Tag: Business

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

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

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

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

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

Disneyland was profitable by the end of the first year.

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

Heck no!

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

A Reminder about Net Present Value

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

Net Present Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider:

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

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

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

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

Deficit-Financed Business Units.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Deficit-Financed Business Units Turn a Flywheel?

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

The answer? Maybe. It depends on the flywheel.

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

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

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

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

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

The Messy Financials of Disney

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

IMAGE 3 - THR Disney 2018

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

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

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

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week – 26 June 20: How The Card Game Uno Explains Spongebob Squarepants (Release Plan)

After a few weeks without a lot of news, we finally got a week with some stories to sink our teeth into. But how to choose? The late breaking story that Disney is ending it’s Disney Channel in the UK is a pretty big deal, but then what about Microsoft ceding the livestreaming battleground to Twitch? Or a whole set of TV series moving from traditional TV to streamers. Surely I could oversell the narrative that this is the end of TV?

When in doubt, ballpark the financial size of each story and compare them. Sure, Mixer is a big deal, but how much is Microsoft really spending on that per year? A couple hundred million? We know Twitch is only earning $300-500 million per year in revenue, and Mixer is multiples smaller. What about the TV shows? Well, assuming $3-5 million per episode, we’re still talking max about $100 million in costs. Even the UK Disney channels aren’t worth that much considering they have about 15 million subscribers in the UK

What does that leave us with? The potential end of theatrical filmgoing as we know it. Given that’s a $10-12 billion dollar industry in the United States alone, it’s our story of the week.

(By the way, if you aren’t a subscriber, I have a newsletter. It’s fairly simple and provides links to my latest articles and the best reads/socials/listens on the business of entertainment I come across. It’s published every two weeks and next issue is Monday. Subscribe here.)

Most Important Story of the Week – How Uno and Blockbusters Explain Why Spongebob is Skipping Theaters

The latest studio to take an animated film destined for theaters straight to video-on-demand is Paramount. And in the all too common twist, it will then transition to their streaming service, CBS All-Access. On the one hand, this is another potential tentpole abandoning 2020 for greener digital pastures. Surely, Entertainment Strategy Guy, if anything portends the death of theatrical films, it’s Spongebob too leaving theaters.

Eh. 

I’m still less pessimistic on theaters surviving. And I write this as cases are noticeably ticking upwards in the US and deaths (my preferred metric) remain plateaued. I’d explain this latest move as less of a portend of the future disruption of all theaters then as the logical extension of coronavirus keeping theaters shut. 

Let’s explain that.

(After this column was written, news that Tenet had moved back an additional two weeks broke, which only reinforces the point of this column. You’ll see.)

Two Ideas. First, blockbuster strategy.

The big trend in feature films over the last four decades has been the move towards larger and larger blockbusters, and the hollowing out of the “middle-class” of films. The mid-tier, if you will. The magnum opus on this trend is Anita Elberse’s book, but everyone has written something about it. I wrote about mid-tier films in a column back in February, and one of my first deep dives explains the economics of blockbusters.

But there’s a related concept that is key to understanding this pressure. As more blockbusters have come to theaters, the number of weekends a film has “to itself” has shrunk. Which makes it even more important for a blockbuster to win the opening weekend. In some cases, the goal is to make most of your money on this opening weekend. 

Second Idea: Uno Strategy

The second idea I’ve been tossing around is what I’ve decided to call Uno strategy. For those not familiar with the card game, you deal out cards, then toss them on the pile to match the color or number of the recently tossed out card.

The game doesn’t have a whole lot of strategy to it. Most of the time you can only play one or two cards, so it’s not like you have a whole lot of choice. If it’s a “blue 8”, and I only have a “red 8” and the rest are green or yellow, I’m playing that blue 8.

A lot of business strategy–for all our high-minded discussion of it–is usually obvious moves like this. Here’s an example for Disney+. Despite this article I wrote for them, if pushed there is really one move that would have the biggest impact on their year: finish Falcon and Winter Soldier and trust that Kevin Feige will make it great. That’s not innovative advice, but the obvious “Uno strategy” move.

So let’s apply these two ideas.

The Situation

It seems clear to me that theaters will reopen soon. In some fashion. The current rise in cases delayed the July time frame, but at some point theaters will reopen. Especially if deaths don’t rise at the same rate as past outbreaks. I see calls on Twitter to cancel all theaters until a vaccine is developed, but frankly I doubt that happens. I think the theater going experience can actually be safer than a lot of other activities, especially with a few appropriate precautions.

(It’s unlikely to happen, but the current cases are definitely skewing younger. The converse is that hospitalizations have increased, but not as quickly as the first few montsh. Meanwhile, some treatments are emerging, including better diagnosis of severe cases and some moderate therapeutics. Meanwhile, better knowledge about the threat to institutional facilities like nursing homes and retirement communities has helped protect the most vulnerable. But this isn’t a Covid-19 column.)

Moreover, these trends have us headed directly for the “median case” I had forecast back in April. My best case was films releasing by July 4th and my median case was August for releases. Still, July is gone, which has implications.

Implication One: A Limited Number of Weekends Cause the Cascade

The biggest impact of Covid-19 has been to compress the back half off the release calendar. Nearly every week will have a blockbuster vying to win that weekend. Just doing the simple math, if theaters had reopened in the beginning of July, that’s 26 weekends left in the year. Meaning 26 potential blockbuster releases. If that moves to August first, that’s four more weekends gone. 22 movies for those slots. 

We were already in one of the most condensed calendars for a second half of a movie year. 

Every weekend lost just makes it tighter.

In comes Uno strategy. The studios know where their films fit on the hierarchy of potential blockbusters. Spongebob is much smaller than Top Gun 2. Or Mulan. Or Tenet. Or A Quiet Place Part II. Hence, as the number of weekends to win shrinks, it gets pushed around the most.

Implication Two: Release or Delay?

In a way, this where the decision-making for each executive comes in. Once your film is bumped, you could move it back in the calendar, or accept that the production costs are in a lot of ways sunk. Same for a lot of the marketing costs. And since a lot of films for 2021 are already in some state of production, you can keep delaying your 2021 slate–which would cost money–or you can get what you can.

But this is where blockbuster strategy comes in. It’s not like Spongebob is “as blockbuster-y” as Mulan. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of the “straight to VOD” films are kids films. A true blockbuster is a “four quadrant film”, meaning old, young, men and women. (Yes, crude, but that’s still how studio’s look at it.) Is Spongebob four quadrants? Absolutely not. No couples are going to it for date night. Same with Trolls: World Tour.

The one strange caveat to me is the timing. Spongebob won’t hit VOD until 2021, with a premiere on CBS All-Access later that year. In this case, the studios also have the added incentive that theatrical films on streaming are going to have their biggest “bang for the buck” when streaming services are small. Hence Disney seeing huge value for putting Hamilton and Artemis Fowl on Disney+ right away. 

So does the latest move mean the end of theaters? No.

Theaters will have a downright awful year. And AMC Theaters has a lot of debt that will hurt their growth prospects in the near term. But the current moves are tweaks to the schedule, not major disruptions. The biggest sign is that even though Warner Bros keeps moving back Tenet two weeks at a time, they aren’t moving it all the way to December.

(Fun bonus: Steven Spielberg is crushing the box office, which is mostly drive-in theaters. The shame is that theaters should open cautiously with more of this library fare, but they are waiting for the blockbusters.)

Entertainment Strategy Guy Update – Microsoft Shutters Mixer

I’ve never written about Microsoft’s Mixer before this, and won’t after, but I have written about livestreaming before

Before we get to Mixer specifically, let’s start with understanding the livestreaming landscape. And correcting the most common misunderstandings I see. Take this chart from Evolution Media Capital (a good newsletter subscription by the way):

Screen Shot 2020-06-26 at 9.08.30 AM.png

Now, your eye is drawn to the shiny object of the growth during coronavirus. But remember my magician analogy from last week. Or the Kansas City Shuffle from Lucky Number Slevin. While everyone is looking at the shiny object, the con man/magician is doing the real work where you can’t see.

My eye ignores the shiny growth and looks at the numbers preceding it. From December 2018 to December 2019, Twitch saw year-over-year growth of…1.7%!

Honestly, what unicorn has 1% growth?

Sure, the lockdown has been great for live-streaming. But in the future we’re going to call this time the “ Asterisk Extraordinaire” in every chart or graph. Meaning, things will return back to normal-ish and any analysis will have to caveat these last four months. My guess is Twitch sees a big decline in the fall when schools reopen, but not as far down as they were. In other words, they brought forward say 2-3 years of real growth due to lockdown.

Meanwhile, note too that Twitch also tends to be compared only to other gaming sites. This chart is specifically comparing all of Twitch to only Youtube Gaming. When I’m watching a live stream of an EDM show on Youtube, that doesn’t make it in this data set. Which is why I remain tentatively bullish on Youtube on livestreams long term. If the biggest network wins, they have it (and the ability to save videos forever).

Which brings us to Mixer, the story another M-FAANG practicing “innovation”, which in today’s context means shamelessly copying other business models in search of another way to spend down their huge pile of cash. (Except Netflix, which doesn’t have the free cash flow.) Meanwhile, it turns out paying for high profile talent doesn’t matter if your video service is more of a network with demand-side increased returns (see my article for an explanation) than a true channel. 

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Let’s run through some smaller stories that caught my interest.

Streamers Grab a Lot of Content

It’s hard not to see a story in the stream of news that happened in rapid succession this week…

Youtube Original Cobra Kai Moves to Netflix
Y: Last Man and American Horror Story move to Hulu (permanently)
AT&T Original Kingdom Moves to Netflix too.

These moves are notable, for sure, but at least two are from dead or dying platforms (AT&T and Youtube Originals). Even Y: The Last Man is more notable for being stuck in development hell for ever than anything else. The point is that streamers will continue rescuing sub-par projects in the near term.

Disney Shutters Their Pay TV Channels in UK

As I said in the introduction, this is a big move to get rid of a cable channel, but it’s not as big as the United States. Whereas Pay-TV has pretty widespread adoption in the US, in the UK the Disney Channel was only on Sky and Virgin, which amounted to about 15 million households. Given that Sky also offers–from what I understand–Disney+ access, this move makes a bit more sense.

(Side story for Disney+ that could be a bigger deal: Apparently customers do in fact love it. My caveat with any brand survey like this is that I think they’re fairly noisy. When you read past the headlines, you see that Disney+ has a rating of 80, and Netflix has a rating of 78. And Prime Video is a 76. Does that seem within the “margin of error” for a survey like this? Absolutely. So the most accurate conclusion is Disney+ has matched Netflix.)

Charter Seeks to Charge Net Non-Neutrality Fees to Video Streamers

Charter is calling these “interconnectivity fees” but I like “Non-Net Neutrality” fees better. A lot of folks are worried about this move, but I’m a pinch more sanguine. Who occupies the White House next January will have a lot more to say about the future of net neutrality.

The Netflix Effect Again

Netflix’s global top ten lists have been a welcome oasis of data in a desert of silence. I wish I were tracking them by country daily, but I don’t have the time, and others like Flix Patrol are on it.

For those who do have time to track, some interesting tidbits are emerging, like Josef Adalian spotting the latest “Netflix Effect”. The “Netflix Effect”–which I think Kasey Moore of Whats-On-Netflix has coined, or at least pointed out a bunch–is that when a show goes global on Netflix it gets a renewed boost in popularity. Adalian pointed this out for Avatar: The Last Airbender, which has trended in Netflix’s top ten since it premiered. Moore pointed this out using IMDb data for Community.

The only small amount of cold water I can splash on this–and this is like tapping water in the bathtub, not a cannonball into the deep end amount of splashing–is that I’m still wondering if some of the ability for Space Force, Avatar or Community to stay on Netflix’s top ten list isn’t a function of the fact that their content quality is decaying somewhat with the coronavirus. I don’t have the data yet to prove this, but my thesis is that Netflix has slowed the pace of US original releases globally, but haven’t admitted it yet. To be seen.

Data(s) of the Week

HBO Max Had 1.6 million Downloads over First Two Weeks – Sensor Tower

This data is the best corrective I saw to the narrative that HBO Max *only* had 90,000 downloads on day 1. Sure, that was probably accurate, but they also had months to add customers. And they indeed still bested previous HBO Now download records.

Prime Video Leads on Most High Quality TV Shows – Reel Good

Reelgood has a simple yet effective way to measure quality for streaming services, by just tracking which services have which number of films and series with a given IMDb rating. This method is fairly simple, but sometimes simple is pretty accurate. I’ll admit, Prime Video did better than I would have guessed on high quality movies, with the caveat that they still have the most “things” in general, which means a clunky interface problem. (And in full disclosure, Reel Good PR folks reached out to me to point out this article.)

M&A Updates – It’s as Down as You Thought It Was

If you’re right for the wrong reasons, to be clear, it doesn’t count. So I’m not taking a victory lap over my series from two years ago–wow is that date right? Two years?–where I predicted that M&A wasn’t accelerating in media and entertainment, but progressing at the same rate if not slower. (Read the whole series here, for the introduction, or here, for the conclusion.)

As I just wrote, coronavirus is the big “Asterisk Extraordinaire” for the future. Every time series graph will have a giant asterisk for this time period saying, “And then covid-19 happened.” Meaning the lessons we draw will be less confident, because coronavirus is the categorical variable that will screw up our models.

Same for mergers and acquisitions. We’ll go back to normal eventually, which means mergers and acquisitions will continue as they have for the last two decades.

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

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

An Introduction
Part I – Define the Battlefield
Defining the Area of Operations, Interest and Influence in the Streaming Wars
Unrolling the Map – The Video Value Web…Explained
Aggreggedon: The Key Terrain of the Streaming Wars is Bundling

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.21.08 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

Defining Traditional Business Strategy Terms

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

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

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

Business Model 

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

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

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

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

Business Unit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecosystem

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

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

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Coverage – It Really Was Anemic

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

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

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

IMAGE X - Google Trends

Yikes. Maybe no one can catch up to Netflix.

My “Business” Review of HBO Max?

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

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

Product (Content)

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

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

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

Product (UX)

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

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

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

Placement (Distribution)

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

Pricing

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

Promotion

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

Add it all up?

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

The Lack of Datecdotes Is Deafening

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

IMAGE X - Julia Alexander Quote

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

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

Mailbag!

First up, Andy’s Very Good Tweets asks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, Amazon wants its ROI on Fire TV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most Important Story of the Week – 22 May 20: Apple Caves and Buys a Library

Some weeks, you barely have any news to cover. Then, other weeks the deluge comes. Buzzy stories. Executive movement stories. Sneaky scoops. And then Barstool drama.

To help settle the issue, I polled the audience. Everyone wants to talk about Joe Rogan at Spotify. But that’s a $100 million dollar deal. When I look for big moves, I mean big. For new followers, that often means adding up the potential dollar figures involved (and if they’re long term/speculative, discounting them for the cost of entertainment capital, about 8%). So a big streamer potentially dropping billions fits that bill.

If this week’s column has a theme, it’s that many of the biggest moves in entertainment are NOT about adding value for customers. I see that with two big tech titans in particular. That contrasts with a third, Netflix, who is doing right by customers. 

This is good for me, since I’m going to praise Netflix repeatedly. I’m a Netflix bear because the stock price makes no sense. Strategically, though, they do a TON right, with a few key mistakes. The world isn’t black and white and neither should be my Netflix coverage. On to the analysis.

Most Important Story of the Week – Apple (Almost) Caves and Buys a Library

I should bust out my Nikki Finke “Toldja” air horn. (Are there new folks to entertainment who don’t get this reference anymore? Showing my age.)

Anyways, my consistent strategic complaint with Apple has been the lack of library content. To just quote myself:

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.

Besides the rumored $10 price point, that was dropped to $5/free with purchase, the rest of that column from last August is spot on. Here’s right after they announced the price and most journalists went nuts on the hype:

The counter is that customers value a discount, so a stated price gives it a stated value. Maybe. But the content offering is so sparse—and could be such a dud at launch—that a discount of nothing is still nothing. If you really have no plans to add a library to make this a business that can stand on its own, and it truly is a loss-leading business, just make all the losses explicit and don’t charge for it.

Want another one? Here’s my take in Decider just that last month after Tim Cook told us that for sure they wouldn’t get licensed content:

Screen Shot 2020-05-22 at 8.58.49 AM

The news this week out of the Bloomberg leak machine is that Apple is in serious conversations to acquire a licensed content. And maybe a library. (How could Tim Cook lie to us like that back in February? Remember, executives lie ALL THE TIME!) 

Apple is finally on the licensed content train. What do we make of this?

M&A May Not Solve This Problem

At least not this year. Most libraries worth owning are locked up in multi-year deals. The time to buy MGM/Sony was in 2016. Then, when they launched Apple TV+, all the licensed content would be ready. Now, if they buy one of those two studios, they either have to buy out all the current licensing deals–which is what Disney+ did–which could skyrocket the costs or they have to wait a few years. Hence, the licensing deals to get whatever is there onto the service quickly.

There is Always a Lot of Content Available, but…

We’re not going to run out of content. That said, the top content is still the top content and more and more of it is locked up into multi-year deals at the soon to launch streamers of Peacock and HBO Max, or Hulu. For a good look, this article by Mike Raab uses a few categories to determine a pretty good list of the top shows of the last few decades.

Apple basically has to pick from the last column on the “Potential Libraries”. And already South Park and Seinfeld are off the list. (For a look at quick value, here’s my article talking about FBOSS top series here.)

Screen Shot 2020-05-22 at 9.11.41 AM

Source: Mike Raab on Medium

Does Apple stay prestige and get Mad Men? Broad with That 70s Show? I don’t know, but I doubt it stands up to the potential Hulu, Peacock or HBO Max licensed juggernauts. 

Does Licensed Content Matter Compared to Originals?

Yes. This comes up on Twitter. It absolutely matters. I don’t have time to prove it, but trust me.

Apple TV+ Still Doesn’t Solve Any Problems for Customers

I said this was the theme of the week, and I’ll start with Apple. It’s still tough for me to figure out what Apple is really doing that adds value for customers. Especially with Apple TV+. They’ve just launched another streamer that does mostly what every other streamer does. And they’re losing mountains of money simply to seize market share.

Some of you, will offer this I’m sure: But EntStrategyGuy, it’s free!

Remember, offering something free isn’t the same thing as creating value. Instead, it’s capturing value via predatory marketing pricing. It’s the sign of a non-functioning market. (My primer on value creation is here.)

Contrast this to Netflix. When Netflix started streaming, it really was creating value. Library TV was undervalued, so it streamed it on-demand whenever customers wanted. That is a huge value add. Then in 2012, they started losing money to grab market share. But at the start, Netflix clearly solved problems for customers.

Other Contender for Most Important Story – Joe Rogan Moves to Spotify

To understand the importance of Joe Rogan moving to Spotify, I have two analogies, each with a current story. And I’d call it the “malevolent” versus “benevolent” views.

The “Benevolent View” Talent Gets Paid: Joe Rogan to Spotify; “Call Her Daddy” Deal Terms

The analogy for this is Howard Stern in 2005. In that year, he moved to Sirius XM for a whopping $500 million deal that he subsequently renewed.

In a lot of ways, this current story is no different. Spotify is launching a new product, and is signing up top, top talent for it. Rogan is the 2010s Howard Stern. And note the difference: Stern got $100 million per year whereas Joe Rogan got $100 for 3 to 5 years. (It’s unclear the length.) Earlier this year, Spotify paid $250 million for all of Bill Simmons’ company in perpetuity.

That’s what I also see in the other big podcast story of the week, which is the “Call Her Daddy” drama. For those not familiar, the two hosts of a podcast on Barstool called “Call Her Daddy”–Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper–started negotiating a renewal. It didn’t go well. The shocking part is that the head of Barstool went public with the dispute, revealing deal terms in the process. Some of them are eye popping for podcasts, in the millions of dollars for two podcast hosts. So Barstool is doing well.

All these cases have something in common, which is they show just how much power talent has in entertainment. What Andrew Rosen has been calling the “curse of the mogul” from the book by the same name. In other words, when cash flow is mostly due to specific talent, the benefits flow to that talent who can help you capture them. (It’s worse when the financials are more apparent, like advertising driven content.)

This is the “benevolent” view. Spotify wants to make money from podcasting, so it’s hiring people to get it there. I don’t complain about studios or networks paying for top talent. That happens all the time in the TV industry. HBO wouldn’t pay John Oliver his millions if he show also went up simultaneously on every other channel. Some exclusivity is needed to justify owning channels and producing content in the first place.

But…

The “Malevolent” View

Let’s stick with the radio example, and compare it to the current situation. In the case of top talent for FM/AM radio, all the providers are competing with each other in the same distribution format. So if one radio channel pays it’s top talent more to woo them to its station, they’re simply taking market share from someone else, who can pay likewise.

That’s the Barstool/Call Her Daddy kerfluffle too. In this case, the talent just wants to get paid more. The option, though, is to go to another podcasting service. But they’d still be distributed in all the same places, just taking more of the revenue.

Not so for the Stern example. Sirius XM’s goal wasn’t just to get ear balls on its service, it was to take over radio. (Indeed, it merged with XM in part because they couldn’t replace all terrestrial radio.) They didn’t succeed, but if they had, the goal would have been to use that newfound power to crush suppliers.

Spotify isn’t just trying to get podcasters to help it make money. It wants exclusive podcasts. Why? So that it can take over the podcasting market. And then when it does, it can use that power to crush suppliers. How do you beat the “curse of the mogul”? Be a monopoly. Then talent has no other choice.

Some of you don’t believe me, so I encourage you to read Matt Stoller’s latest newsletter on this. (He’d written about Spotify before.) The example he uses brilliantly is what Google and Facebook did to local news. Before, if you wanted to advertise on The New York Times, you had to pay the Times. Now, you can advertise to NY Times readers when they leave the site. For cheaper.

That’s essentially the Spotify playbook here. (Once I read Stoller’s take, I couldn’t get it out of my head.) Now if you want to advertise to Bill Simmons or Joe Rogan’s audience, you had to do that on their podcast. In the future, Spotify can serve those ads to anyone else when they are listening to something else. Is that good for podcasts individually? Obviously not. You lose your “exclusivity” value when Spotify can sell your customers elsewhere. Ask local newspapers and their massive extinction event how much dynamic advertising via Google/Facebook has helped their businesses.

By the way the New York Times example is very telling. This week they stopped allowing third party data because they know how bad it is for them overall. Owning the data is the key to monetization. Spotify knows that and that’s their goal. Except…

The Reality: Spotify’s Quest to Take Over Podcasting Is Not Guaranteed

If your goal is to become the monopolist of podcasting, getting Simmons and Rogan is a great start. 

That said, the theme of the week is customers. What is Spotify doing that helps customers? I keep hearing about “dynamic ad targeting”, but I skip ads all the time. If I can’t skip ads on Spotify, and I can on iTunes, I’ll use iTunes. Especially if only a handful of podcasts are exclusive to Spotify. Meanwhile, will Spotify police ad reads for podcasts that premiere on its platform? How could it even do that?

So the problem is that Spotify isn’t solving for any customer pain points. Maybe their UX is better than iTunes, but it’s worse than many other podcast applications. 

Worse, they’ll likely cause pain for their suppliers. Meanwhile, there are enough big media companies that will never go exclusive to Spotify. It just won’t be worth it at one third or less of the audience. So if ESPN, NPR, WNYC, Wondery, etc are all on every other platform, the edge just isn’t there for Spotify. That’s my gut thinking.

(Last point, Luminary is also continuing to prove that subscriptions won’t work for podcasts. It also proves that having a parent in private equity/finance is great at funding news business ventures.)

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

We have more stories. Let’s go quick to wrap things up.

Kevin Mayer Moves to Tik Tok; Rebecca Campbell Takes over Disney Streaming

Say it with me, “We can’t judge executive hires in the moment.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t try. We do all the time. But we’re pretty rough at forecasting executive hit rates.

Still, I want to give a moment of credit to Kevin Mayer and what he can do. His skill set is dealmaking. And that’s what Disney+ needed to launch. Yes, the Mandalorian was a huge hit, and credit to the creative team for that. But Disney+ needed to launch on every potential device. And it did. And Disney needed to claw back rights for all of Star Wars and Marvel and Disney and Pixar movies, which it did! Mayer was the driving force behind these deals. 

Will that skill set help at Tik Tok? Maybe. We’ll see what they acquire. It’s an interesting hire for sure.

As for his replacement? I won’t pretend like the coverage in the trades gives me a clue. Campbell has lots of TV and international experience, but not a lot of development experience. I can’t guess either way.

Netflix Is Helping to Cancel Inactive Accounts

Which really is the right thing to do by customers. It can definitely engender good will. And I’ve long praised Netflix for making it very, very easy to cancel.

That said, some credit goes to Wall Street. Every so often, Wall Street decides they like free cash flow negative business propositions with huge growth. Like Netflix. If Comcast could lose $3 billion a year in pursuit of growth, can you imagine what it could build? Same for Disney. 

If Wall Street collectively changes its mind that losing money is a bad thing–say when subscriber growth stalls–we may see different behavior at Netflix if it isn’t reward.

M&A – STX mergers with Eros

Since STX launched, their goal has always been global. (This New Yorker read is a case study in a confused business model, which even then talks about getting China money.) In total dollars, this is small, but it reflects who in a global buying market even US studios need global power.

Fake Data of The Week – Datecdotes Spread!

Thanks to Andrew Wallenstein for flagging our latest datecdotes. On Hulu, Solar Opposites is huge! On Apple TV+, Defending Jacob is huge! How big?

Screen Shot 2020-05-22 at 9.37.19 AM

Some quick takes on that:

– Damn, Outer Banks is crushing this quarantine in America.
– Sorry, Mythic Quest fans. That show is not. Still.
– Rick and Morty is doing worse than I thought.
– Sure, Solar Opposites is probably doing well. For Hulu. And when I’ve looked at THe Handmaid’s Tale before, it does worse than you’d guess.
– Defending Jacob is probably Apple’s best launch since their premiere, but they have a long road to haul still.

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

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

“Netflix is a Broadcast Channel”

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

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

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

Implications

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

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

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

IMAGE 3 - Total Viewing Q4

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

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

Image 11 Anonymous 1

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

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

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

Implication – Amazon Prime Video is a Cable Channel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategic Recommendation: Understand Segments Better

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

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

Implication: The decay is super real in linear TV

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

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 11.40.42 AM

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

Content Implications: Original versus Licensed Battles

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

Hardly.

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

Or do they?

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

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

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

Content Implications: The Decay Is Real

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

Justification: Everyone Should Estimate Netflix

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

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

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

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

So I fill in the gap. For free!

Evidence/Arguments Against My Thesis

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

Kids viewing vs Non-Kids Viewing

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

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

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

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

Or the Reverse: Netflix Has Higher Primetime Viewership

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

How Do Sports Impact This Analysis?

It does and doesn’t.

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

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

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 12.11.49 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Read My Latest at Decider – Why Is Comcast Declaring War on Movie Theaters?

I finally cracked why Comcast is doing all the things it does. I explain it over at Decider, but quickly:

  • They can’t buy any more cable companies, so they money needs to go somewhere.
  • If you become a tech company, you can get a higher valuation. 
  • Also, Brian Roberts loves buying things.

So how does this relate to fighting theaters? Because tech titans hate the whole idea of “windowing” and sharing profits with others. Comcast is just the latest to get in the game.

So head to Decider and check it out.

The 2019 Star Wars Business Report – Toys

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

Introduction and Feature Films
Television

I started this series in January. Do you remember back then? Before the world turned upside down? Reflecting on how much money Star Wars made in 2019 feels almost like a waste of mental energy. Who cares how much Disney did or didn’t make in 2019 when the whole company may go bankrupt by the summer time? 

Perhaps, if we understand the underlying drivers of Disney’s business model, we can better understand how quickly they may go bankrupt or return to normal. And what they can do in the meantime to prevent it. Previously, I’d estimated the performance of the feature film and television business units in dollar terms. Today we move onto “licensed merchandise”, which is my term for toys, apparel, games, and anything sold in stores. 

I’ll discuss the narrative around licensed merchandise, review my top and bottom line estimates, and briefly touch on the impact of coronavirus on toy sales.

(Nomenclature: I’ll use consumer products, licensed merchandise and even “toys” interchangeably in today’s article. Yes, when I say toys I mean everything from shirts to furniture to video games to actual toys. Also, when I use “licensing” I don’t mean content licensing, but licensing for consumer products.)

Licensed Merchandise: The Missed Opportunity of 2019?

If Star Wars fans had a complaint in 2019, it’s that this little guy…

IMAGE 1 - Baby Yoda

…wasn’t available to purchase. I saw quite a few tweets speculating that this spectacular failure was worth potentially BILLIONS to Disney. (Don’t worry, toys are on their way…so long as Covid-19 shutdowns don’t delay them.)

Well, it wasn’t. Which you’d have known if you read my first article on “licensed merchandise” for Star Wars back in 2018. Star Wars on the whole generates between $2-3 billion total retail sales for Disney every year. (With a one time boost in 2015 due to The Force Awakens.) It’s unlikely that one—admittedly excessively “toyetic”—character would have doubled that. 

Even if he had done really well as a toy property, the whole “Baby Yoda” saga reveals some important learnings about toys in general and in the Star Wars universe specifically.

– First, toys in particular aren’t a quick game. It takes Disney (or any toy licensee) months to design, approve, and then manufacture toys. And then put them on a boat and sail them from China (mainly) to the United States. This is why even as Baby Yoda blew up, Disney couldn’t spin out new toys quickly.

– Second, toys (and lots of merchandise) aren’t as lucrative as the headlines usually suggest. Take those retail sales I just mentioned. Those become the “revenue” line for retailers. The toy companies only get the “wholesale” line, which is about half the retail take. Disney, on the other hand, only books 5-10% of the wholesale total. Which is still a lot! But an order of magnitude less than the total retail numbers suggest.

– Third, Star Wars merchandise had already burned retailers in the 2010s. Even if Disney had made Baby Yoda merchandise despite Jon Favreau’s desires, retailers would still have been skeptical. The huge boost in toy sales in 2015 when The Force Awakens came to theaters, burned retailers when Rogue One had anemic sales. I heard from quite a few retailers they were stuck with excess merchandise after Rogue One—when the $5 billion in sales didn’t repeat—so a lot of merchandise sat on store shelves. As a result, retailers dialed back orders for Solo and The Last Jedi.

– Fourth, is Star Wars merchandise for kids or adults? On one hand, kids. Obviously. Look at all the toys and young children wearing Star Wars shirts. On the other hand, look at all the adults wearing the shirts too. Adults are tricky for licensees, as I’ve mentioned before, because they aren’t as lucrative as children. And more finnicky/less reliable. Lots of folks speculated that the reason The Force Awakens generated such a one time boost in merchandise sales was because a lot of adults snapped up merchandise, but didn’t continue into Rogue One.

All of which leads into another “best of times; worst of times” summary of licensed merchandise. Star Wars is huge in the consumer product game, but it’s uneven and possibly trending downward.

Licensed Merchandise – My Estimates on The Top and Bottom Lines

Merchandise sales tend to be one of the harder business lines to estimate for a specific franchise or property. Studios don’t usually release the specific numbers, but the industry trade License Global does release an annual ranking of top content licensees, with some data for companies. Sometimes, specific franchises are called out. This historically happens in May, but last year was delayed until August. (It looks to be delayed again.) In the interim, I’m usually left to guess based on historical data.

The good news is that for toys and merchandise, they don’t have quite the lumpiness that you see in films for evergreen franchises like Star Wars. Other film-driven franchises like say Minions or Trolls see peaks and valleys for when new films come out or don’t. Non-film driven toy properties have similar steady state or peaks and valleys depending on whether they are evergreen or not. However, Star Wars has had a few decades of steady, multi-billion dollar retail sales. Its a safe assumption to assume that continues.

Thus, my toy model is fairly simple. Not a lot of bells and whistles and mostly extrapolating the trend line based on whatever has been publicly reported and then assuming it holds steady. There is still some uncertainty even in the publicly reported numbers because the inter webs have quite a few toy numbers for Star Wars, many of which are contradictory. (Wikipedia for example is wildly inaccurate.)

Let’s start at the top line, total retail revenue:

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 12.10.31 PM

First, there were quite a few estimates, as I just mentioned, that The Force Awakens saw a boom in retail sales to $5 billion. However, I lowered that number dramatically after reports that retailers were burned by Rogue One over-ordering. Indeed, even in Disney’s annual reports in 2017 and 2018 they blamed lower sales of consumer products partially on Star Wars.

 

The question is whether or not I think 2019, with The Last Jedi and The Mandalorian, saw a huge boost in sales. Based on the handwringing about Star Wars not resonating with kids, and the fact that another Disney property got most of the attention by stores (Frozen II) I think it did, but nowhere near the 2015 level. And yes, Disney said in their last earnings call that Star Wars and Frozen helped contribute to a big Q4. Hasbro—whose fortunes partially rise and fall on Disney’s fate—said the same thing. So we can’t untangle Frozen from Star Wars, but likely both were up fairly well.

Add it up and here’s my take. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 3.02.18 PM

The total revenue for retailers was likely around $3 billion dollars. I could see it swinging 20% either way. Of that, Disney likely took home $150-300 million. My estimate is towards the lower end—5% of retail sales—but some folks have said that Disney with its dominant position can demand better royalty rates on wholesale goods. More like around 10% of retail sales. So that’s why the range exists. The good news for Disney is that $300 million is basically a successful blockbuster domestic box office. That’s a great revenue stream to have! (And consumer products have pretty healthy margins as well. The costs are mainly for making the films and TV series in the first place.)

The worry, for Star Wars watchers, is how this fares going forward without another movie until at least 2022 (if not longer with the Covid-19 impact on production).

The Impact of Coronavirus on Licensed Merchandise

I should do a deeper dive like my other two looks at Coronavirus, but I’ll say quickly that I see two hold ups. First, if factories are shut down in China or elsewhere, that will delay toy production accordingly. Many toys have pretty long lead times, especially when bought in bulk, so I could see some delays impacting this process. This is even more true for plush or stuffed animals, that have stringent safety measures. Apparel can churn faster since laser printing has decreased run times considerably, and even on-shored a lot of US production.

Second, if films are delayed, their tied in toy sales need to be delayed too. This makes all the tricky scheduling complications even more difficult.

The question is whether the coronavirus impacts toy sales more broadly, and that I have no clue. I could see arguments on both sides:

More toy sales. With kids stuck at home, parents buy them toys as a distraction element. And they’re still consuming content like they were before, just not feature film content.

Less toy sales. Well, the lack of birthday parties could be killing the toy industry. That’s where lots of toys are purchased. Plus, despite Amazon/Walmart’s dominance, the closure of retail sales isn’t completely offset by digital shopping. Add to that a potential global depression, and toy sales could easily be a victim. (Just losing 5% of sales is enough to really hurt the industry.)

Add them up and I’d be more worried about toy sales than optimistic. But like all my Covid-19 thinking, I am incredibly uncertain.

Consumer Products Impact on Brand Value

As a reminder, as well as calculating the money made in 2019, I’m putting it into context of the Lucasfilm deal from 2012, and the future brand value of Star Wars.

Money from 2019 (most accurately, operating profit)

Well, I just covered that. Another $225-300 or so million added to the ledger for toys, apparel, video games, and such. 

Long term impacts on the financial model and the 2012 deal

I will point out my “discounted time value” though, because it’s the part people forget the most often when saying, “Man, what a great deal for Disney.” It was, but not just because the box office was high. What I’ll point out is that, in terms 2012 dollars, making $225 million in bottom line revenue “only” translates to $142 million in 2012 dollars. In other words, about 3.5% of the total price of the deal ($4.05 billion) was earned back in toys just this year.

Moving forward, the fact that Star Wars won’t have another film until 2022 (at the earliest), could cause an even steeper drop off in licensing revenue going forward.

Brand Value

The last question is whether the merchandise business as a whole built brand equity or detracted from it. This is almost all value judgement, and I have to say I don’t think the brand was hurt by not having Baby Yoda merchandise. Did Disney miss an opportunity to build some brand equity? Yes, but that’s not the same as hurting the brand equity. 

A Final Caveat

When I put these numbers out there, I should put a caveat on how to use these numbers. These aren’t actual sales or profit and loss statements from Disney. If I had those, I’d say so. (And if you have them, please share!)

Instead, these are my estimates. Which some can and have dismissed as “just my estimates”. I can also imagine the strategy teams inside Disney saying, “Oh man, he’s so off on this or that number in the analysis.” Sure! Of course I am. Any estimates are more wrong than they are right.

My defense is that this is my strategic estimate. When I was doing military intelligence, it’s not like Al Qaeda in Iraq or Jaysh Al-Mahdi or the Taliban gave us their number of fighters and locations. Right? That’s for them to know and us to estimate, and plan accordingly.

This estimate is the type of estimate I’d hope—but doubt they are—big studios like Universal or Warner Bros are making about their competitor Disney. In the battle of franchises, it’s worth knowing who’s doing well and who isn’t. That’s the type of analysis I’m trying to put out here.

Final point: I also provide my estimates in real numbers, unlike some other prominent strategy voices. You win and lose on the bottom line, and that’s the estimates I’ll give you. Strategy is numbers after all.

Most Important Story of the Week – 20 March 20: Coronavirus and Pay/Linear TV…Boom or Bust?

You can tell we’ve hit peak coronavirus coverage when you see the headline “Did Disney predict the virus?” Because the film Tangled features a “quarantined” character in a town called “Corona”. Yep.

In more serious coverage, the predictions that coronavirus is “no big deal” have shifted to “we’ll be in lock down for 9 months” and folks are as confident as ever. Meanwhile, everyone is quite confident in all their predictions. 

I’m not. So my public service is to try to separate what we know from what we don’t in the entertainment business in the age of Covid-19.

Most Important Story of the Week – Linear/Pay TV…Boom or Bust?

In case you missed it last week, I picked a few tools to use to try to figure out how the coronavirus is impacting various parts of the video value chain. Including:

– Ignoring Narratives vs building out scenarios
– Demand, Supply and Employment
– What we know vs what we don’t
– And “what will change” and “what will stay the same”.

If you want a good example of how narratives can take us in the age of Coronavirus, consider Pay TV. This could simultaneously be the end of Pay TV as we know it or a boom time for live TV.

Narratives

Let’s start with the most extreme narrative: This is the death of Pay TV. Lest you assume this is the type of hyperbole only left for social media, here’s a Bloomberg headline with itScreen Shot 2020-03-22 at 3.12.58 PM.png

Note the question mark, but this still captures the feeling. The narrative goes: as consumers cut spending due to the impending recession, it will hasten cord cutting. In short, less folks will subscribe to traditional linear TV bundles than before. 

Of course, this trend was going on before the Coronavirus pandemic came to American shores. So will a widespread “quarantine” and consequent recession accelerate, decelerate or not impact the rate of various cord trimmings? What do we know and not? What are we guessing and what are we confidently estimating?

Demand

TV content falls into five rough categories: Scripted. Reality. Sports. Kids. News. I’m not breaking new ground, but that’s how I’ve always thought about it. So how does coronavirus impact demand for those five areas? 

Well, it may cause demand to go up for the first three categories, scripted, kids and reality TV. There is some evidence to support the idea that folks stuck inside turn to more TV consumption to pass the time. This includes films and peak TV series and cheesy reality shows. It will all benefit. So the first few categories should benefit from quarantine.

Given that this is a natural response to be stuck indoors, this is where the “death of pay TV” thesis starts to look shaky for me. Or at least contradictory to the other big narrative “quarantine and chill”. Especially when many folks predict both narratives simulaneously. For both theories to be true requires folks to “watch more streaming” but simultaneously “watch less linear TV”. From a strictly demand perspective, it’s unclear how linear TV doesn’t benefit from increased consumption as much as streaming. In fact, the initial data says both streaming and linear TV are both up.

Notably, it’s not up as much as you’d expect. A healthy chunk of people are still working, just from home. Another chunk have likely added other distractions or hobbies to the mix. But overall TV viewing is up, along with streaming viewing. Demand-wise, they’ve both benefited in the short term. 

Will it last? I doubt it. This doesn’t feel like a permanent viewing behavior shift to me; simply a function of not being allowed to go outside one’s home. Same with kids content: if you force a bunch of kids to skip school, parents will have them watch more TV, especially if the park is closed. When folks go back to work and kids go back to school, it feels more likely that demand returns to normal, not some permanent shift.

Arguably, if supply constraints weren’t present, we’d see a ton of demand of the fourth category too. If sports were available (see supply), that’d be a huge amount of viewing right now. A “not cancelled” March Madness would have shattered records if they could have held it with all 300 million Americans stuck at home. In other words, demand for sports hasn’t abated, just been shifted to other topics. (And meanwhile, most streaming doesn’t have sports programming.) As it is, sports channels have seen ratings plummet:

(My big curiosity? Does some of the sports/demand for competition get shifted to pseudo-competition series as in reality game shows? Top Chef is coming back to the air. Survivor is in mid-season. Even MTV’s The Challenge is coming back in April. Maybe they grab some of that demand for competitive sports.)

As for news? Well, this is the big area that streamers just can’t compete. (For now.) If you want to hear the latest Los Angeles or New York City public announcement on Covid-19, you have to turn to a local station. Frankly, a cable subscription is the easiest way to do that. And the initial data suggests that folks are indeed watching more news content than before. (And I’d expect this too to revert back to “normal” after Coronavirus worries subside.)

Add it up? Well, on the demand side there seems to be plenty in favor of linear TV in “raw demand” terms. Obviously, though, actual sales are a function of price compared to demand. Does a pending recession obliviate pay TV?

Maybe. A recession crunches wallets, which in turn forces high priced luxuries to go by the way side. “High priced luxury” is a pretty good description of cable TV at this point compared to other digital options. So will folks continue to pay outrageously high cable and satellite bills as they get laid off? Maybe. Especially with the proliferation of other options. We know cord cutting is coming. The statistics back that up.

But to make this prediction implies a pretty substantial prediction about the impending recession. And how deep it will be. And whether the cable companies offer cheaper bundles in lieu of losing subscribers or stick to the current business model. In other words, a host of variables (that few folks can predict). 

(Not to mention cord cutting is a misnomer as many more folks “cord shift” or “cord shave”. Turns out cord trimming is complicated.)

I’d flag all this as a big “we don’t know.”  If the recession continues through the end of the year, absolutely that could accelerate cord cutting, though it may be taken up by cord shifting. If the recession is short? Well, the desire to keep things the same may not have the same impact.

Supply

Again, with coronavirus, the pandemic is unique in that it can wallop both demand and supply. 

Coronavirus started by hammering the TV production industry. If groups of more than 10 people can’t get together, well you can’t make a TV show. Period. Right now, nearly every television production is on hold.

The question is how this plays out over the next few months. An extended shut down means that TV will mostly go to reruns or shows—like many reality shows—that were mostly already recorded. However, by June, if production hasn’t resumed on some basis—I imagine at least reduced staffing for the foreseeable future—than linear channels may run out of content.

How long does this last? Well, I’ve seen predictions from 6 weeks to 9 months of shut down. That’s a huge range.

Moreover, it violates the most common mistake in economic forecasting, which is that actors adapt to their surroundings. Productions are shut down because they can’t film in groups of more than 10. But at a certain point, you’d have to imagine that studios and production companies will get creative with how they shoot TV shows or ask for exemptions. Or figure out ways to screen employees. Yes, it may be a while before things are back to “normal”, but shows could return faster than you think. 

I’d apply this to the other big supply constraint, the lack of live sports. Honestly, sports could have the quickest rebound of all TV content. Yes, while it’s unlikely that 10,000 people will get together to watch a game in the next couple of months, to film a basketball game all you need is 12 players on each side, two coaches and the referees. And camera crews. Yes, that’s a lot of people, but way less than 10,000. Could the NBA ask for exemptions with strong testing to get games in front of folks? I imagine so.

Will they? Will TV productions get creative? Maybe. Maybe not.

There is one other huge supply constraint that is honestly the biggest threat to linear TV, and it’s usually the area that soothsayers predicting the demise of Pay TV ignore: advertising. If a recession comes in and comes hard, one of the first areas every business cuts is the promotion and advertising budgets. This could hurt everyone from social media to Google to linear TV.

Yet, linear TV also has all those eyeballs and an election on the way. Still, its the biggest “supply” constraint to watch for TV. How do linear advertising payments shift? I don’t know which way it will go, but it will likely have the biggest impact on the future of this industry.

Employment

In some ways, linear TV will have less employment impacts than theaters. Theaters have a mass of low wage employees out there every day. Networks have a lots of people, but not like that. 

Still, the economic impact on the below-the-line workers will likely have the biggest impact. They are the economically most vulnerable and will stay so in a recession.

I’d add: I can see remote productions have even more trouble in the future, which could help Hollywood. If actors don’t feel like boarding airplanes for film/TV shoots, the natural location is old-fashioned Hollywood.

Strategic Recommendations

1. Begin quarantines for sports and talk show staffs, if possible. If folks are quarantined together, they can’t share the disease, but they can generate content. “Getting creative” is always my go to advice for companies. And there are ways to get SNL, the Late Shows and other comedies back on the air in an age of “reduced quarantine”. It requires thinking how to do it and figuring out creative ways to house employees early.

2. If I’m cable, get more aggressive with skinny bundles. Cut the fat, and blame it on coronavirus. Folks will still want news and sports. Fortunately for the cable/satellite bundles, the streamers don’t have any real sports or news capability. So skinny linear bundles can fill that need.

3. I see an edge for vMPVDs too. Really, those are just the nu-cable bundles. (vMVPDs like Hulu Live TV or Youtube TV). They can also offer the sheer tonnage of scripted/reality shows that folks want along with sports and news. So price discounts for those will make a lot of sense. 

4. Lean in to reality when the quarantine ends. That’s the quickest way to get lots of content back on the air, while getting scripted series back on the air.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Quibi!!!

It’s no secret I’m hugely skeptical of Quibi. At the core, it’s because they are avoiding an entire method of distribution, which is living room TV. For all the growth in mobile, I just don’t think you can be viable without TV sets in your arsenal. The latest news is that Quibi is offering a 90 day free trial, which will the longest in the industry. We’ll see if it works. I’m still more bullish on HBO Max and Peacock with their huge libraries. Especially in an age of quarantine.

Crowded VOD

Last week, Universal was moving some films to VOD early. This week it became a flood with Onward joining Rise of Skywalker joining Emma (and then Lovebird went straight to Netflix via Paramount). On the one hand this shouldn’t be too surprising, since these films weren’t going anywhere in theaters. (Variety has a good list of how everything has moved.)

But part of me thinks this is still pretty shortsighted. If we are in for a long lock-down, come May a studio could really benefit by having these VOD launch weekends all to themselves. Crowded weekends aren’t good for film, TV or VOD. In the long run, will this be a huge impact? No, but I think some of the studios are rushing.

Most Important Story of the Week – 13 Mar 20: Love (Films) in the Time of Coronavirus

The most important thing in this time of crisis is to focus on staying healthy and being good citizens. So don’t hoard food, avoid public gatherings, and try to donate blood.

Still, the economic consequences will quickly become as real as the pandemic ones. This is really what we pay CEOs for; not how you govern in times of booming stock prices, but times of crisis. 

For the next few weeks, since Coronavirus will dominate the news coverage, it will dominate this column too. I plan to run through how all the parts of the traditional and digital video value chain could be impacted. 

Image 7 Video Value WEb

Emphasis on the “could”, because in times of crisis there is a lot more we don’t know then do.

Most Important Story of the Week – Hollywood Pauses Production; Theaters Begin to Close

In my last weekly column, I speculated that the Coronavirus Pandemic had finally reached the “economic consequences” stage. Arguably, I was too late to make this warning very useful. But if any doubters remained, last weekend cinched it. Every big film moved out of the Q2 time period and nearly every major sporting event was cancelled. This week—I’m dating this for the 13th of March, but posting on the 17th—most major theater chains have closed.

Still, I hedged. Especially about predicting what would happen to entertainment companies.

Indeed, I tried to commit to the position that I wasn’t going to forecast the future. Why? Well, it’s impossible.

Which hasn’t stopped folks of course. Within the swarm of actual news came the opinions you’d expect, usually verging on the apocalyptic. “This is the death of theaters” being a typical example.

How do movie studios banking on theatrical releases handle that uncertainty? Well, they have quite a few strategic options. Given that theaters are the most visible part of the video value chain, we’ll start this mini-series there.

Before that, though, a rant…

Probabilistic Scenarios vs Narratives

The biggest “narrative” impacting actual stock prices goes like this…

…the impending quarantine will leave Americans (and the globe) stuck at home.
…Americans (and the globe) like Netflix.
…Therefore, they will binge a lot of Netflix.
…So Netflix wins the coronavirus sweepstakes.

Um, maybe?

Like most things “Netflix” when it comes to the narratives the only thing larger than the impact of the narrative is the stridency of the belief. Once the “Quarantine and chill” narrative started, it quickly went from “hypothesis’ to “thesis” to “inevitable outcome”. 

But consider this: if all the studios have to freeze productions, and Netflix is a studio, then they will have to freeze productions. While that could definitely help Netflix’s near term cash flow, it also would kill the new content used to bring in new customers. Speaking of cash flow, if credit markets freeze up, then getting new high yield debt could be tricky. 

Or consider this. With the impending budget cuts, cable MVPDs may aggressively cut prices to keep customers around in a pandemic-cause recession. They know folks are stuck at home; don’t let the recession kill your business.

Or this. Free, ad-supported streaming TV service (FASTs) may actually take up viewing. They have the same volume as Netflix for a better price: free. Or Twitch. Or Youtube. Both free too.

Which one of those scenarios will happen? I don’t know. Maybe all of them. Or none of them. We’ll need to set up good metrics to measure the signal of what’s actually happening with customers, not the noise of social media.

Which is my point. While narratives feel good, they don’t tend to make good strategy, since they tend to reinforce stereotypes and biases instead of generate insights and understanding. We need a more systematic approach. Which is what I’ll try to provide. (And I’ll get to Netflix in the streaming article.)

My Tools for Understanding Coronavirus Impacts

To try to think about Coronavirus strategically, I ended up pulling out three tools that I’ll use together.

– Supply, demand, and employment: The impacts of the coranavirus are unique in that they impact both supply and demand, making this a unique crisis.

– What we know; what we don’t: In times of crisis, it’s often good to separate what you know from what you don’t and what you believe from what you assume. Otherwise, you’re likely just building a narrative that reinforces existing and preconceived biases.

– What could change permanently versus what is temporary. This ties back to my “question of the year” I speculated before we started. The question was, “With streaming, what is the same and what is different?” This same question applies to the Coronavirus: what is a temporary change in circumstances, and what could lead to a permanent change in how we consume content and entertain ourselves?

Along the way, I’ll try to call out the biggest narratives I see emerging and I’ll conclude with my tentative strategic recommendations. These are the strategies I’d pitch to CEOs if I worked at a theater or a film studio.

Theatrical Film Going – The Narratives

Theaters hold a special place in the entertainment industry’s heart. For as much as it is being displaced by streaming it still has that “je ne sais quoi” embodied by the Oscars every year. That experience of going to a theater to see a film with a bunch of strangers on opening weekend. And for my money, big budget epics just look better on the big screen.

But how will the industry fare in the Covid-19 times?

I’ve seen a few narratives. Most prominently, is the “This is the death of theaters” theory. Theaters had merged for several years, then spent significantly to upgrade the experience (better seats; alcohol). Meanwhile, theaters have always been a low margin business even in the best of times. While those are true facts financially, the narrative piece seems to be the prediction that somehow customers will turn against theaters as an experience. 

Will being stuck inside for 8 weeks really prove to Americans how little they enjoyed going to theaters in the first place?

Let’s dig in. 

Supply

What we know: Supply gets hit in two ways. First, theaters themselves are now closed in Los Angeles and New York. This will likely spread to other states and cities. Obviously, if folks can’t go to theaters, they can’t see films in those theaters. As of this writing, most major chains have gone dark and most films scheduled for Q2 have been postponed or moved to VOD.

As for release calendars, we know that studios are now getting creative. Some films have moved back to later in the year, some to 2020, some up to VOD and some indefinitely. As a result, we can say that the end of 2020 and start of 2021 will likely be fairly crowded release calendars.

What we don’t know: How long theaters will have to stay closed. As of two weeks ago, it looked like April was gone. Then last week, most would have predicted though the end of May. Now June and July and beyond are on the table. But this crisis is moving quickly, so if by the end of April cases start declining, who knows? Maybe June is available.

The bigger unknown is what happens to the release window now. While Universal has “broken” the theatrical window with Trolls and The Hunt, they have a pretty damn good explanation: theaters are literally shuttered. It’s not breaking a window that doesn’t exist. Some studio chiefs likely would like to experiment with smaller theatrical windows like NBC, while others, especially Disney, like things the way they are. I personally wouldn’t be confident predicting the future of the window in either direction.

As for release calendars, even these are pretty unknown. A few weeks back Richard Rushfield wondered aloud if any big budget films would venture to streaming. There are big financial differences between VOD—which has great unit ecnomics—and straight-to-streaming, which doesn’t. But more than anything none of these moves sets a precedence. 

Meanwhile, studios will be desperate to get films in theaters. Especially blockbusters. Studios make roughly $5 billion from domestic releases alone. You can’t remove $5 billion and expect the same level of production. Globally tosses in another $15-20 billion. And remember, the economics are much better in theaters than even VOD.

Demand

What we know: Honestly? That folks like going to big budget movies. But we also know that America is afraid and as a result no one is going to the theaters. 

What we don’t: How folks will feel about movies in the future. This is a classic narrative you can build to support both sides. Maybe the Coronavirus creates a new normal where Americans decide to permanently live sheltered in their homes. Streaming satisfies all their filmgoing needs.

Or maybe after a two month quarantine, stir crazy Americans flood back into theaters to escape their home. Maybe the theater experience really does have something to it. (Most theater attendees have Netflix right now!) That feels more likely to me. But when and how and if this can happen we don’t know. And how theater attendance fares in a potential extended slump is another unknown.

Meanwhile, if theaters do go bankrupt in the quarantine, the impact on demand could be felt in the death of super hero films. Frankly, without home entertainment and theatrical releases powering billion dollar grosses, major studios will have to cut special effects driven films. What type of content will replace those films, if anything? Will folks miss super hero content when the next round of streaming series don’t have quite the same budgets?

Employment

What we know: Well, theaters employ lots and lots of people. From staff taking tickets to contractors cleaning the theaters. If there are no show times, there are no jobs to be had. And unlike sports teams which could choose to keep salaries going for the foreseeable future, theaters run much tighter margins.  

What we don’t know: What happens to these workers in an extended slowdown. 

My strategic recommendations

Since I started writing this column last Friday, things have already changed. The headline of headlines being that Universal broke the theatrical window.

1. Get creative. The Troll World Tour move to VOD makes a lot of sense. (I’m honestly surprised the price isn’t higher.) I’d recommend this for lots of films that are in this window; triage for what can go to theaters later, what can go to streaming now, and then theaters later and what will go to VOD never to emerge.

2. Be prepared for a “summer snap back”. If the virus is under control, I think August could shatter records as folks desperate for distraction seek entertainment out doors. This requires a lot of things going right, but seems on the table.

3. Assume a government intervention. Or reach out directly. Part of the reason I don’t think the window is irrevocably broken is that thousands of theaters going out of business would put tens of thousands of folks out of work, which would exacerbate the impending recession. If you can get a bail out for lost blockbuster revenue, VOD seems more attractive. 

Other Stories

Well that was the big story, but some other new stories were there too.

Netflix Biz Model Keeps Evolving

First, Netflix ended 30 day free trials in Australia. If I had to speculate? Well, churn is the name of the game. Second, Netflix is expanding their very cheap $3 plan to new territories. If I had to speculate? Subscribers are the name of the game.

Pixar’s Onward Stumble

If I’d gotten this column out on time last week, I would have noted the soft weekend opening of Onward. The most obvious explanation? It was Covid-19 worries. But the film felt like it had soft buzz even before it came out. Why is this big news? Well, I’m monitoring Disney Animation/Pixar for the first sign of stumble post-Lasseter exit and that was Onward. One is a data point, so we’ll look to Soul for a trend.

Fox Sports Brings Back Written Content

The “pivot to video” may be the worst strategic decision universally adopted by media since the dawn of the internet. And no surprise Fox has slowly reversed itself. Now if only ESPN would make their website more functional to read their great writers.