Tag: Hollywood

“Hurry Up and Wait” for the Streaming Wars: Netflix’s Q3 2019 Earnings Report

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If you ever found yourself in the armed forces, you may be familiar with the phenomenon of “hurry up and wait”. It worked like this. A dignitary is coming in. Say a three star general. So your two star general plans a division parade. Which means the Command Sergeant Major sets it up. Scheduled to start at 1000 (ten hundred in parlance), the Division Sergeant Major tells his Brigades he wants them in position by 0930, so of course that means standing in place at 0915.

Woe to the unit that is late, by the way, which is why everyone is “hurrying”.

Here’s where the fun starts. The brigades don’t want to be late for the 0915 “time hack”, so they have their troops show up in formation at 0830, to be ready 30 minutes early too. Then the battalions say, well, “Let’s be ready 30 minutes before that.”

And so on. With companies, platoons and even squads.

Eventually, you have thousands of soldiers leaving their houses at 0500 in the morning—and skipping PT— so that they can stand in formation for 3 hours doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.

That’s my feeling for Netflix’s latest earnings report. If I can speak for my fellow Netflix hawks—be they bulls or bears—we had this date circled since July. Will Netflix miss subscribers targets again? Could the stock tank? Or will Netflix crush estimates? And what will Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have to say about the “streaming wars”, which start next month? 

No kidding, the (hashtag) streaming wars made it in the shareholder letter.

IMAGE 1 - The Streaming Wars

After all the waiting…we didn’t learn much. Netflix hit almost all their targets on the dot and Hastings/Sarandos didn’t reveal any ground breaking news.

Instead, we hurried up, but we’re still waiting for the streaming wars. Sigh. Still, we learned a few things in the latest earnings report. Let’s start with strategy, touch on the specifics and end with the subscribers/financials. Oh, and meta thoughts to conclude.

Strategy: Focused, but Narrow?

When it comes to strategy, Netflix probably has the clearest plan and simplest business model of all the streamers. They sell subscriptions and they plan to dominate all scripted and reality viewing. If you want to know their strategic advantage, it’s that. They know what they are, and they’re extremely focused on that.

And they still have a big goals: they want to take over TV all over the globe. If you want Netflix’s global upside for share price, it’s all this. Honestly, “Netflix bears” like myself probably neglect how much additional revenue can come from this global conquest.

But it isn’t cheap, of course. Netflix is spending $10 billion in amortized and $15+ billion in actual cash each year (from 10K) to get those new subscribers. Worse, the most valuable subscribers are in the United States, then Europe, then Japan and then descending down the GDP per capita income ladder. And those most valuable markets are nearing Netflix saturation. (Meanwhile some, like China, remain off limits.)

The most interesting observation, for me, was about the content strategy. Here’s the introduction to the content section of the shareholder letter:

IMAGE 2 - Content Strategy Summary

This content strategy manages to be both broad and limited, at the same time. Broad because Netflix is competing on film and TV and scripted and unscripted for kids and adults and everyone. 

And it’s limited because that’s all they are competing on? If “live TV” isn’t an option, that means  events, sports and news just aren’t in the cards.

In other words, for all the growth in content spend, many TV consumers will want a TV service that provides news and sports. If Netflix can’t fulfill someone’s entire TV demand, that means customers will have to watch other options too. If you value Netflix’s stock price as “becoming TV”, well you’re seeing a company that knows it won’t be that. Sure, it has a chance (that is becoming smaller every week) of “become all scripted and reality TV”, but that will be a pricey fight.

My view is that as long as customers need to have other TV services, Netflix is increasingly likely to be churned out of someone’s regular diet.

Nor does Netflix have the capital to branch out into a large new business like either buying DAZN or Roku or even a Lionsgate. They could merge with any of those, but any new venture that has huge upfront costs will stress their cash flow even further. Apple, Amazon and Disney don’t have those hindrances. That means Netflix needs to be perfect on everything decision from here on out to maximize that share price. That’s tough. 

So let’s get into those specifics.

Content: Some Selected Datecdotes Tell Us Some Things

Let’s start with the headlines you did not see yesterday. And the “null results” because I want to place in your easily available forebrain the idea that most shows aren’t doing well on Netflix. Or they are and it behooves Netflix to keep them secret. (I guess.)

Headline one: 

Of 162 original launches in Q3, 93% did under 29 million viewers. They were bombs.

Fine that is a bit provocative. Technically, I don’t know how many series really had less than 29 million viewers. Just because the lowest Netflix datecdote was 29 million doesn’t mean some other movie secretly did more than that, and Netflix just didn’t say. (Which, why hide that?) How’s this:

We don’t know how 93% of Netflix originals performed last year.

It’s crazy to consider that’s how many launches Netflix had in Q3, but according to my data—which means sorting this long, long list from All Your Screens Rick Ellis—that’s accurate. And given that when we do get inadvertent leaks—Steven Soderbergh said in an interview High Flying Bird had 8 million views—they are much lower, I’d bet that most other content releases were much lower than the leaks.

On to the datecdotes (explanation here) we did receive. These are both higher and lower than it seems. On the high side, I counted 12 datecdotes (authorized or leaked) since Q2. No seriously, four movies and 8 TV series. The challenge is that four of these datecdotes apply to two series (Netflix released 7 and 28 day numbers for both Stranger Things and La Casa de Papel.) And three of the TV series releases didn’t actually have numbers just “biggest TV series in the country” (Sintonia, The Naked Director and Sacred Heart.)

Since I’ve done feature films the last two times, I’m going to try to draw out some conclusions from the TV side this edition. Here’s my summary table of the data:

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 4.28.29 PM.pngAnd now some implications.

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Most Important Story of the Week – 11 October 19: Evolving Feature Film Strategies By The Streamers

I’ll admit it: I have a key question on my brain this month:

Should you release your film in theaters or straight to streaming?

Obsessed with it. Trying to compare Netflix to Disney to Amazon to Apple and the rest of the traditional studios is tough enough, and each has a different answer to that question. How can we tell who is right? Well, I’ll try. But I can’t answer it in one column. Instead, this is the amuse bouche for that discussion…

The Most Important Story of the Week – Evolving Feature Film Strategies By The Streamers

The “fun” story of the week was about He-Man and his potential reboot at Sony moving over to Netflix. Whether or not this move specifically happens–this story falls into the category of “are exploring” which half the time means it won’t–it pairs well with this in-depth New York Times article about Amazon Prim-Video-Studios’ evolving theatrical release strategy. Essentially, they (Amazon) won’t. 

For today, though, instead of focusing on “how” they release their films, I’ve been thinking about “what” types of films the streamers are releasing. Especially with Amazon releasing the relatively expensive (for them) Aeronauts, Netflix releasing a probably pricey Breaking Bad spinoff film El Camino and Netflix about to release the supremely expensive Martin Scorcese The Irishman

As I started to explain this shift, I came up with a thesis, but it didn’t really work. But then I had an opposite explanation. An antithesis if you will. So with that start, you know what? We’re going “Hegelian” on this today.

Thesis – Introduce the Low Priced Option and Then Move Up Cost/Quality Frontier

On the surface, this looks like a great way to explain what Netflix and Amazon are doing in feature films. Essentially, the low-cost entry method is all about finding a way to make a product for much, much cheaper and competing with incumbents by offering this cheaper option. Then, once you’ve established a foothold, you start making more expensive options and competing with incumbents directly. Presumably with higher quality and hence better margins. 

Take cars. Japanese automakers started by making cars that are safer and cheaper (Toyota, Nissan) then they moved into luxury market (Lexus, Infiniti). 

On the surface, that looks like what Netflix and Amazon are both doing. They start by making “prestige”-type films. (I do a quick definition of this in my latest Linked-In article.) So the streamers head to film festivals and buy films for “only” $14 million or so. They buy a bunch though, and give these to their customers. After the prestige films, they move onto the mid-tier films–say $20-50 million dollar price tags–like romantic comedies or horror films. And now both are graduating to the top of the income bracket: big budget films like The Irishman or He-Man. (Besides Aeronauts, Amazon hasn’t shown a willingness to go much bigger budget, but facts are no reason to spoil a nice narrative.) (As for previous studios trying to do this, Lionsgate is the best example.)

The challenge? As a reader pointed out on Twitter quite a while back, it isn’t like Netflix or Amazon Studios really figured out a way to make the films for lower costs. Netflix did when it came to licensed content; they routinely got studios to license them library films and TV series for way below the market value because studios considered in “found money”. (Indeed, back in August, I described how cable channels launched with reruns as a low cost option, then moved up the value chain as Netflix did here.) (Lionsgate tended to sell international rights to fund production, then made money off US distribution.)

Indeed, the main “innovation” of Netflix and Amazon was to take films that previously sold for $5 million at Sundance and pay three times as much for them. Definitively, then, this is NOT a low cost strategy. So what is it?

Antithesis – Make Increasingly Popular Films

Maybe this is moving up the “popularity” value chain. I like this approach because it combines two of my old bailiwicks. First, as I repeat ad nauseam, is that popularity is logarithmically distributed:

chart-2-movies-again(More examples here.)

In other words, the most popular film in America–Avengers: Endgame–is as popular as the bottom 500 films released in America in 2018 put together. My second bailiwick is that something that is popular on one platform is popular everywhere it airs. (ie The Force Awakens was the most popular film in the US on theatrical, home entertainment and linear TV. And very, very probably streaming too, if Netflix would share the data.) With this knowledge, we could reframe the initial strategy of both Netflix and Amazon as: 

Start by making pretty unpopular films, then make slightly more popular films and finally start making very popular films.

Prestige films and documentaries are less popular than teen rom-coms, gross out comedies and horror films, which are less popular than superhero movies. Crucially, the popularity is still roughly the same whether it goes to theaters or straight-to-streaming; popularity is popularity.

Does this help explain the behavior of our streamers better? Probably. According to the article, Netflix wants to make one “quality tentpole” quarterly AND it needs international appeal. Presumably films getting 80 million subscribers like Bird Box and Murder Mystery show the value of moving up this popularity theshold. The Breaking Bad film El Camino likely fits this category as well, being the equivalent of a Downton Abbey-sized film, bigger than many Sundance acquisitions but smaller than superhero films. And Aeronauts will likely have more appeal than a lot of other Amazon Studios acquisitions that were geared for awards season only. 

Presumably, a well done He-Man could do even better. Specifically, whereas prestige dramas and TV spinoffs may have a limited appeal globally, we know superhero and big budget sci-fi/fantasy can travel. He-Man fits that bill.

Synthesis – Moving Up the “ROI Cost/Quality Frontier”

The problem with just focusing on popularity is that, yes if all things were equal, you want more popular films. But these films specifically aren’t equal in one key regard: while most Sundance acquisitions are at most $5-15 million, The Irishman and He-Man could easily be in the $150 to $250 million. You could buy all of Sundance for those prices. 

I bring this up because of another Netflix film I haven’t mentioned yet, which is Triple Frontier. A key report in The Information leaked news that even with 40 million customers, it wasn’t “profitable” (though they probably said cost effective) for Netflix. It cost $100 million to make this mid-tier actioner.

That’s because popularity and cost combine together for ROI, or return on investment. Just because something isn’t “popular” doesn’t mean it isn’t cost effective. Horror movies are the gold standard here. Many are nowhere near as popular as superhero films, but they cost so much less that even middling popularity gives great ROI. A few weeks back on Strictly Business the CEO of Walden Media bragged about their strong ROI on their family films, despite not making as much money as say the Disney tentpoles. He’s totally right. I’d add animation has been an ROI gold mine for studios too.

But…

The best ROI really is big four quadrant tentpoles, even with the huge costs. If you can create a franchise, the hit rate skyrockets. Even as it decays over time (see Lord of The Rings Hobbit films, Pirates of the Carribean or Transformers), the films still often make their money back. (See my “economics of blockbusters” here.) That’s more than can be said for most Sundance acquisitions or even mid-tier comedies and horror flicks. I’d add, given that they travel well, big budget tentpoles have even better ROI for a global streaming service.

Netlix knows this and knows that 40 million for $100 million isn’t enough. It needs 150 million global viewers for $200 million. Hence, He-Man. (If it works.) Amazon Studios in a way is already doing this too, just in TV, essentially turning Lord of the Rings into the most expensive TV series of all time. Now, it does require more cash to compete in this expensive arena, but Netflix and Amazon seem willing to do that.

Other Quick Thoughts

I had some other quick thoughts I couldn’t fit into the above narrative too:

– There are additional ramifications for Netflix’s spending. Because if you can make Triple Frontier for $40 million, maybe it is “profitable”. In other words, if costs matter–they do!–then freewheeling spending may not be sustainable. 

– This doesn’t quite explain why Amazon isn’t releasing films to theaters anymore, I’ll admit. Instead, I’d focus on the marketing spend. The mistake wasn’t acquiring Late Night per se, but spending $30 million (at least, maybe higher) to market it unsuccessfully. If the films aren’t even going to make back that marketing spend, well just release them straight to your platform.

– Apple spent a ton of money for a Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds Christmas musical. (Yes you read that right.) Does this explain that? Sure, they’re hopping to the middle tier after their first set of films are mostly awards bait. 

– But why the overspending from the streamers? Right now, my working theory is that the marginal benefits of new subs is so high that overspending makes sense financially. As you hit maturity, though, those benefits decline precipitously, so you can’t keep doing it. That’s Netflix’s world right now. (I need to write an article to flesh this out.)

– What about Sony? Well, essentially take my feature film model, and apply your own percentages to it. If you accurately account for all the potential revenue streams (including a successful franchise), and still Netflix will pay you more in a “cost plus 30%” model, then you make that sale.

That’s it for feature film on streaming musings. For now. We still haven’t gotten to the rationale (or lack of) for skipping the theatrical window, which will be a future article series.

Oh, one more thing.

Post-Script: Man, He-Man? Seriously?

Also, just rewatch this trailer:

Maybe that’s why Sony hasn’t been able to get a working script in 12 years.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story – NBCU Reshuffle

I read this Variety story twice to make sure I got everything. Wait a minute. Okay, just read it a third time. Then listened to TV’s Top Five.  

Honestly, I feel like I could read a powerpoint presentation of this and still not quite understand who controls what and who reports to who(m?). There are presidents and chairmen and vice-chairs and folks reporting to multiple bosses galore. (Cue the Office Space joke.) Basically, who will make what decisions on what? I don’t quite know.

I almost elevated this to my top story because I’ve long wanted to explore Bonnie Hammer’s role at NBC Universal. She’s right on the cusp of being a top development exec–meaning I put her in that Moonves/Burnett level–but she stops just short. Syfy has had just too many slip ups to make her track record spotless and she doesn’t get credit for Bravo’s success rate. Meanwhile, USA Network had a great 2000s (silently) but the 2010s have been…fine.

As for the final piece of this puzzle–Comcast veteran Matt Strauss moving to head Peacock–we don’t know. Strauss helped spearhead Xfinity’s operating system. That’s a great user experience. But streaming is much bigger and he won’t really have control over the content side. Hammer and the dozens of execs over there will determine what ends up on Peacock as originals and second runs. Which means that the internal turf wars at NBC Universal aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Also, call me old fashioned but I still like it when one boss leads a business. Don’t divide, the technical and creative sides to keep execs happy; find a boss who can lead.

Data of the Week – TV Ratings Bump from 3 Days to 4 Weeks

What is your default for streaming video? Either you believe that customer behavior is truly different on Netflix or it’s basically the same. That’s my take for DVRs, and Rick Porter has fun details on how long folks wait to watch content on delay on traditional TV, which certainly matches my experience. (We’re currently watching season 3 of Mr. Robot in preparation for the new season. We recorded it two years ago, so yes those commercials are out of date.) Porter’s data gives a tiny glimpse into this phenomenon.

My only so-so hot take is that this shows that TV viewing across platforms is more similar (sometimes very delayed, but the majority within the first four weeks) than it is different.

Entertainment Strategy Guy Update

TV Ratings Updates!

We had a lot of data from last week. Batwoman came out strong in the ratings–for The CW–and the All American may be getting a “Netflix bump”. Lessons? Some combination of marketing, buzzy IP and easy catch-up help ratings. Meanwhile, the NFL ratings are still strong, which does hell for narratives and helps create narratives galore. (Maybe the NFL ratings were a politics thing? Or maybe folks got over their concussion fears? Is cord cutting dead?) Honestly, we don’t know.

Overall Deals

Jordan Peele re-upped his overall deal with Universal films. I didn’t see a price, but I like this fine for Universal. However, if I had a first look with him–cough Amazon cough–I’d be pretty mad. I mean, between these films, CBS’ Twilight Zone, HBO’s Lovecraft Country, when is he going to give you any attention to pitch?

Management Advice – Email

I’ve had this article by Cal Newport bookmarked for a while now. I absolutely love his (deep) work. In my mind, your team, division or business–yes, you right there–can drastically improve its effectiveness by limiting, controlling and managing work outside of email. Key quote here:

Cal Newport Quote

Why I Think Netflix Will End Up with 70 Million US Subscribers: Applying Bass Diffusion To The Streaming Wars

(Before we start, I launched a newsletter! It’s weekly and it’s short, and I explained my logic here. Sign up here.)

My goal is to try, as best I can, to explain the complicated parts of the entertainment biz, trying to walk readers through what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. Unfortunately, even when I’ve tried to simplify things, I’ve gotten comments that my articles are pretty dense. That’s what happens when you don’t have an editor. 

With that preamble, today’s article is math-y.

This is about as math-y as I can get. I’ll be slinging terms like linear programming and mean absolute percentage error. To help out, I’m going to start with a BLUF (bottom line up front) so you can read my findings even if you don’t want to read my process to learn how I pulled it off.

Today is the “Bass Diffusion Model” in action. In layman’s terms, the Bass Diffusion Model is a way to calculate a “total addressable market” (TAM or “market size” in non-jargon terms) for various new products or innovations. As the headline suggests, today we’re turning our gaze towards Netflix as a stand-in for the streaming world.

BLUF – Netflix’s Market Size in the US is closer to 70 million than 90 million

When you apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US operations, the model which fits best has a market size in the United States of around 70-72 million subscribers. In other words, a saturated US market is much closer to the low end of Netflix’s projected outcome (60 million) than the high end (90 million). 

The Bass Diffusion model fits the data pretty well. My average “error” fitting the Bass Model to Netflix is 1 million for streaming only and 600K for all subscribers.

That said, applying the Bass model to Netflix isn’t perfect. First, Netflix transitioned from a DVD company to a streaming company, which is arguably two different product innovations. Second, Netflix isn’t alone in the streaming world, and we only have current Netflix subscribers in any period, and don’t know how many folks are still streaming, but no longer Netflix subscribers. Third, this is a US only model. In the future, I plan to apply the projections to the international markets (which has its own problems) and for all streamers.

The Origin Story – Seeing Bass Diffusion Applied in the early 2010s.

Going to b-school during the Qwikster debacle of 2013 made for interesting class discussions. Overnight, Netflix became a laughing stock. Yet, even with that debacle the year before, they had kept adding streaming customers. They were the growth story already—23%!—leading some early analysts to throw out huge potential market sizes. How long would this double digit growth continue for?

That’s when my professor—a marketing professor, naturally—trotted out the Bass Diffusion Model. We’d all learned this model in marketing the year before; I’d never considered applying it here. He did, and out popped a total market size: about 60 million US subscribers. The model fit really well. 

That 60 million has stuck in my head and influenced my thinking ever since. It’s why I launched this series and why I kept my annual subscriber projections a bit lower than most observers last January. Seriously, look at this chart I made back for an article on Hulu at DeciderBass doesn’t leap off as strongly as it did for Fortnite, but you can see it for Netflix and especially see it for Hulu.

Image 1 - NFLX StartFrankly, because of that one application, the 60 million subscribers point in the US felt like the point where we’d see Netflix slow down. Then, in Q2 of this year…that reality finally happened.

The good news for Netflix is the last few years have had better subscriber growth for Netflix than that old Bass model. (For those keeping score, my projection last year was probably too low.) The bad news? Well, 90 million subscribers is looking MUCH harder to reach. But instead of relying on old estimates, today is about making new ones.

The Task – Forecast Netflix Subscriber Growth in the United States

Just to be clear, my goal today is to apply the Bass Diffusion Model to Netflix’s US subscriber count. Why US only? Well, it has a few more data points which will make it a bit more accurate. More over, the recent slow down point gives me a bit more confidence that we’re seeing the inflection, which I’m not sure we’ve seen internationally yet. 

I’ll be building two models, though, because Netflix has actually had two products: the DVD delivery and streaming video. Unfortunately, Netflix has been a bit tricky when it releases subscriber counts, which means I needed to make some assumptions. Let’s explain those.

The Data – Netflix Subscriber Counts Over Time

To really make the Bass model work, I needed to do a lot of cleaning of my Netflix subscriber data to make sure everything I was calculating was apples-to-apples. Wait, doesn’t Netflix provide this? They do, every year. Here’s a Statista table summarizing that. Can’t we just use that?

Unfortunately, it’s a bit unreliable. When I use data, I pull it myself so I can vet it. For example, with those Statista numbers, are those numbers paid subscribers or free? Streaming only? Or all subscribers? Many tables and charts for Netflix actually mix up those categories in the same chart.

In fact, even in my chart above—the one for Decider—I did a bit of that.

So I updated all my Netflix subscriber numbers, calculating streaming and all subscribers for Netflix from the beginning of time. This took me SO long—and I had some insights into Netflix’s history from it—that I’m going to write it up as its own, probably too-in-the-weeds, article. In the meantime, just know these colors are the six different ways Netflix has revealed subscribers to investors:

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What Is/Should Be SuperCBS’ Competitive Advantage?

Competitive advantage is tricky. In a nutshell, it’s a business’ unique attributes that give it an edge. If you don’t like that definition, here’s the Wikipedia article. I looked in my strategy textbook to find a simple definition—again, I’m standing on the shoulder of giant’s here—but couldn’t find a simple one sentence definition. Here’s the best quote, though it has some jargon:

IMAGE 1 - Strategy TextBook

Businesses have two challenges with this. First, having a “unique” capability is tough. Hence, most entertainment conglomerates for the last thirty years looked and operated mostly the same. (Start with a movie and TV studio, add a broadcast channel, then some cable channels, with failed forays into internet “stuff”.) Since it is tough, most companies don’t know or can’t express what their competitive advantage is.

In fact, one of my favorite “corporate America” stories is about competitive advantage and lack thereof. Fresh out of business school, I was participating in our business unit’s annual planning process. We were setting our plan for the upcoming year. When you learn using the “case study” method in b-school, well, 8 times out of ten it’s basically “competitive advantage” boot camp. You’re always studying the innovative companies who had a competitive advantage. Unless it’s the cautionary “failed business” case study, which meant they didn’t have a competitive advantage, and the company who did have one ran them out of business. (See Walmart and K-Mart.)

During this planning process, I foolishly asked, “Well, should we explain what our competitive advantage is?” The answer, was, “Uh, no. We don’t need to do that. We don’t need to have a competitive advantage to do our annual strategy.”

Fair enough! My boss was right. She didn’t really need a strategy to make an annual plan. We were going to spend lots of money making TV shows and movies regardless. What does strategy have to do with it? 

Not to mention, making annual plans is easy; doing strategy is really tough. It takes hard work and sometimes it requires admitting your strategy is either 1. bad or 2. non-existent. Moreover, even if you have a competitive advantage, it may not last, meaning you need to start all over again in a few years. Instead, most companies, leaders and groups just don’t talk about it. Maybe your corporate overlords or investors won’t notice you don’t actually have a strategy.

Keeping in mind most businesses don’t have a strategy, or they have a bad strategy, let’s ask:

What could be ViacomCBS’ competitive advantage?

This was the angle into SuperCBS that got me really excited last week. (Since ViacomCBS hurts my eyes to read, I’ve nicknamed them SuperCBS.) After digging deep into what “size” meant for my weekly column, I started musing on SuperCBS’ potential strategy. Mostly, I was dunking on their lack of a strategy. But as I reread the words, it felt a bit hollow.

It’s really easy to point at a company, find a bunch of different problems with their plans, and point out the flaws. If the company fails, I look smart, and can point at the column with a smug satisfaction. Even if they don’t fail, but merely fail to become the undisputed market leader than the column looks smart.

It’s much harder to look at that same company and imagine them as a beautiful strategic butterfly ready to emerge from the Porter’s Five Forces cocoon and fly into the world with a new competitive strategy that will help them acquire customers, grow marketshare and become an in class leader in entertainment. 

If I had to bet, I’d argue that 9 out of 10 entertainment companies–from telecoms to media to entertainment to tech–don’t really have a strategy. (The GAFA’s do, but subordinate business units may not.) This is the best bet to make for SuperCBS. But let’s pretend for the day that they really do have a strategy. I’ll start by listing the potential competitive advantages I see. I ended up with five. I’ll discuss the logic behind them, the potential upside and the skeptical viewpoint. As a bonus, I’ll recommend a merger or acquisition that could be needed to complete the strategy.

(Two cautions before we start. First, this is my “gut” analysis. I haven’t actually stacked all the options up with proposed financials, so I haven’t finished my thinking yet. And to that point since “strategy is numbers”, I’m going to throw a few in for every option, but these are pretty high level numbers. If I were doing an actual strategy, I’d demand a lot more rigor.)

Competitive Advantage: TV Advertising Oligopolist

Why? 

A fact in Brian Steinberg’s recent article really stuck with me: A combined CBS and Viacom could control up to 20% of TV advertising. This got me thinking that “advertising”  could be a capability that lays the basis of a new competitive advantage. This would pair well with Viacom’s recent acquisition of PlutoTV, an ad-supported video service. (Call that either an AVOD or FAST.) The logic here is, if you’re already great at selling advertising, lean into that capability and build it out. Become the ad-supported behemoth of the new TV landscape.

Upside? 

Well, if you’ve seen all the news articles where ad executives beg, plead and beseech Netflix to sell ads, you can tell they want to deliver Millennials advertising. Can CBS step into that role instead? Maybe. (Again, it’s a myth that CBS is only old people. It’s really popular with Millennials too. Even on the coasts!) So there is customer demand, and that will translate to advertising. Here are eMarketer’s estimates for digital and traditional TV advertising revenue:

In other words, SuperCBS currently has 20% of a $70 billion pie. (I found other similar estimates to eMarketers too.) But 40% would be even better! (Again, when thinking competitive, the goal isn’t a small slice, but the biggest slice.) And 40% of a $140 billion pie is even better. Of course, you know where this is going…

Skepticism?

Is the future of advertising digital or linear? Pretty clearly digital, and Google and Facebook have a tremendous head start, with Amazon as a third. Even if you just wanted digital video, Youtube is much farther ahead. (I’ve seen estimates ranging from Youtube owned $4 billion of digital video market in 2014 to $15 billion now, which is the highest estimate I saw. Though, I’m pretty skeptical they’re $15 billion of an alleged $17 billion pie…) 

I’d add even the ad-supported sphere will be extremely crowded and competitive. Roku is a well-placed competitor here. Or Hulu and ESPN+, depending on how many ads they keep selling. Plus, Amazon is getting into the game with IMDb TV and there are a bunch of other FASTs following them. 

Not to mention, you don’t start with ads, you start with customers, who you then sell ads against. The advantage of Netflix—and the reason Madison Avenue wants to work with them—is they already have 60 million subscribers in the US watching tons of TV. CBS All-Access hasn’t show it can deliver that yet. (Though PlutoTV is allegedly growing.)

Also, this is is a fairly US-centric approach, which limits the overall upside. Let’s pause on this last point. Does the strategy of entertainment conglomerates have to be global? Clearly Netflix and Amazon see global domination as a competitive advantage, but maybe by focusing on one country/region, smaller distributors can carve their own niches. I don’t know that I’d buy that, but I could see it.

Future M&A Needed?

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A TV Murder Mystery: Who Killed Game of Thrones?

Most of the time, when Hollywood kills off one of its TV shows, we know why. The ratings had been sinking or the talent asked for too much money. (Or recently, it was produced by a rival TV network/conglomerate.)

And yet, HBO killed off Game of Thrones, a TV series that was getting more popular with every season and making its parent company billions in the process. Meanwhile, other long-running series—with worse ratings—from The Simpsons to Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead march on like, well White Walkers. The corpse of Game of Thrones is now—spoiler alert—as cold as Jon Snow’s after season 5.

Why? Who had the motive? And who issued the order?

We Officially Have a Murder Mystery

Frankly, there isn’t a great explanation for why HBO cancelled this series. In the past, I’ve estimated that this series was making an estimated $300 million a season for HBO. (And potentially much more. Read the original, and my director’s commentary here, here and here.) Sure, HBO has a great (on paper) slate premiering the rest of this year and next year, but you know what helps launch a great slate? The biggest show on TV.

Have no doubts this series was growing. The number of viewers rose in every territory that I could find that releases data. Over 44 million were tuning in per episode in America alone, up from 9.3 million in season 1.

GoT Viewership

Of course, in some circles—like HBO creator circles—the story is what matters. Maybe the creators wanted to wrap it up nicely. Except most of the criticism of the last season related to the fact that the series felt rushed. Here is just a sampling of critics and fans complaining that season 8 felt rushed. More episodes and more seasons would have solved this problem, and who knows, by a hypothetical season 9 maybe 50 million people are tuning in in America each year!

Who kills off a money making show? Who are our suspects?

The Suspects

HBO

The buck stops there. So we should start with HBO. Their motive in killing this show would be simple: It’s the most expensive show on television. And since it is already insanely profitable, any additional profits have to be split with talent who are negotiating tougher and tougher deals with more and more back end. Each additional season is less lucrative for HBO, and if the marginal benefits meet the additional costs, well economically HBO should cancel the series.

George R.R. Martin

Listen, George, you’re a part of this. You probably didn’t finish the plot of A Song of Ice and Fire, because if you had, you’d have published that book. Which you haven’t. Maybe you told HBO to stop the series. Or you never provided enough details to fully flesh out 3 to 5 more seasons of the show.

The Actors

When in doubt, blame temperamental actors. Am I right? “Talent” is what you bitterly mumble in Hollywood when you can’t control the situation.

The motives for these suspects—and really I’m talking the big five actors of Jon nee Kit, Cersei nee Leda, Jaime nee Nikola, Daenerys nee Emilia and Tyrion nee Peter—is pretty simple: they’re sick of working on this series. Or more precisely, as artists, they’re ready to make other movies about Greek Gods, Han Solo and Terminators. (Too far?)

Further, even if you don’t mind working on a TV show for the rest of your life—including shoots in both scorching deserts and freezing tundras—you do know how valuable you are. You can’t have a GoT without a Daenerys and Jon Snow/Stark/Targaryen. Knowing that, the actors negotiated phenomenally expensive payments per episode, over $1 million per actor. They also likely demanded higher back end percentages.

The Showrunners

If the actors are sick of this series, imagine the two people at the lonely top of the creative pyramid, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (D&D in Reddit parlance). I can’t describe adequately how insanely time consuming this series was for these two individuals. They wrote a majority of the episodes, supervised the entire production from set design to costumes and oversaw all the editing and post-production; and oh by the way (NFL announcer voice), it was the largest TV production in history. 

Meanwhile, they had plenty of opportunities to do other things, from Star Wars to a new overall deal to ideas in their notebooks we can only imagine. If you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars (my tentative figure for D&D once they collect GoT royalties), do you want to keep spending your winters in Iceland and dealing with the most demanding fans in television history? That would be enough to say, “Eight seasons and we’re done!”

AT&T

Is there a thing that AT&T hasn’t managed to screw up since it acquired Time-Warner turned into Warner Media? Since taking over, they’ve lost the head of their movie studio, the head of HBO and plenty of other executives. Meanwhile, they named their new streaming service HBOMax, which was universally derided, and DirecTV is hemorrhaging subscribers. Oh, and AT&T is the most indebted company in America. Maybe they killed GoT to keep the losses from piling up. 

Netflix

When you discuss TV on the internet, you’re contractually obligated to mention Netflix at least once. While we give Netflix a lot of credit and blame for, they’re not involved here. 

The Evidence

Like a detective in Law & Order, it’s time to interview the witnesses. Which in this case means various articles that describes the suspect’s state of mind. Supply your own “dum dum”.

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Read My Latest at Decider: “To Binge or Not to Binge: Who Won the Battle Between Game of Thrones and Stranger Things”?

I just had a guest article published at Decider, this time asking, “Should Netflix keep binge releasing all its series?” My conclusion: not all of them. Essentially, Netflix is leaving “awareness” on the table.

Take a read and share on social media. Also, shout out to Alan Wolk, who tackled this back in the spring with Game of Thrones. I’d been toying with this idea when I read his take, and tried to update his thesis with the Stranger Things data point.

Like all long articles I write, I had two ideas that didn’t fit in the main piece. Here they are.

Has Hulu’s Weekly Release Helped?

It’s tough to say. Here’s the brutal case against it:

Image 8 - G Trends with Handmaids

Frankly, The Handmaid’s Tale is their most popular series and it is clearly the lightweight to the Game of Thrones/Stranger Things heavyweights. So let’s drop those two, and throw it up against some similar competition.

Chart 7 - Google Trends TV.png

That’s better, and you can see the same weekly interest boost that Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones had, just on a different scale. Instead, I still think that Hulu is just much, much smaller than Netflix right now. (Which, yes, isn’t breaking news.) Or about where HBO is, given that the interest almost matches something like Big Little Lies.

The counter to the binge model, though, could also be this chart. If The Handmaid’s Tale had dropped on one weekend, would Hulu even have a chance to keep it in the conversation? I don’t think so. In this case, Hulu made the right decision. This naturally leads us to ask about not just the current streamers, but the future streamers.

What Should the DAWN (Disney, Apple, Warner and NBC) Streamers Do?

Well, it depends on who you are and what your business model is, but overall, I’d be flexible. If you have a show with tons of pent up demand—like the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Amazon—consider weekly releases for the first season. Ride the potential enthusiasm to help launch weeks worth of content.

For the rest, I’d consider what type of content you have. Disney has a lot of shows that will benefit from weekly releases. Star Wars or Marvel TV series are guaranteed to drive conversation on comics and sci-f (fanboy) websites and podcasts. Weekly releases will amplify their reach from season one. For other dramas? Maybe not.

For HBO Max, they know all about launching prestige television, but HBO is about to quickly run out of days to launch all their content. In that sense, having more binge releases may make sense. Though again many of their fantasy or superhero series are destined to be stars in recap culture. For NBC, I still know so little about their platform that I won’t even speculate.

Apple may benefit the most from the binge release model. They are buying a ton of content and needs lots of buzz right from launch. Moreover, they aren’t trying to build a streaming platform per se, but a TV platform of which the content serves a subsidiary purpose. They should probably consider an approach closer to launching all series on binge, then rolling out the hits weekly for season twos.

Fine, What About Netflix?

If I were Netflix, I think they are missing something essential about how the social conversation drives a show to new heights. Right now, they have one potential mega-hit in Stranger Things. Even if they want to keep binge releases for all ten thousand other releases, they should consider carving exceptions for their biggest hits. A Stranger Things weekly release likely would have brought in new customer which they, um, need nowadays.

The key boils down to flexibility and being innovative. Innovation is not saying “Never, never, never.” It’s about understanding your customers, your business models and the attention landscape to maximize your return on assets.

Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 2 August 2019: Sprint & T-Mobile Clear Another Hurdle

Talk about an easy choice. I told you last Friday’s news about Sprint/T-Mobile would be the most important story of the week and nothing has stepped up to replace it.

The Most Important Story of the Week – Sprint & T-Mobile is Now Very Close

The merger of a German telecom giant’s US cellular operation (T-Mobile) with a Japanese tech-telecommunications giant US cellular operation (Sprint) is almost complete. It got the Federal government’s blessing via the antitrust division of the Department of Justice not moving to block it. This merger would fundamentally reshape cellular communications in the United States. Moreover, the deal would produce some strange winners and loses. But instead of recycling the “winners and losers” conceit, let’s try “who does this help, hurt or hinder?”

Help: AT&T and Verizon

And don’t let them tell you different. As the number of companies in an industry shifts, the amount of competition decreases and hence prices (and profits) rise. Eventually, if you get to one single company, well it becomes the monopolist pricing situation. In this situation, they extract all the value they can from customers. If you imagine this as a timeline of possible cell phone concentration, well we’re two notches from complete monopoly. 

Even if AT&T and Verizon have a stronger new competitor (and don’t forget AT&T tried to buy T-Mobile this decade), going from four to three competitors is good for all the incumbents.

Help: Dish (and its new mobile provider)

Dish is probably in the most trouble of the MVPDs as they face declining video subscribers, but don’t have the ability–like cable companies–to just raise the prices on internet access. (Better margins on that business too for cable companies.) As a solution, Dish has been buying up wireless spectrum with the now revealed plan to launch their own cellular network. If this merger had been blocked, Dish would have lacked that pivot ability and would have had to spend much more to get in the cellular game. Whether Dish can truly pull this off remains to be seen, but this merger will help.

Help: Softbank

Read Bloomberg’s Tara Lachappelle for this one:

Image 2 - Softbank

And that last sentence helps reinforce that this deal helps all the incumbents as well as Sprint/T-Mobile.

Hold: 5G Implementation

The biggest explanation for “why let them merge?” seems to be “for faster 5G implementation”. The challenge is that no matter what companies say to get approval for a merger, they don’t have to really do any of it. This line from Matt Yglesias’ article on the merger stuck with me, referencing Comcast’s merger with NBC-Universal:

IMAGE 3 Vox Quote

Even if the company’s promise 5G implementation, if they fail and they’re already merged, what is the government going to do? Break them up? When was the last time that happened? Under an Elizabeth Warren administration, maybe her Department of Justice would. Under everyone else? Probably nothing would happen.

Meanwhile, the easiest way to advance giant infrastructure projects is government spending on infrastructure. If you want 5G, you just pay cellular phone companies to build it. We could debate the method (direct government spending, low interest loans, tax rebates) but government spending gets things built faster than the private sector using capital markets. This merger may accelerate 5G investment but could just as easily not because of the lack of a competition motive.

Hinder: Antitrust Enforcement

Antitrust enforcement in the Trump Presidency (and this isn’t political, but about forecasting) has been very uneven. The Department of Justice sued to stop AT&T’s merger, even though Disney’s merger with Fox was arguably larger. Then Trump’s DoJ supports the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, even as it launches investigations into big tech for monopoly power. Overall, there is just a level of incoherence that a lot of smart people have pointed out.

Hinder: Giant Tech Companies

More consolidation means more control over mobile access to the internet, with potential restrictions on the big players from Netflix to Amazon to Google, depending on the service and need to access the cloud. At least that’s my near term take. Longer term, I’m intrigued by the theory that 5G will strengthen the cloud based companies, which could benefit Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Still, consolidation in one industry increases that specific industry’s buying and selling power, which hurts the businesses that have to use that platform. Fortunately for them, the tech giants are huge.

Hinder: Regulatory Certainty

Before the Department of Justice blessed the merger, many state Attorney Generals had sued to block the merger. That lawsuit may not start until December. So this merger may go through, or may still be blocked or in limbo for years. That’s uncertainty for everyone which is bad for business.

Hurt: Either Hulu or Netflix

Both T-Mobile and Sprint have deals offering free Netflix and Hulu respectively to their customers. Invariably, this flood of subsidized customers helps boost overall subscriber numbers. Will the new T-Mobile keep both deals? Unlikely, so inevitably one side will lose those subscribers from the mobile deal.

Hurt: The Unaffiliated Streamers

Related to the subscribers is one of the next “carriage wars” I described a few weeks back. Even with 5G, mobile data and bandwidth will be a weapon mobile carriers can use against streaming companies. In other words, if you only have three mobile carriers, they can demand extra fees to carry your streaming content over it’s airwaves. In economics, that’s called rent seeking. Given their leverage, it’s hard for me to see how that doesn’t happen. Which leads to our last point…

Hurt: Customers

I already told you this above, but some combination of increased prices or decreased quality is in the offing for customers. My most likely guess is a hypothetical roll out of 5G, but at much higher prices than in a competitive industry.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

BritBox Plans to Launch in UK

Thanks to Twitter reader Jack Genovese for this suggestion. And even though I had Tweeted out the Axios Media newsletter on this last week, I somehow ignored it myself for last week’s column. The news is that BritBox, an ITV/BBC joint streaming platform that launched in North America will launch in the UK. Which feels slightly odd that the British are now in a territory where by definition all their shows are already, but in a cord-cutting world it all works out.

Tthe update this week is that all that good BBC back catalogue–the type of stuff that helped grow Netflix early on–is going to HBO Max. Which seems weird that it wouldn’t go to BritBox itself. My guess is that AT&T just had deeper pockets and is willing to spend a la Netflix in the early days. Meanwhile, Digiday says that while everyone goes Millennial, they’ve gone older to strong results.

CBS All-Access Surging in Dish Carriage Dispute

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