Tag: Entertainment

Most Important Story of the Week – 4 Sep 20: The Fall of Fall (TV Advertising Revenue)

I’ve been too positive about the entertainment industry recently. Especially the traditional players. I think theaters by the end of 2021 will be fine. I think the traditional entertainment streamers can compete with Netflix (and Amazon). And I even think Disney will see a thriving theme park business sooner rather than later.

So let’s get negative. Really inspire some fear. Of course, that means broadcast TV.

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Most Important Story of the Week – TV Network Ad-Revenue is at Risk

While it may be “dying”, the linear TV business is still good money for traditional media conglomerates (Disney, Comcast/NBCU, AT&T/Warner Media). I like to tell this story via this chart via Disney’s revenue:

In addition to the total revenue, media networks also make tons of operating profit. As I laid out in one of my most popular articles of the year, if you imagine a world where, in complete disruption, they lose all their “media networks” operating profit, and streaming still isn’t profitable, they aren’t just losing $3 billion per year like Netflix, they’d have lost $10.5 billion in operating profit on net! 

Thus, as they pivot from linear to streaming, the traditional players need to be careful. They need to find out how to make streaming profitable and not destroy their cash cows that quickly. It’s unclear if anyone can do the former, and the Coronavirus may have pushed the latter from their control.

Advertising revenue will be the first part of the traditional linear pie to feel the pain. (And actually has been suffering in the last few years.) It’s not a majority of the revenue–that honor belongs to subscriber fees–but it’s a big portion of the puzzle. Across broadcast and cable, it’s a $44 billion dollar piece! Depending on the channel, it can be 20-50% of total revenue.

And the biggest piece of advertising revenue comes from the broadcasters, which are still the biggest channels in the linear bundle. The threats to advertising come from both the demand and supply sides, which is what makes the Covid-19 inspired recession particularly challenging. (Past articles on Covid-19’s impact on entertainment here, here, here, here or here.)

On the demand side, advertisers love to advertise on sports because live sports still get great ratings and viewers don’t usually skip the ads. And when I say sports, I mean football. Both college and NFL, but particularly the NFL, which dominates annual ratings. While the NFL is still scheduled for this season, it could disappear in a moment’s notice if Covid-19 rates skyrocket again. Thus, the Wall Street Journal reports that advertisers are seeking to claw back proposed ad spending if NFL games don’t happen.

(As for college football, a majority of college football games have been cancelled, but some leagues–the SEC, Big 12 and ACC–are trying anyways.)

If the broadcast networks lose NFL games, it’s doubly-brutal since the rest of their primetime schedule is fairly “meh”. The same force that could cancel NFL games caused studios to shut down all of production for new TV shows. Reruns don’t do as well as new TV shows. Thus, the linear channels will have fairly weak lineups this fall, even as customers have more free time than ever to watch.

There is one bright spot in the demand-side: out-of-home viewership. For years Nielsen didn’t mention viewership in bars or restaurants or anywhere that wasn’t in someone’s home. But obviously sports bars only exist to show sports and serve beer. After years of promise, and some last minute waffling, Nielsen plans to roll this out this fall. It should boost the role of sports/ESPN even further in the ratings. (And 24/7 news networks.) That said, if the NFL doesn’t happen, no amount of out-of-home viewing will help.

The supply side of ads is arguably in an even worse state than the demand. When you’re in a recession, the first thing that goes is marketing expenses, and that’s precisely what happened in this recession. Some of the biggest drivers of ads are under as much threat as the broadcasters, like car companies, airlines, or hotels. And they’ve pulled back on advertising. Meanwhile, digital advertising beckons with its “targeted” ads, since Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook hoover up all your data to sell.

And one of the biggest advertisers, Hollywood itself, will probably spend the least on linear advertising in recent memory. Since, theaters have been shuttered in large parts of the country, there is no big opening weekend to push customers towards. Digital advertising can take up that slack. That’s the take in this Variety story.

Conclusions

That’s the doom and gloom for the near term. Will it last? 

Again, when everything is tied to Covid-19, there is as much a chance that things snap mostly back when the pandemic passes as it is that they are permanently altered. (For the record, I expected/will expect double digit drops in linear viewership since cord-cutting adoption is following an S-curve.) For example, if theaters are back to “normal” in the mid-point of 2021, the focus on opening weekends will return, and with it linear advertising.

If I had to point to one wildcard, though, it’s football. Which is really the issue suffusing the conversation above. (Even feature films are really talking about advertising against football.) As long as football wants to reach every household in America, it needs linear TV as much as digital. And that should support this ecosystem for another 5-10 years.

Still, we’ve likely seen a high watermark in linear advertising revenue. Which isn’t too surprising, since advertising revenue has been under pressure for years. It just means that, even if it bounces back, between cord cutting and reduced quality content, broadcast advertising will never regain its past heights.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Story Updates – Licensing Is Still Very Important for Streamers

This story is really a combination of three stories that all competed for my top slot this week. 

Combine the three and the story is fairly inescapable: for all their tens of billions in content spend each year, Netflix cannot give up on licensed content. This shouldn’t be that surprising, but it does contradict the story Netflix projects to Wall Street. 

Let’s start with why licensing is still crucial: because it moves the needle! When you look at the Pay-1 movies–films in their first linear TV or streaming window after theaters, usually in the first year–you can see that every streamer is desperate to get Universal’s output. This is because new Fast and the Furious, Minions, and Jurassic Park films move the subscriber needle. Just take a gander at VIP’s August report:

(Go to Variety VIP to read. Full disclosure: I’m on a free trial from Variety.)

That’s a lot of licensed film content in Netflix’s Top Ten! The story is the same on Nielsen (hat tip Alex Zalben) when it comes to top TV series on Netflix in the last week:

That top ten list is almost all licensed content. (Which contradicts Netflix’s daily Top Ten lists, a point I’ll explore in a future article/Tweets.) 

On the whole, the fact that Netflix needs licensed content should be the least surprising story in media. TV has always been about renting content. Syndication built up numerous channels from Fox to USA to AMC to you name it. Even HBO was built off Pay 1 films. So renting content to enter a market is a tried and true strategy.. 

Unless…

…your stock price involves “building a moat” of original content. Which Netflix’s does. Specifically, making a moat with original content that will bring “pricing power”.

Licensed content’s current and continuing importance to Netflix will determine if this strategy works or blows up. If it turns out that Netflix still needs licensed content, after spending billions on originals, then one of two things happen. First, if Netflix loses the content, then they will likely see higher churn among customers. That both lowers the average revenue per user and raises acquisition costs. So they keep losing money. Or Netflix keeps licensed content, but has to pay more and more for it in a competitive bidding environment. That raises their costs. So they keep losing money. 

In short, Netflix desperately wants to decrease its reliance on licensed content. But so far the data doesn’t show that strategy is working.

Over the last few months, I’ve softened on how important licensed content was for Netflix. It seemed like their original films were finally breaking through. And the top ten lists were filled with originals, especially on TV. But the combined FlixPatrol/Nielsen data contradicts that. Even as the licensed content changes–farewell Friends, The Office, and Disney blockbusters–the importance of licensed content remains. (My guess is Hulu and Prime Video are in the exact same boat, by the way.)

(Bonus update: it seems increasingly clear that the future will be measured, as I wrote way back in December of 2018 and October of 2019. Between top ten lists, Nielsen and others, we’ll have some sort of standard to judge which shows are doing well in the ratings.)

Other ESG Update: Cobra Kai’s Migration to Netflix

To quote Marshall McCluhan, the medium is the message. So for Youtube, the medium is ad-supported music videos, box openings and alt-right/alt-left commentariat. Not prestige originals. Clearly Youtube had a good show in Cobra Kai, but after that they didn’t know what to do with it. (Read my past writings on Youtube Originals for more.)

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

AT&T Is Selling Some Assets, but Not Others

The story over the last few weeks has been that AT&T is looking to sell tertiary businesses to reduce debt. On the table are Xandr (their ad-sales unit), DirecTV and CrunchyRoll; not on the table are Warner Media’s video game unit. As some folks have pointed out, though, we shouldn’t read too much into any specific business unit sale or story since these talks are ongoing. And the rumor mill is vicious.

Still, it seems clear based on the volume of rumors that AT&T is looking to sell some assets to help their balance sheet. The management lesson should be clear: M&A is not a strategy. Strategy is strategy. That’s the story of AT&T in the 2010s: buying size mostly to accumulate assets. The investment bankers got paid; the shareholders haven’t yet.

Walmart’s New Subscription

On the surface, Walmart offering “Walmart+” isn’t entertainment related. It’s an ecommerce story, about a battle between two monopolistic giants. Except for the fact that nearly every article had to mention that Walmart+ doesn’t offer any free entertainment streaming. So…

Prime Video = $120 a year, with Prime video and Prime Music
Walmart+ = $98, with no entertainment.

Therefore, Prime Video and Prime Music are worth $22 a year?

Listen, that math isn’t totally correct. There are tons of unaccounted for variables. But generally does it match consumer demand? It probably isn’t that far off either. 

Data of the Week – What is the U.S. Addressable Market for Streaming?

In a lot of ways, isn’t that the question of the streaming wars?

A few weeks back, Leichtman Research group updated their estimate for the number of broadband homes in America. In 2019, America reached 101 million broadband homes. On the bass diffusion curve, clearly broadband adoption is slowing. This could be a good proxy for cord-cutting homes, since if you don’t have broadband you can’t stream.

Meanwhile, Nielsen still counts about 121 million homes as “TV watching” homes. Meaning about 20 million homes are still cut off from cord cutting in general.

So, the natural question is do Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, HBO Max and Disney+ all have aspiration of 100 million household penetration in the future? Probably not. As my past research has shown, Netflix will likely tap out at around 70 million US subscribers. Meaning we have a gap of about 30 million households.

While overall streaming could end up reaching 100 million homes–similar to cable at its peak–there won’t be one service that every household subscribes to. Either from keeping skinny bundles, sharing passwords or what not, I don’t think we end up with one service as the “universally owned” streamer.  This data from Reelgood shows that while Netflix is the closest to a universal streamer, many streamers have bundles which don’t include it.

And if Netfllix can’t do it, I don’t see anyone else doing it either.

Lots of News with No News

Another Netflix Producing Deal

With royalty no less. Or not, since I believe they renounced their titles? Listen, I’m not an expert on British nobility. And while I can understand the interest from a general entertainment perspective, from a business standpoint this doesn’t move the needle.

Sound Issues in Tenet

Since Tenet isn’t in theaters in the U.S., and won’t be in my neighborhood anytime soon, I can’t speak to this from first hand information. But apparently customers are having trouble hearing crucial pieces of dialogue in Tenet. That said, when it comes to most TV and films it can be hard to hear many of the lines. Sound mixing has a lot of trouble dealing with everyone’s different sound systems nowadays.

Who Will Win the Battle for the next “Game of Thrones”?: How “People” Change the Odds of Success

(This is another entry to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:

Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework
Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained!
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained! Part 1
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained Part 2
Appendix: Subscription Video Economics…Explained Part 1
Where We’ve Been)

Two weeks ago, we checked back in on the news about the contenders vying to be the “next Game of Thrones”. Let’s keep the momentum going and get right into the “People” portion of our framework. At the end, I’ll unveil my current working model for evaluating TV series.

Why “People” Matter In Every Deal

The “people” in a typical venture capital deal are the leaders of a start-up. This means the founders and the soon-to-be chief officers. Is the CEO a great technology guy, but not great at scaling? Or an operations guy who has a dynamite CTO already in place, but no marketing experience? Conversely, is the product great and so is the opportunity, but you need to replace the leadership to make the company truly succeed? (Uber/WeWork much?)

In a real world example, lots of investors in Quibi invested because of the team of Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman. He could handle content; she’d handle everything else. (Only later did we find out they couldn’t work well together.)

As I use the “POCD framework” for evaluating TV series—a concept I dabbled with at my previous job—I’ve found the “People” portion to be extremely important. Who is the showrunner? Who is the creator? Are they the same person? Or do you need to bring in a more established showrunner to replace the creator’s vision? Does the showrunner have the ability to manager a team, or will they do it all themselves? Can the writers work with the directors to bring their vision to bring the show? Are the producers able to corral the showrunner and bring things in on-time and on-budget?

Hopefully, the answer to all those questions are positive. Meaning the creator has a great vision, the showrunner can deliver on their vision, the writers room writes great content, the directors can film it, and the production team will run everything well. The reason this is important is because, if a studio can hire the right people more consistently than competitors, they can achieve outsized returns.

Those outsized returns fall into two rough buckets. The first bucket is the “quality” bucket: Can the show runner make a good nee great show?

Well it depends. Unfortunately, most showrunners and creators are…average.

Average isn’t bad, you see. It just means that while all showrunners are great people—and indeed highly skilled at what they do—their “hit rate” is average. Which means that most of the time the shows and films they make are bombs/duds and a few times they are blockbusters. (About 1 in ten.) That’s just the math. That’s right, logarithmic distribution of returns applies to the people making shows too:

Slide03 copyAt the far right end, some showrunners can buck this trend to reliably churn out hits, but they are few and far between. Think Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, Mark Burnett or Chuck Lorre. Even then, they have more duds than you initially remember when you scan their IMDb. If either Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings had a top tier showrunner attached, it would increase the likelihood that a show becomes a “hit” or “the next GoT/superstar” in our model. (Or if they had a top tier development exec with a similar track record. No streamer does yet.)

The converse to good showrunners is a chaotic leadership situation. If a show has lots of creators moving in and out and lots of directorial turnover, that’s a bad thing. (Though not always. The Walking Dead did just fine and it’s on its fourth showrunner.) 

My model also punishes showrunners with extensive mediocre track records. Which unfortunately is quite a few showrunners out there. For all its admiration of experimentation, Hollywood is surprisingly conservative at decision-making. Development executives hire the same writers and directors instead of trying someone new because it’s “safer”. These showrunners produce a show for a few years that is mostly “Meh” (a technical term), and then move on to another pitch/job. In the model, if I saw a fantasy series had that type of showrunner, it would increase the likelihood that a show is another also ran TV show, not the next Game of Thrones.

The second outcome is the “logistics” bucket. Can a show come out on time and on budget?

When it comes to making blockbusters, this is less important. However, if you’re running a business, given that 95% of showrunners are average, this can be the difference between profit and loss. This can be forecast, with the right data, pretty reliably. I, for example, knew that certain showrunners and directors who worked regularly with our streamer would be late or over budget when we hired them, because they were late or over budget previously. Unfortunately, this type of data isn’t public available—studios don’t make a habit of sharing when they go over budget—so I can’t use it in this series.

It is worth noting that this was part of the genius of HBO and Game of Thrones. They managed to keep that show on every single year while being the most expensive show on television. But an incredibly efficient expensive show, if that makes sense. 

(The great production houses out there—Jason Blum, HBO the last two decades, Marvel this decade—really do deliver on time and on budget, while hitting high quality bars. That’s not an accident.)

Meanwhile, most of the streamers struggle to get second seasons out within 18 months of big shows. We don’t know if these shows are “on budget” but with the way Netflix spends money, probably not? While this is important, it won’t make the model because we won’t know about financial/timing trouble until it happens.

The Results

With that explanation in mind, I’m going to be fairly conservative on evaluating these leadership teams. While picking people is really important, the benefits don’t show up on an individual show, but on a long-term/portfolio level.

Thus, I’m more worried about overvaluing “noise” than true signal in evaluating these leadership teams. (Long term, I hope to do more data analysis to better judge creative hires, but I don’t have those databases yet.) As a result, I’ll default to the “null hypothesis” more than usual.

Let’s go show by show.

Read More

Most Important Story of the Week – 21 Aug 20: The Apple/SuperCBS Bundle Arrives

The biggest story of the last two week’s is “Apple v Fortnite”. Yet, for the second week it hasn’t made this list. Like the AT&T-Warner Bros. merger or the Disney-Fox merger, this is a seismic event we can tell will change things in the moment. However, that “moment” will last months, not years. It is potentially the story of the year, and we’ll get to it. Just not today.

(As often happens, I wrote a couple thousand words on it. So I decided to save it for my “Intelligence Preparation of the Streaming Wars” series.)

In the meantime, let’s return to a favorite theme: bundles!

Most Important Story of the Week – The Viacom/CBS Bundle Launches on Apple

Apple is offering a new bundle of SuperCBS channels. (SuperCBS is my name for ViacomCBS.) Instead of paying $10 for CBS All-Access and $11 for Showtime, Apple is offering them together–if you subscribe to Apple TV+–for only $10. So get CBS All-Access and the tech giant will throw in Showtime for free.

(Apple is also exploring a “super-sized” bundle of TV, music, news, gaming and more, but will likely provide details in a few weeks.)

For those of us predicting a return to bundling (read me here, here or here), this move isn’t that surprising. The previous high point of bundling was Disney’s decision to bundle Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ last fall in the United States. And then in their earnings call Disney announced plans to include Star/Hotstar as another bundle globally.

Let’s unpack the ramifications of the bundle. Why it exists. How this bundle happened. Why this bundle in particular. And why this bundle is NOT the future.

Why Bundle? Because The bundle is a Terrific Deal, for Customers and Companies.

That’s a controversial opinion, surely. (Especially on certain entertainment podcasts I listen to weekly.) 

But the math is fairly inescapable. For companies, getting into a maximum number of households is usually worth a slightly worse per subscriber cost. So if AMC–the channel–can be in 85% of households, each paying $1.50–that’s better than being in 10% of households each paying $10. Or take ESPN: right now nearly every cable household pays over $6 to get it. Yet, if everyone cut the cord, ESPN would struggle to get probably 25% of households for the same price, not to mention quadrupling the price. (Moreover, the additional subscriber has zero marginal costs, so maximizing it makes sense.)

Hence, bundles help companies maximize revenue. It’s a classic economics chart weighing prices to buyers and maximizing the value.

The lower prices also help customers. The criticism of the bundle was the simplistic complaint, “Everyone has 500 channels they can subscribe to, but they only watch 20.” The problem is no one watches the same 20 channels/shows/streamers. In cable times, a viewer might watch Friends on NBC, 60 Minutes on CBS, Sports Center on ESPN and NYPD Blues on ABC. But another viewer subs out History Channel for Sports Center. The bundle gives each customer the same low price. (In streaming, if you want to watch Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Mandalorian, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Watchmen, you need a bundle of streamers.)

(What about how high prices are for the cable TV bundle? Well the problem there is the word “cable” not “bundle”. As local monopolies, cable providers for years had insurmountable barriers to entry, so they could raise prices without fear of cord cutting. Streaming is changing that.)

Thus, bundling is coming. But how?

How This Bundle Happened, Part 1: This is still a “Same-studio” bundle

This is fairly key, because it means the costs are fairly easy to allocate. The challenge comes when you try to get two different companies to bundle together. Then each has to ask the other who has the  more valuable channels and how they should split costs.

(Imagine a super bundle with Disney, Warner Media, Viacom CBS and NBC Universal in the same package. Now try to imagine the leadership of those companies trying to figure out how to allocate revenue. They’d probably kill each other before they settled. Ergo Hulu.)

That’s why Disney was the first “bundle”, because all the money ends up in the same place. Meaning it is up to Disney to decide how to allocate the value of the bundle and how to allocate investment and content and what not. The same thing is happening here, since CBS can decide how to attribute subscribe value between Showtime and CBS All-Access simply for accounting purposes.

How This Bundle Happened, Part 2: Apple is likely taking a big loss.

This math is fairly inescapable, and fascinating given that Apple is currently at loggerheads with Fortnite over the related issue of “platform tax”. Here’s the math for Apple offering Showtime and CBS All-Access separately:

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.18.02 AM

That’s a good deal for Apple, assuming lots of folks sign up for both. Now, here’s the same situation with the platform tax.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.18.17 AM

Uh oh! Suddenly, this is a really bad deal for CBS All-Access. They lost half their revenue. So what’s the solution? Apple and ViacomCBS met somewhere in the middle. But a middle closer to ViacomCBS making money (since that’s their priority) and using customer acquisition into Apple TV+ to justify the costs.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.18.36 AM

Notably, this is still a bad deal for Viacom CBS. They lose nearly a third of their value. So let’s run a final scenario, where Apple limits CBS losses to say 20%. 

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 10.18.44 AM

Now you could make a case for both sides. For Apple, they could tell themselves that losing $2 per month is worth it to bring people into the “Apple TV” ecosystem. (In this case, a device ecosystem. Terminology is important!) For Super CBS, they “only” need to add about 20% extra subscribers to make this deal worth it for a bundle. (Implying that the number of bundled subscribers exceeds the amount who subscribed to CBS All-Access and Showtime separately at the previous prices.)

However, there is even a world where Apple is paying the full-freight of $5 to CBS to keep them whole. Meaning they lose a whopping $60 per customer per year on this bundle. I don’t think that’s the case, but I can’t count it out either.

(The caveat that’s worth mentioning is that CBS has discounted CBS All-Access in lots of places. I get it free, for example, through a 24/7 sports subscription. So the $10 price may not be paid by anyone, sort of like how few folks pay full price for Hulu or Disney+.)

Why This Bundle Happened, Part 1: ViacomCBS Still Isn’t Owning the Customer Relationship.

The other big theme of both May and June has been that certain traditional studios have decided that owning the end-to-end customer relationship is very important. Which is absolutely correct! The rise of “direct-to-consumer” implies you’re going direct to the consumer. Which is what Disney, AT&T and Comcast now understand.

SuperCBS hasn’t learned that lesson yet. Clearly.

Instead of insisting that customers pay them directly, they’re letting Apple handle that. Instead of owning the user experience to collect data, they’re letting Apple collect that. Instead of controlling the customer relationship for marketing purposes, Apple gets that. This isn’t too surprising for CBS; they already let Amazon do all of that too! And Roku too!

Why This Bundle Happened, Part 2: CBS Can Offer a Good Bundle

Of the best content streamers, then, CBS was the best that also hasn’t learned the lesson of DTC. Seriously, check out Mike Raab’s lay out of the major players and look how much good stuff CBS owns:

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Thus, if Disney, HBO, Netflix and Peacock won’t play ball, then CBS is the best suitor available. Hence, it’s the first bundle on another digital video bundler. (DVB, explained here.)

The Future: More Deals, But Not Like This (vMVPD 2.0)

Do you remember the halcyon days when Youtube TV first launched? It was the most disruptive of disruptors in TV. Instead of paying $80 or $100 dollars for a cable subscription, Youtube only cost $35! That’s how you become a low cost distributor. 

That was only 3 years ago. Now the price has almost doubled to $65 per month.

What happened? Well, again, when customers buy a bundle, they want all the channels. (Again, no one watches the same 20 channels.) So Youtube had to keep adding channels to keep adding subscribers. Moreover, Youtube TV wasn’t going to offer old-fashioned “low entry price that later raises”, so they just pretended the price was very low.

Importantly, Youtube had zero cost advantage. Youtube was losing money on every subscriber to grab market share. This is why, when I saw plenty of analysts praise Youtube TV, I thought they were bonkers. If you let me lose $5 per subscriber, I can grab lots of market share. But I haven’t solved any problems. Or created any value.

I think some of that is definitely at play here. Apple hasn’t solved any pricing issues, they’re sacrificing short term revenue for long term subscriber acquisition. Which could be a good strategy–though anticompetitive–but it isn’t sustainable. It won’t be sustainable until Apple can prove that the sheer volume of customers it brings to the table exceeds the profits the streamers are losing. 

Hence, this current bundle is the “vMVPD 2.0” scenario. It’s a bundle, but we won’t know if it will work until Apple and CBS are pricing at cost. That will happen eventually, just not soon.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Fortnite v Apple – The Fight Escalates

This week, in an effort to prove they aren’t using their size to crush smaller competitors, Apple is threatening to destroy Fortnite’s second business of making game engines in addition to destroying its current video game business. (The Unreal video game engine powers many, many video games.) In other words, if you don’t buy our coal, we’ll keep you off our train tracks. It’s a tactic pioneered by Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan and Gates. Now Tim Cook is employing it too.

As I said above, the ramifications for this fight will definitely impact the streaming business. But since we’ll have to follow this saga for years, I’ll save longer thoughts for a future article.

Theaters are Finally Reopening (and Some Films Too)

AMC Theaters is reopening this week at reduced capacity (30% I saw reported) and reduced prices on opening day (15 cents per ticket!). I actually think theaters will be able to match demand to supply since they’re at reduced capacity for the near term. The wild card, as always, is how the disease/containment progresses.

The other wild card is content, and we seem to have hit the moment where studios have decided to release movies regardless of theaters. So Unhinged made it to theaters. Bill and Ted is following. And then Tenet. Some will have PVOD/TVOD components.

Frankly, this makes sense and I think for a film like Tenet, folks would be willing to see it in theaters even if it’s weeks after its “release”. My logic is that Covid-19 has temporarily changed what it means to “release” a film. It’s not like consumer demand will decay if customers who want to see Tenet in theaters literally can’t because their home town theaters are closed. (And some will wait and avoid PVOD.) The studios will make less money than before, but more than if they had waited indefinitely. (And probably more than Disney will on Mulan.)

Boom in Video Games?

Video games are definitely having a lock down moment, though as things reopen, this will likely revert to lower levels, though probably not to the same level.

The question I can’t answer is this: How much of this is due to children?

It seems fairly key. Mainly because the “day job” of children has been the most disrupted. Instead of going to school, they spent April to June at home. Hence, a boom in video games and Netflix. (The latest Nielsen Audience report said Netflix had a rise in viewership that I partially attribute to kids.) Even with schools reopening, classes can run only from 1 to 3 hours, if the programs work at all. Which leaves a lot of time for kids to spend on entertainment.

I’ve seen some speculation that this will create a new generation of video game addicts. But will it? It’s not like kids just discovered gaming because they’re playing on their phones. Nintendos, Segas, Playstations and X-Boxes have always sucked down hours and hours of kids time. Usually it competed with school filling 6-8 hours a day. We’ll see.

Data of the Week – Amazon is “Doubling” Everywhere

If you go by the news, Amazon has “doubled’ their video performance. First, Amazon Video streaming doubled according to Amazon CFO Brian Olafsky. Then they leaked that their AVOD audience reach, through IMDb TV, has doubled as well to 40 million users.

Caveats abound. 

For Amazon Video, the good news is Olafsky said it was total hours that doubled. The bad news is we don’t know what it doubled to. 100% growth during lockdown is great, but what does that bring us to? Also, the caveat is this is global, not US, so it’s even harder to track where the growth came from.

The AVOD audience is even more suspect. When Amazon Advertising says “reach” is up, that could mean a dedicated video viewer, or an ad running on the background of some Amazon page the user can’t even see. (We call that “Facebooking” given their epic misdirection on the performance of their videos.) Moreover, Amazon was touting “integrations” which means partners are expanding Amazon’s reach, not IMDb TV by itself, which was the story I saw most reported. 

So Amazon Video–in all its forms–is doubling. But we should be pretty skeptical for what that means.

Lots of News with No News – Ron Meyer Leaves NBC Universal

The strange part of this sordid saga, as I see it, is that Meyer was still employed by NBC-Universal. The ultimate survivors, he transitioned through countless leadership changes as NBC/Universal was passed from GE to Vivendi to Comcast. Yet, the news of the last few months has barely included Meyer since all the energy is in streaming.

Visual of the Week – The Biggest Broadway Musicals of the 2010s

Well, the race is on to get your Broadway musical. First, Disney set the standard with Hamilton. Now, Netflix is fast on their heels, getting the rights to a Princess Diana musical.

This got me wondering, especially the Hamilton news, about how big was Hamilton in the 2010s? Was it the biggest live musical show in the world in the 2010s?

Fortunately, Wikipedia has us covered with data from The Broadway League, so here’s a chart that didn’t make it into my Decider piece. When you look at “Per show” revenue, Hamilton was a popular monster that has few peers.

IMAGE 1 Revenue Per Performance

Some quick insights:

– First yes, winner take all. It shouldn’t even be a surprise at this point. Which was Wicked, until Hamilton, which will likely earn twice over however long it’s lifespan runs. Moreover, the Disney+ platform will likely only boost long term receipts as more folks want to see it in person.

– Second, here’s the table if you want the data yourself. This is sorted in total Gross Revenue to provide a different look.

Image 2 Table

– Third, if you look at “Revenue per Year”, you can see another look at just how much Hamilton was making. 

IMAGE 3 - Revenue Per Year

Is Antitrust the New Deregulation?: The Strategic Implications of Ending the Paramount Consent Decrees…and What Comes Next

In his very good book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, professor and globe trotting strategy consultant Richard Rumelt makes a key point about how evolving industry trends impact strategy. After describing why military strategy is obsessed with “the high ground”, and how companies often focus on the technological high ground, he makes this point:

The other way to grab the high ground…is to exploit a wave of change. Such waves of change are are largely exogenous–they are beyond the control of any one organization. No one person organization creates these changes…Important waves of change are like an earthquake, creating new high ground and leveling what had been high ground. Such changes can upset the existing structures of competitive positions, erasing old advantages and enabling new ones…They can enable wholly new strategies.

The first example he trots out is router technology. AT&T, Apple, Microsoft and other computing companies would have seemed like the obvious contenders to develop routers for the boom in internet traffic in the 1990s. Instead, it was small–now big–Cisco Systems. That’s because Cisco understood that the value they could add was in software, and updating it regularly, whereas AT&T, Apple and Microsoft were hardware companies. They didn’t see how underlying technology trends would upset the industry.

That’s technological high ground in a nut shell. But sometimes changes in government regulation can have even bigger impacts. 

For this, Rumelt takes us to airlines. When airlines were a heavily regulated industry, wild profits could be made on long haul flights, since the Civil Aviation Board set rates at essentially “cost plus”. When deregulation happened, many airlines continued to operate as if pricing would remain at that fixed level. Instead, prices plummeted for long haul flights and profits went with them. Of course, one airline developed a strategy to thrive in deregulation and thrived, Southwest.

My read on the “entertainment business” coverage–roughly the trades, the full-time entertainment business reporters, the analysts at some sell side firms, and in particular the “techno-futurists” touting their wares online–are obsessed with the former (technology disruption) and largely ignore the latter (government regulation).

This is unfortunate and largely to our strategic detriment.

The big story of the month is that a Federal (unelected) judge allowed the “Paramount Consent Decrees” to expire, based on a decision from the Department of Justice last fall. In my weekly column, I tried to explain what could come next. But really, understanding what comes next requires understanding what came before. And that’s today’s long article. I’ll explain why regulation is such a big deal in media and entertainment. Then, I’ll try to figure out what comes next. In particular, setting the potential shape of the future so clever strategists can seize the advantage.

(Yes, this is an “American-focused” issue, and I have more and more international readers.  I don’t hate you Europe, but don’t know your regulatory landscape nearly as well.)

Government Regulation is Hugely Important in Entertainment/Media

Just go back to George Orwell’s 1984 to understand why government regulates media so tightly. He who controls the news, controls the present. And so on. As a result, as soon as mass broadcasting technology was invented, it was regulated. In America by the FCC, FTC and others; in Europe and the rest of the globe, each country regulates their media in some fashion. (The furthest extreme is China.)

Many strategic tools take this into account. The best framework for this look is the McKinsey-originated SCP framework, “Structure Conduct and Performance”. SCP stands in contrast to Porter’s Five Forces, as the conduct and structure focus on a lot of the structure and regulation of an industry can impact profits and strategy.

When you analyze entertainment as an industry, one must take the heightened scrutiny of media/entertainment into account. Take America. It’s still against the rules for foreign ownership of domestic broadcast and cable channels. Hence, Rupert Murdoch had to get American citizenship to launch Fox/Fox News and Sony is the only conglomerate without cable channels.

Two Regulatory Forces of Entertainment Media: Vertical Integration and Concentration

The Paramount Consent Decrees—and their ilk—were born from this heightened scrutiny. Going back to the dawn of film, the concern was always that giant players would box out the little guy if they controlled both the production and distribution of content. And they did! Thus, the government sued the major studios in the 1940s and the “Paramount Consent Decrees” were born. They regulated that movie studios couldn’t own theaters, with the goal that theaters should show films from all the studios/distributors. (Did this contribute to the “golden age” rise of independent films in the 1970s? Maybe.)

This impetus to avoid vertical integration extended to broadcast television and through the 1980s broadcasters had limits on how many of their own shows they could buy.

(Why are so many NBC shows on HBO Max, not Peacock? Because of those regulations.)

These specific regulations were more aimed at preventing vertical integration. And the media/entertainment conglomerates have shown that if they are allowed to vertically integrate, they will. The idea that if a firm can control everything from production to distribution, they can maximize their revenue. Indeed, AT&T was explicit that its goal in acquiring Warner Media was this level of integration.

A related issue is general industry consolidation. Notably, the American government never passed a law or bill rescinding the Sherman Antitrust Act. That bill is still the law of the land. However, since the 1980s, it’s power has dwindled and actual enforcement since the government case against Microsoft has been weak to non-existent.

While we haven’t seen this in movie studios (we’re still at six and have been for some time, maybe more counting the new entrants of the last decade), we’ve seen it in music, movie theaters, cable companies, TV channel conglomerates, general entertainment conglomerates, cellular communications and more. 

This tends to be great for the surviving conglomerates, since they can use pricing and monopsony power to boost profits. (The losers are consumers.)

The question is what comes next. The government’s logic in ending the Paramount Consent Decrees was that it no longer made sense to keep one particular distribution method separate when every other part of the chain is vertically integrated. I can see that logic. But will it continue? And what about general concentration?

Predicting Antitrust Enforcement: It’s Hard!

Let’s start with the obvious: predicting the future is really hard!

Not for some analysts, as I sarcastically write and subtweet regularly. They know who they are and they can predict with fairly precise certainty that some things will happen on vague timelines. (Usually the bigger the platform, the bigger the confidence.)

Of course, this is foolish. As of September 2016, we all knew who was going to be President. Yet, we were wrong. (Don’t worry for the folks who can predict the future knew both that Clinton would win and Trump would win, and can usually point to examples where that support both predictions.) Has the regulatory landscape altered between a President Trump regime and a potential President Clinton campaign? Absolutely. Likely, the Paramount Consent Decrees would still be in place. How different would everything else be?

Probably not as different as it could be. Likely there would be some more antitrust enforcement, but remember the Obama administration approved the Comcast-NBC Universal distribution, which was a much bigger blow to vertical integration than losing the Paramount Consent Decrees. Frankly, I don’t think a Clinton administration would have worked to aggressively break up Big Tech or Big Entertainment. (Would they have tried to stop either the Disney-Fox merger or the AT&T-Warner Media merger? Probably not, actually.)

The lesson? Be very, very, very cautious predicting the future.

If a Democratic Presidency Happens, What comes next for Antitrust?

Yet, we have to make predictions to make strategy. So let’s answer the key question for antitrust and entertainment: 

Are the Democrats in a different place with regards to antitrust enforcement now? 

Maybe. A very tentative maybe.

Between the antitrust subcommittee hearings on Capitol Hill, the broadening discontent with big tech, the rise of the New Brandeisians (and their increasingly visible boosters like Tim Wu and Matt Stoller), and the continued scholarship showing that increasing inequality and stagnant GDP growth are tied to economic concentration, a Democratic administration could maybe just finally start reversing the trends of increasing consolidation across industries in America.

Again, maybe.

If you ranked every Democratic candidate for President by their emphasis on antitrust enforcement–guess what? I did. I’m a single issue voter now on antitrust enforcement–the bottom two would have been Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Joe Biden is a force for moderation, and he’ll likely hire traditional Democrat power brokers in Washington. In antitrust, this means lawyers trained that mergers are a good thing. Meanwhile Kamala Harris has been supporting Big Tech since she first ran for DA in San Francisco. She’s not advocating to break up those companies. From Dealbook:

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 2.42.04 PMScreen Shot 2020-08-13 at 2.46.25 PM

Thus, predicting the future, two key variables will determine if antitrust enforcement (with potential new rules on vertical integration in media/entertainment) changes. First, does a Democratic administration take control in November? If Trump or another Republican is in office, antitrust enforcement will stay lax. (Nate Silver’s model gives Trump the same probability right now as it did on the eve of election night last year.)

Second, when in power, do Democrats fundamentally change enforcement? For this question, look to Biden’s hiring. If Elizabeth Warren takes either Attorney General or Treasury Secretary, it’s an antitrust game-on, Donkey Kong. (Congress could also take a stand, but that’s only if Democrats control both houses.)

Third, does renewed antitrust include regulation on vertical integration? Or just industry consolidation? Or maybe regulations on platforms like iTunes, Amazon and Apple? How regulation happens is just as influential as whether or not it happens.

My Big Idea: Antitrust is the New Deregulation

Taking Professor Rumelt’s advice, I’ve been scanning the landscape more over the last couple of months to look at the future. And the “blue ocean” space in the entertainment strategy landscape for me isn’t technology–again, the futurists have it covered–but how regulation could change business models.

And this is a hypothesis I’m monitoring: 

Could antitrust enforcement could become the new deregulation?

Deregulation was arguably the biggest driver of disruption in the 1970s and 1980s. Deregulating industries across the globe from airlines to energy to telecommunications repeatedly enabled smart firms to seize new advantages. That airlines example above is a perfect example; Southwest likely doesn’t become Southwest without deregulation.

Generally, everything has been deregulated. So what comes next? My guess is a reversal of antitrust. 

Essentially, since the Borkians seized control of antitrust via the courts, nearly every merger has gone through. It’s how we went from a dozen cell phone companies to three. Notably, private equity noticed this trend in the 2000s, and their buying sprees were often to deliberately create monopolies. And no on stopped them. This trend didn’t occur in a big legal decision, but accreted over time. Its reversal would likely take the same course.

If Democrats embrace the “antitrust enforcement mantle”, it would have “deregulation-sized” implications. For example, if Congress wisely (in my opinion) passed a rule that streamers had to own 10% of their own content, I’d invest in an original production company. Letting the 90/10 rule lapse is what essentially killed independent production in the 1980s. Reviving it would be great for independent producers and talent in America.

(This is why in Europe I’d invest in original production right now. Given the requirements for local content on the streamers, independents could thrive.)

My Recommendation? Monitor Which Way the Antitrust Winds are Blowing

Thus, leaders should carefully monitor the landscape. As long as deals keep getting approved with little to no scrutiny, I’d be in an acquisition mode.

Meanwhile, if more enforcement is coming, be prepared to divest quickly and smartly. If you’re private equity, be prepared to buy either independent production companies or other pieces of talent to take advantage of more competition.

Yes, that’s a lot of hypotheticals. But it’s how I’m thinking about this. When it comes to the future, most folks are obsessed with everything digital and technology. Not boring things like contract law and economic consolidation. That’s a miss. Antitrust could be huge in the 2020s. Potentially the defining economic change in the next decade. Especially in media, entertainment and communications. Or maybe not.

Most Important Story of the Week – 14 Aug 20: What Comes Next As The Paramount Consent Decrees End?

The theme of the week is “antitrust”. It didn’t start out that way, as Friday night’s leadership change at AT&T would have been the story of the week most weeks. (Though, I consider it less of a big deal than most, and that’s why it’s at the bottom of this column.) So which M&A story wins the crown?

Most Important Story of the Week – Ending the Paramount Dissent Decrees

Ending the decades old Paramount Consent Decrees isn’t simple to explain. Because it was also the core trend in regulation over the last 30 years, it took me about 1,700 words. Which I’ll put up early next week. (Just too much news this week.)

In this column, I’ll just focus on the question on everyone’s mind is what comes next. To guess at that requires answering the key trend in government regulation: will antitrust enforcement become more lax or strict over the next few years? Let’s try both scenarios.

Continued Lax Antitrust Enforcement

Starting with the likelier outcome: nothing changes. If there are any economic headwinds in January–and there probably will be!–industry leaders will tell President Biden that breaking up companies will hurt growth. (It won’t; it will hurt industry profit and those are two different things.) That will scare him from enforcing current law and thus, things stay the same.

That leaves these key facts: 

– There are three big studios with lots of cash/success (Disney, Warner Bros, Universal)
– Three smaller studios with less cash (Sony, Paramount, Lionsgate)
– Lots of smaller distributors (A24, STX, Annapurna, etc)
– And the new digital titans with mountains of cash that make Smaug the dragon jealous (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, etc). 

– There are only really three major theater chains: Regal, Cinemark and AMC Theaters.

If the big players with lots of money can buy a studio chain–and honestly the prices are so low in the Covid-19 economy, for some it’s a drop in their debt bucket–I think they will. Sure, theaters are a dying industry (kidding), but being able to collect all the theatrical rentals and own the entire relationship will be too big of an opportunity for at least one of these entertainment/tech giants to pass up. 

Even if it isn’t a great business opportunity, when Comcast announces it is buying AMC Theaters, hypothetically, that will leave Warner Bros and Disney staring at only two remaining chains in the US. If Amazon or Apple sounds interested, then suddenly the land grab is on. If the remaining theaters get purchased by other studios, the remaining studios will be terrified their movies won’t get played. That’s their worry. Sure, Disney will probably be fine with its blockbusters, but would Paramount make that bet? Or Lionsgate?

Thus, tentatively, I think we see the theater chains get snapped up. When? That’s tougher to say, given that everyone’s cash flows are a mess right now. But once the race starts, it will end with all the theater chains under new ownership. I know I’m the outlier on this –the smart take is, “No Disney won’t buy a theater!”–but the logic feels inescapable: if there are three chains, and 10 potential buyers, they’re gonna get bought up.

In the meantime, you’ll see lots of block booking, licensing of films to theater chains and other practices previously held in check by the decrees. They were held in check because the big studios know they can extract rents from theaters with them. Since these practices benefit the bigger studios with blockbuster films, the independent distributors will definitely be hurt. Of course, the judge deciding the case said she didn’t see this happening, but judges tend to be shockingly bad predictors of future corporate behavior. 

(Judge Richard Leon who approved the AT&T deal and, I believe, the Sprint/T-Mobile mergers takes the cake in this. He consistently believes that companies won’t raise prices after a merger, and then they always do! Funny how that happens.)

Renewed Strict Enforcement

On the unlikely side of the coin, potentially a President Biden and Attorney General Warren come out swinging at consolidation. In that scenario, everyone will be scared to start an M&A process. Potentially, the theaters could be candidates to get broken up! (Arguably, this would be great for the industry. With dozens of smaller theater chains, they would be more innovative and focused on their strategy.)

Moreover, an AG Warren would look at harmful vertical integration practices across the spectrum of entertainment. Everything from how licensing deals harm talent to price collusion by the entertainment conglomerates to platforms extracting rents as monopolists to, and this is is crazy, how price gouging by big tech to seize market share. 

That said, I’m skeptical strict enforcement is coming. Guess what? Wall Street agrees. Which I’ll explain next week.

M&A and Antitrust Updates

Wow, what started as a quiet week in M&A news got fairly busy. 

Sumner Redstone Passing Away Means More M&A around ViacomCBS

First, Sumner Redstone passing away is the end of an era, an era with old-fashioned media tycoons. He assembled his media empire by buying, buying, buying in an age that was just beginning to allow media consolidation. That’s sharp insight into the landscape. Of course, he also was described generously as a “brawler” and negatively as “thuggish”, so it’s not all a positive story for old-fashioned tycoons. He was also notoriously litigious, which again is less business acumen and more brute force.

What comes next for ViacomCBS? The scuttlebutt is something, but what we don’t know what. Both ViacomCBS finally being sold (Current market cap is around $16 billion.) is an option and so is ViacomCBS buying more (MGM? Discovery?) to then be sold to a bigger buyer. Or it holds the course as it tries to boost its stock price. 

Epic Games Sues Apple for Anti-Competitive Practices

In a week that doesn’t see the end of the Paramount Consent Decrees, this is the clear number one story of the week. So important that I’ll save it for next week in case we have a slow news week. The story is that Epic Games–maker of Fortnite–is upset at having to pay Apple’s 30% pass-through tax/fee/rent on in-app purchases. So they just stopped, Apple kicked them off the app store, and now they’ve gone to court. Google then followed suit. (That last part is good news, since it means this story is far from over.)

This will have ramifications for video games, technology and entertainment. Consider Disney+: Right now, they’d have to pay Apple $9 for every $30 rental of Mulan (unless they negotiated another split). If in-app purchases go away, Disney gets to keep that for themselves.

I won’t even bother to forecast how this ends, but we’ll be paying attention.

AT&T Wants $1.5 billion for CrunchyRoll

This is a bananas story–that’s a technical term–in The Information, the outlet that seems to get all the scoops. AT&T thinks CrunchyRoll is worth 10% of all of ViacomCBS? My how things have changed.

If I were Sony, I’d point out just how low the barriers to entry are to buy anime content. Every streamer has their M&A vertical from Netflix to Amazon to Hulu. It’s just not a point of differentiation, and definitely not a $1.5 billion point of differentiation.

Data of the Week – BBC Global Audience

I’m a sucker for global data numbers, so the number of the week is BBC reaching 486.2 million folks around the globe, an increase over last year’s record of 438 million. Of course, like any number defining reach is always tricky. This seems to include folks who simply visited any BBC website over the last year, which is valuable, but not quite the same as regularly watching BBC News.

Still, the 400 million reach number is a good stand in as well for global English language total attributable market. Meaning, if you were Netflix, you could point to that as the upside scenario.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

No College Football

This is bad news for ESPN, Fox, Fox Sports, ABC, NBC and CBS. Less live sports means less lucrative revenue for the traditional businesses. That’s a pretty simple case. And in other weeks could have been the story of the week. (Though its impact is lessened by the chance the season moves to the spring and that other sports are going full bore.) Rick Porter has the good read this week. Anthony Crupi too.

NCAA Alston Case: Supreme Court Helps College Athletes

The Supreme Court refused to allow an injunction in the Alston Case, the ruling that says NCAA players can get paid to play. While this isn’t the final word, it makes it much more likely to actually go into effect. If, of course, there are sports to be played.

Sky World News shuttering

Comcast bought Sky from Fox during the Disney merger time, and one of their big initiatives was to launch a global news service. Well, those plans are on hold. 

Lots of News with No News – AT&T Friday Night Change in Leadership

Oh yeah, this happened.

Notably, this isn’t a “massacre”. Let’s save such extreme language for bigger changes. Instead, Jason Kilar is consolidating control at AT&T’s Warner-Media, with the narrative that this will allow him to focus on streaming, streaming, streaming. Let’s go best case/worst case.

Best Case: The strategy is more focused.

A good strategy is a focused one. Arguably, Kilar is eliminating his direct reports who don’t share that focus. So if you were wondering if AT&T would “burn the boats” for HBO-Max, Kilar has forced them to. A simpler org chart should help drive HBO Max growth.

Worst Case: He’s eviscerated his content side.

Not completely, he had five creative types before, he’s down to three now. Did he pick the right ones? We don’t know. (I don’t have enough data to prove it.) But none of them are guaranteed hit-pickers like a Les Moonves at his peak. The further worry is that Kilar is NOT a content guy and “content is king”. When he was at Hulu, Kilar was was more focused on the algorithm than the content, right as Netflix went all in on the content. Vessel was Quibi before Quibi was Quibi, with the same lack of detail for content.

Meanwhile, my sympathies go out to the hundreds of folks losing their jobs at Warner Media in this consolidation. That’s never good to hear.

Who Will Win the Battle for the next “Game of Thrones”? : Where We’ve Been

 

(This is another entry to a multi-part series answering the question: “Who will win the battle to make the next Game of Thrones?” Previous articles are here:

Part I: The Introduction and POCD Framework
Appendix: Licensed, Co-Productions and Wholly-Owned Television Shows…Explained!
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained! Part 1
Appendix: TV Series Business Models…Explained Part 2
Appendix: Subscription Video Economics…Explained Part 1
)

A trope of genre fiction is the character with unfinished business. The lone wolf who harbors a grudge against someone or something that harmed his family, destroyed his life or stole his (or her) kingdom. 

July was “unfinished business” month at The Entertainment Strategy Guy headquarters. I’ve started quite a few series and let news or time distract me from finishing them.  Having checked back in on “Should Your Film Go Straight to Netflix?”, “Coronavirus Impact on Entertainment” and “The Star Wars 2019 Business Report”, it’s time to return to a series that’s over a year old, diving into a deliciously provocative topic: which TV series will make the most money for its streamer, the next Game of Thrones or the next Lord of The Rings?

Why didn’t this series get finished? Two reasons. First, I got severely distracted by explaining all the math behind my models as I was building them. This resulted in five articles that were essentially “appendices”. (Seriously, if you want to understand the economics of streaming TV, check them out.) Second, pulling the data on past fantasy TV series and movies took longer than I anticipated.

No more! Today I’ll review:

– A summary of this series so far.
– An update on the news in “fantasy TV” since last summer.

Summary of Where We Were

Cue the narrator voice for a genre series returning after a two year hiatus: “Previously, on GoT vs LoTR vs Narnia”. My challenge is about as difficult: explain a several thousand word series in a few hundred words. 

This series was inspired by the general rise in fantasy programming at all the streamers. It wasn’t just Amazon that wanted the next Game of Thrones, so did Netflix and Disney+ and even HBO itself. I framed the question as:

Which franchise will make the most money for its streamer in the future, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia?

My initial assessment—what I call a “Blink” look—is that HBO will win. Frankly, they paid way less than Amazon. (Initially described as a $250 million dollar deal for Amazon.) Then I heard that Amazon guaranteed 5 seasons! That’s at least $1.25 billion, and maybe more. That only gives the edge even further to HBO. At first, I didn’t really consider Netflix a viable competitor. (I was wrong.)

Then I moved onto the analysis. Which means building models to see what they tell us. The basic formula is pretty simple:

(The probability of success X The revenue upside in success ) — Costs = Likelihood of money made

The tricky part is calculating all that. To explain it, I’m using the “POCD” framework: 

People
Opportunity
Context
Deal

It’s a framework from the venture capital world, but I’m applying it uniquely to TV series. Essentially, people, opportunity and context describe how much revenue a company can make, and the deal explains the costs. 

I’ll make a bespoke model for every series under consideration using the various POCD inputs to change the probabilities or potential revenue/costs. I explained the TV profit model here and here, and also explained the tricky nature of streaming video economics here. (Those last two articles laid the ground work for my series on “The Great Irishman Project”.)

Then came the distraction. Since I had built this kick-ass TV series business model, I decided to use it on the original Game of Thrones. In a big piece published on Decider, I estimated how much money I thought GoT had brought in for HBO. (A whopping $2 billion plus.) This provides terrific context for the “upside” of all these fantasy series. (I wrote a few “director’s commentaries” for this article too.)

So that’s where my series left off. But the news didn’t end just because the series was delayed.

All The News Since Last Summer

When I started this series, I focused on three fantasy series based on arguably the three most influential fantasy books of all time…

Game of Thrones prequel (HBO)
Lord of the Rings prequel (Amazon)
Chronicles of Narnia (Netflix)

 Since then a few fantasy series have come out…

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
Carnival Row (Amazon)
His Dark Materials (HBO)
The Witcher (Netflix)

And more have been developed or are in production…

The Wheel of Time (Prime Video)
Sandman (Netflix)
– Untitled Beauty and the Beast (Disney+)

If all those qualify for this battle, we’re up to 10 potential contenders for the replacement for Game of Thrones. And that doesn’t include potential series (Disney’s Book of Enchantments and Lionsgate’s The Kingkiller Chronicles) that died in development. And I haven’t even looked at Syfy’s lineup to see what else could qualify. (The incomparable Magicians just ended after their fifth season. Pay attention to that data point for later.) 

The Specific Updates

HBO and Game of Thrones prequel

In one of the more fascinating single day development moves, HBO both cancelled one prequel series (The Long Night/Bloodmoon) and announced another prequel series about the Targaryens (set about 300 years before GoT) called House of Dragons. I could spin this as good or bad for HBO, but either way their series is still happening. Right now, HBO is saying the prequel will arrive in 2022.

Amazon and Lord of the Rings prequel

Amazon meanwhile is furthest ahead, having started production this spring in New Zealand, only to be another Covid-19 casualty. (Though I believe production is set to start production soon or already has.) Amazon was under time pressure to get a TV series in production within two years, and that appears to have motivated the streamer.

Netflix and Chronicles of Narnia

If you search for Chronicles of Narnia and Netflix, you run into a series of articles asking, “Is this thing still happening?” And no one really knows. Netflix insists it is, and Entertainment One has hired a “creative architect”, but there is no release date or known shooting schedule. Which means we’re going to drop this series from our main contenders for another lower down.

The Dark Crystal and Carnival Row 

I’d describe these two series and “came and went” at Netflix and Amazon (respectively). Like the Magicians, these two series demonstrate that not every fantasy series is a guaranteed blockbuster. Though the former was arguably more popular due to the “Netflix Effect”. Still, neither is set to be the next Game of Thrones. 

HBO and His Dark Materials

As one of HBO’s first “Monday premieres”, this series was overwhelmed by Watchmen in terms of buzz. It has a better chance than either of the two previous series at being a future Game of Thrones, but the odds of that are pretty low.

The Witcher on Netflix

And now we have a legitimate contender! Lots of folks pointed out that I should have dropped Narnia for The Witcher when I first started this series. Indeed, The Witcher may have single handedly helped Netflix meet subscriber targets by releasing right at the end of 2019. It is arguably Netflix’s first or second biggest show currently on the air. (With the acknowledgement that “on the air” is an anachronism.) In other words, The Witcher has a great chance to be the next Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile, I’m going to monitor every other fantasy series that pops up in development or production. (For example, Amazon’s Wheel of Time series has promise.)

Now that we know where we’ve been, and what’s happened since, we can move into our four-part framework for predicting which of these series will win the battle. Tomorrow, we’ll continue with the first letter in our framework, P for People.

Most Important Story of the Week – 24 July 20: The Incredible Shrinking Libraries of Peacock and HBO Max

The initial draft of this weekly column went very long in the “data of the week” section. So long it’s going to be its own article next week. (It isn’t that time sensitive.)

Meanwhile, the biggest story is one of omission…

Most Important Story of the Week – The Incredible Shrinking Libraries of Peacock and HBO Max

While the entertainment press often stares at shiny objects–Tenet’s delayed again is the example this week–I still can’t quite believe my eyes on this one:

The Harry Potter films are leaving HBO Max in August!

I’ve been telling everyone that the streaming wars aren’t a sprint, they’re a marathon. Heck, they’re an ultramarathon. Just like (most) real wars. World War II wasn’t won on December 7th. (Fine, 26th of May 1940 for my UK readers.) It slogged on for half a decade more. The Vietnam War or Iraq War were twice as long at least. Historically, wars have gone even longer. (Like 30 or 100 year time spans!) Even the Galactic Civil War in Star Wars lasted ten years. 

Yet the newly launched streamers tried to win it on day 1. In addition to the departure of Harry Potter, we have…

– The Jurassic Park films are leaving Peacock this month for Netflix.
– The Hobbit films quietly left HBO Max sometime in July.
– The Matrix films are leaving Peacock along with some Fast and Furious films.
And more

As far as content planning goes, this is bad strategy. The thinking for the traditional streamers must have been that buzz would never be higher than launch, so the goal was to present the impression that there are tons of blockbuster movies. (Just like Disney+.)

Of course, when folks see tons of movies, they expect them to stay there. If they leave without similar high-powered replacements coming in, the result is disappointment. Traditional HBO knows this, which is why every Saturday they usually have a big new movie, but it leaves after a few months. (And why no defining films have left Disney+.)

Why haven’t they paid more to keep these buzzy films around? Traditional companies like making money. And Wall Street still expects them too. It’s cheaper to pay for a limited, non-exclusive streaming window measured in months (or even days) than to permanently end some of these lucrative exclusive linear deals in the United States. (TNT/TBS, USA Network/Syfy, and FX/FXX still pay handsomely for blockbuster films. So do Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video.)

Disney paid dearly to get nearly all their rights back and keep them. As a result, Disney streaming has lost lots of money so far. (It did have some films leave the service, such as Home Alone.) Meanwhile, it stays focused on the numbers that drive Netflix’s stock price: subscriber counts.

In defense of HBO Max and Peacock, I’m not sure losing any of these titles besides Harry Potter and Jurassic Park will really hurt the brand. If I were offering them advice, though, it would be to end these old habits of shifting films around constantly. Some library rotation will make sense; windows under a year do not. The key to the traditional streamers competing with Netflix is to offer consistent libraries of classic films. Their value proposition is that their films are better on average than Netflix. Rotating films in and out won’t provide that. 

This does mean, frighteningly, to ignore the money guys. At least for now. Since the economics are all in flux anyways, the cash now doesn’t actually exceed the potential cash later, but that’s a tough case to make.

M&A Update

IMG and Learfield’s merger was cleared last week, consolidating another industry, this time sports viewing rights, mainly college. This will likely be anti-competitive and Sports Business Daily has the details. (Hat tip to Matt Stoller for pointing me to it.)

Meanwhile, the tech giants can’t seem to help themselves. First the Wall Street Journal reports that Google specifically preferences Youtube for video searches. Second, the Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon explores buying start ups, then copies their business models. 

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

Let’s do quick hits on other stories that piqued my interest.

UTA Signs the WGA Code of Conduct

Whoa! Why did I spend so much time on Netflix last week when this story is a way bigger deal?

It doesn’t end everything with the writer’s-firing-their-agents-strike, but this is the first major agency to break ranks. Though the deal definitely will have compromises on the writer’s side. I have to imagine that we’ll see WME and CAA strike deals soon, but I could be wrong.

Amazon’s New Video Game is a Dud

Amazon released a big new “shooter” video game out of private beta testing into public beta testing, then put it back into private. In other words, Amazon’s quest to be the “everything store” isn’t going about as well as their quest to make movies/TV shows: it may take a decade to make a profit, if they ever do. 

AMC Wins Latest Profit Sharing Deal

It looks like the talent for The Walking Dead will lose their suit against AMC Networks over profit sharing. Of course, with these legal opinions you never know how it will actually end or if it ever will.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Updates – The Films Moving Backwards

My take on Disney moving the dates for some of its films for next year–and following Tenet by delaying Mulan–is that the production pause is finally starting to impact the 2021 calendar. Every month that you can’t be shooting is another delay to already tight production/effects calendars.

Really, this issue has been covered widely, but with theaters closed in California, Texas and Florida, it doesn’t make sense to release blockbusters in America. And throws off the entire calculus. 

The solution to break the logjam is for someone to just reopen with the library titles doing well in drive-thrus. Obviously this would have to be done safely, using the best procedures to keep everyone as safe as possible. And not in locations with spiking cases. And this seems to be what AMC is planning to do. Which could finally break the impasse.

Visual of the Week – The Performance of Netflix Top Films Over Time

(This is a new feature from the Entertainment Strategy Guy. It’s a weekly “visual of the week” that will come out every two weeks. If you like it, consider sharing it on social media, just toss me credit.)

The big Netflix news last week was their earnings report. But the most fascinating story for a data wonk like me was Lucas Shaw’s scoop on the top Netflix films by viewership (2 minutes of a film) of all time. With this scoop, I’m up to 30 different “datecdotes” on Netflix film viewership over time.  

This visual of the week has two different presentations. First, Netflix raw viewership overtime, by quarter:

NFLX visual 3

(Details: This is by my estimates for 70% completion of a film by Netflix subscribers. This is global data. Time period is Q4-2018 to Q2-2020.)

Of course, that doesn’t account for the size of Netflix, so here’s the percentage of viewership:

NFLX visual 2

(Details: This is by my estimates for 70% completion of a film by Netflix subscribers divided by subscribers at the time. This is global data. Time period is Q4-2018 to Q2-2020. Constraint: Only films getting over 20 million subscribers are included.)

If you want more details on Netflix feature film performance, I started a big thread on it on Twitter.

An Aggressively Moderate Take on Coronavirus and Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand

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

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

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

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

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

Employment

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

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

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

Bonus: The Breaking of the Bundle?

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

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

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