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If the streaming wars were a medieval war, original content are the mounted knights. Especially the pricey TV series. Like knights of the medieval ages, these extremely expensive weapons will likely win the war for one side or the other. This would make the siege engines the tech stack and distribution infrastructure. The logistics supplying and feeding the armies is the hordes of lawyers and finance folks in the bowels of each studio.
But an army is much more than aristocrats in suits of armor. It needs masses of peasants clinging to sticks and spears, ready to be mowed down by mounted knights or crushed under hails of artillery. Who is that in the streaming wars?
Well, library content, of course.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve gotten quite a bit of news about the size of the various infantry nee “library content” that a few of the new streaming services are rolling out. Let’s run down the news of the last few weeks:
– First, Disney reveals the number of films and episodes for Disney+ in its earnings call.
– Third, Disney reveals not just the count of its library, but the specific films and TV series.
Altogether, we now know quite about Disney’s plans for Disney+. As a result, I’m going to dig MUCH too deep into it trying to draw out strategic implications and meaning from Disney+’s future content library. Today, my goal is to focus on the strategic dimensions of Disney’s content plan. Its strengths. Its weaknesses. What it says about Disney’s future plans (and constraints to those plans).
I have two reasons for doing this. First, since Disney+ is fairly small of a library, we can draw a bit more conclusions than we could about some other streaming services—like Netflix or Amazon—which have thousands of movies that change constantly.
Second, library content really is important. To continue the martial analogy, infantry won’t win the war on its own—smaller armies often best bigger ones—but having a bigger army sure can help. Having the best library content is a tremendous head start.
Both those points collide in Disney+’s future catalogue. Despite its smaller library, Disney+ may launch with the most valuable content library in streaming. Pound for pound, this will be the strongest film slate on a streaming platform, with a decent TV slate. But I’ll be honest: it may not be as strong as you think. I’m about as bullish as they come on Disney+, but running through the actual numbers has sobered me up.
Let’s dig in to explain why.
What We Know about Disney+
One of the secretly important parts of the last Disney earnings call was their description of their upcoming content slate. Here’s a screen grab of Variety’s coverage, that quote Disney CEO Bob Iger directly:
If you’re like me, as you pondered this for a later Twitter thread, you captured the pieces in Excel. Like this:
Unfortunately, we still had a lot of questions. Marvel films? Which ones? Star Wars films? Which ones? And which animated films? Then, before D23—Disney’s annual convention for super fans—Disney provided the answers to some news outlets, like the LA Times, which had had a huge list of confirmed films. So I dug in.
Disney+ Film – By The Numbers
The obvious takeaway is that Disney+ won’t come close to the volume of films that other film services will have. To calculate this, I’ll be honest I simply googled “film library count” and looked up Amazon, Netflix and so on. I found a few sources for Netflix and fellow streamers. After that sleuthing, here’s my projections for the biggest streaming services.
Here are the key sources I used: ReelGood (Netflix 2014, 2016), Flixable (Netflix 2010, 2018), HBO (current), Variety (Amazon and Hulu 2016) and Streaming Observer (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and HBO, 2019). The caution is that I’m not sure the Amazon numbers are accurate and that some of the sources aren’t also counting films available for TVOD/EST. But these numbers were reported in Variety and Streaming Observer, so I’m inclined to trust them.
(Also, these were US numbers only. Other countries complicates it, but from what I can tell library sizes tend to be correlated over time.)
As has been reported constantly, Netflix is losing content. Specifically, it can’t license as much content for as cheaply. This showed up in the data:
As studio launches their own streaming service, they take their films from fellow streamers. While Netflix has suffered the worst, Amazon isn’t immune. Meanwhile, HBO has stayed at the same, small level for most of the last decade. (Some estimates had HBO at 800 films, but counting the available films on their site gives me about 300.) Hulu has been shrinking like the others too.
You may ask, “Where did the CBS All-Access numbers come from?” Well, that’s Paramount’s library of films, which CBS bragged about in the merger announcement. Obviously most of those films are in licensing deals already, but if SuperCBS really wanted to, they could try to get them back. That is the potential library for CBS All-Access. (And it isn’t as bad as the last ten years suggest. The Godfather? Titanic? Mission Impossible? Those have value.)
The Value of those Disney+ Films
The challenge is to take those raw numbers and try to convert them into actual values. If you’re a streamer, you can build a large data set—and I mean big—with streaming performance, Nielsen ratings, IMDb and other metrics, and judge the value of various content catalogues. While that gets you a very accurate number, at the end of the day we don’t need those extra bells and whistles becasuee we have box office performance.
Box office captures about 90% the value of a movie for a streamer. In other words, if you wanted to know if people like a movie (and will rewatch it), box office explains probably 90% of that behavior.
So I pulled the last ten years of films, looking for how many Disney films ended up in the top 5, ten and 25. The results are, well impressive. Especially recently. (An additional, very safe assumption: that films released in the last year are more valuable than films released two years ago, and films in the last five years are more valuable than films from ten years ago, and so on.) If Disney can put all those films on its streaming service, in comes the money. So take a look at this table, with the top ten films by US box office, with Disney releases highlighted:
By my reckoning, that’s 18 of the top 5 films of the last five years, 22 of the top 10 films and 32 of the top 25. Incredible. And I realize I’m not breaking any news here.
So here is some new news. As I mentioned above, Disney released to the LA Times a list of films confirmed for Disney+, and well, it’s quite a bit few films. Here’s the last ten years of top 10 box office films, with the films actually making it on to Disney+ highlighted in blue:
The Most Important Story of the Week – Apple’s Non-Existent Library
My theory of the case is pretty simple:
It is BANANAS to launch a streaming platform–and charge $10 a month for it–without library content.
It might be unprecedented. We’ve had subscription services launch without original content. (Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video in the early days; some movie platforms too.) But we’ve never had a service launch the opposite way. All originals–and not even that many–but no library? Truly, Apple is zagging while others zig.
But as much of a fan as I am of zagging, sometimes you can zag off a cliff. To explain, let’s retell the history of why companies have used library content.
Historical Reasons for Content Libraries
Going back to the dawn of television–we’re talking broadcast here–you had to have something on your channel at all times. Especially in the hours after work. If people turned on the TV, they expected to see something. As the medium matured, the broadcast networks controlled the primetime hours, but the local stations controlled the other hours. Local news was a cheap way to add value, but even then you couldn’t do all local news. So you bought old TV programs and reran them. This was cheaper than making your own shows, but still kept people on your channel.
As the cable bundle turned out to be really valuable, everyone wanted their own cable channels. These channels started as a low-cost proposition of buying old movies and TV series. It was only after years of programming like this that the cable channels eventually turned to premium scripted fare. AMC is the classic example here. Start with classic movies–which are dirt cheap–then move up the value chain. As Jack Donaghy said about another channel, “I remember when Bravo used to air operas.”
In a weird twist, in the last two decades new broadcasters have emerged. Same low cost business plan. Leveraging must carry rules, broadcasters like Ion TV (launched 1998, rebranded 2007) and MeTV (launched 2005), are basically all old TV series and some films. Again, the goal is to just get some tune in in the cheapest way possible. (For the TV series, their syndication costs are super low after many previous runs.)
The streamers basically repeated this plan. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video started with old TV series and movies. Then they moved to newer movies and newer TV series and eventually started making their own. But in the beginning, the goal was eyeballs cheaply. Which meant library content.
In each case, the logic is the same. You have the “bangers”–to steal from the British EDM scene–to get people in the door. That’s Pay 1 movies and new TV series. But to keep people watching, you need a huge volume of cheap content people already like. In short, library content provides “bang for buck”.
So what could Apple be thinking? If they weren’t charging for these shows, I’d understand. But they may charge $10 a month for it. (More on that number later.) So I have a ton of conjectures.
Theory 1: Customers have to have a subscription to get channels.
This would be my guess if I knew it weren’t already false. Essentially, Apple+ will be a “tax” folks pay to use Apple Channels. This would resemble Amazon’s approach. You can’t use Amazon Channels if you aren’t already a Prime member. So Prime Video acts as a basis of content to the Amazon Channels line up. (Of course, Prime is 94% about free shipping, but don’t tell them that.) Looking at Apple’s website, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Moving on.
Theory 2: The Apple Bundle
Everyone seems to be assuming that Apple will offer a new bundle where the Apple+ is just added on. If you already pay for Apple Music at $10 a month and Apple News for another $10, well add on Apple+ for the whole thing for $5. Except, $5 is still too much if you don’t watch any of the new shows. Again, library content would help the bundle too. So this doesn’t explain why they don’t have any library content either. Next option.
Theory 3: They needed a library right when it got expensive.
Things escalated quickly–to quote Ron Burgundy–in the streaming wars.
I think at the start of 2018, a streamer could have assumed that content libraries would still be available for the right price in 2019. And Apple has been planning this launch since at least then. But then the Friends kerfluffle happened and Disney pulled all its content from Netflix and NBC is pulling all of its content. Yikes! All the content is gone, right when Apple needed a content library,. If you can’t buy a content library, well the other option is…
Theory 4: M&A is expensive, AND they don’t want it.
…buying a studio. If you bought Sony, they’d have to give you their content library. MGM or Lionsgate would be other options. Why make your number 2 a deal guy if you don’t plan to do more M&A? So why haven’t they?
Despite breathless proclamations about tech behemoths buying studios like Sony or Fox or Lionsgate or whoever, most of those tech executives have seen the history of studio acquisitions. You buy a studio to get content (cough Sony cough) and regret it within the year. AT&T and Disney may have both just overpaid to buy studios too. Why buy a studio with all the baggage and extra headcount when you can just build your own studio? Apple made it’s number a deal guy, but yet we haven’t seen any M&A. Maybe they planned to, but just couldn’t find the right deal at the right price.
And they likely said, “You know what, we can just do it ourselves!” Amazon and Netflix are.
I don’t quite buy the “buying a studio” is a worse deal than “building it”. And I have a bias towards building where possible. The challenge is speed. It turns out making TV shows is tough. Especially to do it well, on time and on budget. I’ve heard Apple has had trouble doing all three. And then going from zero shows to hundreds is even harder. So the “building a studio from scratch” plan seems much harder to execute in real life than on paper. (I should write more on this right?)
Really, the two numbers don’t make sense.
At the end of the day, the two numbers released this week don’t make sense. You can either launch a free TV service to bring people in, but then you can’t afford $6 billion in content spend. Or you can spend $6 billion on content, but you desperately need a library. One explanation is that both these numbers are wrong–which to credit reporting press–I’ve seen several arguments for that. Dylan Byers, for example, threw cold water on both numbers. So as long as we’re doubting all the anonymous numbers, let’s doubt teh whole thing.
Theory 5: There will be library content, they just haven’t announced it yet since it isn’t buzzy.
That’s actually a pretty reasonable theory, at which point just ignore this column.
M&A Updates – Hasbro Buys Entertainment One
Hey there! Last week CBS and Viacom; this week Hasbro buys Entertainment One! The M&A tidal wave truly is rolling into town. Though, to show again how wrong those predictions about the M&A tidal wave were, here’s ANOTHER look into how M&A in entertainment peaked, if anything, four or five years ago.
On to this deal specifically. It probably says more about the toy industry than it does the film or TV industry. Toys have been squeezed for a couple of different reasons–not all technological, though that hasn’t helped–and the safe harbor under pressure has been licensed toys, which sell better with brand recognition. As a result, all the toy companies have been trying to launch their own IP, to varying levels of success. Hasbro basically bought the best free agent available. What comes next? Probably not too much. Despite rumors every so often, I don’t think Disney wants or can afford to buy a toy company. Mattel neither.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men Going to HBO Max; Seinfeld is Next
Let’s get right into Part II of my a quest to find SuperCBS’ competitive advantage. (Reminder: SuperCBS is my nickname for ViacomCBS.)
Competitive Advantage: Become a Content Arm’s Dealer
I’ll be honest, I didn’t come up with this on my own. I first read it on Twitter by Rich Greenfield. Then I heard it from Matt Belloni and Kim Masters on The Business. The logic goes, with 140,000 episodes of television and 3,600 movies, the combined ViacomCBS has the content people already need for their libraries. Moreover, they’ve been making TV and film for decades. So as new entrants like Amazon and Apple struggle to make good shows, CBS already knows how to do that. They boast 750 shows currently in production or ordered.
Reading their press release announcing the merger makes one even more inclined to consider this position. They clearly think their advantage is content production. Most of the facts from above came from that announcement.
Quantifying the upside here is fairly difficult because you need to separate how many shows SuperCBS will sell to its linear channels, its digital outlets and then other folks. Or what happens to their movie output deals. (For instance, Paramount is already making some films for Netflix.) Instead, the main opportunity is feeding the hunger for content from people like Apple, Amazon and Netflix. They’re buying lots of shows to air globally. It’s a sellers market. You should be able to make money off that.
However, as they grow, Netflix has pioneered the trend of controlling more and more of a show’s distribution. In return, the streamers like Netflix pay something like 130% of the production budget of a show to have its rights for 5-10 years. Except that Netflix then takes a 30% distribution fee, and can cancel a show at anytime, while keeping the rights in the near term. This means you essentially are selling your content for exactly what you make it for, which is a zero margin business.
The reason that there is even a debate between “distribution versus content” (content is king!), is that everyone wants to be a distributor. The way you make money, the conventional wisdom goes, isn’t to be a content producer, but a distributor. As soon as the FCC relaxed rules on the amount of owned content aired on broadcast channels, all the broadcast channels went to majority self-produced content. As a result, many independent TV producers went out of business by the end of the 1990s
In the TV or movie value chain, the worst place to be (besides being a customer?) Is to be the producer in the middle. They’re squeezed on both ends. The creatives demand increasingly higher payments to work on the shows or films. (Creatives like JJ Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy or Benioff & Weiss are the rare commodities in this market.) Meanwhile, the distributors insist on huge margins for simply putting out your content. (The traditional film distribution “fee”, for example is 25-30%. The streamers have similar fees.)
Sure, the TV producer “owns” the content, but if they can’t sell it anywhere else, where does the extra money come from to pay for overhead, studio lots and, eventually, shareholders?
Worse, the biggest upside TV producers had is potentially disappearing. That was syndication revenue, which was a monster. Shows like Friends, The Simpsons and, now, The Big Bang Theory are worth billion dollar pay days. But it required making hundreds of shows to get those handful of hits that could be sold into syndication. (Netflix doesn’t let a lot of shows get that far anymore.) If the bundle falls apart, syndication goes too. Will streaming be as valuable as syndication? I’m skeptical long term.
Making matters even worse, companies like Netflix are moving to owning more of their shows, so they can keep these margins low. (Netflix can say, “Don’t like our deal? Well, we have Benioff & Weiss, why do we need you?”)
Future M&A Needed?
MGM and/or Lionsgate.
If you’re selling content, having valuable libraries will only help you deliver on that value proposition. To go with the arms dealer analogy specifically, MGM is like adding a lot of AK-47s while Lionsgate is a few additional heavy tanks. MGM can bring you Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz while Lionsgate has Twilight and The Hunger Games. Those aren’t bad additions to a streaming library!
Competitive Advantage: Become a Distributor
If I could choose anyone to be in the streaming wars to come, it would be the folks who are distributing the content. My working theory is these distributors will be the best positioned companies to thrive. These distributors are stepping between the “pipes” to become the new multi-channel provider. The people not just selling their own subscription streamer services, but taking 30% off every subscription they sell.
The best way to make money in entertainment? Not even distributor, but distributor of distributors, taking a percentage without doing the hard work of making TV shows. So Amazon, Apple, and Disney won’t just be people owning streaming platforms like Prime Video, Apple Plus and Hulu, but also selling HBO, CBS All-Access and Starz. And taking 30% from each “channel” they sell you. (But not Netflix. No one gets to resell them.)
My quick math is that if you can get to 30 million US subscribers, with an $80 monthly bill, and take 30% of that, well that’s a $8.5 billion dollar business. Add an international business with 50 million subscribers at $40 a month, and you’ve added $15 billion to your top line. Not bad.
The non-monetary upside is considerable too. If my theorizing is correct, the new carriage wars are going to be about distribution on the new distributors. (Article on that here.) Say Disney and CBS are having a tough negotiation over CBS All-Access on Hulu. Well, CBS is in an even stronger position if they can also threaten to drop Disney+ from their distribution platform then if they have to argue just on the merits of CBS All-Access (and Showtime). So if you’re a streamer, owning distribution makes it easier to negotiate with other distributors.
Competitive advantage is tricky. In a nutshell, it’s a business’ unique attributes that give it an edge. If you don’t like that definition, here’s the Wikipedia article. I looked in my strategy textbook to find a simple definition—again, I’m standing on the shoulder of giant’s here—but couldn’t find a simple one sentence definition. Here’s the best quote, though it has some jargon:
Businesses have two challenges with this. First, having a “unique” capability is tough. Hence, most entertainment conglomerates for the last thirty years looked and operated mostly the same. (Start with a movie and TV studio, add a broadcast channel, then some cable channels, with failed forays into internet “stuff”.) Since it is tough, most companies don’t know or can’t express what their competitive advantage is.
In fact, one of my favorite “corporate America” stories is about competitive advantage and lack thereof. Fresh out of business school, I was participating in our business unit’s annual planning process. We were setting our plan for the upcoming year. When you learn using the “case study” method in b-school, well, 8 times out of ten it’s basically “competitive advantage” boot camp. You’re always studying the innovative companies who had a competitive advantage. Unless it’s the cautionary “failed business” case study, which meant they didn’t have a competitive advantage, and the company who did have one ran them out of business. (See Walmart and K-Mart.)
During this planning process, I foolishly asked, “Well, should we explain what our competitive advantage is?” The answer, was, “Uh, no. We don’t need to do that. We don’t need to have a competitive advantage to do our annual strategy.”
Fair enough! My boss was right. She didn’t really need a strategy to make an annual plan. We were going to spend lots of money making TV shows and movies regardless. What does strategy have to do with it?
Not to mention, making annual plans is easy; doing strategy is really tough. It takes hard work and sometimes it requires admitting your strategy is either 1. bad or 2. non-existent. Moreover, even if you have a competitive advantage, it may not last, meaning you need to start all over again in a few years. Instead, most companies, leaders and groups just don’t talk about it. Maybe your corporate overlords or investors won’t notice you don’t actually have a strategy.
Keeping in mind most businesses don’t have a strategy, or they have a bad strategy, let’s ask:
What could be ViacomCBS’ competitive advantage?
This was the angle into SuperCBS that got me really excited last week. (Since ViacomCBS hurts my eyes to read, I’ve nicknamed them SuperCBS.) After digging deep into what “size” meant for my weekly column, I started musing on SuperCBS’ potential strategy. Mostly, I was dunking on their lack of a strategy. But as I reread the words, it felt a bit hollow.
It’s really easy to point at a company, find a bunch of different problems with their plans, and point out the flaws. If the company fails, I look smart, and can point at the column with a smug satisfaction. Even if they don’t fail, but merely fail to become the undisputed market leader than the column looks smart.
It’s much harder to look at that same company and imagine them as a beautiful strategic butterfly ready to emerge from the Porter’s Five Forces cocoon and fly into the world with a new competitive strategy that will help them acquire customers, grow marketshare and become an in class leader in entertainment.
If I had to bet, I’d argue that 9 out of 10 entertainment companies–from telecoms to media to entertainment to tech–don’t really have a strategy. (The GAFA’s do, but subordinate business units may not.) This is the best bet to make for SuperCBS. But let’s pretend for the day that they really do have a strategy. I’ll start by listing the potential competitive advantages I see. I ended up with five. I’ll discuss the logic behind them, the potential upside and the skeptical viewpoint. As a bonus, I’ll recommend a merger or acquisition that could be needed to complete the strategy.
(Two cautions before we start. First, this is my “gut” analysis. I haven’t actually stacked all the options up with proposed financials, so I haven’t finished my thinking yet. And to that point since “strategy is numbers”, I’m going to throw a few in for every option, but these are pretty high level numbers. If I were doing an actual strategy, I’d demand a lot more rigor.)
Competitive Advantage: TV Advertising Oligopolist
A fact in Brian Steinberg’s recent article really stuck with me: A combined CBS and Viacom could control up to 20% of TV advertising. This got me thinking that “advertising” could be a capability that lays the basis of a new competitive advantage. This would pair well with Viacom’s recent acquisition of PlutoTV, an ad-supported video service. (Call that either an AVOD or FAST.) The logic here is, if you’re already great at selling advertising, lean into that capability and build it out. Become the ad-supported behemoth of the new TV landscape.
Well, if you’ve seen all the news articles where ad executives beg, plead and beseech Netflix to sell ads, you can tell they want to deliver Millennials advertising. Can CBS step into that role instead? Maybe. (Again, it’s a myth that CBS is only old people. It’s really popular with Millennials too. Even on the coasts!) So there is customer demand, and that will translate to advertising. Here are eMarketer’s estimates for digital and traditional TV advertising revenue:
In other words, SuperCBS currently has 20% of a $70 billion pie. (I found other similar estimates to eMarketers too.) But 40% would be even better! (Again, when thinking competitive, the goal isn’t a small slice, but the biggest slice.) And 40% of a $140 billion pie is even better. Of course, you know where this is going…
Is the future of advertising digital or linear? Pretty clearly digital, and Google and Facebook have a tremendous head start, with Amazon as a third. Even if you just wanted digital video, Youtube is much farther ahead. (I’ve seen estimates ranging from Youtube owned $4 billion of digital video market in 2014 to $15 billion now, which is the highest estimate I saw. Though, I’m pretty skeptical they’re $15 billion of an alleged $17 billion pie…)
I’d add even the ad-supported sphere will be extremely crowded and competitive. Roku is a well-placed competitor here. Or Hulu and ESPN+, depending on how many ads they keep selling. Plus, Amazon is getting into the game with IMDb TV and there are a bunch of other FASTs following them.
Not to mention, you don’t start with ads, you start with customers, who you then sell ads against. The advantage of Netflix—and the reason Madison Avenue wants to work with them—is they already have 60 million subscribers in the US watching tons of TV. CBS All-Access hasn’t show it can deliver that yet. (Though PlutoTV is allegedly growing.)
Also, this is is a fairly US-centric approach, which limits the overall upside. Let’s pause on this last point. Does the strategy of entertainment conglomerates have to be global? Clearly Netflix and Amazon see global domination as a competitive advantage, but maybe by focusing on one country/region, smaller distributors can carve their own niches. I don’t know that I’d buy that, but I could see it.
Future M&A Needed?
It’s tough to stand out in the crowd of reporting this week on the Viacom-CBS merger. I was primed to pass strategic judgement on the merger, but don’t feel quite ready to do that (yet). Instead, let’s try the good ol fashioned Entertainment Strategy Guy slightly different take.
The Most Important Story of the Week – Viacom and CBS Merge for “Scale”
Specifically, some context on the biggest word of the week “size”.
(Programming note: I’m already calling the remaining pieces of 21st Century Fox “NuFox” and I refuse to call ViacomCBS that name because it is awful. I’m calling them SuperCBS for today’s article.)
This deal is about “size”, but what does being “big” mean?
This was the widely repeated headline of the week. The buzz for this deal was that Viacom and CBS had to merge to get bigger to compete. That’s actually been repeated for weeks. Here’s a sampling from Recode, NBC, and Indiewire, either using that set up in the headline or quoting an analyst. (And in fairness, I think Bob Bakish and/or Shari Redstone has said this too.)
The piece of the coverage, though, that bugged me was that if I did see “size” quantified, everyone trots out the same measurement.
How did we measure size this week? Market capitalization.
This Recode visualization (and it really is high quality work, I’m just using it as an example) shows size by market capitalization.
Axios made a similar chart here. (Again, a great visualization and they’ve been doing great work.)
These are just the two visualizations I saw. Most other articles referred to market capitalization for the need to get bigger in the current entertainment landscape. I mean just look how small CBS is!
The problem with market capitalization as a metric.
Let’s start with an analogy to explain why this doesn’t make sense. And of course, I’ll use an NBA analogy. Let’s say I told you someone was the biggest player in basketball. Am I talking about height? That’s what you’d assume, and that’s the most common measurement in the NBA. Of course, those people really in the know understand that arm length is actually more valuable than raw height. Combining the two for “reach” is another measure that is arguably better than either of the previous two.
But why talk height when I said “big”. Maybe I just meant weight. So who is the heaviest basketball player? While being heavy doesn’t matter as much, tell that to centers facing Shaq at his peak. The point? When it comes to “size” in basketball, we have multiple ways to measure it.
One more analogy? Okay. My other go to is the Army. When it comes to militaries, you can measure the total number of troops (manpower), the total military expenditures, the total number of vehicles, the weight of the combined vehicles. The amount of firepower that can be brought to bear. (One guy with a machine gun is worth many with an assault rifles, for example.) And on and on. Again, when saying “biggest” you can measure in so many different ways.
The challenge for me, when using market capitalization–share price times shares outstanding–is that it relies so much on the opinion of the market (Wall Street). Which is fine. It’s accurate as far as anything is accurate in today’s efficient market, because the market is efficiently allocated. You can ask the Nobeler’s precisely what that means. (Fine, there is no Nobel prize for economics, but you know what I mean.)
But an example gnaws at me when it becomes the stand in for size the way height is a stand-in for size in the NBA. Take Netflix a few weeks back. They had a bad earnings report and suddenly they lost 20 billion in market capitalization with a 10% share price correction. So did they become 10% smaller overnight? In basketball you don’t just shrink because the market decides you aren’t as tall. Your size is your size.
(Also, market capitalization ignores debt. Which matters since debt holders get paid first. Really have to use both, which is “enterprise value”.)
Instead, if we want to compare size, we need to go a pinch deeper.
What are other measures of financial size?
When you talk companies, you think of organization designed around making money. The ideal measures could help give insight into how much revenue a company could bring in, how efficiently it brings that in, how many users it has and how much market share it has.
So here’s a table on it. I picked the three parts of the income statement (the top, middle, bottom), free cash flow (profit is opinion; cash is a fact), and some other potential measures of size. But the key–to really get the context–is to find some yardsticks to measure them against. In that vein, I picked four rough competitors: Netflix, the digital only superstar, Disney, the content king, AT&T, the telecom company with dreams of more, and Apple, the tech behemoth.
(For those who don’t know, revenues is all the money a company makes; EBITDA is after most of your non-financial type costs are factored in; profit is the money you make after you pay taxes and stuff. Free cash flow is subtly different because it’s the actual amount you make, which can be different than profit because of depreciation and amortization. The last two columns are the “indexes”. Roughly, anything over 1 is bigger.)
Here’s another example to heap more hatred on market capitalization. Say we’re comparing two companies. One makes more money (line 1), and generates three times more profit off that money too (line 3). On top of that, one company is losing cash every year (though they are profitable) (line 4). Well, obviously, if I asked you, “So who is bigger?” you’d answer the company making more money. But that’s CBS compared to Netflix.
Or take content spending, which is also a pretty good stand in for size. Right? With Netflix, you often see the $15 billion floated out there, but Disney beats that just on non-sports programming. Throw in sports and they’re much bigger. Heck the combined SuperCBS isn’t too far from Netflix on spending, and maybe the $3 billion gap is just the difference between profitability and growth.
Oh, and of course there are subscribers. That’s a measure of size too. The tough part when measuring anything is figuring out what matters. Everyone in the media focuses on digital subscribers, which is line 7. Yep, Netflix is way out in front. But why do linear subscribers not count? I essentially pay ESPN $9 a month. I pay HBO some split of the $15 for my linear feed. Sure, the companies don’t own my relationship–the cable company does–but they still have paying users. To show the “total” between digital and linear, I just added the 89 still around linear subscribers for CBS and Disney, and HBO’s roughly 45 million subscribers. So again, yes SuperCBS on one measure isn’t big enough; on another it is.
Of course, when we’re talking size, really everyone is scared of the last column. Apple makes more in cash than Disney makes in revenue. Yikes. That’s why Apple (and Amazon/Google too) can fearlessly “disrupt” the entertainment industry by losing lots of money to gain a foothold.
Size does and doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to go overboard in counter-intuitive programming here. Obviously, size matters in providing a company leverage to negotiate with suppliers and customers. And the ability to lose billions in free cash flows–as Apple, Amazon and Google can–is a competitive disadvantage. (Though, not necessarily smart for investors.)
Of course, size by any metric only matters in how you can use it, which may be my biggest gripe with the market capitalization metric. It’s pretty easy to understand how revenue through to cash flow gives you an advantage the larger it is. (The more money you have, the more you can spend.) Market capitalization, though, isn’t really a tool you can leverage, unless it is to offer more shares to raise capital. Which is yes a tool, but not one used as often as your own revenues.
Most importantly, size–like M&A as I’ve written before–isn’t a strategy. And we should never pretend it is. Instead, strategy is a strategy. As I’ll write in the future, Shari Redstone and Bob Bakish’s challenge is to take this combined entity–that really is big enough to compete–and develop a competitive advantage in this landscape. That isn’t impossible. But it is so hard to do well.
Long Read of the Week – Good Reads on The Merger
So many excellent articles this week on the big story of the week. Apologies if I left out your take.
Sherman had the best, “What should they buy next?” article after the merger. (Besides mine, of course.) But most importantly he used Enterprise Value instead of just market capitalization. Bravo.
SuperCBS will control 20% of national TV advertising. That’s big. Steinberg digs into the challenges facing the new entity.
Porch wrote this before the merger, but I love his layout for how size will help SuperCBS in some specific areas like distribution.
While we all waited for Viacom and CBS to merge, Amazon had “one of” their most successful TV series launches. “One of” what does that even mean? Well, I took 800 words to take my best guess over at Decider, then followed up with another thousand on this site. (The answer? Yeah, for Amazon, this probably is a hit.)
Data of the Week – No More $200 million Blockbusters
Most of the time, when Hollywood kills off one of its TV shows, we know why. The ratings had been sinking or the talent asked for too much money. (Or recently, it was produced by a rival TV network/conglomerate.)
And yet, HBO killed off Game of Thrones, a TV series that was getting more popular with every season and making its parent company billions in the process. Meanwhile, other long-running series—with worse ratings—from The Simpsons to Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead march on like, well White Walkers. The corpse of Game of Thrones is now—spoiler alert—as cold as Jon Snow’s after season 5.
Why? Who had the motive? And who issued the order?
We Officially Have a Murder Mystery
Frankly, there isn’t a great explanation for why HBO cancelled this series. In the past, I’ve estimated that this series was making an estimated $300 million a season for HBO. (And potentially much more. Read the original, and my director’s commentary here, here and here.) Sure, HBO has a great (on paper) slate premiering the rest of this year and next year, but you know what helps launch a great slate? The biggest show on TV.
Have no doubts this series was growing. The number of viewers rose in every territory that I could find that releases data. Over 44 million were tuning in per episode in America alone, up from 9.3 million in season 1.
Of course, in some circles—like HBO creator circles—the story is what matters. Maybe the creators wanted to wrap it up nicely. Except most of the criticism of the last season related to the fact that the series felt rushed. Here is just a sampling of critics and fans complaining that season 8 felt rushed. More episodes and more seasons would have solved this problem, and who knows, by a hypothetical season 9 maybe 50 million people are tuning in in America each year!
Who kills off a money making show? Who are our suspects?
The buck stops there. So we should start with HBO. Their motive in killing this show would be simple: It’s the most expensive show on television. And since it is already insanely profitable, any additional profits have to be split with talent who are negotiating tougher and tougher deals with more and more back end. Each additional season is less lucrative for HBO, and if the marginal benefits meet the additional costs, well economically HBO should cancel the series.
George R.R. Martin
Listen, George, you’re a part of this. You probably didn’t finish the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, because if you had, you’d have published that book. Which you haven’t. Maybe you told HBO to stop the series. Or you never provided enough details to fully flesh out 3 to 5 more seasons of the show.
When in doubt, blame temperamental actors. Am I right? “Talent” is what you bitterly mumble in Hollywood when you can’t control the situation.
The motives for these suspects—and really I’m talking the big five actors of Jon nee Kit, Cersei nee Leda, Jaime nee Nikola, Daenerys nee Emilia and Tyrion nee Peter—is pretty simple: they’re sick of working on this series. Or more precisely, as artists, they’re ready to make other movies about Greek Gods, Han Solo and Terminators. (Too far?)
Further, even if you don’t mind working on a TV show for the rest of your life—including shoots in both scorching deserts and freezing tundras—you do know how valuable you are. You can’t have a GoT without a Daenerys and Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen. Knowing that, the actors negotiated phenomenally expensive payments per episode, over $1 million per actor. They also likely demanded higher back end percentages.
If the actors are sick of this series, imagine the two people at the lonely top of the creative pyramid, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (D&D in Reddit parlance). I can’t describe adequately how insanely time consuming this series was for these two individuals. They wrote a majority of the episodes, supervised the entire production from set design to costumes and oversaw all the editing and post-production; and oh by the way (NFL announcer voice), it was the largest TV production in history.
Meanwhile, they had plenty of opportunities to do other things, from Star Wars to a new overall deal to ideas in their notebooks we can only imagine. If you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars (my tentative figure for D&D once they collect GoT royalties), do you want to keep spending your winters in Iceland and dealing with the most demanding fans in television history? That would be enough to say, “Eight seasons and we’re done!”
Is there a thing that AT&T hasn’t managed to screw up since it acquired Time-Warner turned into Warner Media? Since taking over, they’ve lost the head of their movie studio, the head of HBO and plenty of other executives. Meanwhile, they named their new streaming service HBOMax, which was universally derided, and DirecTV is hemorrhaging subscribers. Oh, and AT&T is the most indebted company in America. Maybe they killed GoT to keep the losses from piling up.
When you discuss TV on the internet, you’re contractually obligated to mention Netflix at least once. While we give Netflix a lot of credit and blame for, they’re not involved here.
Like a detective in Law & Order, it’s time to interview the witnesses. Which in this case means various articles that describes the suspect’s state of mind. Supply your own “dum dum”.
So take a read and share on social media! Appreciate it in advance.
Of course, trying to judge if a series is performing well or poorly is NOT simple. And as I found some new data sources, I had thoughts that got cut from the final article. (As always.) So here’s the rest of the story, including a broadcast comparison, how I think about managing messy data sets and the rest of Amazon Studios datecdotes.
Introduction – A BH90210 Comparison
Initially, I was going to compare The Boys to BH90210, the Beverly Hills, 90210 revival that was off to a good start last week. Here’s the Variety quote on its success:
That’s good! Or is it bad? I mean, is 3.8 million people watching good? Honestly, with broadcast we don’t know since a show like Night Court used to get 20 million viewers in the 1980s, and The Big Bang Theory—the biggest show on broadcast in 2019—didn’t even get that for its finale. (Fine, it did with DVR viewing.) No seriously, here are the ratings for Night Court:
So which was bigger, BH90210 or The Boys? To the Google Trends. Now, here’s the first look and you can say, “Well The Boys won”…
But I told you Google Trends was finicky, didn’t I? The problem with a show like BH90210 is the title is super generic and derivative off another series. So here’s with a few other variations on that title.
Add them all up, and BH9210 was more in the consciousness than The Boys. Whether that translates to more viewers, I can’t say. But it provides some “broadcast to streaming” context.
Comment on Amazon Datecdotes
One of my favorite parts about writing and researching this article was it forced me to look up all of Amazon’s “datecdotes“. Which I’d been meaning to do since their last earnings report, where they again touted Emmy success while steadfastly avoiding numbers a la Netflix.
Now, why wouldn’t Amazon tell us good news? Well, the pro-Amazon case is they have all sorts of good news but are hoarding it for some advantage. That’s frankly BS. My rule of thumb with all large organizations—from the government to any corporation—is they share good news and hide/bury the bad.
The most basic assumption is that Amazon’s overall numbers are much, much smaller than Netflix, so they avoid specifics. Because if they did, they would look bad. That’s simple logic.
Anyways, here’s my Amazon datecdotes table, a la Netflix. Notably, I left out two other sets of numbers for space in my Decider piece. First, the Reuters leak from last year had aadditional details for Transparent and Good Girls Revolt. Second, last fall Amazon touted it’s NFL viewership numbers for Thursday Night Football:
Some quick notes. For The Man In the High Castle, for example, we still don’t really know what 8 million viewers means. Is that over the lifetime, up to the point in time Reuters got the leak? Or some shorter time period? With data, that distinction is really important.
Or take The Tick as a top five series for Amazon in 2017. That would worry me, given that as the IMDb data shows that series wasn’t even that popular. And it was in their top five? And now it and Sneaky Pete are off your platform? That would make make me think the other series are much much smaller than we imagine. (Sneaky Pete was also a Sony co-production. So the co-pro curse strikes again.)
Google Trends – The Boys Pessimistic Case