Cable Network Owners are Culling Underperforming Networks (Mar 21, 2017)
Today, both the Wall Street Journal and Variety published in-depth pieces on the way major cable network owners are culling some of their underperforming networks, either shutting them down entirely or shifting investment to their more successful properties. Both articles have lots of good history, and each also features an interesting graphic with lots of detail that helps readers see which are the worst performing networks. All of this is, of course, a reflection of several trends impacting the TV industry, from cord cutting to cord shaving to increasing content costs and a shift from linear live viewing to VOD and streaming. For now, the focus is on these underperforming channels, and the pieces seem to suggest there are magic subscriber numbers above which the problems are either smaller or don’t exist at all. But the reality is that even big networks like ESPN are struggling. As I argued in a my weekly Variety piece last week, the only thing keeping most cable networks from seeing negative growth is contractual rate increases, which won’t last forever. Interestingly, though, cable networks continue to be some of the most lucrative segments of the overall TV market, with high margins relative to pay TV providers and broadcasters.
This situation in the UK doesn’t seem to be getting much attention here in the US, but it should be, because although the boycott is UK-only for now, the issues at stake aren’t UK-specific at all and could easily spread to other markets. What’s happened is that some UK companies as well as the UK government have become increasingly concerned that their ads on YouTube have been appearing next to some pretty undesirable videos featuring extremism or promoting terrorism, and Google’s tools for avoiding this don’t seem to be doing their jobs. As a result, several companies and the government have now stopped advertising on Google at all as a protest until Google fixes things. A blog post from Google makes clear just how hard it is to police the video on YouTube – 400 hours of video are uploaded every hour, and it stopped ads from showing on 300 million videos last year, which provides some sense of the scale and the impossibility of monitoring all this with human beings alone. Google is never going to be able to police the content itself at sufficient scale and with sufficient accuracy to solve the problem directly. The solution is therefore probably paring back the kinds of videos on which at least certain ads would appear – such as limiting big brand advertising to channels with long histories, large numbers of subscribers, and a good track record. However, it’s likely that many brands would choose to limit themselves to this higher quality material, which in turn would mean the long tail of videos on YouTube might go un-monetized or monetized at a much lower rate, which would have a severe impact on not just creators but YouTube’s financials. Not only could this problem spread to other markets, but Facebook will have to deal with many of the same issues as it ramps up video advertising on its platform.
The Snapchat as TV thing is getting a little hackneyed, but it works because it’s increasingly true – it appears Snapchat is increasingly prioritizing video over other content in its Discover tab, and perhaps especially original video created for the platform. That could push other content (and its publishers) further down the listing of Stories within Discover, or could potentially demote all non-video content into a different area entirely. That’s not terrible news for those content partners who major in video, but would obviously be much worse for those who focus on articles and the like. My guess is that those already get much less viewership than the video stories given the setting and the audience, but it is going to push Snapchat to become much more video-oriented overall.
Netflix’s original content has always been a mixed bag – on the one hand, shows like House of Cards won awards (and also won Netflix lots of customers), but on the other there was Marco Polo, which critics panned (it has a 24% score on Rotten Tomatoes) but audiences enjoyed anyway (the corresponding audience score is 93%). Given that Netflix doesn’t release any kind of viewing data, it’s emphasized positive critical response as a validation of its original content, but it’s also defended shows like Marco Polo as being popular with real people even if critics didn’t like them. This new show has done even worse than Marco Polo with critics, but there’s a decent chance audiences will lap that up too. The fact is that any content production is a gamble, and given that Netflix doesn’t use Amazon’s pilot model to select new shows, that gamble is that much larger, especially with a big budget, Marvel-branded show. Only Netflix knows what its internal calculus on what makes a show a success or a failure looks like, but I’m guessing a one-off critical panning won’t do too much damage to its original content strategy. If it starts to become a pattern, however, that would be more worrisome.
via Business Insider
Just when Facebook seems to be making progress with news organizations, it does something like this: reporting the BBC to the police for “sharing” child pornography in an effort to push Facebook to take the content down. The BBC’s reporting here is just vague enough that it’s possible that the images that weren’t taken down despite being reported really don’t contravene Facebook’s policies, but this certainly isn’t a good look for Facebook, which should be doing everything it can to stamp out child pornography and images of child abuse on the site, rather than obstructing investigations into it. And it certainly shouldn’t be doing ridiculous things like reporting journalists to the police under such circumstances.
via BBC News
Facebook is on a big listening tour for local media — and publishers are actually happy – Mashable (Mar 6, 2017)
When Facebook announced its Journalism Project a few weeks ago (and hired Campbell Brown to take a leadership role within it), it said all the right words about wanting to partner with news organizations and help them be successful. But the problem with platforms like Facebook and Google is those promising words have often rung hollow as they’ve subsequently pursued initiatives and products which ended up threatening rather than helping the media industry, and news sites in particular. It’s heartening, then, to see that Facebook seems to be engaging in a fairly genuine way with news organizations, and actually listening to them and their concerns. This article also suggests that these organizations are responding positively to some of the new ad options Facebook is introducing (though of course it remains to be seen how Facebook users respond to things like a higher ad load in Instant Articles and mid-roll video ads). It’s early days still, but there are at least some signs that Facebook means what it says about partnering in healthier ways with content partners.
Facebook has started to flag fake news stories – Recode (Mar 6, 2017)
This was part of Facebook’s plan for dealing with fake news, announced back in December, so there’s no huge surprise here. But Recode picks up on several points worth noting, most importantly that because Facebook is relying on third party fact checkers, vetting fake news stories can often take quite some time, even when they come from a publication known to publish only false news stories. That’s problematic because by the time the “disputed” label is attached, many people will have seen and believed the story, and attaching it a week after it first surfaces will likely have little impact, especially on a high profile and popular story. It really feels like Facebook needs a separate label for entire fake news publications which is applied automatically to its links – that would be straightforward and far more useful, and could still be done in cooperation with fact checking organizations. But if Snopes and Politifact are going to be really useful, they have to move much faster on this stuff. Here’s hoping Facebook becomes less hesitant and pushes its partners to act more quickly, so that this tool can become really useful.
The attitude reported in this piece is not new at all – the New York Times reported on this a while back, but it’s been part of Snap’s DNA from the beginning: it simply doesn’t engage with “influencers” or creatives who use the platform to promote themselves in the way other platforms do. What’s new in this BuzzFeed piece is that it claims influencers are leaving the platform for others where they’re treated better. Snap’s official comment in the article couldn’t be more blasé – it basically says it cares more about its customers and official media partners than these “creators” – but it can probably afford to be that way. The reality is that these influencers aren’t likely nearly as important on a platform that has lots of official, professionally produced content from brands and media outlets as it is on a user-generated network. Between content from friends and content from these official partners, Snapchat likely has plenty to keep users interested and engaged without having to kowtow to independent creators.
HTC announced this subscription VR service for its Vive headset at CES, but it’s now opening it up to developers. The fact that only 14,000 consumers have signed up to be notified when it launches is a useful reminder of just how small the VR audience on any of the high-cost platforms is today. And I would guess that many users will still end up shelling out lots of money on a per-game basis because the best premium content won’t be part of the subscription, at least in the long run. But a subscription model for VR makes a ton of sense for non-gaming content as more of that starts to show up, although arguably it’s a better fit for mobile VR experiences which are more attractive to non-gamers rather than the big-ticket PC- and console-based rigs.
Further evidence here that if tech is to disrupt TV, it’s often going to do it without the support of the traditional TV industry, which is in some cases starting to pull back its content to its own platforms while leaving others like Hulu out in the cold. Viacom’s new CEO said on its recent earnings call that the company would be pulling back from SVOD services, and this is the first sign that he meant what he said. This is also the single biggest reason for SVOD providers to invest in a big way in original content which can’t be yanked away due to skittishness on the part of content providers. Hulu is a unique animal in this space, with several of its its owners among its biggest content providers, but it’s still vulnerable to this kind of thing, and the other big streamers even more so.
Yet more ammo for the “Snapchat is TV” crowd, though that feels more and more literal all the time, since Snapchat’s content is more and more actual TV content from actual TV companies, as with A&E in this case. What’s unique here is that the show is both unscripted and not based on an existing show – i.e. it’s original content for Snapchat, though importantly not original content by Snapchat a la Netflix/Amazon/HBO. Snapchat did spend $13.3 million more in 2016 than 2015 on content creation, but in reality that’s about collaborating with existing providers on content rather than creating its own. For now, Snapchat remains a great way for existing TV brands to reconnect with the large portion of its target audience which has abandoned traditional TV.
This is bad news for big content service providers like Netflix and Spotify. This first step appears relatively benign, because it’s simply about using services you’ve already bought while traveling through the EU. But it’s the first step down a slippery slope which is explicitly intended to lead to an eventual single “digital market” across the EU. That means no more charging different rates or offering different content by market, regardless of whether the content may be considered more or less compelling in different countries, or whether local spending power is lower (there’s more than a tenfold difference in GDP per capita between the poorest and richest countries in the EU). This will be hardest on video services, which tend to be very country-specific, than on music services (which tend to offer more or less the same catalog everywhere). No wonder the big providers are fighting it.
Two things worth noting here: firstly, this is one of a relatively small number of senior hires at Apple in recent months amid what has seemed like a larger number of departures from the upper echelons there (including one earlier today). In and of itself, the numbers don’t mean much – Apple is a massive company and many of those poaching its employees are smaller (notably Tesla) such that the balance will always be lopsided in favor of the smaller companies, where promotion opportunities will also be greater. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this hire itself is into a hardware product role, but it frees up the guy who had been running the Apple TV product to focus on content negotiations, which is arguably where Apple really needs to be putting its investment right now. I continue to maintain that this is the year when Apple finally launches its own subscription video service – the pieces are in place with the Apple TV and the TV app it launched last fall, and the market is getting to a tipping point where an over-the-top pay TV alternative is both more feasible and more needed than ever. This move will hopefully help move Apple along in its pursuit of that goal.
This is one of two bits of news from Facebook today (the other concerns metrics), this one about dealing with fake news (though that’s a term Facebook continues to eschew in favor of talking about genuineness and authentic communication). Facebook is tweaking its algorithms again to provide better feeds with fewer sensationalist or inaccurate news reports, for example. It looks like this is mostly about ordering within the feed rather than whether something appears there at all, however, which is a nice way of avoiding perceptions of outright censorship, though of course the lower something appears in the feed, the less likely people are to see it. It’s good to see that Facebook continues to tweak its strategy for dealing with fake news, and as with previous moves around news it’ll be very interesting to see how it’s perceived by users and publications.
This is a great bit of reporting on how Snapchat’s Discover feature has evolved since it first launched, and how Snap’s relationship with publishers and content providers has evolved with it. Discover continues to be the most obvious place for Snap to deliver growth in ad revenue, and having quality content is a big part of achieving that goal. Snap is also putting more emphasis on competing with TV for millennial viewers, an audience which is both overrepresented on Snapchat and underrepresented in traditional TV viewership. There are lots of good comments in this piece from publishers who have worked with Snap and seen good results, some of them driving decent profits from their channels and others merely experimenting with a new format. Well worth reading the whole thing.
How Facebook actually isolates us – CNN (Jan 23, 2017)
This isn’t a new idea – it’s been around at least since Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble was published in 2012. But this study dives a little deeper and provides a scientific foundation for the claims made. However, it also demonstrates how much of the filtering and bubble behavior on sites like Facebook is really tapping into deeper human tendencies like confirmation bias, of which content shared through the mechanism of a social network is a massive enabler. Though the article doesn’t mention Facebook once beyond the headline, the study itself was focused on Facebook, so these findings are specifically about that specific network, though the patterns would largely apply to others too. Because so many of these features are grounded in fundamental human behaviors, they’re very tough to change too, so although Facebook may share some blame for enabling rather than challenging those tendencies, it’s going to be very tough to change them unless Facebook makes a very deliberate attempt to break up the filter bubbles and actively challenge users with new information that contradicts their existing views, which seems very unlikely.
Snapchat Discover Takes a Hard Line on Misleading and Explicit Images – The New York Times (Jan 23, 2017)
There’s a certain irony in the fact that Snapchat is now trying to remove some of the lewder images from its Discover tab, when its early reputation (somewhat undeservedly) was that of an app that existed specifically so that users could send each other such images of themselves. But this is the sort of thing we see as apps and services that have been allowed to run relatively unfettered begin to ramp up efforts to court advertisers in preparation for an IPO, which is exactly what Snap is doing. Cleaning up the Discover tab should provide some more comfort to advertisers about the context in which their ads will be seen, though there’s nothing in these guidelines about racy images that are relevant to the Stories behind them, which I’d say many of the images I see in the Discover tab arguably are. The other side of this effort could be increased user controls around the content they see on the Discover tab, since some users would prefer not to see those images or the Stories behind them at all – balancing the needs of publishers, advertisers, and users is always the hardest balancing act for any ad-backed business.
Normally I’d link to a company’s own report on its earnings, but since Netflix’s earnings material is all in non-web file formats like PDFs and Excel spreadsheets, I’m linking instead to the Techmeme cluster of articles on the earnings report. Broadly speaking, this is a great set of results for Netflix – subscriber growth both domestically and internationally was higher than it forecast, with domestic growth bouncing back nicely now after a couple of tough quarters in which price increases were a drag on net adds. The international business is nearing profitability, though Netflix will invest to keep it just in the red in 2017, and margins expanded nicely domestically thanks to those price increases. With short-term growth concerns somewhat alleviated, the main focus returns to Netflix’s content spending and whether it’s sustainable. It had a non-GAAP free cash flow loss of $639m in Q4 and $1.7bn in 2016 as a whole, both massively up from the year before as it invests in original content, which has to be paid for upfront. Over time, that much higher investment will flow through into the P&L too, and continued strong growth is critical for staying ahead of those costs.
You may also be interested in the Netflix Q4 2016 deck in the Jackdaw Research Quarterly Decks Service.
Pandora Reducing Workforce by 7% – Variety (Jan 12, 2017)
Pandora is one of the longest-standing music streaming services in the US, and yet it is perennially challenged to make a decent profit. Today, it announced it’s cutting 7% of its US workforce to refocus its business, though it hasn’t said which bits are being cut and which are now considered core. My guess is that this is a reflection of the imminent launch of its subscription all-you-can-eat service and perhaps a de-emphasis on its traditional radio-style business, but more clarity will likely emerge soon. This is just another indicator of just how tough it can be to make money in streaming music, despite the boon paid music subscriptions have been to the music labels in the last couple of years.
Apple has been investing in video content for a while now, with the unusual strategy of pushing most of it to subscribers through a music service, rather than a dedicated video service. On the one hand, it’s a way to set Apple Music apart, and to the extent that there’s been something of a music theme to some of this video content, that makes sense too. But I still think this investment is really laying the groundwork for an eventual subscription video service from Apple, using the Music investments as cover. At this point, Apple has to get into the video subscription business if it’s to protect its ecosystem around content, much as it belatedly got into streaming music. The exact shape of that service – whether Hulu-, Netflix-, or DirecTV Now-like, is still unclear. I suspect it’ll launch by the end of this year, however, and this kind of original, exclusive content is increasingly essential for differentiation regardless of which of these models it pursues.