in Warner Bros bid to beat Disney. Well, not yet. In other words, in entertainment success is difficult to sustain.

Lots of News with No News

TCA Edition

I saw a lot of Twitter headlines from TCA, but I don’t know that any one presentation or even the whole thing had a “lot of news”, but again did help “prep the battlefield” for the streaming wars to come. Instead, some shows were announced, some release dates set, everyone was positive about all the shows, and Netflix loomed over all the conversation. Actually, the only change may be that Disney Plus has joined Netflix in looming over all the conversations.

Sam Esmail Renew Deal with Universal Cable Productions

This is just a reminder to myself that I need to write a longer article on all these HUGE executive producer/creator deals from Ryan Murphy to Shonda Rhimes to Jordan Peele to Sam Esmail to Ava Duvernay. What is the hit rate for these deals? What is the VORP of a showrunner? Which are good and which are bad?

Fingers crossed I tackle this in 2019.

Long Read of the Week – Tim Goodman in The HOllywood Reporter “The Curious Cases and Future Fates of Starz and Epix”

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 8 February 2019: A Lionsgate/Starz Check-in

Here’s why this week’s column is late. I started writing a Tweet thread, and then it went long. So I moved it to this column. Then that went so long, so I moved it to its own post. (Fingers crossed Wednesday.) So I’m starting from scratch midway through the weekend.

What was the formerly number one topic? Last week, when I wasn’t thinking about Disney, I was thinking about the debate over “niche” versus “broad” in the media ecosystem. So much so–and with news about layoffs, profitability and the general opinions on the future of media–I had anointed it this week’s “Most Important Story”. So what second place article climbed into the top spot?

Most important Story of the Week – Lionsgate (and hence Starz) moving on Chris Albrecht

Consider this my “check in” with Lionsgate. I haven’t written much about this once high-flying studio–late 2000s Lionsgate was the mini-major king of the world–and Albrecht leaving after some internal turmoil gave me an excuse to check back in.

To overly summarize, they faced a common challenge of movie studios since the 1990s: replacing two great franchises, after milking them for what they could. In Lionsgate’s case, they haven’t found anything that approaches the highs of Twilight and Hunger Games. With some great ROI on the Saw franchise. (Warner Bros. had a similar challenge on an even greater scale with Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter.) Lionsgate has also tried to take advantage of the boom in “prestige TV” and “peak TV”. Though, to date, it seems like their main hit has been Orange is the New Black, with not a lot of other huge hits.

Their prospects in 2019 look better than 2018–where they only did about $388 in domestic box office–but they still don’t have a billion dollar franchise, with John Wick 3 as their best bet in 2019..

If your studio isn’t flying high, of course, your strategy can always be “M&A”–reminder M&A isn’t a strategy–and so Lionsgate acquired Starz in 2016. I liked this deal at the time. It gave Lionsgate a toehold into the streaming wars. Now, Chris Albrecht leaving isn’t the end of the world–very few executive team departures are, which someday I’ll write about–but it does show the challenges incorporating even a smallish entity into a larger one. We’ll see this with Disney and the impending 4,000 to 5,000 layoffs expected there. (More on that later.)

Speaking of M&A, I still expect that Lionsgate’s long play is–and has been–to let someone else buy them after getting a big enough return. They’ve been floated to be swallowed by Amazon more than anyone, though when it comes to M&A, I think guessing on eventual suitors is usually wrong more than right. Even if M&A may not be a strategy, it is still really hard to pull off.

If I had a pitch, instead of Amazon, I could see a fit with Comcast-NBCUniversal. Hear me out (and read my predictions of a super-consolidated future for more insight onto my thinking). First, Universal as a movie studio is facing the combined Fox-Disney behemoth, and this would give it another mini-major (with Dreamworks animation) with some franchises to try to leverage. But really Comcast does this deal to get Starz. NBC-Universal has a great cable portfolio it will use for its ad-supported streaming service. But it doesn’t have an HBO like Warner or Showtime like CBS. Starz would give them a “prestige” platform as the expensive add-on to the base model in their streaming service. (And more leverage in the digital retransmission wars to come.)

Would this happen? Again, with M&A it’s tough to say. Brian Roberts likes buying things, but for that reason Comcast has a lot of debt. Also, the government may grant mergers to Disney, because the current president likes Iger and Murdoch, but has already said it may relook at the Comcast merger, possibly because MSNBC/NBC News has reported bad news on the president.

ICYMI – My Articles from The Last Two Weeks

I spent the last week going all out to finish my series on Lucasfilm. My dramatic conclusion dropped and the answer is, Disney crushed it. Here’s the best table that summarizes what I found:

Table 1 Totals

So take a read here (for building the final model), here (for my thoughts on the terminal value) and here (for my summary of the whole thing) including how much Disney would make without theme parks, Lucasfilm’s present value and the break even date. And spread the word to anyone who wants to know how to value an M&A deal beyond narratives and try to calculate the specific impact.

M&A Updates – Gimlet bought by Spotify for $230 million

This was the big headline of the week. (Getting StraTECHery coverage is my rule of thumb on this measurement.) It also pushed back slightly on the “media is dead” narrative, if you think media includes podcasts. (I’d say yes.) Spotify paid a huge price for Gimlet, but everyone seems to be pointing to the Anchor acquisition as the real win. This big deal comes on the heels of the announcement that Spotify is finally making both profit and positive cash flow, and the podcast acquisitions (with more to come) will deliver the next iteration of growth.

The challenges for me are twofold. (And yes, it is my job to be the one skeptic in entertainment business coverage of the tech companies. Read another positive take on Substack by Web here.)

First, it is a possible overpay for Gimlet. They paid an amount equivalent to all podcast revenue, which is a lot. I looked on Podtrac as a quick gauge for how well Gimlet is doingand Gimlet isn’t in the top ten. Meanwhile, the top ten list is filled with major media companies like NPR, ESPN and even independents like PRX and Wondery. Moreover, between PodcastOne, The Ringer and Radiotopia and huge independents like Joe Rogan and Hardcore History, there are quite a few companies in this space, so buying one producer may not be the edge it portends.

Which is why everyone rightly emphasized this is about the aggregation play on podcasts, emphasizing the acquisition of Anchor. My second worry is “overestimating the effect of originals”. Basically, I see this a lot where every decision from the streaming companies–mostly video–is justified by acquiring new customers. Prestige TV shows like House of Cards? Acquiring customers. Amazon spending at Sundance? Acquiring customers. Kids TV, stand up comedy, nature documentaries, event TV? Customer, customers, customers. The problem is when you add each customer up, well you may have invested too much and overestimated the customer you would acquire.

Frankly, it is a big ask that customers will go to Spotify exclusively for podcasts or even permanently. If there is one podcast exclusively on Spotify, maybe you only listen to it on Spotify. But maybe you skip it because, if you’re like me, you already have too many podcasts in your feed. And maybe their UX isn’t as good as your current app, which is optimized for podcasts, not all music.

For podcast producers, it still may not make sense to go to Spotify exclusively either. If it your podcast is still ad-supported–meaning Spotify isn’t paying you a license fee for it–than exclusivity to Spotify could cripple your ability to build an audience. Launching on one platform immediately limits your monetization potential by artificially shrinking your potential audience. So I have worries.

Other Contenders For Most Important Story of the Week

HBO Changing Launch Days for (some) Series

This had the longest shot to become an actual story of the week. I mean, one premium cable channel-cum-streamer moving some of its shows (a distinction some headlines didn’t convey) isn’t the biggest move on the planet. But it did get me thinking about the value of launch days in general. In some ways, Sundays being the “best” days for cable/premium launches is a “tragedy of the commons” problem in that everyone in prestige from AMC to HBO to Showtime launches on Sunday nights, so no one wins.

Yet, some of the logic behind the move was more likely about competing against yourself if you’re HBO than others. At one point, I watched four Sunday night HBO shows. (Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, Veep and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver) If they all come out on Sunday, well some were DVR’ed and saved for later. Moreover, for PR purposes, four of those shows demand a recap story on the Slates/Vox/HuffPo’s of the world. If all four air on the same night, they can’t all get on the front page. So that’s two compelling reasons to move the air dates of some shows. (Also, as the NY Times points out, they may have so much content they don’t have a choice.)

I can argue against this, though. Nothing in the broadcast era was more powerful than tune in viewing as people stuck around all Thursday night on NBC. Maybe some of that effect still works, even for a premium channel like HBO. (Though, yeah obviously it is shrinking.) Moreover, claiming a night for when people can expect premium TV makes sense and, according to some stats, Sunday is the most viewed night of TV of the week.

Sum it all up, and I can’t predict if this is a good move or a bad move. What I can say is it isn’t meaningless. Netflix constantly tweaks their product launches, so HBO should too to maximize impact. I’m always for tweaking a model or business to maximize your competitive advantage, and I could see the arguments for this, especially if it helps dominate the PR impact.

Woody Allen Sues Amazon

Since most of the #MeToo era started before I launched this website, I haven’t written a lot on it, though it definitely has impacted a lot of the business. Often that’s because individual stories don’t really impact the business, and fall into the category of “celebrity news” than business news. This iteration is different and I’d refer you to The Business podcast from last week for why.

There is a difference between refusing to work with someone for future projects and cancelling already signed deals. Cancelling deals could cause lawsuits. Or a studio could choose not to work with someone, but keep paying them. Paying people who have inappropriate conduct on set could cause bad PR coverage and internal moral problems. So lose lose. (Refusing to work with someone results in neither of those outcomes, unless you misjudge the PR angle, a la James Gunn and Disney.)  In short, with challenges like Woody Allen, there aren’t any good options. It’s probably a tough case for Amazon to decide, which means the courts will settle it, and as they say bad cases make bad case law.

Disney May Layoff Thousands

While I’m talking about The Business podcast, I heard this news again on THe Business this week, and for some reason it stuck with me. I need to think more on this, but I would love to figure out more of the business ramifications of layoffs of this size.

Lots of News with No News

Disney Earnings Report – Streaming will cost money

Since Disney has two different groups of fanboys (Star Wars and Marvel) in addition to a bunch of diehard fans following it–wait, does that include me?–usually the biggest stories involve random drops of trivia. So Disney repeated on their earnings call that they will keep making R-rated movies (which they had already said) and that the theme parks will come in later half of this year. The non-news financial news is that ESPN Plus has 2 million subscribers, which I’d call neither good nor bad. It just is, and we’ll see what it means.

They’re also going to lose money as they transition from sellers to streamers. Hmm.

If I were really cynical–and I am–I’d say that if starting your own streaming company loses lots of money–and we’re now 4 for 4 (Netflix, Disney, Hulu and Seeso, if not more) on data points in that regard, with a “TBD” in Amazon–then maybe we’re all investing our capital inefficiently? Or that there are “bubblish” elements where certain players are overpaying, which causes everyone to lose money, which makes these bad investments? If I were cynical though.

Super Bowl Ratings were Down

There is no smaller sample size than one.

If you understand that, then all the discussions about why the Super Bowl had low ratings feel a lot more hollow. I’d call them “narrative explanations” as opposed to data-based, because, again, it is a sample size of one. So maybe people were sick of watching the Patriots, or OTT actually showed higher ratings (it didn’t) or football is losing popularity, Or maybe the Chiefs and Saints make the playoffs and the highest ratings in history happen? I don’t know. (I explained the difference between narratives and data when Solo came out and with M&A hype.)

(Also, the TV ratings were US only. From now on, headline/Twitter headlines should include geography when numbers or effect are measured.)

Long Read of the Week – Reality is Closing in On Netflix

Since I haven’t mentioned Netflix yet, I’m required by entertainment journalism bylaws to do so now. Check out the work of New Constructs from after Netflix’s earnings report. I love their writing in general as they apply the type of data-based analysis that is missing often in the discourse. Strategy is numbers, right? Speaking of which, they show their math in this Excel spreadsheet.

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 1 February 2019: Goodbye Ultraviolet, Hello Movies Anywhere

Two weeks ago, we had a topic that demanded immediate attention. Last week, we could leisurely stroll through video game data. This week we can both react to news and gaze at the future of home entertainment. That, plus a rant on bad data, a VERY long read of the week and more in this week’s column.

Most Important Story of the Week – Goodbye Ultraviolet, Hello Movies Anywhere

Here’s a true story about my experience with the “Movies Anywhere” app. I had bought The Muppets Christmas Carol on iTunes because I couldn’t find it on streaming or on linear TV. Then when I went to send it to my Google Chromecast…oh, it turns out Apple doesn’t support that functionality.  (Here come the device wars!)

A friend who was over recommended the Movies Anywhere app. That does broadcast to Chromecast and soon we had the Muppets and Michael Caine in our living room, celebrating the holidays. (Yes, we were distracting a toddler while we played board games.)

But I’ll admit it: when I first looked at the Movies Anywhere application, I would have bet anything this was a fake application designed to hack into my iPad and sell all my data to Ukrainian troll farms.

Well, I learned this week, it used to be called, “Disney’s Movies Anywhere”. This is a Disney app! Run by Disney! I trust Disney. So all is good.

That’s a branding point, though. I work in entertainment, but with the deluge of new applications and services–how many FASTs are there just in this last year? How many digital titans allow you to buy movies? How many ways can you stream music?–I missed that Disney had launched a home entertainment application. And looking at the application, I didn’t really trust it. (Even though that application is tied in with four other studios and the big digital players like Apple, Google, Vudu and Amazon.)

(I shouldn’t feel too bad, though. With only 6 million accounts, that’s the equivalent of 2% of the US population. Not many of us are using it. Oh, and that’s if the 6 million accounts are US only, not global. Please journalists, always clarify global versus US numbers.)

That new Disney app, though, is responsible for the news of the week, that UltraViolet, an  industry collaboration to build digital storage for owning movies, is shutting down. I want to draw some lessons from this week. (UltraViolet was buzzy when I was in b-school, too.) Lessons about how “owning” things still fits in the entertainment ecosystem. (If you want to learn more about Ultraviolet shutting down, Janko Roettgers has it covered.)

Value Proposition 1: Customers still want to own things.

That’s blunt. But given that I read a lot of techno-futurists promising that 2018 foretold of a future where buying things is obsolete, it is worth repeating. People will always want to own things. Especially things they love. I imagine some future “all subscription world” where the subscription folks try to take a child’s favorite teddy bear. That’s as silly as a world of common ownership of the means of production.

Of all the things they buy, people love entertainment the most. People define themselves by what they watch, and they don’t just “like” what they watch, they love it. They love what they listen, too. So, inevitably there is a desire to not just watch it once, but to own it forever. That’s the pitch of the Disney vault back in the day: buy it now and you’ll own a treasure for the rest of your life.

Which isn’t to say that the balance between owning, renting and “free” (with advertising) won’t change over time. Subscriptions are on their way up. Owning on its way down. But people still want to own things. If people want something, you can make money off it.

Value Proposition 2: Forever doesn’t mean forever.

For adults of my age, The Little Mermaid started a trend of “must own” VHS for households. This VHS was the first of a run of incredible Disney animation (going through Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King). There was a thought, if you buy these, well you got them forever. You owned this classic film. That’s how I felt at the time.

Then DVDs came along. So we upgraded. The picture was clearer and didn’t get fuzzy over time.  If you had kids, you bought a new Little Mermaids DVD. Or, in my case, I bought new Star Wars DVDs. Then Blu-rays tried to replace those. Then digital tried to replace those. (The same process happened in music with vinyl to tape to CD to mp3, and iTunes/Amazon/Google each with separate platforms.)

In other words, even when we “own” things, it turns out these aren’t antiques we can store and have appreciate in value. So as much as we want to own things, forever doesn’t mean forever.

Value Proposition 3: Who do we trust in the future?

The pace of replacement technologies is, if anything, accelerating. Even if we believe Google, Amazon and Apple will survive for decades, will their services survive for as long? Google habitually shuts down under-performing applications and websites. I’ve always wondered what would happen if Apple spontaneously shut down iTunes. (And is that outrageous? If subscriptions services take off, it’s not impossible.)

This finally brings us back to UltraViolet. As it gets shut down, the 30 million customers who put their trust in it–despite their worries probably–were proven wrong. Everyone else who never trusted it are vindicated. And now as you look at Movies Anywhere–and surely other applications to come along like it, or any of the Apple/Amazon/Goolge electronic sell through merchants–you have to wonder, if I go all in on this, what will happen in five or ten years, if technology changes? Maybe we’ll all transfer our digital files to WeChat once it enters America and takes over.

So what is the future?

I love the TVRev feature to summarize, “What does this mean for you?” in their weekly column and I wish I could do that for “electronic ownership” but I can’t. Customers want to own things, but kind of know they can’t, and therefore the trust is broken. This process may be accelerating.

Honestly, I don’t know how to solve this problem. For example, maybe Disney can integrate selling into its streaming? But won’t that be confusing and possibly misleading, like Amazon’s offering? See it’s complicated. If I had any advice, I’d say, start with the customers and what they want. If you know that, you can offer a great product (and make money off it).

Data of the Week – Cord Cutting Surveys and Debunking from TVRev

Normally, I don’t put the data stories this high up, but this week’s “data” of the week was a survey so poor and awful, and so widely repeated despite this, that it belongs up here.

I’ve had a joke with my friends that the great thing about football this season is that the “Dr. Pepper guy” is no longer a thing. I also have said I love the Progressive commercial that spoofs those annoying GM commercials which keep tricking civilians. You know which ads I’m talking about?

Of course, I never watch ads. No sir. I DVR all my shows and fast forward through all ads. Even live sports.

But wait, how did I know about those Dr. Pepper commercials if I never watch ads? I don’t get it. Where is this knowledge coming from?

Well, it turns out the “me” that thinks I don’t watch ads is really uninformed about how many ads I actually watch. It turns out humans are terrible at describing our own behavior and predicting our future behavior. (And I can hear you out there saying, “Well I didn’t know what ads you were talking about. Maybe I am good about it.” Just stop.)

The worst current example may be surveys about cord cutting and streaming services. Essentially, a survey company asks consumers, “Are you a cord cutter?” and takes the answer and writes a report which treats it as gospel. This report is then widely shared by news outlets. I’ve been sitting on this great article by Alan Wolk on TV Rev that addresses exactly how it happens. (I was waiting for a slow news week to share.) In his part one, Wolk identifies some of the deficits surveys have regarding cord cutting: they ask for opinions, not actual behavior and in some cases, their sample size is biased in favor of cord cutting. Wolk also points out that switching to a vMVPD isn’t really cutting the cord, but cord-shifting, which shows how tricky definitions are.

But this week everything went to eleven. Another survey emerged with an even larger number, “60% of Americans have already cut the cord.” This is frankly ridiculously large, and not supported by the data. In his “Part Two” update, Wolk identified an SEO marketer behind the campaign, that was used to boost a consultancies page ranks. And many media outlets fell for it. Unfortunately, many news outlets reported it without ever fact checking the basic details.

I have simple advice when it comes to surveys: Ask “what is the sample size is?” Ask “Is the sample is biased?” Ask, “what is the confidence in the segmentation?” And finally ask, “What is the motivation of the people behind it?” I should write this up in an article, but for now, keep those questions in mind for any survey you read.

ICYMI – My Articles from The Last Week

The Most Popular Oscars Ever? Nope.

I made dozens of charts and tables to evaluate the Oscars and a question which seems simple, “How popular are these films?” but is surprisingly tricky to answer. Already, I’ve been planning my update post for after the TV ratings come in. (I need to update some data in my initial August post as I had some years misaligned, and it actually reinforces the thesis that popular films equal popular awards show.) I also conclude with my pitch to the Academy: add a selection committee.

Prediction Time: Forecasting the Effect of Netflix Price Increase on Subscribers

Netflix made a lot of news two weeks ago with its earnings report. I dug into some of the numbers to try to forecast the key number we’re all hinting at, Netflix subscriber growth.

Meanwhile, I’m working on my series on the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and I am hoping to have it up next week, with possibly my first entertainment articles in other outlets. Stay tuned.

Other Contenders For Most Important Story of the Week

Sundance wasn’t so bad!

It seems like the initial predictions that this wouldn’t be a big market were proven wrong. Even some of the articles speculating that new streamers (like Apple) would help boost the market weren’t correct. Instead, Amazon spent big again ($41 million on three films). So the new boss there seems to be aping at least some of the old boss’s strategy. HBO bought some projects, like always. New Line had an eight figure deal. And Hulu had a bunch of other deals. I didn’t see any Apple or Disney deals, unless Hulu counts. Meanwhile, the psuedo-independents spent small seven figures like usual.

DirecTV Now Loses Subscribers

AT&T faced another bad earnings report as DirecTV Now, one of AT&T’s dozens of different streaming options, lost subscribers in the last quarter. Like 11% of subscribers. This was obviously “suboptimal” to use my favorite euphemism. Likely many of the subscribers were on very cheap deals and only went to DirecTV now to get off the phone with a rep while they tried to cancel their satellite service. And AT&T ran promotions to lower the price. So AT&T pitched this as returning to profitability with customers.

The main lesson is about the seductive pull of price discounts. Once you start playing with the price, customers begin to expect that, and when you try to normalize, they drop out. This should be a lesson to other digital players. Oh, there is also probably a lesson with AT&T that “M&A isn’t strategy” but we’ll save that for a future article.

(Very) Long Read of the Year – The Economist World in 2019

One of my annual traditions is to read two Economist issues every year, whether or not I have a subscription. The first is the Holiday Double Issue, that features bonus articles on a range of topics not usually covered by the Economist. The second is The World in 2019. If you want a good view of the forces that will be impacting lives across the globe, this latter issue is THE issue to read. I’d argue the value in forcing yourself to read it from cover to cover, as I did over the last four weeks, will provide more value than ten times as much time on Twitter. This will build both your “deep work” reading skills and provide a much broader view of global trends. This year was light on media & entertainment, but still great.

(Also, the Steven Pinker article is probably the best guest column as it refutes a lot of commonly held assumptions.)

(Shorter) Long Read of the Week – Why Law and Order Isn’t Streaming by Joe Adalian

Joe Adalian of Vulture went to solve the mystery of why Law and Order isn’t streaming. The culprit ended up being right in front of us the entire time, but I recommend going to Vulture to read the whole thing. This is an excellent example of understanding and explaining the business economics, so take a read.

 

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 25 January 2019: Video Games Revenue is Up! (Or Down)

Early last week, I thought, “I really hope there aren’t any new streaming launches because I’d love to find a longer view article for this week.” The closest risk was Hulu raising and lowering prices, so phew, we made it. Then, when I saw multiple descriptions of revenue in the video game industry, well I had my topic…

(Sundance and NATPE thoughts? Next week. Maybe.)

Most important Story of the Week – Video Game Revenue is Up! (Or Down)

How are video games doing as an industry?

Head over to “Byer’s Market” newsletter from 23-January, and you see just fine: the U.S. video game industry generated $43.4 billion in revenue in 2018, the same amount of revenue the US film industry generated in 2017. The difference? According to Byers, “The video game industry is growing by 18% annually, whereas the film industry is growing by just 2.2%.”

Then you head over to Bloomberg, and see that one analyst in London is forecasting that global video game revenue may drop year-over-year for the first time. (They also call it a $136 billion industry.) It may shrink by 1%. (Check out the chart in Bloomberg to see how the various categories are divided, between PC, Console, Mobile etc. I won’t steal the chart because I respect people making good nee great charts.) In the Economist World in 2019, they see a smaller $89 billion global revenue industry, according to Statista.

So what do we make of this? The reality is somewhere in between. And a case of definitions. Films make $43.4 billion globally, where video games are do $43.4 billion in revenue the US. Meanwhile, film revenue doesn’t include TV or network revenue, as far as I can tell, and probably Bloomberg/Economist are counting different parts of video games (for example, including or excluding mobile).

Moreover, the huge growth in video game revenue may be due to entirely to Fortnite. Video games are even more reliant on huge hits than movies. Let’s use that idea as a jumping off point into some thoughts on video games, with the caveat that this is an industry I know less well then filmed entertainment:

Thought 1: Video game success is logarithmically distributed.

I have been trying to make a chart showing logarithmic distribution of returns in video games for months now. The problem is most industry sources are behind paywalls. So I don’t have the “proof” in that I don’t have a clean data set of all games produced in a given year, but you can see the signs of the power law at action here.

Basically, every few years, a monster hit become “a thing”. In the late 2000s, the Rock Band/Guitar Hero trend helped boost console revenue. Last year, Fortnite did the same thing. In 2016, Pokemon Go took over mobile screen time. Add MarioGoldenEye, Halo, Call of Duty and Candy Crush at various points to this trend. And yes, those are all US examples. In China, League of Legends is the tops. Meanwhile, thousands of games come and go and are never heard from again.

So yes, if I had a data set of all video game sales–by revenue or by units–broken down by category (mobile, console, etc), we’d see a logarithmic distribution of returns.

Crucially, two trends may be maximizing the gap between haves and have nots. First, mobile makes the barriers to entry for new games even lower. This means mobile game makers can enter even more games into the lottery to get a hit. That’s why the app store has so, so many games you’ve never heard of. And so, so many derivatives of successful games. The effects of “winner take all” are even more extreme in mobile. Not to mention, mobile gaming has opened up new consumer demographics that weren’t previously counted as “gamers”.

Second, in-app and in-game purchases make the revenue upside for winning games even higher. GoldenEye was one of the biggest games for a generation of video gamers (like me). Yet, once we bought the game, that was it. Now, the biggest game in the US is Fortnite, and you can buy all sorts of additional things within the game. That means that the revenue potential is multiples higher. So both the user base and revenue per user are higher, meaning the returns are multiple multiples bigger than the console games of the 1990s.

Thought 2: China is huge.

Another key sticking point in these bearish predictions seems to be China, which had slowed the pace of new, international games from entering under a new censorship regime. Like many fields, video games in China is a huge market. U.S. firms need China for growth, but China has clear strategic goals to support their domestic video game makers. Listen, I don’t have a great take for you should do about China from a strategic perspective. I don’t know enough and would be guessing. But much like feature films, a lot of future growth is in China, and that’s a tough market to crack.

Thought 3: Fortnite is a competitor…to Netflix? (Actually, all of filmed entertainment.)

This was the big quote from Netflix’s earnings report. Of course, I scoffed a bit. While companies should absolutely try to define the “competitors” broadly, they don’t get to define them exclusively. DisneyPlus (spelling) should worry Netflix, especially since they provide so much valuable content to Netflix, even if Netflix wants to win the PR war by denying this reality.

Netflix isn’t wrong, though. On a theoretical level, video games are an excellent substitute for streaming video viewing. And as Twitter follower @JacksonWharf noted, I could put Fortnite into my Google Trends data and would see…

fortnite trends

…that Fortnite is generally more popular than any individual TV show I mentioned. So yeah. They are competing.

My caution? Well, all of entertainment needs to think about this. Not that Disney, for example, isn’t. They’ve repeatedly tried to get into the video game world and repeatedly failed at finding an acquisition that integrates and succeeds. Warner Bros. has also gotten into the gaming space to varying degrees of success, though nothing like Fortnite. Of course, not even traditional video game studios had Fortnite. Or Pokemon Go. Both were independetly made. So yes, Netflix is competing with Fortnite, but should they buy a video game studio? Not necessarily.

(Also, I was trained to think of the world in the “3Cs”: company, competitors and customers. I’ve begun to shift competitors to “competitors and potential partners”. In a world of zero sum, sure, it’s all about competitors. In a world of mutually beneficial growth, everyone could either be a partner or a competitor.  That’s a gut reaction of mine opposing Trump-era zero sum thinking. Though CPP doesn’t fit in the acronym.)

Thought 4: Whither VR?

Four years ago, I saw a lot of huge projections for VR. I mean, big numbers with monster CAGRs. Look at the chart in Bloomberg and you see that the pace of integration is slower than some of those initial projections.

M&A Update: Viacom Buys Pluto for $340 million.

We had our first big deal of the year, though by the new standards of mergers this isn’t even a mega-deal. If you aren’t over a billion dollars, than it’s hard to even get noticed in today’s M&A landscape. That said, even for a small deal, I like this deal for Viacom.

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 18 January 2019: NBCU Streaming & Netflix Has Very Ordinary Economics

If you judged importance by following my Twitter feed, the most important story of the week is Netflix and Netflix and Netflix. For business leaders plotting the future of entertainment, though, remember to always look for the “signal” through the noise. A lot of Netflix news is Netflix noise. “Buzziness” may justify Netflix’s original programming goals, but it doesn’t tell us what stories really matter. (But yeah, I’ll have a Netflix take later.)

Most Important Story of the Week – Comcast NBC Universal Announces Free Streaming for Comcast/Sky Customers (and ads)

Sometimes, disagreements about the strategy of a company boil down to disagreements over who a company should be targeting with their newest products. For instance, at first, I was really skeptical about Quibi, the short-form, subscription video service. (This was a hold-over from my skepticism for Vessel.) My main criticism is I don’t think it will work on TV sets in living rooms. But that’s not Quibi’s plan: they’re focusing on mobile to reach even-younger-than-Millenials. In that sense, my critique of their distribution strategy doesn’t make sense.

That’s why I thought some of the criticism of Comcast NBC-Universal didn’t make a ton of sense either. (Beyond the criticisms that are just, “If you aren’t Netflix, you have already lost.” I can’t really debate that.) Instead, I think a lot of the criticism compared NBCU’s new plan to Netflix, when first you need to ask, who are they really going after here? Are they they same segment?

To evaluate a strategy fairly–and many times in business we don’t do it fairly–starts with understanding who they are targeting, then judging the tactics based on that plan. Or you explain why they shouldn’t target a given segment. The disingenuous way to do this is to assume a company should target a different segment, then evaluate their tactics in that vein.

With that mini-preamble, who is Comcast NBC-Universal (NBCU from here on) targeting with their latest offering?

This is where it gets tricky, as NBCU has both B2C (business-to-customers) and B2B (business-to-business) masters it is trying to serve. Starting with the customer side, the generous interpretation is that NBCU is trying to focus on customers who haven’t cut the cord yet. Essentially, get them used to streaming by offering it to them for free. (This could also be a different segment entirely, focusing on people who want a free streaming service.) In other words, making a streaming service for older-than-Millennials who already have cable.

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the “TV Everywhere” push of the mid-2010s, just more centralized. TV Everywhere failed because it had too many offerings (an app for every channel and cable company), confusing offerings (5 rolling episodes), no guiding force (every channel was on their own) and lack of in-house technology and data analysis. This deficit extended from NBC Universal to Fox to Disney. That said, the purpose of TV Everywhere made sense. Even if this is just “TV Everywhere on steroids” or “alt-Hulu”, the focus on adding value to the traditional TV bundle could work.

Of course, the second set of masters for Comcast will appreciate this too. That’s all the MVPDs that Comcast risks offending by offering this new streaming service, including it’s own cable/satellite services. The problem plaguing the traditional studios is how to respond to Netflix while not trading streaming revenue (that is actually negative cash flow) while forgoing valuable subscriber fees (that is a huge free cash flow positive). The potential answer from Comcast seems to be a giant punt on the issue, which could be brilliant. If it works–a big “if”–then they’ve essentially cracked the most difficult nut of the whole “traditional studio with network transition to digital” piece.

Further, if “subscribers” are the only metric of performance that matters then with a stroke NBC-Universal can take a lead in the streaming wars. Of course, the skeptic could and will say, “Sure they claim 50 million subscribers, how many use the service?” But neither Netflix, Amazon or Hulu has released Monthly, Weekly or Quarterly users yet. Why should Comcast be the first? In the meantime, we’ll have to triangulate with device installs, Nielsen/Comscore measurements and new subscribers to triangulate. But we won’t know for sure.

(Final note: Using the (3C–STP-4P Marketing Framework for the new conglomerates streaming platforms is a tremendously useful way to look at this problem. That will be fun, and take me weeks to make. Expect it in March or later.)

Data of the Week – The Extremely Ordinary Content Economics of Netflix

Where are my thoughts on Netflix raising prices? Well, my rule of thumb is if I write 2,000 words on something, it becomes its own article. So tomorrow I’ll release my thoughts on the Netflix’s price increase. That would have been a candidate for “Most Important” event in many weeks, but the NBC-Universal announcement bumped it. Earnings reports usually don’t make it in, unless they have ground-breaking news.

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 11 January 2019: Apple is Coming to a TV Near You

This week was CES in Las Vegas. It seems like everyone had a great time on Twitter. Sarcastic question: do we need a few MORE conference in entertainment?

The biggest “news” seems to be that TV screens are rollable now! Meanwhile, the implications for the steaming wars were less obvious. But we got two tidbits which is all we need to start leaping to conclusions.

Most Important Story – Apple Announces Partnerships with Smart TV Makers for Distribution

Before we talk about Apple, let’s talk about Microsoft. The poor man’s Apple, who sometimes has a larger market capitalization. Back in 2012, Microsoft had a genius idea: we’ll launch XBox Entertainment Studios, and make exclusive content for the XBox, which will drive device sales. It lasted about two years before Microsoft shuttered it when they realized it wouldn’t work.

Apple, it seemed to me, was headed down that exact path.

Device sales aren’t like signing up for streaming. Heck, even switching cable companies may be easier or more affordable than switching devices in this day and age. If Apple was going to use content–and lord knows they spent all of 2018 buying a lot–then I was prepared to hammer that strategy. Frankly, their content just wouldn’t reach enough people to justify the wild costs.

It’s hard to price discriminate when it comes to content. Take the theater: most people pay the same price for the same movie ticket. Like all things, this isn’t an iron law (for instance, there are senior and student discounts; same for matinees), that said at the movie theater you can’t check to see if someone is a millionaire to charge them more. The fundamental conclusion from this is if you can’t price discriminate you need to reach as many people as possible.

A device-centric strategy is the opposite of this.

If you have a fundamentally smaller audience–say only the people who use Apple devices–it means you are automatically shrinking the number of potential viewers. This means the content will have to be extraordinarily well-received by the remaining customers to justify the costs. Since it is hard to switch devices and hard to make extraordinarily good content, this is a huge structural problem. But Apple signaled this week they are willing to partner with other companies to increase the potential audience for their originals.

Apple may still not succeed. Honestly, we just don’t know enough about their ultimate strategy to judge yet and their cash reserves are enormous. (We’ll save the discussion on how “cash reserves burned in unprofitable ways are bad for shareholders” for a future article on “net present value”.) But at least this small announcement tells me they recognized the trap of trying to use original content to push devices, and won’t make the same mistake as Microsoft.

Quick Notes:

First saw this story in Byer’s Market, which I’m now reading daily.

Alan Wolk in TVRev says the companies to keep any eye on are whether Apple gets distribution on Amazon and Roku. I agree. To really maximize distribution, Apple will need to be on those platforms as well. Remains to be seen.

The Verge called this decision “inevitable” that I don’t quite agree with, but don’t hate either. It’s also a good summary of how CES goes.

Other Candidate for Most Important – Hulu is DoIng Pretty Okay (Up to 25 million Subscribers)

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 4 January 2019: Box Office Records! (in non-inflation adjusted terms)

Welcome back from the quiet period. Hollywood’s traditional two week break that starts early and ends late, turning two weeks into four weeks of time off every year. Since no one was doing anything, we had a pretty quiet period. Which means we can linger on a longer story…

Most Important Story of the Week – Box Office Is Up (in non-inflation/ticket adjusted terms)

Let’s start with the “macro” look. Basically, the headline was that the box office “busted records”, which is true, technically. On the “true side”, domestic box office grew to 11.9 billion with a B, while international box office grew to $41.7 billion. Though you probably know this, Avengers took the global box office crown, and Black Panther took the US domestic box office crown.

It would be fun to put “$11.9 billion” in context with a chart, wouldn’t it? I loved the days when US box office was $10 billion because it was a fun round now. So, here’s the “revenue” figures for some parts of entertainment: 2019 domestic box office, international box office, Netflix, Comcast-NBCU, AT&T/Time-Warner and Disney revenue:

screen shot 2019-01-04 at 4.03.57 pm

I love this chart because I have no idea what to make of it. On the one hand, clearly movies don’t drive as much revenue as TV, because look at Comcast and AT&T. Those are primarily “pipes” companies, but they with Disney make a ton of money on TV shows and network sub fees. On the other hand, $29.8 billion in global box office is a lot of money too. If theatrical really did vanish overnight, the effects would be profound. So for the foreseeable future, theatrical movies will be a small, but important part of the economics of film.

That all said, technically this whole debate is misinformed. Because, inflation. Most looks at box office treat inflation as a non-factor. While ticket price inflation is usually mentioned, it isn’t explicitly calculated. That’s why I recommend this thread by Matthew Ball on Twitter or Kevin Drum’s blog for his usual exhortations to account for inflation. (Including this recent plea.)

There is also the “MovePass” of it all. MoviePass peaked at 3 million customers, all seeing movies, but MoviePass paid full-freight on the tickets it purchased, losing money to do so. So the question is did MoviePass drive the uptick over 2017 levels, or the huge string of hits in Black Panther, Avengers, Crazy Rich Asians and Venom? We’ll probably never figure it out, but both the Vox and Hollywood Reporter summaries (both goodreads) mention this phenomenon.

In summary, those looking for theatrical “slow slide to oblivion” have to wait another year. Meanwhile, both traditional and digital players can marshall data to support their side (Theaters are dead! Theaters live!). My caution for decision-makers is to not mistake “declining sales” to “zero sales”. You can still make plenty of money off declining sales. Moreover, while I’m generally bearish on subscription models, I can see a path where “second weekend” movies or smaller films get bundled into a subscription pack by AMC, Cinemark, Regal and others. This could protect the increasingly important tent-poles, while driving more trips to the theaters. This will have less impact on revenue, but help with ticket sales. Moreover, it has to be theaters running the plan. Third parties just don’t’ have the data or incentives to get it right.

Long Read of the Week – Studio Report Cards by Jeff Sneider

So box office is up, but who won the year?

Well, Disney. Duh. But Warner Bros. and Universal didn’t have bad years. Warner Bros. had surprises in Crazy Rich Asians and A Star is Born. Universal had Jurassic World and Halloween. (As someone pointed out on Twitter, The Grinch has made a lot of money with little buzz.) 

As Richard Rushfield pointed out in a past Ankler, Sony had a not bad “13 months” factoring in JumanjVenom and Into the Spiderverse. Paramount had Mission: Impossible and A Quiet Place. So overall it’s tough year to throw dirt on the movie studios’ graves. For the full coverage, though, read Jeff’s whole piece.

(What about the streamers grades? Honestly, we don’t have the data to judge. Sorry, but “buzz” isn’t the same thing as revenue or viewers or profitability.)

Update to Old Idea – New IP Entering the Public Domain

One fun topic that almost made the “most important” category was that a series of works from 1923 finally entered the public domain. Why? Because the copyright extension last passed  21 years ago finally expired for those works. As you can see on my top bar, I love thinking about this issue as I wrote about in “Don’t Kill Mickey Mouse: A Simple Solution to Copyright EVERYONE Will Love”.

Given that copyright is now expiring on its own, this would seem to obviate the need for that opinion piece. With the success of previous campaigns against PIPA and SOPA, there is now a movement fighting back against huge copyright holders and they will fight any extensions of copyright protection for companies like Disney and Warner Bros. So, if we just wait everything will be fine.

Sure.

I still can’t see a world where Disney lets even something like Steamboat Willie into the public domain. Yes, they can use trademark protection, but that still isn’t universal. Same with the classic Snow White. I just can’t see that.

Moreover, waiting seventy years after the death of the creator is also madness. That’s so long and really hurts creativity, while rewarding people only tangentially involved in the creation (the heirs and relations of authors and musicians and such). We need a better system, and paying people to protect IP makes a lot more sense, while freeing a lot of old IP. Let’s get on this Congress!

Other Long Reads – More “Year in Review”

As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve been enjoying year end reviews because often they get a better picture of what really happened in a given year. The news of the day pieces just often lose the longer term flavor. (Though I still haven’t found as many in-depth articles on entertainment companies as I would like.) Here are the longer articles I did really appreciate:

5 Big Questions for TV by Alan Wolk

(This lays out the biggest questions I’d honestly will try to answer in 2019.)

What’s Next? Predictions for Media and Entertainment by Julia Boorstein

(Similar to above, this article sketches out the larger trends, with a nod to declining M&A in 2019.)

Apple 2018 Year in Review by Jeremy Horwitz on VentureBeat

(“Will Apple enter the content biz?” is the question plaguing the industry. Apple is a behemoth so this summary is a good read about all their different products/moments in 2018.)

X-Box is Poised to Dominate the Next Generation by Jessica Conditt on Engadget

(Having seen how much TV viewing is done in living rooms, the next console war will have ramifications for all of TV & film.)