In lieu of a big article this week—I was a pinch busy on some other projects and I’m also digging through a lot of viewership data from Nielsen—I wanted to shout out two guest articles that I never linked to on this website.
Honestly, it’s either feast or famine with news in entertainment. Some weeks, I look at all the stories and can’t figure out what is the most important. Then other weeks, I have a plethora to choose from. This week fell on the “plethora” end of the spectrum.
Two stories led the pack. Quibi raised and lost $2 billion dollars. So that’s a big story. Yet, splitting up Google could have tens of billions of market moving ramifications. How do I pick when Quibi is so juicy, but Google is so important? Why, by combining the two!
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Most Important Story of the Week – Google’s Antitrust Lawsuit and Quibi’s Demise
The background, in case you didn’t hear:
– The Department of Justice under Bill Barr filed a lawsuit with 12 state attorney’s general arguing that Google is an uncompetitive monopoly in search. This lawsuit makes lots of similar arguments to the Microsoft case of the 1990s about using their power to exclude competitors.
– Quibi is exploring options to shut down, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
So how does the former relate to the latter?
To explain that, consider a thought experiment. Imagine that along the way, Jeffrey Katzenberg pitched Susan Wojcicki (the head of Youtube) the plan for Quibi. And she loved it. (Hypothetically.) She replies, “Jeff, don’t launch Quibi as a standalone service, we’ll buy it! And you run it as a standalone venture.” Then assume they keep everything else the same. The same budgets. The same product. The same everything.
Would Quibi still be around?
And the explanation is fairly simple: Google can afford $2 billion in losses over three years. In fact, Google can afford to lose $2 billion dollars every year on one business. And maybe more.
My favorite example to show this is the money pit that is Youtube TV. When it launched, Youtube TV cost $35 per month. After adding some more channels, it bumped up its price to nearly $60. And that’s every month. For nearly 2 million subscribers. The thing is Youtube was likely losing money every month on Youtube TV, and potentially still is losing money every month on that service.If Google is losing $20 per subscriber per month, then they could easily be losing half a billion dollars per year. If not more.
In other words, Google will easily lose billions on a speculative streaming venture.
This gets to the realization I’ve had debating the streaming wars over the last year or so. And it started with Apple TV+. Essentially, I’d find myself talking past folks when we discussed our opinions on Apple TV+. I’d say that I thought the lack of a library, lack of ownership in original content and unclear pricing were strategically bad decisions. Then folks would counter that it didn’t matter because Apple could afford the losses. The same arguments are made for Amazon and Google in a number of businesses as well.
But these are two different arguments. One is about the quality of the strategy. One is about the access to resources. These two questions help frame the streaming wars. And they are two questions we should ask about every major player (from both entertainment and technology) in the streaming wars:
Does a streamer have a good business strategy?
Does the parent company have immense resources to allow deficit financing?
For example, I’d say that Apple TV+ has a bad strategy overall, but they have a parent company that can shield those losses. And while Prime Video has eventually clawed its way into second or third place in the US streaming rankings, it likely has lost lots of money in the process. But who cares because Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man.
We could go on, or I could make a quad chart to give you my take on this equation:
For Quibi, a questionable strategy meant they ran out of business. For Apple TV+, who has arguably the same bad strategy (if not even more cash burn), it doesn’t matter because they can burn cash unlimitedly. Disney likely can’t afford perpetual losses. Netflix is the only firm in the middle because it’s strategy clearly worked, but it also lost tons of money. It also needs to make some money, because it doesn’t have a wealthy parent, yet some would argue the equity markets do that for them.
The lesson here is really for practitioners. The business leaders out there. Draw lessons from those with good strategy, not those who have cash resources you may or may not have the ability to match. Good strategy is still good strategy. (What is good strategy? Books are written on it, but for me it’s a product that matches the needs of a targeted customer segment that creates value over the long term, by leveraging a competitive advantage.)
Society could also take some lessons from this. The market should pick winners or losers because they have good strategies. Because that means companies are creating value. When external factors support money losing enterprises, it’s usually because they are trying to acquire monopoly power, which is bad for innovation and customers.
These are trends that Quibi tried to fight against, but ultimately failed. Too many folks are spending too much in ways that don’t require earning money for it to have a fighting chance. Whether or not Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman should have seen that coming is an open question. And likely their business model was flawed, as I’ve written about before. But the reason they went bankrupt, ultimately, is because they didn’t have a parent company support massive losses.
This is the power of Big Tech and while the current antitrust lawsuit isn’t about this price gouging specifically, it’s still about the power of Big Tech.
Additional Google Antitrust Thoughts
– Does this impact M&A by Big Tech? Especially when it comes to big tech snatching up smaller entertainment companies? I constantly read that Amazon should buy Viacom-CBS. Heck, just last week I wondered why Netflix doesn’t buy Sony, since they license all their shows. A source said he’s heard a lot of rumors that Netflix wants to buy Viacom-CBS. All of a sudden, mergers for vertical integration purposes look a lot dicier.
– What about entertainment mergers? That’s a good question. The ire of antitrust litigators will likely stay focused on Big Tech for the foreseeable future. If the DoJ casts their eye of Sauron around, though, Comcast and AT&T are the next in the crosshairs, given their mutual penchant for mergers, the local and national monopolies and vertical consolidation.
– Is this bad for Youtube? Potentially. One of the easy remedies for the government to insist on is that Google divest Youtube to diversify the advertising market. Given that Youtube makes almost as much money as Netflix each year in revenues, this is a reasonable request. However, the current case makes no mention of breaking up big tech, and neither did the Cicilline report.
– What about price gouging/predatory pricing in entertainment? This is much more of a stretch, but a potential spinoff branch of antitrust. In other words, under scrutiny, the DoJ could say, “Hey, if you run a video service as part of a vertically integrated firm, you can’t lose money simply to gain market share.” This is the least likely outcome of these questions, but if it were enacted it would have the largest ramifications on streaming video of any other decision.
(I had more thoughts on Quibi too that will be up at a different outlet later.)
Data of the Week – What Happened to HBO’s 88 million International Subscribers?
When I spent weeks trying to figure out how much money Game of Thrones made for HBO, it required understanding HBO’s subscriber totals. Unfortunately, Warner Bros (now Warner Media) never made it easy. Before 2011 they didn’t report anything, so I had to rely on news sources. When AT&T acquired Warner Media, it stopped reporting HBO subscribers at all. Meanwhile, they combined Cinemax and HBO subscribers in the same total, even though most Cinemax subscribers were subscribed to both. To top it off, Warner never actually broke out subscribers in a table, you had to search the narrative to find the totals.
Last earnings report, AT&T decided to bring back HBO subscriber totals. So I updated my long term tracker. But AT&T decided to only report domestic/United States subscribers. Huh. Then in the latest earnings report, they added international subscribers, but claimed it was only 21 million. Double huh. So here’s my updated chart for HBO subscribers:
What happened to the 94 million at peak and 88 million as of 2017? And how high did it get in 2019 as Game of Thrones debuted?
I’ve reached out to HBO for comment, and will let you know if they reply.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Netflix’s Earnings Report
If you want my initial thoughts, here’s the Twitter thread:
1/ Netflix Earnings Report Thread – Q3 of 2020
Hypothesis: Netflix subscriber growth was low due to a weak content slate in the most recent quarter.
Reflecting on it, I’m surprisingly sanguine about Netflix’s earnings. I thought the content was more of a drag than it ended up being. For example, the films did pretty well with three besting the 70 million households watched by 2 minutes viewed total (55 million at 70% completion by my translation). Here’s a chart:
Caveats abound, as I like to say. First, the challenge is that the shift from 2019’s 70% completion to 2020’s 2 minutes viewed just crushes the narrative. As Netflix has said, this conversion usually means a show gains about 35% more viewers. That’s a lot. And if you took all the Netflix shows down to the 70% threshold, the numbers look less impressive.
Second, the weakness may have been in television more than anything else. Really, Netflix’s top three series are Stranger Things, The Witcher and Money Heist (La Casa de Papel), in that order. And the last of those does very poorly in the United States. Given that binge-worthy TV series drive time on Netflix, not having one of those really does hurt Netflix, and that’s why they likely missed subscriber targets in Q3.
The End of the Fast and the Furious
All things must come to an end, but even Universal’s biggest money makerof the last decade? As others said, we’ll see if Universal can hold to this promise.
A New Contender for “Next Game of Thrones”
The big question for 2022? Which series will be the “next Game of Thrones”, as I wrote about here. More than anything, every streamer is trying to mimic the success of HBO, even though it’s not clear to me audiences are clamoring for more fantasy series. (Contrary point? The Witcher did great numbers for Netflix.)
The news is that Disney+ is adapting 1988’s Willow into a TV series. This series immediately has more importance than many Netflix’ series. Mainly because Disney+ needs quarterly hits to drive subscribers and this is in “white space” that isn’t Marvel or Star Wars. (Netflix has tons of TV shows to bank on.) Plus, it could appeal to adults. Also, full disclosure: I loved Willow as a kid but haven’t rewatched on Disney+, so guess I’m doing that this weekend.
Charlie Brown Heads to Apple TV+
Well, how about that for a licensed content acquisition? All my hatred on not having a library, and then Apple grabs the Charlie Brown holiday specials, which are a tradition in many homes, exclusively for their service.
I love this move for Apple. (Caveat: price is everything, and I don’t know the terms.) For a service that needs growth, this is a great move. Honestly, I think it will drive more subscriber acquisition than Borat or Coming to America 2 for Amazon Prime Video.
It’s fairly clear Netflix is cancelling more shows sooner than they have in year’s past. The latest victim is the space epic Away. This move is more than a streamer cancelling an expensive show that underperformed, it shows that Netflix is embracing (some) cost discipline as it enters its third decade.
One of the big questions every quarter is whether or not Netflix will hit its quarterly subscriber growth estimate. This leaves analysts scrambling to read the tea leaves from app downloads and what not to try to figure out if they are on track or not. Tomorrow (Tuesday Oct 20th) will tell us one way or another.
My contribution to this is to note that often having valuable content drives adoption and usage, and hence subscriber growth. This sounds relatively benign, as a statement, but has profound implications for whether or not Netflix has a “moat”. Or indestructible defensive position. If Netflix is simply another content creator whose success depends on producing good content, well they’re as mortal as the rest.
So my data of the week is one look at content. There are lots of ways to do this (Hedgeye Communications used Google Trends to brilliantly show this in a newsletter last night), and the data set I’ve been playing with recently is Nielsen’s top ten streaming shows each week. Here is the total minutes viewed for Netflix from Nielsen by week for the United States from end of March to present, with a big gap:
And here’s the table for folks who want the raw numbers. I also included how many titles they had in the top ten.
– Hits drive the ratings. Again, this is so obvious and has been true for decades it sounds silly to restate it, but in the “digitally disrupted” world, we have to relearn old lessons.
– Man, look at March! It turns out Tiger King and Ozark drove huge viewing to the platform. Almost 2.5 times more viewing to the top ten.
– Likely this means that content in Q2 was much more popular than Q3. Tentatively, this would portend a drop in US and Canadian subscribers in the next earnings report. (Some application sign-up and download data is presaging this outcome as well.)
– Yes, the last three weeks have seen 1 to 2 non-Netflix shows make the list, making this time series not totally apples-to-apples over time. That said, I ran the list with the Amazon and Disney shows, and it looks mostly the same. Meaning that the top 3-5 shows tend to account for most of the viewership, so having one or two small shows with 500 million minutes viewed doesn’t radically change the numbers.
– I have a ton to unpack for these Nielsen numbers to learn/prove more insights about how content behaves on Netflix and other streamers. (Trust me, I know a ton from my previous role about how the content behaves, but I want to show/prove it in the data. And for the most part, it behaves the way I expect.)
– Long term, I hope to compare Nielsen’s data to Netflix’s Top 10 data (provided by Flix Patrol) to Netflix’s own datecdotes to Google Trends and more, but that takes time. Also, if you have a data set you want to share, my email is on the contact page!
– Specifically, I’m on the look out for the missing weeks of top ten data from this Nielsen data set. Someone sent me the April and May numbers, I’d love to have March, June and July if anyone has them. Your confidentiality assured.
This felt like a light week on the big stories. In entertainment at least; in politics, well good luck keeping up.
My eye was drawn, then, to the Disney news of Tuesday that they’ve re-organized to focus on streaming. Meanwhile, another Netflix executive left the original side of the house. By most measures, Netflix is the global and US leader in streaming, and frankly I think Disney+ is second.
So let’s look at these org chart changes for the two most important streamers and what they mean for their respective strategies.
Most Important Story of the Week – Dueling Re-Orgs by Disney and Netflix
Disney Re-Orgs the Chart To Focus on Streaming
There is nothing like re-organizing the org chart to prove that you mean business in a given strategic pursuit. Thus, The Walt Disney Company–under all sorts of stress, from theme parks to sports ratings to a letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren about firing employees–has re-organized their business units and leadership to focus on streaming.
Or so they said. In reality, I’m not sure.
Let’s start with what we know, and what we know about who reports to whom. Kareem Daniels, who used to head consumer products, video games and publishing, is taking over all media operations and distribution, that includes both the US TV networks business, the US direct-to-consumer business and worldwide P&L. His title is ostensibly “head of distribution”.
Notably, it doesn’t include the movies studio (and subsidiaries), the TV production, the sports group, or the theme parks and merchandise group. Further notably, the head of international direct-to-consumer (Rebecca Campbell) will report to both Daniels and CEO Bob Chapek. Daniels has worldwide P&L, but Campbell reports to both.
The problem this is supposedly supposed to solve is that the TV groups will finally forget about all that cable revenue from ESPN and broadcast ad revenue from ABC and focus on making TV for the streaming future. It also may bury some of the losses from media networks and streaming in the same org chart, making it unclear how Disney is or isn’t making money on media.
My worry is first with the dual org chart part. If streaming is the future, it should have one leader who is responsible for it on a global basis. Which is really Disney’s goal here. Instead, my gut is Campbell will end up thinking in international terms whereas Daniels will focus on the United States. (Which still is the majority of Disney’s current revenue, mainly driven by ESPN.) Meanwhile, can US based production studios really think globally for content? Especially on the TV side?
The biggest driver of success this decade at Disney–feature films–remains independent. Though, I don’t hate that. If anything, this acknowledges that while home entertainment, Pay 1, Pay 2 and Pay Infinity are collapsing, the box office isn’t quite dead. Which means Disney’s films will still plot a course through theaters…whenever they come back. Of course, does Daniels have control over theatrical distribution too? Meaning that even the studios are just glorified production companies? Maybe there are more questions in this re-org than answers.
Long term, this change reinforces another constant struggle at Disney to differentiate between “the United States” and “the rest of the world”. If anything, it looks like Disney will have one streaming strategy for the states (America is Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+) whereas the globe is Disney+ and Star (with a TBD on ESPN+). As I wrote a while back, I don’t hate this. The jury is still out on producing global TV content holistically versus buying good local programming.
Netflix Loses a Third Content Executive in a Month
When Netflix promoted Bela Bajaria to head of global TV content, this seemingly foreshadowed Disney’s move. Netflix had bifurcated content teams and they want all content decisions made by the same person, but this time the person previously focused on international content. This aligns with their global strategy, which is good.
But that’s old news. What drew my eye this week was the departures at Netflix. Last week, Channing Dungey, Vice President of Original Content and Drama, departed. This week, the head of original series followed her out of the door, as Jane Wiseman left.
Those departures are not necessarily good news. If you’re Netflix, though, they’ve managed to spin every firing, or even wave of firings, as insanely positive. You “fail the keeper test” and they let you go.
That explanation doesn’t pass my own test, “the smell test”. In other words, I smell BS.
What is happening at Netflix right now isn’t some clever, new tech, disruptive approach to human resources. Nope, this is an old school Hollywood power struggle. A new executive takes over (Bajaria, by the way, trained in the classic dark arts of Hollywood politics) and then cleans house to bring in “their” people.
If the strategy is going great, then firing a wave of executives responsible for that strategy seems…foolish? No? But then again, this is Hollywood and it wouldn’t be the first time an executive came in and cleaned house even when things were working. (For instance, Alan Horn leaving Warner Bros after winning the 2000s to go to Disney…why did they let him go?!?!?)
If the departures gain steam, then serious questions are raised with only two negative explanations: Either Netflix is firing quality execs in a power struggle, or they had a content strategy that wasn’t working (despite press to the contrary).
Do Executive Reshufflings Matter?
Yes and no.
(A point I’ll keep making until I die.)
They do matter because structure is one of the pinnacles of internal strategy exemplified by the McKinsey 7S framework. (I haven’t “explained” this framework yet, but I do love using it.)
Often we focus on external strategy and disruption. But having an internal strategy (skills, structure, shared value, systems) to execute that external strategy can be as important as the value creation business models. So critiquing whether or not Disney and Netflix have got that right makes sense.
But you’ll note I haven’t commented on the personal qualities of any of these executives. This is the no side of the equation. We don’t have a lot of good “metrics” for executives. So judging whether or not Kareem Daniels or Rebecca Campbell is better than Cindy Holland or Bela Bajaria feels like a fool’s errand. And half the time the celebrated new executive flops in their new role.
So these moves are critical, but it remains tough to judge if they’re doing the right thing.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
Netflix Ends Free Trials
The masters of PR are at it again. And I don’t say this begrudgingly for a Netflix “bear”: I genuinely consider their press relations to be a source of competitive advantage. (I’d add their deal teams are particularly creative too.)
Thus, in August, Netflix announced they are making some content free for everyone, and got praise in outlets across the spectrum. Then in October, they shut down free trials in the United States–following a global trend–and no one reported on it until friend of the website Hedgeye’s Andrew Freedman asked about it on Twitter. For two weeks, no one realized Netflix had stopped free trials. Not a single article!!!
Ending free trials is fairly smart for Netflix, though it’s a warning sign for the streaming wars. It’s smart because increasingly customers are signing up to a service simply to binge the wares and bounce to the next streamer. Given that more folks know what they are signing up to watch and when, allowing this sampling is unnecessary for Netflix.
(Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Starz, Showtime and HBO saw much, much higher churn numbers on Amazon Channels, which is one driver for HBO insisting that HBO Max stay off that platform. Amazon promotes churn, which is bad for the SVODs.)
The worry, for Netflix, is that the behavior is still there where folks churn in and out of streaming services. Netflix is as close as any service to the “universal” streamer. The “must have” everyone must own. But even they are seeing customers opting in and out of Netflix after customers have binged most of the stuff folks want to watch.
If you’re looking for numbers for the streaming wars, churn is in the top 5. Arguably the most important number. If churn goes up for everyone–including Netflix–that’s bad for everyone. My favorite theory of the streaming wars–from Richard Rushfield–is everyone is losing the streaming wars simultaneously. Churn is how that could happen.
(By the way, Apple TV+ is extending free-trials for some customers into February 2021. So maybe they really need free trials.)
Coming 2 America 2 is Coming to Amazon for $125 million joining Borat 2
Amazon is on a movie buying spree. Frankly, they’re taking advantage of films that can’t get distribution in the shut down theatrical landscape, but it doesn’t make sense to hold until 2021, which will be brutally crowded. Of course, they can overpay for this privilege because we don’t know how much money they make on streaming. I tend to agree with others that I don’t see how they break even on this film. (Past math on streaming video economics here, here, or here if want to see why.)
Context Update – Stimulus This Year Looks Unlikely
Which is bad for the economy. That’s plain and simple. The more stimulus going to consumers and businesses the easier it is to handle lockdowns while shortening the recession. Even waiting until January will likely cause the recession to deepen sharply. This is easily the biggest economics story to monitor.
Data of the Week – HBO Max Saw a Rise in Downloads
If Disney is in “hit-driven business” club, well HBO Max wants to join. This week, they featured a read-through of an episode of The West Wing with the original cast and it drove new downloads according to Apptopia:
Yesterday, @hbomax hosted a reunion for 'The West Wing' cast. Leading up to it, from 10/1 – 10/14, HBO Max increased daily app downloads 73.5%.
This in particular solves HBO Max’s biggest business problem, which is converting HBO users to HBO Max users. So adding a few hundred thousand new users is a win. Future events like The Friends reunion–in particular–should help further.
M&A Updates – The DoJ Is Preventing a Dish and DirecTV Merger
Not all M&A deals are getting approved. (Though it likely doesn’t help AT&T that they angered the current administration by owning CNN.)
Over the last six weeks, Nielsen has released a top ten list of the most streamed series/films by total minutes viewed. I’ve been taking this data and adding a layer of detail on top, specifically who produces and who distributes what shows on Netflix, Amazon and so on. Now that we have six weeks of data, we can start to parse some insights.
(Thanks to Kasey Moore of Whats-On-Netflix for saving the Nielsen lists for me.)
The visual of the week for this week is just a look at who owns what in the streaming wars. Of the 52 billion minutes of TV tracked by Nielsen, here’s who produced what and what shows they own (by parent company):
And here is the table if you want to see how the sausage is made.
Now some insights/details.
— Some shows were co-productions, in which case I split ownership between the two companies. Meaning, the percentages won’t add up to 100%, since some shows were counted in both owners’ percentages.
— Two films/series were not on Netflix (The Boys and Mulan), but that only boosts Netflix to 3.3% in “Netflix-only” series.
— I focused on major producers only. The traditional conglomerates. Usually, any of these shows has a bunch of smaller producers attached; I counted who likely paid the production budget.
— I use Wikipedia to determine producers with another source who tracks everything on Netflix by copyright ownership. The closest call was Umbrella Academy, which is also co-distributed by Netflix. However, NBC Universal owns the copyright outright so Netflix will not own it in perpetuity. Moreover, they aren’t listed as a producer, so didn’t make this list.
— That’s really what I’m trying to get at by focusing on producers versus distributors. The idea that who “owns” a piece of content so they can eventually maximize the value of it.
— I can hear the criticism, “Well this list is mostly library content.” And that’s true, but not 100% correct. Even the list of first and second run content by Netflix is almost entirely licensed content. — Seriously, don’t use “Netflix Originals” as a descriptor. It really doesn’t capture the key parts of ownership in content. — I will run this same analysis on the FlixPatrol data for Netflix’s Top Ten list, but I haven’t had time to do that yet.
Bottom Line: A core thesis of Netflix’s content spend has been to build a “moat” of original content they own in perpetuity. Clearly they have a ways to go before they truly own their content.
(Welcome to my series on an “Intelligence Preparation of the “Streaming Wars” Battlefield”. Combining my experience as a former Army intelligence officer and streaming video strategy planner, I’m applying a military planning framework to the “streaming wars” to explain where entertainment is right now, and where I think it is going. Read the rest of the series through these links:
Wars tend to have their own cadences. Some start quickly and one side gains an advantage, and wins the war. Sometimes in months. (The Franco-Prussian War, for example.) Some wars bog down into stalemates, that take years, with neither side getting an advantage. (The first World War, for example.) And in some wars, one side gains a huge advantage, everyone assumes they will win for sure, only to find that the initial leaders lose the war. (The Axis in the second World War, for example.)
For years, a lot of folks have assumed the streaming wars are the first type of war. Netflix started streaming in 2008, and got out to such a commanding lead it looked unlikely that anyone would catch them. And as I’ve shown in charts before, Netflix really is far ahead.
Netflix is so far ahead, some analysts say the war is over. (You know who they are, so even though I’m not linking to them, this isn’t a straw man argument.)
Of course, this begs the question: what type of war is this? Is this a Franco-Prussian War that is already over before it starts? Or a World War II, where Germany and Japan are doomed, they just don’t know it yet?
Over at Decider, I’m writing a recurring feature where I’ll take stock of the last month (or so) and declare a “winner” for the most popular piece of content. (The latest went up last Friday.) I’m in love with the concept, because it forces me to check in regularly with how well shows are actually doing. In last week’s edition, I got a TON of insights that one article couldn’t contain them all. So here is one for today:
The streaming wars are increasingly competitive.
In other words, I think the streaming wars will look more like World War II than the Franco-Prussian war. (Fine, enough with the war metaphors.)
If you want to know what separates the “bulls” from the “bears” on Netflix’s strategy/future/stock price, it’s this view of the war. If the streaming wars are already over, then Netflix is priced too low. If new entrants can gain audience share, then it’s a genuine competition. The last two months of data show an increasingly completive content landscape, and it’s a trend which will likely pick up stream. Let me explain why.
To start, we have more and more data to understand (American) streaming viewing.
Back in July, I mostly used Google Trends data to estimate what was the most popular film in America. I used some of the customer ratings too, but not much more. The problem is that each of these data sources can be noisy. Since then, though, the data situation keeps getting a lot clearer, as I wrote about in August:
– FlixPatrol is having their data consolidated by Variety VIP. FlixPatrol has shared their data with other folks as well. (They count Netflix, Amazon, Disney and other top ten lists around the world.)
– Nielsen started releasing SVOD Top Ten lists (though four weeks delayed) by total minutes viewed.
– And after Mulan came out a few companies gave peaks at their data, including 7 Park, Reelgood and Antenna. (They all measure in slightly different ways.)
– Parrot Analytics has been releasing their weekly top ten since last year.
Are any of these data analytics firms perfect? No. In fact, I have issues with each of them, ranging from questions about their methodology to questions about their sample size/make up.Be assured, when the Entertainment Strategy Guy is reviewing a data set, I’m looking for outliers which make me question the data. If I see them, I’ll try to call them out.
Thankfully, most of the data sources are directionally aligned, meaning they are all likely measuring signal, not noise.
Next, all of the sources are showing the trend of more and more “non-Netflix” shows/films in the top ratings
I noticed this first when reading Variety VIP’s write up of 7 Park’s subscriber data from August and July. 7 Park analyzes wether a unique customer watches a piece of content, so it’s gives some insight into how many different shows are being watched by various customers. Here’s the data from August and September that 7 Park shared with me. This is measuring “audience share” meaning it doesn’t account for how much customer watches, simply whether a unique customer engaged with a piece of content:
That’s four different streamers in both charts. Hulu, Amazon and Disney+ each put a top show into the measurement. AA year ago, it would have been all Netflix red. Even Amazon wasn’t breaking through.
(A note on 7Park data: I do have some questions about their sample size. It may over-represent avid streamers, as the Apple TV+ usage is higher than I would have guessed. This applies to some of the other folks as well, such as Reelgood.)
Like I said, though, directionally this lines up with other sources. Yesterday Nielsen updated their latest Weekly SVOD Top Ten. For the first time since they launched in August, a non-Netflix streamer made the list. And not just one, two!
Again, Netflix is still the king. This is because usage makes it even harder for the smaller streamers to catch up, so Netflix owns 80% of the list. But the story isn’t about who is currently leading, but who is catching up. Here’s Parrot Analytics look at the current most “in-demand” series.
In this case, since they measure demand not simply viewership, the spread is much broader. This is driven by the popularity of a lot of traditional firm’s IP.
(Regarding Parrot Analytics, I have concerns their data overrates the conversation around super heroes and genre. It also lags a bit too much for my taste.)
The Viewership Wars are Joining the Streaming Wars
Overall, this change shouldn’t be too surprising. The battle for viewership and dominance of ratings has been the quest of TV channel executives since the dawn of TV. And the battle for the dominance of box office has been even longer.
Over both those battles, various channels and studios have taken leads. In the 1990s, NBC looked unstoppable. (Must See TV) CBS took over broadcast ratings in the 2000s by launching a series of “acronym” shows and Chuck Lorre comedies. In film, Disney took over box office in the late 1980s, then again in the 2010s. Even as most executives can’t sustain permanent advantages, everyone so often someone does.
Netflix is currently the leader. Can they retain it indefinitely? Probably not.
Even now, as far ahead as Netflix is in viewership, it doesn’t own a majority of all TV viewership. In fact, it doesn’t own a majority of streaming time. This is why when you look at Parrot Analytics demand measurements for all TV, the view features even fewer Netflix shows, since streaming is still only 25% of all TV time.
This shows up in the Reelgood data as well. Reelgood tracks audience behaviors on a range of services, but inevitably their customers seek a wide range of shows and films. Take this look from the week Mulan launched.
That’s everything from Disney films to films only on TVOD to Netflix Originals. In short, viewership is diverse in America. Netflix doesn’t own it all, even if it owns the mental headspace of many critics, analysts and decision-makers in the United States.
It seems clear that as more traditional broadcasters, cablers and studios launch their own streamers, they’re going to fight more and more for the streaming viewership audience. Ideally, if I had Nielsen’s data for the last two years, we’d be able to chart this rise. Ideally, I’d have Nielsen data for the last two years, and show that August or maybe last November was the first time a show made the top ten list.
But I don’t have that data and Nielsen just started releasing weekly top ten lists. Instead, I’m speculating here, but increasingly, it seems like the Disney’s, Prime Video’s and HBO’s of the world are launching the most popular shows in the world.
What Does this Mean for the Future? What Should We Look For?
Well, the streaming wars are going to be competitive. That’s what this means. The more shows that become “must watch” means the more services folks will need to own. Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings prequels will fit this bill. Same for Disney’s big shows. And I think Peacock has the best chance of developing new additional shows that fit this bill since they have a track record of doing that. (Their library with HBO’s is also the strongest.) Don’t count out Hulu or Paramount+ nee CBS: All Access either.
This means that split wallets are likely to be the case in the future. I don’t think anyone should have a model that implies that Netflix owns 50% or greater of a customer’s wallet. Probably even less than 25%.
Obviously, this means that Netflix will be fine for the streaming wars. No one should say “Netflix killer” because they are clearly such an indispensable part of the streaming diet for so many customers.
Unless, of course, you care about the stock price. This competition means that Netflix can’t pull back on spending, because then the top shows chart will only feature more shows from other streamers. It also means they can’t raise prices or can only do so slowly. Given that Netflix has one of the mostly highly valued stocks compared to underlying economics, any situation where it fails to conquer all TV has a lot of downside.
If content is king—it is—this is a battleground to continue monitoring in the streaming wars. Looking at the colors on these streaming charts is key. If they stay all red, that’s great for Netflix. If they look like—pun intended—a peacock’s feathers, that’s good for the traditional players.
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.
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.
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:
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..
…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.
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.
We had a fun bit of data dropped via Nielsen in August which allows me to update my most popular article of the year, “Netflix is a Broadcast Channel”. Nielsen let us know how viewership looks through the Coronavirus lock downs as of August 2020. Here’s the original 2019 data and the update:
Since I promised this is in visual form, here’s the stacked bar charts…
First, is this statistically significant?
Yes, tentatively. It all depends on what your confidence interval is, but with their panel of about 1,000 folks, Nielsen can have a margin of error either direction of about 3%. This is right on that border line.
That said, why use a 95% confidence interval? If you use a 90% confidence interval, than year we’re reasonably confident Netflix saw a bump. I’d add, everyone else was flat and next grew or declined. (Except for Disney+, which wasn’t on the platform last time.) That’s hard to interpret as anything but good to great news for Netflix. Contrariwise, if you want 99% certainty, then this is firmly within the margin of error.
So we’ll see how this number grows, but I’m inclined to think it measured a real trend.
Second, why not update your Primetime chart from last time?
You mean this one?
If this were extrapolated to Primetime, then Netflix has exceeded even CBS and taken the top broadcast spot. (They’d be at 8 million primetime viewers if we used the same math from August.)
First, and simply, I don’t have the linear TV viewing numbers to compare. Broadcast ratings could have increased by a similar rate, so it wouldn’t be apples-to-apples.
Also, while the 3% increase in Netflix viewing is good, and the 7% surge in streaming video is even bigger, I’m skeptical that viewing came during primetime. Sure, folks can’t go out so TV viewing is likely up across the board at Primetime, but the 7% surge in streaming likely came from elsewhere. I see two options.
Option 1: People watching TV during the daytime. The notable thing about coronavirus is that everyone is sitting at home streaming during work. (Are those two things incompatible? I think so, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still happening.)
Option 2: Children. The other group that is probably streaming even more than ever are kids. And children. And teenagers. Again, not during primetime, but throughout the day. And my initial comparison was about primetime viewing. That’s why Disney+ went from not existing last fall to getting 4% share of streaming.
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:
At 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.
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.